In youth, it is unfathomable that one’s health can ever be compromised and for Canadian model Ash Foo her recent comeback sprouted out of an unexpected, life-changing diagnosis. No one could have guessed that the 23-year-old, who recently came off a Fall 2020 show season walking for Jil Sander, Laquan Smith, and Rag & Bone, would a year ago receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis and undergo extensive chemotherapy and surgeries. Yet, Foo’s greatest challenge became the biggest test of her strength and an ultimate lesson on the illusion of control. We spoke to Foo on her past year, her empowering return, and how her origins led to her passion for sustainability.
How long have you been modeling and how did you first get discovered? Did you always want to be in fashion?
I’ve been working as a model for about 6 years. I was originally scouted in Toronto at the age of 16 at a summer “fashion” camp. Growing up I was very much interested in fashion, not having any idea about what specific job in the industry I wanted, but just knowing that I was going to have my “Devil Wears Prada” dream. During those years, Toronto had hosted their own “Toronto Fashion Week” and I begged my mom to take me to watch a show. Unfortunately, it was an 18+ event and we weren’t able to buy tickets but my mom took me to the tents anyways, and I watched in awe through the glass as all the models were getting their hair and makeup done.
What have been some defining career moments for you?
I truly am so grateful for all the amazing opportunities that have come my way over the years. The moments that have stuck with me the most, were when I was able to see some of my work from campaigns all around my home in Toronto.
Tell us about your past year learning about your cancer diagnosis. How did you first find out and what was your initial thought process?
In June 2019, I started to notice my lower abdomen was bloating more than usual. It began during a cycle of my period so I assumed it was from that. Soon after my period was over, the bloating never went away. Not having health care in America, I would normally fly back to Canada to see doctors there. Work suddenly became very busy, and it wasn’t until two months later that I finally took the time to travel back to Toronto and get some answers. By then my stomach was so protruded it looked like I was 3 months pregnant (just finishing another menstrual cycle, I knew I wasn’t). After only touching my stomach a few times, my doctor sent me to have an ultrasound the same day, and by the end of the day, I was at the ER of my local hospital. At that point, I was given an appointment to see an oncologist the next week for the apparent mass that was in my abdomen.
I would consider myself a very “healthy” person. I’m 23, I eat very clean, I exercised 4-6 times a week, I slept 8 hours almost every night, so discovering this diagnostic was definitely a surprise. I couldn’t help but think “Why me?” Two weeks later after more tests (ultrasounds and C.T. scans), I was informed about “germ tumors” and that mine had to come out ASAP. The tumor was inside of my right ovary, and it was 20cm large! The surgery went well, but while I was in the hospital recovering, I was told my left ovary also had a smaller tumor, and considering my age and chances of fertility, they decided to try and save it with chemotherapy. Dysgerminoma is a type of cancer that in most cases is very treatable (and is common for women in their 20s). My chemotherapy was intense. I felt so disconnected from my body. After three cycles in three months, receiving chemo almost everyday and losing all of my hair, the treatment wasn’t working. I would have to undergo another surgery to remove the left ovary.
During this whole process, it seemed as if I never had a clear answer, and for the first time in my life, I had to let go of having any control whatsoever. I just hoped things were going to be okay.
After your hiatus to focus on your health, what brought you back to fashion?
Modeling is a career that I love. Something that concerned me before starting chemo, was if I would have any job to come back to. After some meetings with my agents, they assured me that no matter what happened, they would always be my family. I can’t be more grateful to be able to have survived something that altered my body and appearance so much and come back to a job that purely relies on looks – I’ve never felt more empowered.
You’re very passionate about sustainability – what draws you to vintage or consignment stores?
From a young age, I’ve always been very conscious about different forms of pollution. We learned about it in grade school and I connected with the subject very easily. At that same age, my mother and I would go to our local “Value Village” almost every week to do some thrifting. It became a hobby, hunting for treasures in the massive piles of clothes. I was also strictly vegan for 5 years up until very recently. While working in fashion, along the way I learned a lot about how the industry has such a big impact on the environment. It was especially easy to continue shopping sustainably in New York, because of endless options of vintage stores the city has to offer. There is something very special and unique about shopping vintage/second-hand. Knowing you’re doing a little something that’s good for the planet makes it even better!
“I can’t be more grateful to be able to have survived something that altered my body and appearance so much and come back to a job that purely relies on looks – I’ve never felt more empowered.”
When it comes to race, do you think fashion is hitting the mark in terms of inclusion?
I believe that as society changes, the industry will change with it. Fashion is worldwide, and not every country or city makes the same commitment or effort for inclusion as the other. It’s a movement that has been going on for a very long time and will continue until everybody feels equally represented. Hopefully, we can get there soon.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
My friends and family. I’m so fortunate to have such amazing women in my life that inspire me every day and have such an abundance of love, positivity, wisdom, and style to share with me.
Social media has evolved into a powerful tool for change, especially for the current generation of top models. How do you make it work for you?
When you’re passionate and truly believe in something, people will see that. I personally want to continue to do my part, no matter how small, in supporting the greater good for our society. Whether that be to promoting other platforms, accessing/sharing informative posts, or just connecting with people to support each other. But also taking these tools and knowledge and implementing them in my day to day life.