Sheila Sim is no doubt one of the most famous models in Singapore. She’s worked with brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and is a brand ambassador for SK-II – along with other big names like Tang Wei and Cate Blanchett. Despite her success, she remains as down-to-earth as ever. We get here to tell us about her illustrious modelling career and her new modelling agency, NU Models.
You were first talent scouted at your aunt’s wedding when you were 16. What were the first thoughts that went through your mind?
You gotta be kidding me! Seriously. My aunt (Ivy Chng) was a top model back in the 1990s, so there were a lot of bookers, show producer and directors at her wedding in Hong Kong. They told me, “Eh you can model too, you know!” but I thought they were just being nice. Seriously, I was really very ugly then.
Sheila Sim, ugly? Really meh?
You know how at 16 years old, you’re at that awkward stage in your life? You want to be happening and cool, but you don’t really know how to be. I was looking back at my photos from then and wow…I think they must have been very farsighted.
So you sort of fell into the modelling industry by accident?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I graduated, so I decided to try modelling. I did a training course with Carries Models, after which they took me in. I was sent to Hong Kong shortly after, where I was supposed to stay for a month. I ended up staying there for four years before I came back to Singapore.
What did your parents say about you moving to Hong Kong at such a young age?
My parents were quite cool with it, because I’ve always been quite independent. I think I was also too young to know what danger was – I just wanted the freedom! My aunt was in Hong Kong too, but I was on my own a lot because she had to work. After some time, I decided to get my own apartment because I didn’t want to impose on my aunt.
What was the first gig you booked in Hong Kong?
It was a photo shoot that my aunt booked for me. I remember she went with me to the shoot, and she kept frowning at me throughout. She also corrected my poses a lot. When the shoot was over, she told me that my poses were quite stiff and that I should practise more. My morale dropped! Here I was thinking, OK lah not bad, the pictures quite nice right? But turns out I did terribly.
What was working as a model in Hong Kong like?
The first few months I was in Hong Kong, I did nothing but photo shoots for magazines. The pay wasn’t amazing, but it was good training to build a strong foundation. These days, a lot of new models come into the industry and they want to be at the top. They want to excel in everything, but they don’t have proper training. Modelling really is a job, where you need experience before you can progress to the next level and so on.
Sheila Sim was named SK-II’s brand ambassador in 2012. (Source: Luxury Insider)
What was the first gig you booked when you got back to Singapore?
It was for a NAFA show… and it was terrible lah! I didn’t know what to do and I looked like a char tau (wooden head/stiff) on stage. When I look back on what I did back then, it was pretty atrocious. But thankfully, people were kind enough to keep booking me.
What was the coolest campaign you’ve ever done?
The coolest campaign I’ve ever done was for Canon in Hong Kong. It was my first really big shoot, and it was on all the double decker buses as well as on a huge billboard outside SOGO. When I saw it, I was like “Wahhh! I did it!”
Who’s the coolest celeb you’ve met while on the job?
I met Liu Wen at the Charles and Keith show and she’s super cool. I’ve always liked her but after meeting and talking to her, I have a newfound respect for her. I get to meet quite a lot of cool people backstage, like (Japanese models) Anne Watanabe and Ai Tominaga. It was such an honour to work with them because they’re so experienced yet still so down-to-earth.
Sheila Sim with Liu Wen at the Charles & Keith show in August 2013. (Source: Her World Plus)
What do you think about while walking down the runway?
Please don’t fall, please ah please! The first time I fell was in Indonesia – the heels were about 7 inches tall and the runway was narrow. It was also quite dark because it was in a club. I was on the runway when someone kicked me and I fell. I was about to fall off the stairs but luckily the security guard got to me and brought me backstage.
What happened when you got backstage?
I was so stunned I didn’t know what to do! Should I change into my next outfit? Or go out again in the same outfit? What do I do now? In the end, I changed into my next outfit and went out again. I was so scared because I had to wear the same shoes!
How did the audience react?
They were very nice and clapped for me when I next went out. It was so encouraging. I managed to finish all my rounds, and yes, in the same shoes. I was still in shock after the show and when someone asked me if I was OK, I just broke down and started crying backstage. From then on, I had a phobia for heels. Until today!
What should you do if you fall while walking on the runway?
I just stand up, pick up my shoes my shoes and bow. People are usually quite forgiving, as long as you stand up and walk with grace. Obviously, don’t come out and fall for every outfit lah! If you do, then that’s your problem and you should go reflect on yourself.
Any runway tricks to share?
Last year, for the Zac Posen show at Audi Fashion Festival, the designer told them to mop the runway with Coke so that it would be sticky. A veteran model also once told me that models in lingerie shows spray hairspray on their thighs and butt to make them look less wobbly.
Sheila Sim walking for Marchesa at the Singapore Audi Fashion Festival in 2010. (Source: Styleshoppes)
As a model, your appearance obviously matters a lot. How much time do you spend on your skin, hair and exercising?
I’m generally quite disciplined with my health, diet and skincare. I go to the gym and although I eat quite a lot, I choose what I eat. I try to avoid fried stuff, because it’s bad for the skin and it’s so hard to burn off. I think people who go to the gym will understand this – you run for so long and it’s only like what, 100 calories?! Not even one fried chicken wing. It’s torturous leh.
Do models ever have fat days, where you just want to lie around in something loose and comfy?
Of course! I’m actually in that phase right now because I haven’t been working out much. It’s not so much that you feel fat, but out of shape. If you know you can be better, why let yourself be like that? It’s not that you have to be thin, but more like the best version of yourself.
There are many stereotypes associated with models, like they don’t eat or they’re not smart. Which stereotype have you encountered the most?
Everything you’ve mentioned, I’ve heard before. I can’t say that they’re not right – sometimes I have bimbo moments, sometimes I complain that I’m too fat, and sometimes I party and drink – but it doesn’t mean that I do this because of my job. When people see a model drinking, they’re like “Wahhh see I told you she’s a party girl!” even if you only party like, once a month. I mean, look at anyone around you – I’m sure they do the same things.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about models?
That models are promiscuous. People will be like, oh you know they take off all their clothes backstage and have sex parties. But hello, have you been to a show backstage?! You have no time to do anything except change into your next outfit!
What do you have to say about the stereotype that models don’t eat?
I try my best to promote a healthy image for the industry but I’m just one person. I think the entertainment industry emphasises too much on being skinny, so people naturally associate it with being beautiful. I really don’t want the younger generation to have the wrong impression about models. I’m not skinny because I starve myself, but because I put in the effort to exercise and watch my diet.
You recently started your own modelling agency, NU Models, with Olinda Cho. What made you want to start a business of your own?
It really was just a natural progression of my career. I had been modelling for 12 years before we started the company in September 2013. I wanted to pass on my experience and knowledge to the new girls in the industry. Plus, we wanted to offer alternative career channels for models, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about their careers when they got older. We wanted to explore their other talents, like singing or hosting.
What advice do you usually give the girls in your agency?
It really is about your attitude. You can be tall and gorgeous, but if you have a shitty attitude, you probably won’t get booked again. On the other hand, if you’re not that fantastic-looking, but you have a great attitude, you’ll probably last a long time. For me, I think my attitude is what has gotten me this far.
When I first came back to Singapore, people were very strict with me. If I complained just a bit they would say, “Now you’re a diva ah?” But I really appreciate it because I think that made me more grounded and guai (well-behaved). The show producers used to be quite strict last time – they would have no qualms about shouting at you through a microphone at 6am in a shopping mall. But nowadays, they’re quite relaxed so the models these days tend to be less well-behaved.
You’ve mentioned before that your grandma is a big inspiration to you. What’s the best advice she’s given you?
To save for the rainy days. In this industry, there’s really no fixed pay. Sometimes you book a big commercial and get paid a lot, but that doesn’t mean that the next month will necessarily be the same.
She also told me not to wear makeup when I’m not modelling, so that I would get used to my own face and wouldn’t feel insecure without makeup.
Any advice for those who want to break into the industry?
Be in here for the right reasons. Sometimes people join the industry for the wrong reasons…but don’t. Being a model is an occupation and not a label. Don’t use it for the wrong reasons. It’s just like any other job.