Hong Kong’s Mia Kang on her victory in Sports Illustrated global model contest

Sports Illustrated swimsuit star tells us about making it as a Eurasian model in the West, overcoming obesity and eating disorders and how muay Thai helped her gain body confidence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 4:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 8:10am

As the first Hongkonger to make it as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model as well as being a Guess campaign girl, Mia Kang has gone from Hong Kong modelling sensation to international breakout figure. Now she’s been voted winner of Sports Illustrated’s 2016 global model search contest. And the Korean-British model couldn’t be happier.

“Being Asian and having achieved these two campaigns means even more to me. I want to make everyone back home proud, and put Hong Kong on the map,” Kang says.

It was only last year, having worked around Asia and Europe and booked a few big jobs in the United States, that Kang decided to move to New York to try her luck in the world’s most competitive market.

“I had never attempted to tap into their market and was quite intimidated by it and didn’t think there was any room for me in it. I wasn’t sure if they would understand my aesthetic of being mixed Asian. In my experience in this industry, a lot of markets classify you as one race or the other,” says the graduate of the English Schools Foundation’s Island School.

The Hong Kong scene provides a good launchpad for models (Eurasians in particular) to a pan-Asian market where the look is popular – South Korea, Japan and China can all be promising places for work. However, truly global success has eluded most of the top models in Hong Kong other than Maggie Q, who has successfully launched an acting career in Hollywood.

Hong Kong's modelling industry: the prats and pitfalls

Kang has been clever and strategic about her career, and is clearly not just a pretty face (she has a degree in philosophy and economics from the University of Bristol in the UK and a master’s degree in finance and financial law from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies).

Once she found an agent she clicked with at Trump Models last year, she quickly changed her base from Hong Kong to New York, where most of the world’s top models are based. As a major centre of entertainment and fashion, the city, she says, “opens up so many more doors – you have access to the biggest clients in the world and the jobs you do have so much more exposure”.

Landing that initial Sports Illustrated shoot was a lucky strike for the model, it being the first job she was booked on upon moving to New York. But being named the winner of the magazine’s model search took more than luck, as it’s down to a public vote. Kang was named winner last week, beating six other models from around the world and landing herself a coveted place in next year’s swimsuit issue.

Hong Kong top models Angie Ng, Mia Kang and Kimberly Verge talk style

It was a Tyra Banks Sports Illustrated cover that hung on Kang’s wall when she was an overweight and bullied teen, so for her to be in these shoes is a dream come true. Likewise, when Kang sees her Guess campaign today, she still “stares in disbelief”. And no wonder – being a “Guess Girl” helped the careers of Adriana Lima, Claudia Schiffer and Anna Nicole Smith, among others, take off.

Looking at Kang now – her career taking off, her supermodel face (a high-fashion Eurasian look with distinctive pout) and lithe body – it’s hard to believe that she used to be overweight.

“I grew up overweight and obese,” Kang says. “When I was 13, I was told that I was at serious risk of health complications like diabetes. So I went to the other extreme and suffered from anorexia and halved my weight. [That’s when I was scouted as a model.] Since then my weight has fluctuated as I figured my way out of anorexia, bulimia, addiction to laxatives and supplements – you name it, I’ve been through it.It wasn’t until I got very athletic that I found real confidence in my body.”

Fashion shoot: beachwear to make you sizzle on the sand

“Of course the struggle is still there and I go through ups and downs – there are periods where I am so busy I don’t have time to train how I want to and I start feeling insecure and unhappy with my body.”

She credits her interest in muay Thai for making her the strongest she’s ever felt, and says if she falls out of favour within the industry because of her more athletic body type, then “so be it”, because her health and happiness is coming first.

Model Mia Kang’s favourite tracks, sites, books, artists and shows

It’s not just the fashion hype that Kang is enjoying; she says she wants to make the most of the attention she’s getting and become a role model. She has spoken out against bullying, and promoted fitness over thinness. And as someone who grew up teased because of her weight, Kang couldn’t be happier that the Sports Illustrated issue she was in had plus-size model Ashley Graham on the cover.

Five quick-fire quotes from Mia Kang

What did landing and winning enough votes to be an official Sports Illustrated swimsuit model mean to you?

“That job meant everything to me ... almost every supermodel from the past couple of decades has passed through the magazine. Honestly, as cheesy as this sounds, [this and the Guess campaign have] made me a happier person and taught me to believe in myself.”

How do you keep your body in prime condition?

“I need to stay active – I love food and was not born with the skinny gene, so I struggle just like 99 per cent of the world. I love learning and mastering new things – it can be anything from spinning [to] Pilates, running, HIIT, barre, yoga, martial arts and boxing. Muay Thai is my passion; I train as often as I can.”

The fashion industry can often promote unhealthy body types. As a model, what’s your response to this?

“Beauty has no boundaries, and I support the use of all body types in the fashion industry. I think it is important to promote a healthy and attainable image.”

How does the Hong Kong fashion and modelling scene compare to the global one?

There is some real talent in the fashion industry in Hong Kong. It’s a small place and it’s easy to get comfortable as a big fish in a small pond.”

You’ve talked about being bullied in your youth and have become an anti-bullying activist. What did these early experiences teach you?

“There will always be bullies/haters/critics, so equip yourself with the tools to cope. Ignore them, focus on yourself and ... rid yourself of your insecurities.