Photo Credit: Najah Mansur
In the competitive world of fashion and entertainment, Asian-American supermodel, actress, and advocate Julia Lee has emerged as a shining star. With an impressive career that includes gracing international catwalks, adorning the covers of prestigious publications like Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel, and collaborating with renowned fashion and beauty brands across the globe, Lee has become one of the most sought-after models of her generation. However, her influence goes beyond the realm of high fashion; she is now making significant strides in the acting world and championing crucial causes in the media industry.
Lee’s journey to stardom began just outside of Philadelphia, where she hails from Chinese and Vietnamese heritage. As a vocal advocate for better representation of Asian Americans in both the media and the modeling industry, she tirelessly strives to dismantle stereotypes and promote inclusivity. Her unwavering commitment has sparked conversations and driven change in an industry that has historically underrepresented diverse voices.
Before her modeling success, Lee displayed her talent as a competitive pianist, performing at the esteemed Carnegie Hall. However, it was her serendipitous discovery while working as an Abercrombie greeter in Philadelphia that set her on the path to modeling fame. Recognized as one of the top 10 women at Philly Fashion Week, Lee’s undeniable charisma and striking presence caught the attention of industry insiders. Her mother’s initial reservations were soon quelled, as Lee’s star continued to rise, and she signed with a prestigious agency, ultimately moving to the fashion epicenter of Milan.
Lee’s career milestones are as diverse as her talents. From gracing the runway for Bulgari in the ancient ruins of Rome to securing major campaigns, such as Citizen Watch, she has proven her versatility and captivated audiences worldwide. Not content with conquering the fashion world alone, Lee has ventured into the music realm, starring in the music video “105F RMX,” which boasts over 557 MILLION VIEWS on YouTube.
Yet, her ambitions do not end there. Julia Lee is now making her mark in the acting domain. Splitting her time between Los Angeles and New York City, she diligently attends acting classes at prominent studios, honing her skills as she ventures into television and film. By following in the footsteps of modeling contemporaries who have successfully transitioned into acting, Lee aims to leave an indelible mark on the entertainment industry.
Photo Credit: Najah Mansur
Beyond her artistic endeavors, Julia Lee is a devoted advocate for social change. As a strong supporter of the AAPI community, she challenges the status quo, pushing for more comprehensive representation and equal opportunities for all. Additionally, she champions sustainable fashion brands and clean beauty, emphasizing the importance of ethical practices and environmental consciousness in the fashion realm.
Her passion for her craft and commitment to making a positive impact has resulted in numerous accolades, including being featured in USA Today, Bustle, MindBodyGreen, TheEverygirl, and appearances on shows such as “The Doctors” and Fox DC.
Julia Lee’s journey is far from over as she continues to inspire change in the fashion and entertainment industries. With her upcoming book, “Most Hated,” and her unwavering dedication to breaking barriers and amplifying diverse voices, Lee is undeniably poised to be an influential force in reshaping the future of both worlds.
In an exclusive interview with StarCentral Magazine, Julia graciously shared her captivating journey in the industry, providing us with an enlightening glimpse into her remarkable story. Here’s an inside look at our conversation with this multifaceted talent.
Can you tell us about your journey from being a supermodel to transitioning into television and film? What motivated you to make this career shift?
Growing up, I played classical piano competitively for ten years. I believe that played a significant role in shaping my ability to perform, express emotions, and maintain focus. I started taking acting classes when I first moved to LA to help me express myself on camera. I felt a rush when performing on stage, and that’s when I knew this was something I wanted to continue exploring.
I’ve modelled for nine years and love posing in front of the camera, but I want to go deeper with acting and portray a character with a backstory, telling the life of a person who lived and is living. I’m really focusing on working my acting muscle and going out for meaningful roles right now.
The TV & film industry has a bigger pool of creatives; there are fewer limits compared to modeling. I’m excited about the opportunities to collaborate with talented individuals, challenge myself as an artist, and use my platform to contribute to meaningful storytelling.
Photo Credit: Najah Mansur
As an Asian-American supermodel, what challenges did you face in the fashion industry, and how did you overcome them?
One of my biggest challenges was feeling like I wasn’t being represented or seen. I’ve been told by the industry that I’m too pretty; I’m not Asian enough, that I just don’t fit their standard for how they think Asians should be portrayed, which is looking exotic or traditional. As an Asian American, who is also a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese, I often felt like I didn’t fit in the box that clients, casting directors, and agents wanted to put me in based on seeing my stats like Asian ethnicity, height, hair color, eye color, etc.
I think building relationships with those you know and growing with them goes further than any walk-in casting. Getting recommendations has helped me book jobs just by knowing someone and having someone put in a good word.
I think it’s also important not to compare yourself to others (easier said than done) and stay in your lane. Know that your time and moment will come, so make sure you’re prepared and ready for it when it happens.
How has your advocacy work for the AAPI community influenced your career choices and the projects you take on?
After getting involved with the rallies in NYC and seeing all the hate crimes that were happening in 2021, it really made me more conscious of having a voice and speaking out for what’s right, especially when it resonated with the essence of my being.
So far, projects have mostly been what I get chosen for based on my ethnicity, how I look, and the resume of clients I’ve modeled for. I do my best within those positions to be an advocate and push for better representation. I have some print and other work coming out soon that has been more in my control in terms of driving my own narrative, my personal goals, and ambitions for myself in the AAPI community. It’s a work in progress that’s one step at a time. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
You have been the face of several top fashion and beauty brands. How do you ensure that these brands align with your values of sustainability and clean beauty?
I am definitely in support of sustainability and clean beauty! Although when it comes to modeling, the client chooses the model, so that part is out of my control. As far as being myself and sharing who I am on social media, I try my best to pick socially responsible and sustainable brands. I’m not a big believer in fast fashion. I have a few single pieces from Zara and fast fashion retailers, but I would much rather go thrifting to find unique pieces for my closet. I also like to take my parent’s vintage clothes and get them tailored or repurposed. They’re one of a kind and carry sentimental value, adding an extra layer of meaning when I wear them.
Can you share your thoughts on the representation of Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry? What changes do you hope to see in the future?
I would like to see more inclusivity that is genuine. After the BLM and Stop Asian Hate movement, I saw a lot more casting of models of color, which was great, but sometimes I feel like it was a trend and not something that is here to stay.
I also see a lot of brands casting plus size right now, but to me, it feels like they are checking off a box. It all feels like a bunch of boxes.
Nothing wrong with boxes, but I feel it’s indicative of meeting diversity criteria without truly embracing the core intent of diversity itself. Don’t use us to sell your products, per se; include us IF we sell your products. Intent and impact are equally important, in my opinion. Otherwise, we feel used, not included.
Photo Credit: Najah Mansur
How do you balance your career in the entertainment industry with your advocacy work? Do you find any intersections between the two?
I met a lot of creatives while doing advocacy work; you’d be surprised! I feel advocacy work is somewhat of a responsibility one chooses to take on, and with that comes absorbing a lot of emotions and charged energy. I think many of these advocates use creativity as an outlet to release that. I also try my best to support my friends in the industry who create short films, do comedy shows, and create content. I show that by showing up to events, connecting them with my network, amplifying their work, and sharing on my social media platforms.
What advice would you give to aspiring models, particularly those from underrepresented communities, who face obstacles in pursuing their dreams?
Keep on going. Just because one door is closed doesn’t mean another one isn’t open. You will find what is a fit and what resonates with you. It may be harder to uncover, but it is there, I promise.
How do you personally define and embrace your own unique sense of beauty in an industry that often imposes certain standards?
I try to bring my best self forward. The more authentic I am, the more people see that. This may sound cheesy, but we are all beautiful, and you must embrace that first. I certainly embrace that first, and I think people see and feel that. It resonates, and I always control what I can and love myself.
Photo Credit: Najah Mansur
Could you discuss the importance of promoting sustainable fashion brands and the role they play in creating a more environmentally conscious industry?
As someone who works in the industry, I’ve witnessed the inner workings of companies and brands, which has given me a unique perspective on the importance of supporting sustainable fashion and clean beauty. By supporting sustainable brands with clean practices, we can contribute to a brighter future for both the industry and the planet
Climate change has also impacted me personally at a time when I was going through a lot. In 2019, a tornado struck our neighborhood while I was at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania. The power went out for four days, and the trail of shattered trees indicated that the tornado was on a direct course toward my street. At the time, I was helping my mom care for my father, who became paralyzed from a stroke. The combination of the tornado’s devastation and my father’s health added an extra layer of challenges for us to overcome.
The tornado left holes in trees, and the entrance of my neighborhood was destroyed. I’ll never forget the sound of it, too – it was like a train approaching a station. Tornadoes hitting PA were unheard of growing up, so it was a wake-up call that climate change isn’t some distant future problem – it’s happening right here, right now.
My visits to Taiwan during my teenage years also served as a constant reminder of the attention people paid to recycling. Given the limited space in the country, people seemed to be really mindful of their environmental footprint and recycling. I think everybody can do their part to do better. After all, this Earth is our only home (as we know of now). Personally, that means supporting brands that prioritize awareness of the issue and responsibility in their operations.
What projects or initiatives are you currently working on that you’re most excited about, and how do they tie into your passions for advocacy and sustainability?
I’m attending BVI this summer for Summer Sizzle, a fashion and lifestyle experience. The event brings models and designers from NYC down to the Caribbean, where there will be fashion shows, art, and entertainment. I’m excited to go with my industry friends; we support a great cause.
A portion of the proceeds are going to benefit the Family Support Network, which helps improve the lives of children and adults in the community. In 2017, after the islands were devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Family Support Network was instrumental in helping residents in need of food, clothing, and finding homes.
Photo Credit: Kezi Ban