Bonnie graduated from UPenn several years ago, majoring in psychology. She was a finalist in the Elite Model Look competition when she was 16, which launched her modeling career. Currently, she travels between New York, Hong Kong and Beijing, modeling for top designers such as Marc Jacobs and Kenneth Cole. Her bilingual modeling website can be found at www.bonniebigechen.com.
The WALK: What is it like to be a professional model? Is it as glamorous as it appears to be, or is there a hidden side to it?
Bonnie: Modeling to me is not [as] easy a job as many people may have thought. It is a job in which you always need to improve yourself, and of course it is not as glamorous as it appears to be. In order to be able to walk on stage for [those] 30 seconds, we may need to walk mile after mile for castings, and under the sun or in storms during show season. And we may not even be selected after trying so hard to attend every single casting that our agency send us to. In order to be seen in pages of magazines or on billboards for some campaigns, we may need to wait for hours and hours, shoot in killer heels in all [kinds of] different, weird locations, and hurt ourselves by climbing trees or getting burnt by hair equipment.
The WALK: What is an average day in the life of Bonnie Chen like? What do you do and whom do you see?
Bonnie: For example, the most recent campaign I shot was for Kenneth Cole at the Lincoln center for five days. I got up at 5:30 am and took the train from my aunt’s place in Queens to the city and arrived at the set at 7 am. The shoot took the entire day, and I had to run and jog in 4 inches heels for the video shoot as well. I got home around 8pm, and then started talking to my agency in China, while it was daytime in Asia, and arranged my work back there.
When I am not working, I wake up pretty late usually, and I spend my day in the city, doing hot yoga, visiting museums and bookstores, and hanging out with my designer friends. I love NYC so much, and I get inspired by living here everyday. People are interested and willing to share their ideas and passion about fashion.
The WALK: Which designers have you modeled for, and which ones did you enjoy working with the most?
Bonnie: I have modeled for various designers throughout the world. They are all talented and hard-working. The most interesting moment was with Marc Jacobs for his Louis Vuitton casting in Paris. It was my first season in Paris, and I didn’t expect to get into any of the top shows. I was invited by my friends to the Fendi new fragrance party that night and was wearing a Fendi dress that they said was Karl Lagerfield’s favorite piece. My agency pulled me out from the party and sent me immediately to the LV casting [while] I was still wearing the Fendi outfit. That was the most embarrassing moment of my life. The wait was long, so I walked into their kitchen looking for some food, and there was only one person left with me there. It was Marc Jacobs. He [stared] at my dress for a long time, and didn’t talk to me at all. I was so scared. Anyway, I was selected, and he picked his favorite dress for me for the show, which was inspired by the Chinese Qi Pao.
The WALK: What is your favorite part about modeling? And what was your favorite moment so far in your career?
Bonnie: My favorite part about modeling is that you never get bored of what you do everyday, because you meet different people, go to different places, and do different projects all the time. I learn a lot from these people, and I watch how they build up their brands, how they design things. I am in the best position to learn here.
The WALK: You were already pursuing a professional modeling career when you were a Penn student. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like? Was it difficult to balance schoolwork and modeling?
Bonnie: I started modeling by winning the Elite Model Look Top 10 in France when I was 16. I hated modeling when I first started because I didn’t understand what fashion was. I quit modeling for college in the States, and kind of lost my confidence. I never thought I would pick it up again until I [found] Dzine2Show on campus. I volunteered to do the makeup for the first season, and then they invited me as a model. I enjoyed every single event they did when I was at Penn. Dzine [provides] great connections between student life and the real fashion world. After years in a US college, majoring in psychology and marketing, I gradually learned to appreciate fashion. Then I realized it was time for me to go back to modeling. I started with some magazine shoots in China during the summer, and I was signed with Elite in NY. However, I never ended up working for Elite, because they asked me to be based in NY while I was a junior at Penn. It was always hard for me to fulfill my academic requirements as a foreign student, and I didn’t want to give up on my studies, so I turned Elte down. It is impossible to do professional modeling and study at an Ivy League School at the same time, at least for me. I wouldn’t suggest students to do that, because they both require lots of time and effort, and there are always time conflicts. What if you have an important midterm and an option shoot for a great campaign on the same day? It [was] always a hard decision for me.
The WALK: Is there any advice you could give to other Penn students pursuing modeling? For example, tips about how to get into the industry or on-campus resources that you found helpful?
Bonnie: I would totally suggest Penn students to finish [their] studies before they enter professional modeling. I always believe that intelligence will help you develop your own beauty in depth. Since they are at Penn already, they can join Dzine, [for it is] a great resource to [connect with] the real fashion world. They can learn things from those great fashion companies that Dzine always invites on campus for seminars, and they can learn to dress up for different occasions. It is important that they develop their own style, which is the most comfortable and confident look that they wear. They can start contacting modeling agencies in NYC or Europe if they are interested. All the information is listed on models.com. They can also go to open calls or send their pictures. However, modeling is not a job that as long as you try hard, everybody can do. Modeling requires the height, the face, the body, the performance, the personality and the style. There are more and more young people dreaming [of being] a supermodel… but this is a tough world, and people criticize you all the time. So be prepared.
The WALK: What is the most challenging part about being a professional model?
Bonnie: The most challenging part of modeling is the time [commitment]. We can only be at one place at a time and there is always not enough time for us to travel and finish all the castings, shoots, and walks. We may miss a flight; we may never get enough rest; we may not even remember which time zone we are in after traveling too much. We may get really sick by working too much, especially by shooting outside in the summer [while] wearing winter clothes or in the winter wearing swimsuits. Sometimes I don’t even have time for food or to go to the restroom.
The WALK: If you hadn’t become a model, what career do you think you would have pursued?
Bonnie: I would probably [have] become a column writer for fashion magazines or worked for a fashion house in their marketing department. I am writing articles for magazines now, as people are always interested in how models see the fashion world, but as you know many of the models started young and didn’t have a chance to pursue their education, so a lot of magazines came to me. I enjoy doing this because I want to memorize all these experiences. I may also develop my own label, because my mom is doing clothing manufacturing, and we always [thought] about doing it one day. Anyone interested..?
The WALK: Any last things you would like to say to our aspiring fashionistas at Penn?
Bonnie: Please enjoy every moment of college because you will miss it. Learn as much as you can, because outside the world is tough. Also, keep a healthy lifestyle and take care of your body and skin, because you may be the next top model!