interview | tina leung

full look. Valentino

While her career is nestled in the upper echelons of high fashion, Tina Leung, shining in Valentino, just might be the industry’s favourite multi-faceted fashionista. The Hong Kong-bred, New York-based stylist-cum reality tv-star studied performing arts at Bates College, then attended Bristol University, and later cultivated her fashion prowess at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Enamoured of the industry, but dispirited by the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, Tina co-founded House of Slay (2020)— an inclusive space representing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, in addition to underrepresented voices from all walks of life— alongside fellow fashion powerhouses Prabal Gurung, Philip Lim, Laura Kim (of Oscar de la Renta), and Ezra J. Williams.  

The globe-trotting darling of Bling Empire: New York gets candid with Schön! and shares everything but her Dorito-shelled tacos with readers as she divulges dreams of becoming a fast food spokesperson, her long list of non-luxurious loves, overcoming ethnic biases in fashion, and much more. 

Happy Fashion Week, Tina! 

Thank you! I’m about to start hair and makeup for all the shows today. There’s Collina Estrada, Prabal Gurung, and Rodarte. Quite a few things today. How are you doing? 

I’m doing well, thank you. I’m excited to be speaking with you on Day 1 of NY Fashion Week— this is totally your element! 

Last night was just the beginning, but I already feel exhausted! I did three things [events] back to back and then my friend was also visiting, so we had a nightcap. You’re my first thing today, so that’s good. 

Thanks, Tina! What shows are you most excited to see during this New York Fashion Week? 

All of my friends’ shows — Prabal Gurung, which is tonight. I’m excited for Rodarte; I’m a huge fan of Rodarte. Also, Collina Estrada. I just love all the different talents here, as well as the different aesthetics. Everything is so different from each other and singular in its aesthetic, so it’s going to make for a very interesting week. 

It sure is. Now, you’re clearly a fashion girl and quite influential. Note, I didn’t say “influencer”, I said influential—

Oh, you know! [Laughter]. 

Of course! So, what are some things outside of fashion that bring you equal fulfillment— if not more fulfillment—with fashion, like something that’s not luxury-related?  

I love snacks and I love food. I just ordered Taco Bell so after I’m done on this call with you, I’ll have some tacos with the Doritos shell, because I love Doritos… nacho cheese or ranch flavour. I always eat it at the airport. Maybe it’s a habit, but now I always have to have nacho cheese or the ranch flavour of Doritos on the plane or at the airport when I pass through. I love playing video games like Nintendo DS, and just spending time with friends and watching movies. I haven’t watched a movie in the cinema in a long long time. I also love knitting, but only during the winter.

Not luxury? I think that would be the snacks. I also love to horseback ride when there are opportunities to but now I’m so out of practice and my jumps are like these little things with the paws barely off the ground. When I learned how to scuba dive I got so into it that I got my advanced diving degree. 

Do you have an advanced diving degree in scuba diving?! Where did you go scuba-diving?   

Yes! So the very first time we learned in the pool in Mexico— my ex and I. Then, from the pool we graduated to the shallow part of the ocean and then I got my advanced PADI in the Maldives. I used to live in Hong Kong and the Maldives is five hours away from Hong Kong. With the PADI degree, you also get to choose what specificity. I chose photography. They taught the basics of how to take photos underwater, but there was also boat diving where you go and specifically look at sunken ships. That scared me, so I’ve never done that. 

Looking at sunken ships, underwater, does sound scary. I mean, people were on those ships when they sunk! 

Maybe the ships disembarked. Not specifically the ships that sunk with people on them… It’s kind of like when archeologists go to look at old things. 

full look. Valentino
full look. Valentino

Is this among the things that are not luxuries that bring you joy? 

No. [Laughter] TV brings me joy. I have to watch an episode of something before I go to bed.  

What did you watch last night before going to bed?  

Last night, I started watching You. The new season premiered and he’s in London this time. I tried to only watch one but, in the end, I watched two. So, I didn’t go to bed till maybe four [am]. 

You watched You before you went to bed? Wasn’t that scary? 

It wasn’t that scary. Actually… I don’t want to spoil anything. You have to really have the self-discipline to stop after one episode. 

A few moments ago, you were talking about snacking and how much you enjoy it. I’m curious if you ever cook at home? 

I wish! I just ordered lots of instant noodles because I was craving them last night and didn’t have any at home. I ordered from this website called WEEE!. It [the website] has all of these Asian snacks.  

full look. Valentino
full look. Valentino

I’m going to check it out. Before that, let’s talk Bling Empire! Me and my friends all binge-watched it. Side note: on the show, I noticed in your luxurious Paris hotel room, there was a Chicken McNugget carton from McDonald’s in the same frame as gorgeous couture pieces. How are the Chicken McNuggets in Paris? 

Chicken nuggets in Paris are good. In Milan, there’s a Jollibee— there’s a Jollibee here, too — but it’s from the Philippines. It’s Filipino fast food, with fried chicken and sweet spaghetti. I love the hamburger steak—it’s basically the hamburger patty with gravy and rice. It tastes so good, so we eat these things in between shows. Sometimes, when you’re back-to-back with the shows you don’t have time [to sit and eat], so McDonald’s is a perfect fix. 

Of all international cities, which McDonald’s has the best menu options for you? Tina 

Hong Kong, for me— or Tokyo. I’ll say Hong Kong because they had this thing called “shake-shake fries.” It’s just like Furikake powder over fries, but when I buy from the supermarket the Furikake doesn’t stick on the fries as well as the McDonald’s ones have. They have a seaweed flavour and seasonal flavours. They don’t have it here, but my friends ship just the powder to me from Hong Kong in an envelope.  

Tina, you should be the international spokesperson for these brands. I know you’re full-on fashion, but have you considered being a spokesperson for fast food? “Making fast food fashionable” could be the tagline.  

I got a package from McDonald’s for Lunar New Year, and I screamedand sent it to my friends. I’m like, “McDonald’s knows who I am!” They did collaboration with Karen Chang who I found out is someone in the metaverse, so maybe I need to do something in the metaverse in order to get noticed. I would love to do a collab with Panda Express, Jollibee, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell. It’s the worst stuff in terms of health, but so good for your soul. [Laughter]. 

Soul food matters. [Laughter]. Back to fashion though— you’re a founding member of  Slayasians, right?  

Yes. It’s actually called House of Slay because Warner Brothers have Slayasians trademarked already. We are a bunch of slayasians, with a small “s”.  

House of Slay was started in 2020— how has it evolved up to this point?  

There are still meetings weekly and whoever is able to join does so. Phillip has been so good at taking up a bit of our slack because after the pandemic ended, we’re now back to our lives. It’s been a little crazy. This week, we’re not doing anything. Everyone’s busy with their shows. Philip has a presentation tonight, Prabal has their show tonight, so this week is crazy for everyone. We have season two out of the comics, but it’s a little bit different in terms of the artists and the artwork. We have some merchandise — not the limited edition ones with each of our faces on it, which I loved — but all the merchandise that’s been sold, the profits all go to the victims from the shooting in California. 

I love the creation of House of Slay, because it’s necessary and timely, given some of the prejudices in the fashion industry, and other creative industries. You’re well accomplished and recognized in mainstream culture; have you ever experienced any biases—racial or ethnic biases—as an Asian woman in the fashion industry? 

I’m only in mainstream culture recently, if we’re talking about the show. When it comes to me and my peers, I never thought about the racial aspect of things but it is there. I’m sure certain people are chosen for, dare I say, more classical appearances. But I feel pretty lucky to be where I am today. I think we all work very hard and there hasn’t been anything outwardly. I have to say travelling though in Paris or in Milan, I still get racial slurs on the street sometimes. But, in the industry, nothing super in my face unless my brain right now is trying not to remember. I’m feeling pretty lucky, though. Of course, there’s a lot of work to be done. The CFDA awarding us the Social Impact Award is a great first or second step. This is definitely progress. We were very, very grateful and overjoyed to be recognized for what we’re doing. 

full look. Valentino
full look. Valentino

There’s definitely been progress with room for growth. I remember when I was modelling in Milan—roughly seventeen years ago— and the things that used to get said behind the scenes at agencies, in the showrooms, or on a set of fashion shoots… I remember going to castings and the casting director/modelling booker would outright say, “nobody wants to see a black girl in this ad, or on the cover of this magazine.”

They just said that to your face? 

Yeah. It’s funny because when I speak to younger people of this generation— sixteen or seventeen-year-olds—they ask me, “did they still have a job the same day they told you that?” or “why didn’t they get cancelled?” But up until about 10 years ago, people could freely say ethnically offensive things to you in professional settings, with no repercussions, and you just had to get over it. Get back to business.  

We can talk about this for hours because it’s so systemic. 

People don’t even realize it when they’re doing it, so it might even come from a place of genuinely not knowing. 

Sometimes I don’t even know if I’m receiving it, like, “oh, did that just happen?” Growing up in Hong Kong, I didn’t have that. But this is really a question [and topic] for a whole panel for a few hours.  

When you say growing up in Hong Kong you didn’t have this, is this because everyone is the same ethnic identity? 

Yes. It was more of like, “Oh, the Asian girl going out with the white guy type of thing” but not tropes like those. I was actually the more westernized one there. In the workplace when I tried working at this place for two months, the merchandising manager was saying in Chinese to everyone “this ‘bahn gwai lo’ [me] is pretending she doesn’t know how to speak Chinese; no one speaks to her in English. If she doesn’t speak to you in Chinese don’t reply to her.” Bahn gwai Lo meaning: bahn = pretend and gwai lo = foreigner. So there are all sorts of things everywhere. Right?  

That’s ethnic-on-ethnic discrimination. Are there any plans for shooting the next season of Bling Empire with you in it? 

We get a score after 28 days… When is 28 days [from the show’s debut]? February 18 or so? Yes — please spread the word and tell everyone to watch so that it gets picked up for season two. 

I’m definitely going to vote and tell all my friends to do the same because we love bling. For you, someone who is deeply entrenched in fashion, is attending the shows more of fun-filled excitement, or work-ridden anxiety? 

It depends on how much workload I have. I genuinely would not still be going to all these shows and doing all these things if I didn’t have that excitement. I guess it’s a mixture of both; the joy-filled excitement makes up for the work-ridden anxiety.  

Excitement and anxiety aside, what do you hope your legacy will be in such an ever-changing industry as fashion? Or not in fashion, just in general. 

My team knows this: I want to leave this earth making people feel good. To have left a warm feeling. I don’t know what it is, but after this show came out I’ve been getting DMs and messages and emails from people about how my struggles in whatever they’ve seen and my vulnerability has helped them feel seen. When I started getting all those messages… this is my way of making people feel good. Work-wise, I don’t know what it is that I want to leave, but I just want to have left this place better, than worse. 

You’re already doing it. My girlfriends and I watch Bling Empire, and you distinguish yourself from the rest of the cast through the vulnerability that you openly show. What is the most memorable response that you’ve gotten from a fan so far? 

I’m not going to specify one, but really just all of them that have reached out sharing their pains and their struggles with me and feeling like things are going to be okay by looking at me. I want to reassure everyone that things are going to be okay. Obviously, the lows are given to us so that we can realize the highs and we’re put in these physical bodies to feel the pain and feel the happiness. I don’t know if you believe in past lives, but I do. So, in our next life, we’re able to get a little bit further and closer to our highest spiritual self.

full look. Valentino
full look. Valentino

Bling Empire: New York is streaming now on Netflix. Follow Tina Leung’s House Of Slay on Instagram.

photography. Celeste Sloman
fashion. Nicolas Eftexias
talent. Tina Leung wearing Valentino
hair. Mitchell Ramazon + Mane Addicts
make up. Juliette Perreux @ The Wall Group using Valentino Beauty
photography assistant. Spyder Sloman
words. Constance Victory

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