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“I miss my dog, Harley,” said Meng Meng Wei, flashing an iPhone snap of her impossibly fluffy Samoyed puppy back in Beijing. The 19-year-old — she turns 20 next week — has been living in a model apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for the past month. “I’m waiting for my boyfriend to come back to America and then hopefully I can take my dog here, too.”
At age 17, the half-Chinese, half-Japanese Wei, who sports a grown-out bowl cut, began modeling in China. Now repped by Fusion Model Management, she decamped to New York and Europe for runway shows and editorial work last summer, and has been back and forth between China and New York ever since. She recently wrapped a shoot with Elle and has also been featured in Vanity Fair Italy, Numéro China, L’Officiel China and French Revue des Modes. On a recent afternoon at WWD’s office, Wei spoke of the cultural differences between her home country and abroad. “The girls are so nice [in New York], they will say hi to you,” she said. “But in China, if you don’t know each other, you just sit there quietly. I like it here better.”
She continued, speaking slowly but surely, with the occasional help of a translator app on her iPhone: “If you have money [in China], you can buy things, and everything is very good. Everybody has good cars and good clothes. If you don’t have money, they will just walk by and they won’t talk to you. But I think it’s not enough just to have money.”
WWD: When did you know you wanted to be a model?
Meng Meng Wei: From so young, like six years old, I would say, “I want to watch FashionTV.” In China, if you want to watch it, you need to pay money. So my mom paid some money and I watched it from [age 6]. I would watch the models and learn how they walk. I had so many Barbies, too. Every day, I would make clothes for the Barbies.
WWD: At 5-foot, 10-and-a-half inches, did you get attention for your looks growing up?
M.W.: My mom’s friends would look at me and say, “Your daughter maybe should play basketball.” In China, not everyone can understand fashion. Because I’m so tall, everyone would just think I should play basketball. I like basketball, it’s good to play with my friends [back home]. Do you know WeChat? That’s how I [keep in touch] with my friends there.
WWD: Where are you living in New York?
M.W.: I’m living here in Brooklyn, in a model apartment. It’s good. The girls are nice. My English is not good enough so I can’t find myself my own house yet. Every year, I’m living for three or four months in New York and then I go back to China and come back again. But I’m hoping to find myself a house here.
WWD: How did you learn to speak English?
M.W.: My agency always tells me, “You need to learn English.” You need to talk to people. You can’t be scared and not talk to anybody. At home, I just watch English movies and English TV shows.
WWD: Do you speak Japanese, too?
M.W.: I was born in China, so I don’t speak Japanese. Right now, I’m trying to learn. I can speak very little. My dad moved to China when he was only six. His Japanese is so bad! He can’t teach me more Japanese.
WWD: Are you still studying back in Beijing?
M.W.: I keep going to school because my study is good. [Note: using her translator app, she came up with the subject she’s studying: “Jewelry Appraisal.”] It’s learning how to look and see if jewelry is real or not. Every girl likes bling bling, like diamonds. I love this [type of] study.
WWD: What was your first impression of New York?
M.W.: The first time I came to New York, I felt so bad. I didn’t know anything and my English was too bad. Everybody would talk to me, and I would say, “What?” Every day, I would just listen to English TV and talk. But right now I’m happy because I can speak and read. I’m lucky, because I have a boyfriend. He’s Chinese-American. He’s from Los Angeles, studying in Beijing to be a doctor. And he teaches me.
WWD: Did you have a good New York Fashion Week experience?
M.W.: Oh my God, it’s crazy. Every day I would have five, six, sometimes seven or eight castings, and I’m running to castings. I’m so happy because I didn’t miss a single casting. My agents told me, “You are so amazing, because we have so many girls who miss castings, but you didn’t miss one!” I have Google Maps. That helps me. In Manhattan, it is not too horrible. But in Paris and London, I was always confused.
WWD: What do you do for fun in New York?
M.W.: I have some time for fun, but my age is not enough [sic], so I can’t go out to a bar or buy beer yet. Very important for me is sleep. Every weekend, I go to Chinatown. My favorite Chinese restaurant is Hou Yi Hot Pot, and I eat some Japanese sushi, too. I don’t have more time for fun, so if I have time, I go eat. If I have money one day, I want to buy a house in Williamsburg, because Manhattan has so many people, so many cars every day. I like to go home and just relax.
WWD: What is your favorite part of modeling?
M.W.: In China, you don’t have [as many] choices for magazine shoots. In China, I was just doing fashion shows. You know, Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Dior — in China, they have big shows, and I can walk those. My agency here told me, “You need to do more shoots.” They gave me more of a chance for fashion shoots, like Vanity Fair and Elle U.K. I sent the pictures back to China, and now Elle China and Harper’s Bazaar China want me.
WWD: Do you prefer runway or editorial?
M.W.: I like shoots, but I like fashion shows more. It’s so exciting. My first time walking [couture] was for Jean Paul Gaultier. I was like, “OMG, am I dreaming? OMG, is that Jean Paul Gaultier?”
WWD: Any funny, weird or otherwise memorable experiences on photo shoots?
M.W.: In one shoot, they told me, “Just have fun.” I was like, “Are you sure?” In China, they are very [direct] — they just ask you to pose. But on this shoot, they told me to have fun and relax.
WWD: Have you always had short hair?
M.W.: I kept short hair for five years, and I wanted change. My agency said “You can grow it, but not too long.” Everybody told me I needed to be [like] a boy. In shows and shoots, they told me, “You need to be very cool, very masculine.” I said, “OK, I like that, but I don’t want to always be a boy!” I begged my agency, “Please, let me have longer hair! I don’t want to always be a boy!” Sometimes I want to be sexy or sweet. But as a model, your job is to change. If you just keep one style always, [it is boring]. You’re a model — you need to be changing.
WWD: Do your parents support your modeling career?
M.W.: My mom likes that I’m doing modeling. But in China, my father, like so many men there, can’t understand fashion. My grandma and grandpa see my crazy pictures and they’re like, “Oh my God. What the f–k?” But my mom will tell me if she likes my photos or not. Sometimes she’ll say, “This one is good, but this one isn’t good.”
WWD: What would you like to accomplish?
M.W.: I want to be in magazines. Every time [you shoot], you can be a different girl. If you can be in a magazine, you have more of a chance [to make it].
WWD: Any favorite models?
M.W.: I like Cara Delevingne. I met her once, at Burberry [Prorsum’s show in Shanghai]. She’s very high [energy].
WWD: Have you learned any lessons these past couple years?
M.W.: If you’re not happy, you can’t do this job. You can cry to yourself, but you can’t let everybody know. And first, you need to be nice to everyone.