Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 April, 2009, 12:00am

Every day, Ken Mok wakes up to the fact that his reality television show America's Next Top Model (ANTM), about 'making it' in the cutthroat world of fashion, is in its 12th season and syndicated in more than 100 countries - quite an achievement for someone with no interest in fashion.

'The great irony of my career is that I have become known as a producer of shows about the world of fashion but I still know nothing about fashion. We were shooting the second season of the show in Italy and I was in a van with Tyra [Banks, host and co-producer of ANTM], Nigel Barker and Jay Manuel [both fashion photographers]. They were talking about [Chanel's creative director] Karl Lagerfeld and I asked, 'Who is Karl Lagerfeld?' They looked at me like I was crazy and demanded that I get out of the van.'

Ignorance is no barrier to the executive producer, though. 'Any successful producer is able to take a dispassionate view on what is hot in culture and find a way to exploit [it]. A key quality you have to have is a curiosity about the world; mine was very much an influence from my father, who worked for the United Nations. I was introduced to travel at a very young age.'

Mok's father, who is Cantonese, and mother, from Beijing, emigrated to New York after they finished university. Mok and his siblings were born in New York and raised in the United States, although they did spend summer holidays in the mainland. His first job in television was at CNN, as a news producer, but that lasted just two years.

'I looked around the news room and most of the people, by the time they were 40, were incredibly bitter, cynical chain smokers working on their third divorce. I didn't want to go down that path.''

Mok landed a job as a wardrobe driver on The Cosby Show in its late 1980s heyday and began climbing the ladder at the National Broadcasting Company.

'Back in 1990, when I first started out, it was very tough; both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, persons of colour were very rare. It's been a long road but in this business, when you develop a reputation as someone who has good ideas, creates successful TV shows and can generate money, colour suddenly goes away. At this point I think I'm colourless in this industry.'

His career has been forged in US reality TV, mostly music- and fashion-based shows, with sidelines in wrestling and magic.

'Everybody loves an underdog, don't they? If you look at my career, the shows I've done are aspirational - you get to cheer for the person who hasn't gotten a break in life and is doing their best to make it.

'I feel that I've been kind of an underdog myself. I am a Chinese-American person who is working in a field where there are very few successful Asian-American producers. I tend to be a 'glass is half full rather than half empty' kind of guy.'