Michelle Lee on the Importance of Mentorship and the Original Asian Supermodels

Michelle Lee (sitting) and crew. Shot by Sharif Hamza | Courtesy of Michelle Lee

While the past two years have been incredibly heartbreaking for people worldwide, Asians in the US have suffered additional trauma as violent and racist attacks, many of them on elders, have risen exponentially within the AAPI community. As a Chinese American woman concerned about my Asian friends and family, I was hyper-aware of every report of a violent AAPI-related incident. However, I noticed something compelling was happening at the same time. For the first time in my life, I noticed prominent Asians around the world speaking out against the brutality happening here. More and more Asians, many of them well known, in entertainment, fashion, and publishing spoke out, not just against the hatred that was happening, but also on the importance of supporting each other and how crucial all of our voices were. Out of the combined tragedy of COVID-19 and the attacks on AAPI people, those collective voices created, for me, a feeling of community, joy, self-love, and self-worth. As members of a group who traditionally keep their heads down and stay “silent,” we have come to realize that it’s not just about the contributions that we make but most importantly, that we are recognized for our humanity.

As AAPI Heritage Month winds down today, Models.com speaks to one of the most powerful, and notably private, Asian women in the fashion industry, casting director Michelle Lee. Lee has worked with some of the highest-profile names in the industry from brands like Dior, Altuzarra, and Sacai to industry icons like Maria Grazia Chiuri, Craig McDean, and Grace Coddington while maintaining a low profile for herself. We speak to the prolific casting director to learn more about how a fateful internship launched her fashion obsession, who she’s learned the most from in the business, and the needed acknowledgment of the original Asian supermodels.

Introduction and interview by Betty Sze

British Vogue, January 2022 shot by Sharif Hamza | Courtesy of Michelle Lee

I know for me being Asian American, the traditional and expected path of being a doctor, lawyer, etc. was very much “assumed.” You initially wanted to be a lawyer before you started working in production at KCD. What pushed you to switch career trajectories?
Indeed growing up Korean American, it was instilled in me from a young age that my future options were to become a doctor or a lawyer, or if I was “lucky,” to marry one. In my junior year at NYU, when it was time to get an internship at a law firm to gain some experience in my future profession, I naturally pursued an internship at my favorite magazine, Jane. At that time, I figured it would be my last chance to do something super fun before I had to focus and prepare for law school. Little did I know that that internship at Jane Magazine would change the course of my life. I worked with a wonderful woman, Cary Leitzes, the Photo Editor. She was so knowledgeable and had such an elevated sensibility, but most importantly, she was kind and took the time to help me understand the depth and components of an image and taught me to appreciate the art of photography.

Not only did I learn so much from her, but I also loved the environment in that office. I sat next to the Fashion and Beauty editors, and with the W Magazine offices adjacent to us as well, I was hooked by the buzz and energy. It was also during that time that Cary generously gave me her invite to the Vivienne Tam show. As I stood there on my tippy toes watching these live models — Ling Tan, Natane, Chandra North, Esther Cañadas, Gisele Bündchen, Kiara Kabukuru, Kirsten Owen, Maggie Rizer, Rhea Durham — who I had previously only seen on CNN Style with Elsa Klensch, walk down the runway of an esteemed Asian designer in NYC, I knew that this was the beginning of the end of my future as a lawyer! When the Jane internship came to a close, Cary asked me about my summer plans, and introduced me to Jennifer Venditti, for my first summer job as a casting assistant.

What was that like working for her?
At that time, Jennifer was newly establishing her business as a Casting Director. We worked out of her walk-up apartment in the East Village. She was this bohemian chic, super tall, quirky woman who not only immediately entrusted me to set up her office in a nook in the living room but also had me dive headfirst into researching a list of up and coming actors at that time like Leelee Sobieski, Natasha Lyonne, and Claire Forlani. I didn’t know who any of them were, so I clumsily figured out how to surf the web from the computer labs at NYU, tracking down their agency/publicist contacts, headshots, etc. Then one day, she handed me a polaroid camera and sent me out to street cast. I was like, “ME???” Terrified, I approached strangers, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing, enough for them to let me take their Polaroids and give me their contact info. When I returned to Jen’s EV office, I was equally, if not more terrified, to show her who I found. As expected, none of my finds made the cut, but she was very encouraging and assured me that I had a “good eye.” I remember thinking that everything about my time in that EV apartment office was exposing me to this indie cool that I had never experienced before. At the end of that summer, as I was heading back to NYU and looking for a fall internship, Jen had the genius idea of sending me to meet KCD.

Courtesy of Michelle Lee

When you started, successful Asian behind-the-scenes fashion creatives were few and far between. Who were some of the people that inspired you back then, both Asian and non-Asian?
I mean how lucky was I to have already been mentored by Cary and Jen, and then to continue onto KCD working with these 4 amazing women: Julie Mannion, Nian Fish, Gayle Dizon, and Katie Mossman. I can speak endlessly about the tremendous training and exposure that I got from all of them but in a nutshell; KCD owner Julie Mannion showed me how to apply order and system to chaos, how to be on top of one’s game but remain humble and diplomatic, how to think big picture and that all elements of a production have to have synergy. Katie Mossman set the example of how to work hard while still having fun with your team, and how to think on your feet and troubleshoot any issue quickly and without drama.

Nian Fish and Gayle Dizon also gave me such tools for professional growth, but more importantly and without knowing it, these two powerful Asian American women imbued a sense of confidence in me as a Korean American woman coming into my career. Before working with them, my only Asian female mentor was my mother. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was and is a badass, raising three kids while working seven days a week with my father at our dry cleaner store, but seeing these two women who looked like me in influential, highly respected positions, helped me believe I also belonged in that space. As the Creative Director of KCD, Nian Fish was truly a pioneer in the fashion industry; she owned that position, allowing us Asian women who came after to follow her lead. It was under her tutelage that I learned so much about fashion, art, music, production, and life, and that “good eye” that Jen Venditti once told me I had developed further largely due to her influence.

“Being able to cast a Dior show in Korea with primarily Korean models and with my mother in the audience filled me with such indescribable pride and joy.” – Michelle Lee

As an industry veteran, you’ve seen the industry evolve in diversity and size-inclusive casting. However, what was your experience like as an Asian American woman on the back-end navigating the scene when diversity wasn’t as prevalent?
It was at KCD that I finally got to work directly with those models I’d seen on that Vivienne Tam runway just a few months back, including Ling Tan and Natane. At that time, it did not occur to me just how few Asian models there were, but I definitely fangirled hard when working with them. While I am so proud that there has been a significant rise in Asian representation in fashion, especially over the past few years, we most certainly need to keep up this trajectory. I’d love to see more acknowledgment of those original Asian supermodels (Devon Aoki, Irina Pantaeva, Jenny Shimizu, Kimora Lee Simmons, Ling Tan, and Natane Boudreau), as without their presence in the 90’s and early 2000’s international fashion, the stage would not have been set for all who followed. Imagine how inspirational it is for this generation to see so many beautiful Asian faces on runways, in magazines, billboards, and in movies. Not to be trite, but representation matters and support of each other is critical to our advancement and acceptance of AAPI talent in fashion and in general. I would never be where I am without the positive examples and the support from the people who saw me for my merits and the quality of my work and character.

Hyunji Shin & Yoon Young Bae backstage at Dior | Courtesy of Michelle Lee

What would you say has gotten you to this point of success in your career, and how have you been able to work with collaborators and retain clients like Altuzarra, Dior, and Sacai over the years?
I have been super fortunate to have worked with the most talented people in the industry and with many for long-standing collaborations. Of course, luck is not what gave my career and working relationships longevity. I worked and still do work very hard, with skill and with lots of heart. But I am so grateful for all of the opportunities I had and have, and collaborating with creative geniuses over decades only emboldened my level of creativity.

I know you just returned from South Korea working with Maria Grazia Chiuri for the pre-fall Dior show. How was that?
I have had many incredible moments in my career but casting the Dior Show in Seoul was probably one of the most meaningful. It felt like I worked all these years to prove to my family that I did not make a mistake by not becoming a lawyer, and this show was that moment of proof! Being able to cast a Dior show in Korea with primarily Korean models and with my mother in the audience filled me with such indescribable pride and joy. Not to mention, I got to cast the show with the help of my good friend and casting director Edward Kim, who is also Korean American. It was a whole bring it home moment for us in our Motherland! I’m not crying, you’re crying!

What type of preparation is needed ahead of fashion month?
Lots of meditation, self-care, and cuddles with my Korean K9-Rescue dog, Chunk.

Thank you for your poignant share last year in our piece on the rise of Anti-Asian violence. You spoke on how this violence has significantly increased and about racist encounters you’ve experienced while working twice as hard as your white peers. What advice would you give to up and coming Asian creatives and other people of color looking to join this industry
Don’t let the noise, negativity, and inequality affect the quality of your work, and the heart you put into it. But don’t get me wrong, that does not mean putting your head down and accepting unfair treatment. In the face of this business and world that can be savage, we must stay empowered with integrity. Never give anyone the chance to say you didn’t deserve all the good things for which you worked so hard.

You don’t post that much of yourself on social media. We were happy to even get this personal image of you and Chunk. It’s the same for me… can you expound why you think it is so for you?
Saying that I find it difficult to promote myself is an understatement. I can get into the whole psychology of growing up as a Korean American and being chastised for being different, and consequently not thinking I’m good enough, pretty enough, tall enough, American enough, or articulate enough but I won’t. My first inclination was to decline to do this Models.com piece, no interviews, no pictures, please. But given that I’m faced with the threat of AAPI hate every time I walk out the door, armed with pepper spray in my hand, I decided to take this opportunity to show love and appreciation for the women who helped shape me into who I am today, as well as give some props and love to myself and my accomplishments. The AAPI community needs to love ourselves and each other, especially in this climate of hate.

Courtesy of Michelle Lee

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