Obituary|Godfrey Gao’s sudden death, to his fans, means he’ll be “forever handsome”
Godfrey Gao in an Earl Jeans campaign in 2012. Photo: 小苏 for Earl Jeans
The news that Godfrey Gao (高以翔) died in a fall while filming the sports-themed reality TV show, Chase Me (追我吧), in Ningbo, China, had members of our local media keep their WhatApp chats abuzz. Mr Gao had worked with quite a few stylists and photographers here, and was known to be a much sought-after subject, even if only for those who profiled him, to be close to someone considered the best-looking Asian male specimen on the planet. The shock is understandable.
Many in the fashion industry here knew him as a model, whose career culminated in the 2011 appearance in the now “legendary” Louis Vuitton campaign, a first for LV involving not just an Asian male model, also one not from Japan or Korea, but from unlikely Taiwan. In it, Mr Gao’s striking looks rivaled any Caucasian male’s; his sharp jawline, unshaped by the likes of Pao Facial Fitness (yes, the one Christiano Ronaldo promoted) and so sharp it could have cut the suit he wore.
His fans (surprisingly only 550K on IG) remember him as an actor, whose career never quite matched not-shoddy-in-the-looks-department Mark Chao’s (趙又廷, of the Inspector Dee series), but it did lead up to a smallish Hollywood part in 2013’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, in which he took on Magnus Bane, a flamboyant, bisexual character of Asian descent that Mr Gao played in such a campy manner, observers thought it was risky as a breakthrough role.
Godfrey Gao in an Louis Vuitton ad in 2011. Photo: Louis Vuitton
That, however, did not put the brakes on leads heading his way. His biggest role came in the relatively short, 38-episode, 2016 Chinese novel-turn-TV-series Encountering Lichuan (遇见王沥川, aka Remembering Li Chuan’s Past). It sealed his heartthrob reputation as the titular character, also called Alex, is considered so well casted and performed—more turning on the born-for-camera charm than acting—by Mr Gao that fans were convinced he “wasn’t eye candy anymore”.
That he was, at time of death, filming for a China reality TV show indicated that he was big enough a name to be sold to a mainland Chinese audience, who isn’t quite tuned into Taiwan’s male-star offering when they have their own, such as Shawn Dou (窦骁, also a fellow Canadian) and Kenny Lin (林更新) who starred with Mr Gao in God of War, Zhao Yun (战神赵子龙). All that came to a halt in that fall, attributed to (or as a result of, it was not immediately clear) a cardiac arrest, a cause of death not typical of Mr Gao’s 35 years of age or a basketball player, but may be aggravated by the reported “17 straight hours of filming”. As one of his best friends, the Taiwanese basketball player (and one-time actor) James Mao (毛加恩), who was always referred to by Mr Gao as his “brother” (both were last here in September for F1), IG-ed, “This is not how it’s supposed to be”.
What was supposed to be was Godfrey Gao’s face. His was what traditionalists would call classically handsome and what the many young women who are mad about him would consider 帅呆了 (shuai dai le, awesomely suave or, literally, handsome till you’re struck speechless). Mr Gao had an extremely easy to shoot face. Those who had worked with him, make-up artists too, told SOTD he “had no bad angle”. One Singaporean stylist who had collaborated with him on commercials told us that “he doesn’t have a bad photo”, deliberately using the present tense. “I feel it’s the proportion of the head in relation to the body. And of course, it’s also because he has many good angles.”
Godfrey Gao certainly knew his angles and wasn’t afraid to use them, such as in this series of overtly sexy ads for Earl Jeans. Photo: 小苏 for Earl Jeans
Cameras loved him and he loved them back. For some behind the lens, their work with Godfrey Gao was unforgettable, formative years. James Hsu, the Tawainese art director of the ad campaigns for Earl Jeans (the LA-based brand loved by the Hollywood set, now owned by Nautica) that featured Mr Gao for several seasons told us, “I’ve worked with Godfrey constantly for over three to four years. And it’s the time where I started everything (directing & producing). Now saying good bye to him feels more like saying goodbye to my youth.”
Godfrey Gao was the personification of youth— in his case, tenacious youth. He was enigmatic, media-ready, and willing to bank on his face. But, as it’s often said of the photogenic, what the camera sees isn’t necessarily an intimate portrait. In person, we were told, he was not always the personable idol that those who swoon at his mere presence think. One former marketing head, who had worked with Mr Gao in a paid project in Shanghai in 2011, recalled what he wasn’t prepared for: incommunicado and resistance to cooperate.
“He was not friendly, leaving all dealings and speaking to his personal assistant, appearing not for rehearsal, just the event proper, which was to walk out onto the stage at the end of a fashion show, but he didn’t emerge when he was introduced. The upbeat host of the event later surmised that because he was a guo ji ju xing (big international star), he probably didn’t want to appear alongside the other regional celebrities, sharing the same intro. She had to re-introduce him and allow him his own spotlight on stage.
On Esquire Singapore in March 2015. Photo: Chuck Reyes/ Esquire
“We had arranged a dinner for him following the event, which he was told about earlier. He vanished after the appearance on stage, leaving his assistant to inform us that he won’t be joining us for dinner. No reason was given. My Chinese colleagues accepted that as unsurprising of an “international star”. When I later mentioned this to a Taiwanese editor friend, he said in Mr Gao’s defence, ‘He doesn’t speak Mandarin very well.’” Nor write, probably. On his social media accounts, Mr Gao posted only in English. The Singaporean stylist concurred that his Mandarin was “competent at most”.
Godfrey Gao was born in Taipei in 1984 to a Shanghainese father, who was in the auto-tyre business, and a Peranakan mother from Georgetown, who was a 1970 Miss Penang beauty queen. The young Godfrey emigrated to Vancouver with two brothers when he was eleven—his family, like so many Hong-Kongers before 1997, was likely attracted to the pleasant climate and slower pace of life in the Canadian city that was ideally situated on the Pacific Rim. Mr Gao completed his tertiary education in University of Capalino in northern Vancouver, where he was, unsurprisingly, given his 1.93m height, a member of the school’s basketball team. It is not known how well he played (or how Jeremy Lin-gifted), but it was reported that he did consider a career in the sport, but did not pursue it. He continued to play basketball throughout his professional life, counting some members of Taiwan’s national players as friends.
No major reason was offered to the deeply curios about his return to Taiwan in 2004. Some said, as an Asian model, opportunities for him in Vancouver would be few and far between. In Taipei, he did make a mark through modelling, and was part of Fashion F4, a media-bestowed collective, unashamedly named after the attractive clique in the manga series Boys Over Flowers (BOF). The Taiwanese real-life Fashion F4—not to be mistaken for the pop group F4 comprising Jerry Yan (言承旭), Vanness Wu (吴建豪), Ken Chu (朱孝天), and Vic Chou (周渝民), formed after the 2001 TV series Meteor Garden (流星花园, loosely based on BOF)—was a deft self-promotion based on the good looks of those also born into wealth (贵公子).
The Fashion F4: (from left) Victor Chen, Sphinx Ting, Godfrey Gao, and Gaby Lan. Photo: source
Mr Gao, together with fellow models Sphinx Ting (丁春诚, also turned-actor, but continued to be a popular model), Victor Chen (陈绍诚, turned-producer/TV host, but mainly managing his family business) and Gaby Lan (蓝钧天, also turned-actor, as well as member of the hip-hop outfit Maji), became such a high-profile quartet in the Taipei beau monde that the local media initially named them 社交 F4 (Social F4). Their collective good looks and smoulder culminated in a 2008 photo-book Meet Fashion 4, a publication similar to the scores in Japan that cater to vapid pop fandom.
That Godfrey Gao moved among a certain social set wasn’t surprising. Good looks and Western education tend to find company with those similarly blessed (his close friendship with basketballer James Mao, a University of Austin grad who also speaks and posts in English, may attest to that) and attract the attention of influential TV and film producers/ executives. Mr Gao’s early roles were considered small parts in ‘idol’ dramas: forgettable. His first leading character finally came in the to-be-expected sports-themed TV series Volleyball Lover (我的排队情人, 2010), in which he played rich-kid Bai Qianrui (白谦睿), an only-silly-school-girls-will-like Sudoku champ and volleyball player, enlisted by a lass he doesn’t at first love to help train the team she was in, only to find how different things between them will turn out. One regular Taiwan TV series follower at that time called the show “lame” and his acting “strictly for pre-pubescent girls who can’t tell the difference between woods”.
Until his casting in The Mortal Instruments, few thought his acting would go far, let alone to Hollywood. But he was offered a leading role in an American film, 2017’s The Jade Pendant (金山), as an American-born cook caught in the events of the 1871 mass Chinese lynchings in the Old West. It was considered by some to be a “stand-out role”, but did not win him critical acclaim, as the film had a limited release, going almost straight to DVD. His last film, Shanghai Fortress (上海堡垒)—premiered last August—was largely a Lu Han/Shu Qi (鹿晗/舒淇) vehicle. With his part in Chase Me unlikely to be televised, Godfrey Gao had yet, at the time he left this world, shown us the thespian he might become. But, as James Dean, also gone too soon, once said, “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.”
• Godfrey Gao (Tsao Chih-Hsiang, 高以翔), model, actor, basketball player, and KOL, born 22 September 1984; died 27 November 2019