Ethel Fong was the first Singaporean to snag a contract with the world-famous Ford Models in New York, becoming one of the rare Asian faces to front a global Armani campaign in the 1980s. The 53-year-old mother of two has since made a seamless transition from top model to philanthropist.
Your beginnings were humble, growing up the sixth of seventh children in a small house in Pasir Panjang. How did you go from kampong girl to glamour queen?
In school, I was a head taller than all my peers, but I was so awkward and gawky as a teenager that my elder brother told my mum: "Please do something about her." My mother gave me $200 to enroll in a three-month grooming course. So at 15, I bought my first pair of heels and made that journey from Pasir Panjang to Cuscaden Road where the school was — it was a big deal for me at the time. And because of my height, the trainers there asked if I was interested in doing some fashion shows. I don’t know what gave me the guts to say yes but I did and the rest is history.
What was the toughest piece of criticism you ever received?
As I was starting my career as a model, I was told that I was really ugly.
You became one of Singapore’s best-known faces in the modeling scene back in the 1980s. What was your recipe for success?
Audacity and luck. You need to be daring enough to go for what you want and lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to grab the right opportunities.
Tell us about the moment that changed your life.
Meeting my husband. He first saw my pictures in a magazine and apparently, he tore the pages out and told himself that if he ever found me, he would marry me. As fate would have it, we met six months later through a mutual friend.
What is your greatest achievement and definition of success?
A united family, [with members] who are there for each other.
What piece of advice would you pass on to your children?
Find a life partner that brings out the best in you and for whom you bring out the best in him or her.
You have been actively involved in charity work. Tell us about some projects you have worked on.
Years ago, my husband and I were looking for interesting stories for our kids and couldn’t find any. We came up with the idea of an online platform, StoryPlus, for writers to submit interesting stories that parents could buy and download. The money raised would go to supporting literacy in poverty-stricken countries. So far, we have helped kids in Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Bhutan. I usually come across interesting projects to fund through the people I meet during my travels.
What would you consider your greatest failure?
I tried but failed miserably to snowboard.
What’s your worst guilty pleasure?
Fishball noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
You see yourself as…
Honest, loyal and sensitive.
Get the March issue of Prestige for our in-depth interview and photo spread with our cover personality Ethel Fong, where she reflects on her journey from humble “kampong girl” to top model, and now mother of two and philanthropist.