On Modelling, Art and Chinese New Year
By Hiranmayii Awli Mohanan
Since bagging the second cycle of Asia’s Next Top Model in 2014, Sheena has been propelled to great heights in the modelling realm, taking on jobs in the big four fashion week cities and collaborating with famed and esteemed brands that every model dreams of. Beyond a model, Sheena adds celebrated artist to her resume, in the medium of embroidery — her mode of self-expression. Her first solo exhibition was with Idem Paris in 2018, followed by a group show with the same gallery in 2020 and another with Naughton Gallery in Belfast. In the January 2022 issue, Sheena reveals some of the misconceptions about the modelling industry along with its challenges, pursuing embroidery art seriously and her plans for Chinese New Year.
DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW THAT MODELLING IS THE PATH YOU WOULD PURSUE AS A CAREER?
No. But I always wanted to, who wouldn’t? I just never expected to go as far as I did. First it was for a little bit of pocket money, then it became a means to travel and see the world, then practicality set in and it was just convenient to have work visas to enter any country to easily live and work.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE PROUDEST MOMENT OF YOUR CAREER THUS FAR?
I’m grateful for a lot of them. I try not to put any milestones on a pedestal but it was pretty cool to be on the cover of both Singapore and Malaysia’s Harpers Bazaar the same month. Few people know this but I actually also won a short story competition for Readers Digest the same month I won the Asia’s Next Top Model competition and all the covers came out. That probably was where I peaked. Haha.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTIONS OF THE MODELLING INDUSTRY?
I get asked the free clothes thing a lot. But no, models rarely get to keep the clothes on set, we get paid money instead.
HOW ABOUT THE CHALLENGES OF THE MODELLING INDUSTRY?
I love this question because if you want to know the greatest challenge of modelling, I’d hands down say all the bureaucracy that comes with dealing with an international career. Got a shoot in London? You’ve got to get your paper work done for the right visa. Worked in Italy? You need to have the paperwork to not be double taxed. It’s probably the most annoying and frustrating part about modelling. You wish modelling is just about restricting your food and dealing with unsolicited comments on your body.
WHAT IS IT LIKE BEING A MALAYSIAN MODEL IN LONDON AND PARIS?
I did them all actually. Right before the lockdown, I got signed in Milan which means I managed to work in all the big four fashion week cities. It’s great, I didn’t get the chance to study overseas so this was really my way to see the world. I don’t like going the tourist route, I love immersing myself completely in a new place. Sometimes I’m by myself for months, I think it makes you a more independent person, to go to a new city and start from zero.
WHO IS YOUR BIGGEST STYLE ICON AND WHY?
I can’t just have one. But off the top of my head Marc Jacobs was always someone who didn’t assign gender to clothes. I think that’s important to bring more and more to the mainstream. Fashion is for fun and should never be limited by gender, body type or skin.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL STYLE?
I’m definitely laidback lazy in my day-to-day style. I like my basics, I like not having to think too hard about my clothes when I need to get things done. That said, there’s nothing I love more than dressing up for a night out.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND HOW ITS FEEDS INTO YOUR CAREER?
It’s great. It was amazing for keeping me afloat during the pandemic when all shoots were on hold. That said, I did have to take a step back from my social media a little. I don’t want to go to dinner and spend days editing a video of the experience. I want to live in the moment. I think there are individual personal boundaries we are comfortable with we should choose to respect.
A HOBBY THAT YOU PRACTISE BETWEEN JUGGLING MODELLING AND TRAVELLING IS EMBROIDERY. HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT?
I’ve always loved working with my hands as I enjoy the quiet meditative quality of hand embroidery. It is honestly my favourite part of the practice. I simply did it in my downtime wherever I went and was fortunate enough to meet key individuals in my life that led me down the right path with starting my career.
ANY PLANS TO PURSUE THIS ART FORM SERIOUSLY?
I had my first solo exhibition with Idem Paris in 2018, followed with a group show with the same gallery in 2020 and another with Naughton Gallery in Belfast. I managed to do an art residency in the midst of the pandemic in Malaysia and I guess I’ll just continue to work as I go and see where that takes me.
HOW CAN YOUR ART BE A MEDIUM TO EMPOWER WOMEN?
I think embroidery and its association with being “women’s work” has always been very disrespected as an art form. I think we’ve been seeing a huge change in that with the rise of all these new artists taking this traditional medium into the contemporary art realm and that in itself is very empowering. A lot of art with women as the subject as well has always been from a “male gaze” where the women are over sexualised, objectified or idolised. I feel I embroider women that just are, and I think that’s why women relate to my work a lot.
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN FIVE YEARS?
Five years older probably. Hopefully, a bit more settled so I can have more dogs and cats. But if I’m still nomadic, I’d be okay with that too..
CHINESE NEW YEAR SOON IS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER. HOW DO YOU TYPICALLY CELEBRATE IT?
Usually by eating so much that I feel uncomfortable. I come from a family of feeders, it’s going to be very hot and we are going house to house eating everything we can. It’s also my third year of giving out angpow. I love it, its a subtle way of giving back to all my generous aunts and uncles.
ARE THERE ANY TRADITIONS HANDED THROUGH GENERATIONS THAT YOU PRACTISE TO DATE?
My extended family are heavily practising Taoists, so we have a lot of rituals. We do the whole Nine Emperor Gods festival with the Sky God prayers and everything.
WHAT IS ONE MUST-HAVE DISH DURING CHINESE NEW YEAR, IN YOUR OPINION?
Abalone soup, it’s my favourite part of Chinese New Year!
WHAT IS AN ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE ASPIRING MODELS OUT THERE?
I think just be street smart and determined. A lot of “strange” modelling jobs out there, you want to have your wits about you and know your self worth and your personal comfort levels. You actually set the boundaries, saying “no” gives you all the power.