The model who was unhappy with the delineation of her by a local artist had dreams to land on the cover of Vogue Italia
Our own illustrated likeness of Duan Mei Yue, done, we admit, without her permission. This serves as illustration to this post only, and will not not be used commercially
Warning: this post contains language that some readers might find offensive
Full-time model Duan Mei Yue (段美玥) is trending, but not for a breakthrough runway show or an outstanding magazine cover we usually associate with models who receive ardent media attention. Rather, she’s been making the news for being deeply unhappy with some graphite and acrylic drawings by local artist Allison M Low called Weight of Longing that were discernibly based on a photograph posted on Instagram in February 2018. This photo, shot by professional lensman Li Wanjie, was allegedly used to create a “likeness” without Ms Duan’s expressed approval. (Just because images on social media are posted for all, does it mean they are free for all?) When she discovered that the drawings appeared as a chipped cut-out on the floor of the Love, Bonito store in Funan and, later, on the cover of author Amanda Lee Koe’s award-winning Ministry of Moral Panic, she was livid and so affected that she felt “very violated knowing that someone has profited off my likeness without my knowing or consent,” according to a post on Instagram Stories nine weeks ago. The distress, as she told it (too aggrieved to punctuate properly), wrecked her life—“how can i sleep at night”, “how do i function as per usual”, “how do i not let this affect me”.
Ms Duan’s anguish is understandable. Although she is a model, she did not model for Ms Low. Nor, was she paid by the artist as a model in abstentia. To see photos of her lopped-off face crowned by a head tie and positioned on the floor of Love, Bonito, also a community centre of sort, even under the guise of art, must have been too hard to stomach. It is not difficult to see why she was upset to be placed on that level. But, at Love, Bonito, it seemed to her that the artist was remunerated for the work that was used not only as art-prop, but also as visual for pendants and on tote bags. This could have been a revenue stream for her too, rather than just the artist’s. It isn’t known how much Love, Bonito paid Ms Low for the work (or Empigram Books, publisher of Ministry of Moral Panic), but it was reported that the artist, a Temasek Polytechnic School of Design graduate, made €1,875 (about S$3,000) from a sale of another art piece with Ms Duan’s likeness through an identified gallery. For one who professed that she has “a spending problem”, and “don’t have millions of dollars behind (her) name”, this lost income was, unsurprisingly, maddening. On IG Stories, she proclaimed “i’d be ok with this if it was done after i leave this existence but when i’m still alive and broke? no thank u”. In addition, she declared: “i have no money for a fucking lawyer”.
Interestingly, Ms Duan, who deprecatingly calls herself “just an awkward noodle” and has no problem identifying as “this dumb hoe”, loves to draw, and had often posted her amusing output on social media (on IG alone, she has, to-date, 55.1k followers) when she was still doing her A levels and not modelling full-time yet. Most of them, similar to her likeness in question, were of faces. Whether they were a figment of her imagination or based on photographs, she did not say. But they were expressed, including the self-portraits, in a sometimes quirky manner, not unlike the Arien herself. She said on IG, “im really relatable and im very honest with my vulnerability n flaws”. It is the honesty, perhaps, that led her to confess in her earliest post, that she “fucking love cats”. Ms Duan has a weakness for the F-word: “best fucking strawberry marshmallows” or “dramafest and photography camp made me so fucking happy” (just two of the many examples), but unlike, say, influencer Wendy Cheng (aka Xia Xue), who uses the four letters as cuss word, Ms Duan tends to employ them as adverb and adjective, and possibly also as indicator that she has crossed into adulthood. One expresses irritation, the other, delight.
The works of art that “violated” Duan Mei Yue: (clockwise from left) cover of book by Amanda Lee Koe, the drawing by Allison M Low, and the chipped piece on the floor of Love, Bonito (also by Ms Low). Photos: Epigram Books, Retrospect Galleries, and Allison M Low/Instagram respectively
She is candid and tells it like it is, which for her followers, is her charm and her pull. Accompanying a photo she posted in November 2017 to be used as a profile picture, Ms Duan wrote, with, again, scant regard to punctuation—and, now, propriety, “i’ll let you guys in on a secret; i photoshopped my armpits bc it’s so wrinkly it looks like a vagina”. Her “vagpit” reference prompted 1,862 likes and 54 comments, of which 24 were variations of “the most beautiful”, with one, calling her “仙女本人” (xian nu ben ren or the fairy herself). Her fans rave about her looks, but she is not considered conventional beauty, a point Ms Duan acknowledges. In 2019, she told the Shanghai media, “我从外貌来看就很少归类为传统模特” (wo cong wai mao lai kan jiu hen shao gui lei wei chuan tong mo te or “from my appearance, I am rarely classified as a traditional model”). But this non-traditional look is possibly why the casting agents in the West have been interested in her—she fits the Western perception of eastern beauty and exotica.
On her face, she has what the Chinese would call “丹凤眼” (dan feng yan or red phoenix eyes, referring to almond-shaped peepers with outer corners inclined upwards). Her eyes are set rather apart, creating a wide glabella that make-up artists don’t necessarily know what to do with. “You can’t shade that area,” one seasoned pro told us. “She also has a lot of space between the upper eyelid and the brow, which may require a lot of colour”. In a commentary on China’s Sohu (搜狐), Ms Duan was described to have “塌鼻梁圆鼻头” (ta bi liang yuan bi tou or collapsed bridge, round nose), which the writer acknowledged to be “颠覆了国际超模的直挺范儿” (dian fu le guo ji chao mo de zhi ting fan er or subverting the straightforward styles of international supermodels). And those full lips, not seen since Ethel Fong. In sum, her facial features may post a challenge to her creative partners, but most fashion stylists generally say she is fun to work with, as “she has character”. There’s a campy side to her too. In one IG post, she lip-synced delightfully to Olivia Newton-John’s Hopelessly Devoted to You!
Duan Mei Yue, now 22, started modelling full-time in 2017 after completing her A-Levels (if modelling didn’t work out, she would have considered psychology in university), but had earlier already wanted to be a model after discounting the possibility of being a fashion designer. She told Female magazine in 2018 that “K-pop and anime were part of my motivation to become a model. I saw how the K-pop idols I obsessed over at that time walked Seoul Fashion Week and they were invited to various fashion shows during the fashion week circuit in Europe and New York so I thought maybe I should become a model to meet them lol”. And ultimately, to be on the cover of Vogue Italia. She also told Cleo in 2019, “I started when I realised that I needed to express my love for aesthetics and fashion”. She has, so far, walked the runways of Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, New York, and Paris, but was conspicuously absent at the biggest fashion show of the year on our island: last week’s Louis Vuitton presentation, when the “bigger” star at the moment, Yong Kai Gin, had her SG moment in the klieg lights—and the rain.
Ms Duan gives the impression that there were many artists, professionals or amateurs, who desired to draw her face. On IG Stories, she wrote, “every other artists (sic) has either properly compensated me or has agreed to stop the selling and apologised sincerely”. Perhaps, it is true: Her unusual features are more interesting to artists than standard symmetry or placid perfection. That Allison M Low, herself considered a “looker”, chose that fated picture, one that would have been a weak shot for casting agents, is telling of the appeal of Ms Duan’s off-kilter looks. In her response to the controversy, Ms Low told The Sunday Times that “the artworks… were about the strength and grace in women…” but while there seems to be tremendous strength on both sides (and among their respective supporters), there has not been a palpable sense of grace, as the war wages online. As one marketing manager said to us, “Duan Mei Yue has grown-up. The modelling around the world has opened her eyes.” When that photo was shared on the model’s IG page on 18 Feb 2018, this was her comment (and we’re quoting verbatim): “grey eyes from @ttd_eye queen grey go spend some of dat angpao moneys and get yoself some cool grey eyes with a cool discount by using my code “dmeiyue” ✨ portrait by @uuanjie as usual hehe makeup done by moi :*” That girl is no more.
Illustration and collage: Just So