“America’s Next Top Model” alum Shei Phan is making waves with her provocative pieces on identity and acceptance.
No stranger to the in-between, Phan grew up in Oklahoma with her Irish mother and four brothers but never really “felt Asian.” It wasn’t until Phan started expressing herself through art that she was able to take ownership of her unconventional background and derive power from her multi-racial identity.
“I am Vietnamese, Irish, and Native American. I lived with my mom, so I wasn’t exposed to Vietnamese culture,” Phan says. “When she would make comments about race, I would always say, ‘You don’t get it, you’re white. I’m half Asian.’”
Even so, Phan continues to view Oklahoma as a vital part or herself.
“The mountains inspire me. I tend to gravitate toward vibrant colors that are found in nature. The people are simple, and they stay true to themselves,” she describes. “I want to bring that energy to New York.”
Although Phan’s art is influenced by her family and her evolving perception of self, her journey toward self-love was not without struggle. Phan’s devoted supporters have followed her transition from model to full-time artist and have celebrated her refusal to be pigeonholed or type-cast.
Even though she is no longer represented by a modeling agency, Phan points to her modeling career as a crucial step in learning to appreciate her multi-racial background as a delicate balance instead of a struggle in need of reconciliation.
A self-proclaimed “tomboy at heart,” Phan began her modeling career after competing in a number of beauty pageants: “I’ve always been tall and skinny, so people would always tell me to model. When I was 21, I started working with a photographer in Oklahoma and was later signed to an agency.”
Even with representation, however, Phan experienced the pressure to choose between her Asian and white backgrounds.
“They would tell me, ‘I don’t know where to send you. You don’t look Asian enough,’ or, ‘You look too white.’”
Phan was later chosen to appear on cycle 21 of “America’s Next Top Model” after meeting one of the producers at an event hosted by the reality competition show. Phan, the only Asian American female of the season, appreciated the diversity of her fellow competitors.
“It was cool seeing people transform and bring out their backgrounds, especially in the episode where we took DNA tests,” she shares. “We’re all close still.”
On the other hand, “America’s Next Top Model” exposed Phan to behind-the-scenes aspects of modeling that left a bitter taste in her mouth.
“They’re telling you who to be without giving you a voice. They expect you to be a canvas—not even a canvas, but a clothes hanger,” she says. “The model makes so much happen, yet they receive little to no credit.”
In response, Phan developed techniques to promote body confidence and positivity.
“I’m not one of those models who can eat a cracker a day. I’m like, ‘Can I have pizza, please?’” Phan says. “We need to love our bodies. That’s why I do a lot of nudes because being in the nude is the purest form a person can be. Every woman should do a nude shoot. It’s rewarding to be vulnerable.”
Phan currently pursues freelance modeling, but is lauded for her artwork, with her signature panda leading the way. The inspiration behind this iconic symbol?
“Yin and Yang. Panda was my nickname in New York, since I’m Asian and white. There’s a balance there,” she explains. “I started calling my fans Little Pandas, and Panda Nation came to life. I have amazing supporters, and I do custom pandas, so I turn people into pandas, which I love.”
Panda Nation is so much more than just an artistic movement. To Phan and her Little Pandas, Panda Nation represents inclusivity and self-empowerment. It’s about breaking the rules and owning the misfit status. To Phan, there’s nothing more important than giving a voice to those who never really fit in.
“It’s walking the borderline of insane and sane. Cute and cuddly mixed with bad. We want the best of both worlds.”
Next up in Phan’s world?
“I’m still continuing the Forget Me Not series, I just had my solo show” she says, which is a series of artwork she produces. “With Panda Nation, I do have a project where I will be placing artwork around the city. They’re going to be sculptures of grenades with paintbrushes—an explosion of art around the city.”