We’ve all read enough profiles of female celebrities and models to know the formula.
First I, the writer, must notice the surrounds. Perhaps the soft, glinty glamour of a restaurant, or the tranquility of the celebrity’s ranch/villa/Tuscan summer home, or just the ersatz luxury of a hotel suite, interrupted by the anxiety of a publicist, highlighting the off-limits questions before the arrival of said model/actor/reality television star. I may wait ill at ease – aware of the star’s rumoured diva qualities (a cat fight at Cannes, perhaps), or relaxed, depending on how long I’ve had to spend with said publicist.
Then the star in question will arrive and I can notice her “luminous beauty”, her relaxed, “never before seen ease” or her “larger than life presence”, the megawatt smile/mane of blond hair/golden laugh that has made teenage boys/legions of reality television fans/serious acting devotees regard this particular star as “the one to watch out for”.
From there, the star will open up about fame, fickleness, embarrassing fashion moments, her new beau and why she’s swearing off social media to “reconnect with the real.”
You, the reader, will know that I, the writer, was closer to this star than you will ever be and so whatever follows must surely be an intimacy with glory that 99% of the planet can never achieve.
We can offer you none of that here at Peril.
For Aimee Butler, model/actor and one-time Australian Rose of Tralee, and I met online, by virtue of our call for Asians to Watch Out For. I don’t know the trill of her laugh, or if she orders an unusually large cob salad, or even a cheeky glass of rosé. For all we know she might be a teetotaler.
Instead, our exchanges are digital, direct, simple, professional and gently warm: she asks me to consider some images. It’s rare for Peril to receive fashion editorial, indeed our Fashion/Fetish edition featured more writing about image, visuality and critiques of the exotic than it did actual pictures. We might promote the odd sustainable fashion event, and we care about #whatLeeLinwore but in the main we leave the glamour to others.
And yet, like all things Peril, it is bringing things together that make them interesting, challenging, and therefore worthy of our attention. It’s simplistic to merely disregard mainstream culture as low brow fluff, when we know so much high brow happening is at play in our mass culture experiences. Aimee’s approach to Peril arrived almost at the same time as Wesa Chau’s contribution for this edition, One Chai Please. Where One Chai Please takes “traditional” costume as the lauching pad for a multi-racial/multi-ethnic fashion parade, Aimee simply introduces herself as a model of both Asian and Australian heritage, with a career that is focused on both markets as a place of work. Curiously, her folio indicates that she was a winner of the Australian component of Ireland’s prestigious competition, the Rose of Tralee. Together, the contributions take different angles on the insider/outsider notions of racialised beauty, neither necessarily deliberately, but both quietly, obliquely so.
I’m curious. I ask Aimee more.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s in Australia, like so many of my counterparts, I encountered few famous role models of beauty in mainstream media contexts. Pretty girls were white girls when I grew up. In fact, a casting agent once told me in my early teens that I was too ethnic for Australian television, but not quite ethnic enough. The agent then suggested I seemed intelligent and could get another career, rather than being relegated to comedic, overweight ethnic best friend, for these were the only roles I would be cast in. I studied Arts/Law.
Aimee is kind enough to offer some advice and ideas if I’m still considering acting. Part of me wants to take her up on the offer, but you’re safe for the time being.
While things have certainly changed (far more people of colour work in all sectors of the modelling and entertainment industries and there’s always been core work in enacting the exotic), we have a long way to go, and Aimee acknowledges that both the acting and modelling industries need to be more inclusive and welcoming. Although Aimee’s early icons were also Dolly magazine models, “those pretty girls” so rarely from non-white backgrounds, it was fair-trade store, Oxfam, that started her career as a model, attaching her image to one of their coffee blends.
Engaging in two industries that communicate character and narrative through visual types, Aimee is conscious that her racial and ethnic identity – while complex to explain as a Taiwanese-born, Australian-raised individual with family links to Ireland – is read differently in different contexts. In Australia she is read as “Asian” but can be told, “the client thinks you don’t look Chinese enough”. In Asia, her freckles can mark her out – either her look is “very unique” or “ugly”. Yet she is calm and professional about those briefs that fit her look and those that don’t. While there may be more calls for Caucasian models, the competition is greater, even as “ethnic-specific” calls offer few guarantees. She recalls:
At a shoot in Hong Kong, the makeup artist tried to change my eye-shape, until she poked my eye lid and said ‘Oh, you do have a double eye-lid.’ I wanted to burst into tears. Why did they choose me, if they specifically wanted a model with large double eye lids?
The anecdote seems small, and yet I remember #monolidlove, and the complexity and ambiguity of my own understandings of racialised beauty. The way that merely reversing notions of ugliness to beauty will not counter the rhetoric of class and race structures that uphold the dominant norms and stereotypes, and yet it’s killer to get great fa-shun advice from someone with subtle lids who empathises with the grief thinning scissors can cause.
We talk further on stereotypes – an undeniable part of the industries in which she works. She may be typecast as a student sometimes, but blonde, buxom models are typecast as dumb, and Aimee focuses instead on the transportable qualities of her current chosen career: wherever she is in the world, there are modeling opportunities. She admires Sun Fei Fei and would love to model for Shanghai Tang or VOGUE magazine. The collaborative quality of modeling attracts her to Australian photographer, Nicole Bentley, known for her narrative editorial style, or Robert Coburn, whose iconic image of the singer, Frank Sinatra, graced TIME Magazine’s 1998 cover, memorialising the singer’s death.
Aimee has lived in various parts of Australia, including Tasmania, one of Australia’s most regionally dispersed places, and indeed, the state furthest away from Asia: Cape York to the southern-most point of Tasmania is just over 3,000km, more than twice the distance to Timor Leste. She was often the only “ethnic” student in her classes, not encountering other students with Asian backgrounds until high-school and university, and only when she began modelling in Asia did she see models of Asian appearance gracing the covers of world-class magazines. Now, women such as Ziyi Zhang, Rinko Kikuchi and Lucy Liu have widespread recognition and are a part of a slow global shift in the modeling and entertainment industries.
But then back to that rose.
It emerges that Aimee has been awarded medals for Irish Dancing. Her name is also etched on the “Rose Wall of Honour”, Tralee Town Park, County Kerry, Ireland. While she has avoided encouragements to be a part of competitions such as Miss Korea or Miss Chinese International, on the basis that she does not speak any Asian languages, nor does she possess any definable “Asian” talents, she is an Irish speaker (learned) and proud of her family’s Celtic background. She understands herself best as multi-cultural. Australia is her homeland, her place of language and context. Her Irish qualities are expressed in the complex interplay of language, dance and continued cultural expression. Her social values and personal development are influenced by meditation practice, in turn influenced by cultural antecedents in Asia and yet she’s as comfortable with styles of cuisine from all aspects of her upbringing and her experiences working internationally.
All of which emerges just as the rest of our correspondence has: directly, simply, professionally and with gentle warmth. As a reader/younger person, I suffered through years of insipid fashion interviews with models who confirmed and reinforced my own racialised understanding of beauty, worrying about the size of their salads and leaving me with a sense of inferiority relative to their daily wash/tone/moisturise routines.
Instead, I met Aimee Butler – she works as a model and an actor, neither oblivious to the consequences of her race and background upon her career of choice, nor obsessing with the stereotyping, merely forging a professional path of her own. At no point does Aimee push a reductive version of herself as the ideal heterogenous “Australian”, capable of code-switching within her own identities, conscious of the stereotyping and gaze and yet trying to work beyond them. She just comfortably is. She has other places she wants to go with her modeling career, and I wish her the very best. Well may many of our writers and colleagues lament the “sinister Asian” in film tropes, understandably they question notions of acceptable “Asian female sexuality“, I laud them 100% for their thoughtful critique and the bravery of their personal narratives.
And yet I’m grateful for Asians to Watch Out For like Aimee Butler, comfortable with complexity, and all the more beautiful for it.
Photographer and stylist: Candice Carlin
Makeup Artist: Tamsin Nolan
Model: Aimee Butler