An Uncommon Beauty

Obituary | Mimi Tan, model-turned-operator of one of Singapore’s leading modelling agencies, has passed

Model and business owner Mimi Tan, with her unmistakable smile and cheekbones. Photo: Mimi Tan/Facebook

Many model watchers today are unlikely to be familiar with the local name Mimi Tan, but back in the hippie years of the ’70s, Ms Tan was a highly recognisable and bankable face in the modelling scene here, and then, in the middle of that decade, co-owner of one of the big four agencies on our island at that time. Last Monday, it was shared on the social media pages of fashion professionals of a certain vintage (as well as some of her close friends) that Ms Tan had passed away. We understand that the cause of death is lung cancer. Not many knew that she was so seriously ill, but some noted that she, an active 10-year Facebook user, had stopped posting on the social media for a while. Ms Tan was 76.

Our memory now of that fashion era is a little sketchy. Here is what we can recall. Mimi Tan was a successful print and runway model in the ’70s, appearing not just in fashion editorials and ads, but also those that sells alcoholic beverages such as Martini. At the start of her career, she was represented by Joan Booty Academy of Modelling (in the ’60s, they were also referred to as “training and charm school”). These “academies”—as they were mostly known, probably to lend some respectability to the business—were operated by British entrepreneurs who, apart from Ms Booty, included Ruth Warner of Ruth Warner’s Singapore Model Academy. Two of them were the biggest agency names at the time. Ms Tan was one of Joan Booty’s popular girls. In 1972, she, along with five others of different ethnicity, represented our nation on a fashion tour of the UK—in London, Manchester, and the South-West port city of Plymouth—“to give Britons a glimpse of the east”, as the publicity material informed. The traveling show was called Oriental Ride. One photo handout at the time curiously showed the svelte Ms Tan in what could be considered Malay dress.

Ms Tan on a holiday in 2015. Photo: Mimi Tan/Facebook

Although Mimi Tan was almost synonymous with Mannequin Studio, the modelling agency was, in fact, founded in 1972 by Ruth Warner as a sort of a second act. Ms Tan was invited by Ms Warner to train the girls of her agency, which did not only instruct would-be models, but also those who wanted to carry themselves better. A classified advertisement in the The Straits Times in 1975 read, “You know that Mannequin Studio trains mannequins and photographic model girls. Do you know we also conduct deportment and grooming classes for women of all ages?” Ms Tan was probably tasked to find the next her. The studio’s standing in the industry was so esteemed that in 1978, a Mannequin Studio model, Jane Lim, was cast in an English-language film produced by the globally-renowned Chinese-American actress Nancy Kwan. Although Ms Tan was still modelling then, it is not certain if she also modelled for Ruth Warner at this time, but in 1975, she was asked if she’d like to take over the agency. She did, with another partner, Joan Lui. And for much of the rest of the ’70s, they were referred to as “agency heads”. Mannequin Studio, believed to be the oldest Singaporean modelling agency (the most famous and largest at one time, Carrie Models, was founded in 1976), merged with another, Modelling Arts, in 1981 with a grand show at the Crystal Ballroom of Hyatt Hotel to form Mannequin Arts Studio. The new outfit produced some of the best models of that time, such as Daphne Lee and Jeane Ho.

Models who ran their own agencies were common in the early years of the industry. In fact, Mimi Tan was among the four “ah jie (big sister)” beauties who wielded considerable clout at the time. They included Carrie Wong of Carrie Models, Ida Ong of Imp International, and Elsa Yeo of Elsa Model Centre (also known as Elsa Model Management). Sure, there were other agencies, such as Marisalon Model Studio, Ivor’s Modelling Studio, and Richard Tan Model Centre, but they did not quite make a dent—at least in the fashion industry—as the other four did. In the ’80s, modelling agencies were quite community clubs. A former magazine editor told us, “I remember hanging out at the Mannequin office in Singapore Shopping Centre. I was not a model, so I do not know what I was doing there, but I remember seeing Humphrey train the girls, showing them how to catwalk.” Many stylists of that time remember the ebullient Humphrey Lim and the quieter David Lim [both unrelated], who were also bookers and who, as one former fashion editor told us, “ran the agency (they had shares in the company too). Mimi was very much behind the scene.” But in 1989, Ms Tan decided to quit the enterprise she had made an industry biggie. She sold Mannequin Studio to one of the most successful of her girls at that time, Seraphina Fong, who had decided to step aside after four years in the limelight.

The six women from Joan Booty’s Modelling Academy, who represented Singapore in a series of shows in the UK in 1972. From left: Mimi Tan, Ong Gaik Kim, Patsy Pang, Pamela Ragan, Yasmin Saif, and Joyce Ho. Photo: National Archives of Singapore

Two years after she walked away from the modelling business, Mimi Tan entered another world of models—dummies. In 1991, she opened Mimi Tan’s Mannequins, a niche retailer with brand-named offerings of modern 3-D representations of the human body that were appealing to an increasingly fashion-aware population. Some of the mannequins that she distributed included those from Europe, such as Hindsgaul from Denmark and those by the British mannequin designer Adel Rootstein (whose leggy goods were then dubbed the “Rolls-Royce of mannequins”). Some of these were based on real models, such as the legendary Twiggy and the now-retired Yasmin Le Bon and Joddie Kidd). They appealed to a younger breed of shoppers who were no longer drawn to mannequins once favoured by Robinsons and Metro. Ms Tan’s sleek dummies, some in the new material that was fibreglass (much lighter than those made of wax and plaster, as it was in the past, after the even earlier papier-mâché ones were no longer in favour), were so alluringly premium that her mannequins were even supplied to the just-as-atas The Link (multi-label store at the old Mandarin Hotel and, later, Palais Renaissance, both now closed). A former fashion editor recalls meeting Ms Tan around that time: “She told me these mannequins didn’t talk back and didn’t give her a headache!”

Many who were fashion-industry pioneers remember not only her striking good looks, but her stylish dress sense too. In the ’70s, she was a regular customer of the made-to-measure Joy’s Boutique (which was then sited in the now-demolished, Goodwood Group-owned Malaysia Hotel on Cuscaden Road), opened by the designer Joyce Mizrahie, who later became synonymous with the Italian label Roccobarocco that she distributed and retailed. One Singaporean designer, who fondly remembers her wearing his designs even before he started his own label, told us: “She was very confident in her own taste. She would choose my clothes to wear, including those for tea shows she used to organise and walked in.” Ms Tan was, in fact, considered a pioneer of Saturday tea fashion shows of the ’70s, and was much associated with those in the Hotel Malaysia lobby. Back then, and throughout much of the first half of the ’80s, luncheon and tea shows (sometimes held on a hotel poolside—Holiday Inn’s on Scotts Road was a favourite venue) were popular, culminating in must-attend shows during the now-unheard-of Secretaries’ Week (usually in April). Modelling agencies produced and staged many of these generally runway-less events.

Ms Tan in Madrid, 2013. Photo: Mimi Tan/Facebook)

Mimi Tan was born in the Malaysian island of Penang on the fourth day of the new year of 1946 to an Indonesian father and Chinese mother. When she was young, the family moved to Hong Kong where they ran a successful car business. By her own admission, she was not interested in automobiles, so in her 20s, opted not to assist in the family business. Instead, she chose banking, and in the early ’60s, joined Standard Chartered, but that turned out to bore her. She then applied for a position as a flight attendant with Cathay Pacific and was hired. She enjoyed flying and often recalled the celebrities she met and the parties she attended in cities such as London. During her days off between flights, she modelled part-time, and one of her early noted campaigns was for the Hong Kong store Maison Marie, precursor to the now internationally-known Joyce Boutique, part of the Lane Crawford Group. She flew with Cathay Pacific—on the Convair 800 Jetliner(!)—for four years before relocating to Singapore, where she turned to modelling. She was quickly welcomed into the fledgling fashion scene. Those who knew her or had worked with her remember that “she was always smiling, always friendly with everyone, no airs,” one PR veteran recalls, “and that deep and feminine voice, and polished too.” A stylist also remembers that she was “friendly and a little campy. Whenever I met her, her bubbly personality always overpowered the person she really was. To one starting out in fashion, she was easy to be around.”

Despite her unblemished standing in the industry, Ms Tan found herself the target of unkind words which were even more hurtful in the era before the advent of social media and attendant online trolling. A former secretary, Michelle Phang, who became founder of a competing business The World of Mannequin, gave an interview to Marie Claire in 1995, in which she alleged “betrayal” when her “former boss” joined her company and tried to oust her. No name was mentioned in that article, but Ms Tan knew who it referred to. She sued Ms Phang for defamation (and set the record straight: she did not go into business with her). In 1997, Ms Tan was awarded S$65,000 in damages and cost. The judge at that time ruled that Ms Phang harboured “obvious grievances” because she was fired from her job for being “foul-mouthed and ill-tempered”. After winning the case, Ms Tan said to the press that she had “to right the wrong of the defamation”, adding, “integrity and reputation, particularly in the field of fashion, are more important to me than any monies that I can hope to obtain.” It was clear by then why Mimi Tan, who still loved her hometown foods, such as assam laksa and ju hu cha (鱿鱼炒, Hokkien for cuttlefish fry), chose to leave the industry, while she was ahead of the game. But Mannequin Studio, although now in different hands, continue to hold what she had left behind in unmistakably good stead.

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