Ah, Asian women. Lovely little lotus flowers--slim as willow wands and light as petals in the breeze; skin of porcelain white, lips like cherry blossoms and delicately arched brows of deepest ebony. Oriental packages of petite perfection, they exude gentle submission.
"I hate it--everyone that's Asian hates it," said Maile Nanri, who was born in Japan, stands 5-foot-9 and wears size 12. "Every single Asian girl I know--and I know a lot--hates that ridiculous stereotype."
She lowered her voice to a hush. "It's not just a physical representation of what you should be. It's that you should also be graceful and move like the ocean breeze while quietly quoting Zen quotes."
Call it the curse of the "China doll." For most of her life, Nanri tried to squeeze into that teeny box, hunching her shoulders and dieting, mentally shrinking herself, longing to be small. "I wanted to be a stick and to have very, very white skin and to be very short," she said. "In high school, most of my classmates were Caucasian and the ones who were Asian were tiny to the point of being half of me. I thought that's normal, why can't I be normal?"
Then, about 18 months ago, she opened Mode, a magazine that caters to "plus-size" women. It was a life-changing moment. There were pages of women her size. She began to think: That could be me. She shipped off photos of herself to several modeling agencies. Ford said no thank you, Wilhelmina said maybe. Click loved her.
Now Maile Nanri, 24, is a rarity--an Asian plus-size model represented by a major New York agency. And she has become a minor celebrity to some Asian women who are rebelling against the ethnic stereotypes and cultural expectations with which they are burdened.
"Right away we wanted to see her," said her agent, Aida Brigman of Click, a two-decade-old agency that has made a name for itself championing unconventional-looking models. She had what Click looks for in all its models: good skin, wide-set eyes, a firm body, nice teeth. Plus-size modeling, Brigman stresses, is not for women who are out of shape. "I have girls who are size 14 or 16 and they have [great] bodies--these are girls who work out, who are very toned and who don't have flab."
At size 12, Maile is on the small side. Many clients will ask a model to pad if she is not at least a size 14, Brigman said. (Plus-size models are tall and wear size 10 and up. The average American woman, by contrast, is 5-foot-4 and wears a size 12 or 14, according to surveys.)
When modeling agencies think Asian, they think skinny, Nanri said, and the concept of a zaftig Asian model simply does not register.
It did not register at home either.
"We were in absolute shock," said her 54-year-old mother, Arlene, seated in the living room of the family's Rancho Palos Verdes home. "But I think any Asian family would be taken aback, whether they're Chinese, Filipino, Korean or whatever." Nanri's father, Robert, owns a company that deals in Asian components for manufacturing cutlery, and her mother worked in the corporate sales department of Japan Airlines. Nanri's older sister is an attorney and the family expected that their younger daughter, too, would walk a professional path--not strut down a catwalk.
"If she had submitted a thesis or some written composition or a piece of writing we would have known how to talk about that," said Arlene Nanri. "But photos?" she said with a laugh.
This skates close to a cultural prohibition against boastful behavior. On the other hand, she added, Maile (pronounced My-lee), was brought up to think for herself so she and her husband were supportive of their daughter's decision.
Born in Tokyo, raised mainly in New Jersey, Nanri, who graduated in 1999 with a degree in Pacific studies and a minor in communications from Loyola Marymount University, is like many immigrant children, caught between worlds. "It's that constant tension that you live with, being Asian and being American," she said. "It's being confident and assertive and at the same time respectful and traditional."
Nanri's parents' shock lessened considerably after she booked a photo shoot for Amica, a popular Italian magazine. Amica suggestively draped Nanri in a kimono of vintage black silk. Since then, work has been regular--not torrential--but enough to begin saving for graduate school, where she hopes to earn an MBA.
"I'm always looking for people who are new and interesting and she really appealed to me," said Katlean DeMonchy, a trend expert who hired Nanri to model Kathy Ireland's plus-size line of clothes for a segment on a New York morning television show.
"I think she's really beautiful in her own very, very special niche. I'm always looking for Asian models, but they're usually petite and little and she didn't fit that stereotype. That's why I liked her," DeMonchy says.