Asians are having a moment, and they're not all crazy rich. K-pop stars are now front-row fixtures at runway shows at the behest of American designers. Korean Beauty is no longer just a "trend"—it's a staple in American women's routines. And, according to the last season's runway diversity report, the fall 2018 shows featured more women of color—including models of Asian descent—than ever before. At the surface, this certainly looks like progress, but for many women who don't fit the idealized mold of what it looks like to be Asian, this representation has begun to feel opportunistic.
That it's taken this long for Asians even to be seen isn't exactly surprising. Given that Korean and Japanese beauty innovations have so thoroughly saturated the beauty market, you'd think that the beauty advertising space would be just as inundated. That hasn't exactly been the case.
The visibility of Asian women in the beauty world was nonexistent when I was a kid in the 1990s. I read a lot of magazines with white women on the covers and in the pages, and only when we traveled to the Queens neighborhood of Flushing—home to my grandparents and the second largest Chinese population in New York City—did I ever see Asian women on signs for salons and spas. (Upstate New York, where I grew up, is not exactly an Asian-American enclave.)
Back then, not even established Japanese brands had Asian spokesmodels representing them in the American market. That didn't go unnoticed by Asian-American women. "The lack of Asian women in the media, including beauty advertising, did influence me as a little girl in what—and who—I defined as beautiful," says Andrea, a recent law school grad in New York City. "I’m very proud to identify as an Asian-American woman, and I value seeing someone who looks like me in advertising." For my other friend Pei, a grad student in San Francisco, the lack of Asian visibility no longer even registers. "Yes, I've noticed there are very few Asian women role models in any industry—beauty or otherwise," she tells me. "But I've just gotten used to it."
Revlon was one of the first to hire Asian spokespeople, beginning with actress Valerie Chow in 1998 and following with Lucy Liu in 2000. But 2010 was the real watershed year. Not only did Vogue dedicate an entire fashion spread to eight Asian supermodels in their December 2010 issue, but Estée Lauder also named model Liu Wen, from the Hunan province of China, their global spokesmodel, making her the first Asian woman to partner with the beauty giant. And not long afterwards, Maybelline named Shanghai-born model Shu Pei Qin their newest global ambassador, where she joined Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Zhang Ziyi (who'd been part of the Maybelline roster since 2001).
Still, the timing seemed to be strategic. "China is our fastest-growing market," explained Jane Hertzmark Hudis, Estée Lauder’s global brand president, in an interview with W. "What better way to honor that than to hire a native of the country?" In addition to seeking out Asian or Asian-American women for their talent, it was also a savvy business move. That's become increasingly clear with the continuous additions of Asian spokesmodels in the beauty industry ever since: Chinese model Sui He was named the face of Shisiedo's global makeup line in 2012, L'Oréal Paris tapped South Korean model Soo Joo Park in 2015, the same year K-beauty blogger Irene Kim collaborated on the limited-run Estée Edit, L'Oréal Paris added Chinese model Xiao Wen Ju, Maybelline brought Taiwanese model I-Hua Wu on board in 2016, and last year, Chinese model Fei Fei Sun joined Estée Lauder. Hair care, however, didn't really follow suit. The most notable contracts are Pantene, who collaborated with actress Priyanka Chopra in 2016, and Redken, who worked with Park in 2015 and partnered with K-pop star Amber Liu this year.
One reason for this lag is due to what Wan-Hsiu Sunny Tsai, PhD, an advertising expert and associate professor at University of Miami's School of Communications, calls localization; these newer K- and J-beauty brands want to better resonate to an American—and therefore largely white—audience. And until recently, Asian models were only there to provide a mysterious, non-American vibe. "Overall, the 'Asian look' in fashion and beauty advertising has been primarily used to signal something exotic and different, which really limited the roles of Asian models," explains Tsai.
This fetishization of Asian women is getting slightly better, but it hasn't disappeared. "Of course, there are still issues of stereotyping, such as the tendency to feature Asian models with stereotypical Asian features, e.g. slanted, monolid eyes and long, straight hair," says Tsai. In fact, it's especially obvious given that the majority of Asian models who do land these huge beauty deals have a common denominator: Straight black hair, fair skin, and a thin build. Limiting spokespeople to East Asian women with these features keeps that fetishization alive.
Brands are ignoring the fact that no, Asians don't all look alike, and no, that joke isn't even funny. For instance, none of the models tapped by big beauty companies have a darker skin tone, with the exception of Chopra, who's South Asian. My dad's side of the family is Cantonese and from a long line of farmers, so our skin tone shifts between tan and very tan depending on the time of year. The porcelain skin and silky hair so often associated with Asians, and driven by both Asian and American beauty standards, does not exist for many of us, whether we're East Asian or not. Where's the representation for Asian women with curly hair, like Sandra Oh? Where's the biracial Asian woman signing a makeup deal? We do not all look like Soo Joo.
This sudden rise in the visibility of Asians isn't solely the result of China being a lucrative market, though. It's also to keep up with the demands of an increasingly diverse customer base. "Because of the growing multicultural population in the US and the associated trend of multicultural marketing, I think the cosmetic industry has been making visible progress in their advertising representation of Asian models," says Tsai.
It's about time brands recognize the purchasing power and needs of Asian-Americans. "If a company used Asian models, I'd be more inclined to check it out to see if their products suited my coloring," says my friend Amy, a doctor in Ann Arbor, MI. "I am more frustrated by the lack of foundation that matches my color tone—everything is either pink or some sort of bronze." But even that's not always enough. While swatching a new foundation that offers over 30 shades the other week, I couldn't find a single match for my sort-of-olive, sort-of-tan, definitely-not-peachy skin tone. I spent 15 minutes and a trashcan's worth of makeup removal wipes to not find a good match.
The same goes for skin care. "For brands from whom I never see Asian and Asian-American models, I innately feel like they haven't considered Asian skin when developing their products, and therefore tend to be more skeptical about them when I'm shopping," says Andrea. "I'm more willing to spend money and take risks on those products that seem to cater to Asian and Asian-American women."
It's clearly a slow process. "After so many years, there are still very few Asian faces in Hollywood," says Tsai, who notes that many beauty spokesmodels tend to come from the film industry. "But as Asian-Americans are now a more visible force in mainstream media—plus popular-culture influences from Asian countries—advertising as a mirror of societal trends must catch up." And it has big consequences beyond simply appealing to a new customer base on the business end. Including a wide variety of Asian models also forces consumers to re-think and expand their definition of beauty.
While these efforts have been a good start, there's still a long way to go. One suggestion? Someone needs to give the not-so-stereotypical, wavy-haired Awkwafina a beauty deal—stat.
Deanna Pai is a writer and editor based in New York City.