Meet Sofia Wakabayshi. First things first, she’s bloody smart. After doing her political science degree at UCLA she worked in the tech industries for a while before starting to focus on modelling. Since then she was a contestant on the first cycle of Asia’s Next Top Model and won a model award. Literally beauty and brains.
Interview and photographs by Lauren Engel
Tell me about your upbringing. I read that you were born in California?
I was born in the Bay Area. My dad was working in business telecom, tech business and my mom was a stay at home, super Japanese mom cooking a lot of food. I also have one older brother who is back in California. He’s never been to Hong Kong but I hope one day he will come to visit. He’s more in tune with our Swedish side and I’m more in tune with our Japanese side. We went once or twice a year to each country every year for Christmas and sometimes we would do summer school in Japan.
And you studied political science?
I studied political science in UCLA which I clearly did not put into use (laughs). I did work in DC right after college to figure out if it’s something I really liked and I just fell in love with academics.
How were you like growing up?
I was such a gangly nerd. I was very insecure and shy. Totally different to how I am now but I’m still kind of dorky. I was actually really athletic growing up, a sort of tomboy. I loved Hello Kitty though, so I was already really Asian (laughs).
Were your parents pushing you in any direction?
Ya, my parents were always pushing me towards academia and my dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Like business and tech, which I did for a while and it’s still a love of mine. That’s something I want to incorporate later in my life with modelling.
Did you start modeling while you were at UCLA?
I was modelling part-time trying to pay for school. At first I was on the rowing team, but then I tore my hips and ended up getting hip surgery. After that I was like alright, I need to get a job now and I took student loans and everything. I always wanted to model but my parents wouldn’t let me to do it. I think for my mom’s side I was just too young and my dad thought that ‘if you were an intelligent women why would you want to be a model’. It was always something I couldn’t explain but this is what I want to do, this is what I’m meant to be doing. I started when I was 18 when I went to school in LA, which is a perfect spot to do it, but it was also really hard to maintain as a student full-time. Back then my agency were always saying you have to pick either school or modelling, so I picked school because I really wanted to finish it.
“I’m pretty passionate about getting your education and being a strong independent women.”
How did you get into research and working for tech companies?
Post college I tried out DC. I was a researcher and then I tried to start my own startup with someone but I realised I was too young so I just wanted experience. So I started working for a wifi company and laterfor my dad, in a government municipal wifi, so I was going to these conferences wearing suits together with old men (laughs). But then I moved into the new tech so I started working in social shopping applications for Facebook. It incorporated my love for fashion and new tech.
What was the turning point that made you want to get into modeling after all?
I was offered a promotion at this company and I had some stock in it. I started at an early stage and it started doing really well. We got funding but I saw my life flash before my eyes. I was like ‘oh my god I’m going to be in San Francisco forever’. I always had so much demand coming from Asia when I was in college, but I’m also the type of the person who wants to see the world, to travel so I thought I have to do this now if I wanted to. I quit my job and decided to model in Asia. It was so sudden everyone thought I was crazy because I got offered a promotion and was doing pretty well for my age. I thought that I have to pursue this or I would regret it for the rest of my life.
I saw a picture you were like really tanned with blonde hair (laughs).
(Laughs) Ya I was so California! In Asia they want girls who are more pale and look more Asian so they said I had to dye my hair black. That was their first criteria when I signed with Ford in LA. I was totally that girl that started crying (laughs). After I got home from the hair salon I was like huhu my hair is black! Now I can’t imagine myself the other way. It’s just like any job. I was willing to do anything to give it my all.
“Even growing up and being told that I couldn’t be both, to be a model and to be smart. I think a revolution is coming in that topic as well and I would like to be speaking out about that stuff.”
How did you start modeling in Asia?
I started researching top model agencies in Asia. At that point I had already quit my job and moved back home to pack my stuff. That’s when at the top of the Google search Asia’s Next Top Model kept coming up. I was like what is this? It was Cycle One and I was going to do a quick apply. I had my mom take a picture on her iPhone and I submitted it because the deadline was the next day. Next thing I know I’m getting a call from Asia’s Next Top Model two days later telling me that they really wanted me and if I could do the full application so I submitted the video. It happened so fast and at the end they wanted me as a finalist. But I was thinking if I should really do this, if I really wanted to be on a reality TV show.
I decided I should do it otherwise I would regret it. It was also really scary to go from America to Singapore for Cycle One, because you don’t even know if it’s real at that point. They cut communication off so my parents were pretty worried. They didn’t hear from me for a month and a half. But it was legit. Nothing can prepare for that at all. I think I am a pretty strong person but it definitely wears you down. I went into it too naively like we’re all going to be friends. It’s not like that, it’s a TV show. They want drama, they want something happening. I went with a genuine interest of wanting to model in Asia. Then I was like wait this is so strange! (laughs) But it worked out afterwards of course, not regrets for sure. I didn’t really know what to do after that and it was a confusing phase. We just finished shooting and it hasn’t aired for a while. Daniel Bowie one of the judges actually reached out to me and told me I would do well in Singapore so I went back and did my first contract there. I was based there for a while, like three years but now I’m based here in Hong Kong.
Did you model in all the other Asian countries?
I’ve modeled in Thailand and Japan. I’ve been randomly getting direct bookings from other places. I worked in Vietnam twice, I have a milk ad in Malaysia which is apparently coming to Hong Kong. Oh and Indonesia. Indonesia has a lot of my fan based after Asia’s Next Top Model.
Tell me about your model award
Well 2016 this year has come together for me. My Hong Kong agency here Sun Esee nominated me for it and I ended up winning it for Hong Kong and Macau which was super awesome. I didn’t even know you could get a model award. The day of that they said that each of you had to make a speech and I was making bullet points in my head. Some of the other speeches were hilarious (laughs)
Are you moving more into becoming a social media influencer?
I’m more focused on social media because of all these campaigns I’ve been getting across Asia and the award. It’s been growing. I’m working on my website right now which I hope to use as a platform. It’s a really fun hobby for me because I used to know how to code HTML back in the days in high school/college. Now I’m reteaching myself CSS instead of having someone do it for me as I want to build it all myself. As a model you have so much free time. The website probably going to be out in a few months.
Have you seen the ‘KOL’ thing happen?
Ya, that’s what’s so crazy. I was immersed in it because I was in tech before so it’s weird to be in San Francisco where the heart of social media was developing and then coming to Asia and see all the trends pick up later. I had Snapchat probably six/seven years ago but deleted it when I came to Asia because no one had it. Now everyone’s on Snapchat so it’s kind of like a weird delayed effect. I think what’s weird too is that my cycle for Asia’s Next Top Model took place when Instagram just started taking off here. So this current cycle is getting way more Instagram followers because it’s much more relevant, dammit! (laughs)
Do you see the type of jobs you get change because of social media?
It’s definitely changing. I’m getting more digital influencing type projects. With modeling there’s only so much you can do but I think eventually I will go into hosting. I don’t want to segment into that yet. I’ve got a few offers but I couldn’t really model anymore then except for Singapore. You then would only be a celebrity guest or something but I really love doing the runway and hosting you can do at whatever age.
Do you have plans to get back into industries outside of modeling?
I think policy wise maybe I can make a difference in the future with women’s organizations. I’m pretty passionate about getting your education and being a strong independent women. I think that this message isn’t really coming across in Asia. Being a model you get judged all the time and people don’t even think that I have an education. Even growing up and being told that I couldn’t be both, to be a model and to be smart. I think a revolution is coming in that topic as well and I would like to be speaking out about that stuff. And then of course something with tech, I want to open my own businesses. I love Hong Kong and I think there are a lot of opportunities. In Singapore i hit a point and I couldn’t grow anymore but over here there are tons of celebrity models and competitions. It’s a central hub, it’s like the New York of Asia so I am getting more opportunities these days.