Vivien Ong Patenaude And The Path Of Most Resistance
She isn’t the same woman who left the country to model. We discover more of her own self-discovery.
BY Lestari Hairul | Jan 24, 2017 | Women We Love
Vivien Ong Patenaude has convinced herself that we are alike. She is sitting in front of me, eyebrows raised and mouth agape, marvelling at the odds of finding someone else seemingly like her. It’s a weird experience, verging towards the odd. “We’re both just creepy people in general, I think.” So she says. It’s not every day that you find someone who’s similar to you during an interview.
We discover this halfway through the session. See, the best interviews function like a conversation. And in any conversation, there is a natural back and forth where two people trade information about each other.
But this is a profile piece, and the balance is skewed towards Patenaude. The only bits of myself I’ve been offering her are mutters in agreement and scant quips on the side. After a period of answering my list of questions, she threw me a curve ball.
“Shit. I just sound so weird,” she mutters. Can you ask me more interesting questions? I’m going to sound like a hippie.”
What constitutes as “more interesting questions”? I ask her about the interviews that she usually do. She prefers answering email questions because she gets nervous and has the chance to think her answers through. She also rambles, a lot.
Patenaude is affable and has the kind of goofy, natural charm that draws a person in. She gives off an aura that sets you at ease and, trapped in her orbit, it’s easy to fall into thinking you could be best pals. So when she says that she prefers the interview to be more conversation-like—those scant information I proffered piqued her curiosity and now she wants to probe my life—I let her take over the reins. Yeah sure, ask what you want.
The interview meanders and winds through threads that sprout off tangents, a quality that’s indicative of the kind of brain that we both have. Diagnoses of ADHD or ADD tend to produce the numerous jump-offs and distractions that slip through and we determine that we love walking everywhere, and yoga. We taught ourselves to read Cyrillic alphabets, have an interest in anthropology and, by our inquisitive nature, tend to be obsessive about research and learning things at our own pace. I recount dropping out of school because it bore me and took up a position with Esquire. This drew an excited “OH EM GEE” from Patenaude, as she nods in agreement.
“See, that’s what I mean,” Patenaude says. “I really do want to go to school but you know, if you can get something out of an opportunity somewhere that would be so fun.”
Before winning the New Paper New Face competition in 2011, Patenaude was modeling part-time after finishing her mass communications course at Republic Polytechnic. The plan was to eventually go back to school at some point. She really wants to be a journalist and says as much throughout the interview. But as plans go, the temporary stint as a model turned into a fulltime, professional gig and in five years she’s married and is now based in New York with a freshly minted green card to boot.
The desire to be a journalist has more to do with her love for words and writing, and that all-consuming need to research things, anything, it seems from the way she describes it. It’s not so much a penchant for chasing down news or writing features about famous models. She haunts the used bookstores that pepper New York City, appearing also in her Instagram shots, picking up old textbooks that go for a dollar or two to satiate her curiosity. Anything, from a book about women’s rights and development by the former US President Jimmy Carter to psychology textbooks, is free game.
It doesn’t end there. Her husband of three years, fellow model and photographer, Steven Patenaude, gets dragged around frequently to the Natural History Museum where the missus insists upon multiple revisits of the Human Origins exhibit. “I think I’m just kaypoh [Malay for busybody]. I just want to know how humans come about,” she says before launching into an exploration about ethnic diversity in appearance. If we all come from Africa, why do we look so different?
The constant stream of questions drives her husband mad to the point where he just makes up wacky answers. But this is an enjoyable exercise for me, and I’m beginning to sense that this is a valve let loose for her to keep exploring. Kindred spirits? She speaks of auditing modules at universities to just learn one topic instead of doing a full degree because “sometimes I just want to learn about that one topic from a chapter, you know?”
With all this activities being far removed from the glamour of the fashion industry, it begs questioning, is she already tired of modeling?
“Yeah,” Patenaude says. “There are the fun parts but like every job, there are parts that you love and parts that you hate." So why don’t you just quit? “But I’m not gonna quit right now because this is my job. Nobody is going to like their jobs 100 percent. This is just life that you have to deal with. Not everything is going to go according to what you like. But if you can figure out a way to wrap your head around the parts that you don’t like, then you’re fine. I don’t like the way that the industry treats models in general, but I know I can change the way I’m being treated or the way I treat people.”
There are strict stipulations in her contract with her agency. Her rules are that she does not do lingerie or nude modeling unless it’s been asked of her first. Still, there was an incident at a shoot for a women’s magazine from Vietnam. She arrived at call time only to be handed a lingerie set to change into.
“I just refused!” Patenaude, her voice now a higher register. “I mean this is my rule! If you don’t show me respect, I’m not going to show it back to you. And this is something that should be understood by everyone in the industry. But it’s not. Because to them, models are human bodies that you just do whatever you want with. You don’t have to ask for their opinions if they want to do this or not.”
But wouldn’t that be construed as “diva-like” behaviour?
“This was my previous agency and they gave me a hard time. I said, ‘I’m not being difficult because I’ve already stated my own rule. And you guys refuse to acknowledge it. Why should I compromise my own principles just to make your client happy?”
It turns out that the clients did not communicate with the agency that it was going to be a lingerie shoot. Patenaude even asked if they could just cancel her and hire another model, but they decided to go along with it. In the end, they had to reshoot the whole thing with another model.
“When you’re doing shows at fashion week, there are always photographers at the backstage where the girls are butt-naked.
“That’s something I’m really upset about. There is no respect for models at all, unless you ask for it. This is the same for any regular human being. If you’re not a model, if you’re backstage and there is a camera crew, would you ask to have a private space to change? Yes!”
I am reminded of anecdotes from friends who used to be dressers at fashion shows. There was a significant amount of bare flesh and in the words of a straight dude friend of mine who did the job in his teens, you had to seriously pretend to be gay if you were straight. Otherwise, no dice.
“I think a lot of people are surprised when I ask for a private space,” Patenaude continues. “Just because they’re not used to models asking for it. Are you kidding me? That’s the first thing I realised, nobody’s upset that I’m ‘being difficult’. I just want to change in a corner, I don’t even need you to set up a partition wall for me. But it’s just something that never occurred to them that models are also human beings.”
There is, of course, an even seedier side to the modeling industry. One that is out there in the open but is still tolerated because the perpetrators are powerful names with several powerful friends, who themselves, are apologists. You will find this anywhere from the support in Hollywood of known abusers like Roman Polanski, to the complicity of the entire senior management of the Victoria Police Force of Australia in covering up the crimes of a local paedophile priest. Terry Richardson remains a respectable name in the fashion industry, continues to receive bookings despite the many allegations brought forth by young models who have been allegedly coerced by Richardson to participate in sex acts whilst conducting shoots.
“When I heard that story about [Richardson], I was so pissed off. I hate all these photographers that are exploiting girls just because they’re younger and don’t know any better. “
Patenaude recounts her first time in Europe heading for a topless shoot, unaccompanied by her agent. Standard practice in Europe. She was 19.
"He made me strip all the way down to my undies. In retrospect, when I think about that, why didn’t I just refuse? I was so eager to please."
“My agency sent me to this guy saying he’s a really good photographer but when I look back through those pictures, they’re not great. Not even good, just average. He made me strip all the way down to my undies. In retrospect, when I think about that, why didn’t I just refuse? I was so eager to please.
“Sometimes it’s about relationships between the agency and the photographers. Photographers will book models for editorials, photoshoots or campaigns. So they’ll always try to maintain good relationships with the clients. The models are just collateral damage. We are basically currency. I don’t really like the industry that way.”
To reform the industry will be an uphill battle. Each year, or perhaps each season, there will be thinkpieces galore about the toxicity of the industry and there will be lip service paid at making things better. A few news pieces of fashion houses “doing things right” and the mainstream media outlets rejoice at this new dawn of feminist posturing. Until the next clusterbomb of further toxic truths get released. Patenaude casts a more realistic eye.
“I think it’s very ambitious [to change the industry from the inside]. I know there’s been a lot of talk about girls trying to do that—like setting up their own alliances—but it’s never ever strong enough. There are so many models, if you don’t want to do this anymore, there are tens of thousands of others who’d be willing to do so. There’s always going to be an influx of models so no matter what you do, it cannot be changed.”
The recent ruling in France to combat negative body image, involves only allowing models who meet the BMI criteria for health. But with an industry still insisting on the prized skeletal look, thinner models have resorted to the tragic irony of stuffing weights in their spandex just so that they’ll be heavier when weighed to meet the criteria.
“I’m sure there are little steps here and there to change the industry. That’s why I was so happy that fitness became such a huge thing in the US because now they’re embracing stronger women. Then again, there are girls who are just naturally skinny no matter how much they try to put on weight. There needs to be diversity, I think.”
Patenaude now lifts. Her physique, by her own admission, is “a dude trapped in a woman’s body”. She’s been known to say out loud “I’m a monster” whilst pumped up from the pre-workout supplement. A significant difference from her early professional modeling years when she would eat just one meal of vegetables a day. At 48kg and a height of 177cm, she was functioning in a fugue because of the lack of nutrition despite having to run around constantly for shoots. It is a time in her life she doesn’t remember very well because it was spent in a daze of constant fierce competition with the next Asian girl who comes in to cast for the same job. Now she spouts empowering phrases off the bat like “I can support my own body” in reference to her new-found strength. Said with tongue firmly in cheek.
"It’s more important to be happy mentally and emotionally. It did me so much good when I left.”
She credits a half-year break from modeling back in 2014 for this recent peace with her body and expectations. With the competition getting to her in an industry where jobs for Asians remain limited, she was getting engulfed in negativity and was starting to get depressed. “I would advise anyone: if you feel dread going to castings and you have anxiety and panic attacks, just take a break and walk away because you can always find a job if you really look hard for it. It’s more important to be happy mentally and emotionally. It did me so much good when I left.”
The change was noticeable to others too. It wasn’t only about being accepting of her body, and especially loving herself enough not to feel upset when she doesn’t meet casting criteria. The nervousness, the loudness that arose out of an attempt to hide her insecurities, and the Ah Lian-who-eats McDonald’s identity fell away when she started doing yoga and eating whatever the hell she wanted during her break from the industry. Ironically too, the racism in the industry and the quotas they have to make up diversity helps her in being more accepting if she doesn’t get a job. If they’re not looking for an Asian girl, they’re just not going to get one, nothing to do with how she looks or what she is.
“It’s like a Singaporean thing,” Patenaude says. “If you grew up in a city, maybe it’s the lack of space or the pressure from family to do well in school and everything being so competitive that you get so nervous about having to be the best in everything. Through yoga and deep breathing, I found a different perspective, and one day, realised that, hey, there’s no competition at all. You are you and if you can be happy with yourself then it’s okay.”
This newfound calmness has left her husband feeling grateful for the presence of yoga in her life. While they’re both strong-headed, they used to clash a lot because of Patenaude’s nervous energy in stark contrast to her husband’s calm. Whenever she gets anxious, he tells her to breathe really deeply: Woo-saa. Replete with hand gestures.
Her sense of calmness radiates and is infectious. We segue into a pet topic: women’s rights.
We talk about experiences with street harassment in various countries. Patenaude may be zen now, but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have fire. She relates an incident in the Lucky Plaza tunnel, where a man, who had earlier lifted another girl’s skirt, came up and groped her friend’s chest. Patenaude went ballistic. Screaming, she kicked him at the back of the knee and pins him down before a group of guys came over to help.
Or another, in Milan whilst living in a bad part of town. She gets tailed by three men whilst returning home with groceries. Thinking fast, she picks up her mobile, dials for her Italian friend and pretended to be a local chatting normally until she starts spitting vulgarities culminating in turning menacingly to look back at her tail while snarling “Che Cazzo”.
But Patenaude’s facing up to the douchebags isn’t just about personal dignity. Her husband worries that she may get into trouble because she always responds to street harassment by screaming something back. Her motivations are more selfless.
“[Catcalling] happens all the time, in New York too. Do you say anything back, is it safe for you to say anything back? I don’t want to encourage the behaviour. If you just ignore them, they will just keep doing it over and over again to every woman they see on the street. I hate the idea that we have to bear with this kind of shit. Why do we have to be catcalled? We can wear whatever we want! You don’t have the right to say stuff to me. I’ve screamed at a lot of men. They need to be spoken back to.”
It’s all for the collective. The best advice her husband has given her is to think about others. She was once accused of being self-centred, in her early years, something that bothered her to no end. And in her nervous, negative Nancy days, the Singaporean conditioning of keeping emotions pent up and bearing grudges reared its ugly head as she reacted on the defensive to the criticism. But she’s learnt from his philosophy of voicing things out and getting it out in the open to either solve it then or let things cool down to speak about it later.
She now understands what he meant and how pervasive selfishness is in our culture and in New York as well. The curse of being kiasu really isn’t just about trying to be first at everything. It’s right down to the nitty-gritty of refusing to pay things forward and only thinking about benefiting the self, others be damn. It’s in ignoring a girl struggling to pin down a public flasher and molester because it’s “not my business”. It’s in being so self-centred that you can’t see that other people are not extensions of yourself, in the case of serial street harassers.
“When you see homeless people on the streets and you listen to their stories and why they’re asking for money, a lot of them are war veterans that are severely handicapped. That’s why they can’t find a job. That’s why they’re begging for money. But back then, whenever you see someone begging for money you’re like, ‘Go get a job, why are you so lazy?’ That’s what I used to think. I’m always the first one to dash into the MRT, I have to make sure I get a good bargain. Now it’s more like, ‘do I need the bargain’? ‘If I pay more can I help someone else instead’?”
She makes a face, grimacing at the thought that she just fit into the hippie stereotype that she mentioned earlier. But as she describes the exploitative cocoa and shrimp industries, and how learning about them really impacted her understanding of the real cost of cheap products, I realise that the reason why none of this is annoying the way trendy hippies tend to be is because she is honest. In the madcap research that she does, led more by her interest than a concerted effort at a curriculum, she arrives at the principles and values that are authentic and made entirely in good faith. And there is something wholesome in her unfiltered ramblings.
“I’ve always experimented. That’s what I like,” Patenaude says. “You have the choice to do so many things you want, I’m a serial dabbler of everything. Choice is something a lot of people take for granted. Can you imagine if you were deprived of choice and you just cannot do anything to change anything or just pick the path you want to go? Choice is a privilege. This sounds like the kind of conversation I would have in my head actually. I don’t usually talk about this kind of stuff to anybody. I always talk to Steven [her husband] and he’s like, I don’t know what’s in your head but it must be so crazy. The daily goings on in our brains, because we have a million thousand thoughts going on at once.”
I recommend a voice recorder to capture the whirling thoughts in her head since they move too fast to be trapped by mere typing. The need to get them out of the head is a real, frustrating one, and I empathise.
“I don’t think I will ever want to listen to my recording though,” Patenaude muses. “I just know that once I debate it in my head, then I will feel a lot calmer because I know that I’ve already voiced it out somewhere.”
We have been talking for almost three hours. It’s time for the walk we so crave, Patenaude to her yoga class in Little India and myself to the library.
A hug goodbye and she walks away, her floppy hat bobbing above the crowd she stands a clear head of. No doubt with another million curious thoughts and questions crowding.
Make-up by Larry Yeo using YSL Beauty. Hair by Jeft Chang and Jayden Chang @ J7 Image. Stylist assisted by Mhd Alif. Photographer assisted by Gabriel. Make-up artist assisted by Leah Lim.