The Russel Wong Profile (Part 1)

Russel explains his career

Note: Thank you Warren Hallett of VogueSG for introducing me to Russel. Admittedly I was not the most familiar with his work prior (shame on me); ironically he’s one of the most important people (measured by his impact on popular culture, celebrity and asian representation) I’ve been privileged to chat with. I’ve decided to split this interview into 2 stories. We chatted for ~4 hours.

In Part 1, there are no questions.

When I was 16, my father bought me my first camera when he sent me to US to study. Was a sports fan, knew Nike was co-founded by Bill Bowerman, an ex-coach at University of Oregon, where I studied.

In my first year, Sebastian Coe, now Lord Coe, the President of the World Athletics Federation, then held 4 world records for track. He visited town with a Nike representative signing autographs, etc. I shot portraits of him; my friend suggested I pass them to Nike.

I went down to a Nike store asking for their office. They passed me the contact of the marketing person. I cycled 15km to meet Geoff Hollister, the same man who was with Sebastian. He asked to keep my photos.

Back in Singapore for the summer, Track and Field News magazine in Palo Alto, California called. Nike had passed them my photos, he wanted to use them for their magazine cover. I was 18. I bought a stack of that issue, realised they used another of my photos of Carl Lewis inside.

Nike called me into their warehouse, asked me to pick what I wanted. They wanted me to keep shooting athletes for them. Every six images they used, I’d get to pick another pair of shoes. It lasted 3 years; I’d sometimes get 10 pairs a month. Ended up picking other merchandise, sold them to friends.

Once, my friend passed me GQ. I was struck by double-page, studio-shot Gianni Versace ads. Sports photography was documentary; fashion photography would allow me to create.

The first Versace store out of Milan was in Singapore, at Mandarin (now Mandarin Gallery).

Tina Tan Leo of Link Group schooled with Christiana Cavalli, Gianni’s sister-in-law. She acquired agency to sell in Singapore. I went in to grab a catalogue. Tina, also a model then, introduced herself, asked if I knew her brother, Stanley — he was my primary school classmate.

I went back to school to shoot portraits for athletes’ I’d used to work with, even calendar shoots for sorority girls. But knew I wanted to shoot fashion, researched Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn.

After graduating in 1982, came back to Singapore, started shooting the who’s-who of fashion at a members-only club called My Place, in Hotel Malaysia: Dick Lee, Hanis Hussey, Pat Kraal, etc. Shot my first Her World cover serving National Service.

Shot Ethel Fong’s headshot before she walked Giorgio Armani runway in Milan. She’s the only Singapore girl that has done a major print campaign in Vogue Italia for a major label, Giorgio Armani. This was before AX, Emporio, only black label. She wore a Batik sarong.

Then, supermodels were fearless, they believed in themselves. We don’t groom models anymore. They get foreign girls on two-month contracts, and they’re gone.

Enrolled in ArtCenter of Design College in Pasadena, Los Angeles. After school, test-shot models, actors, musicians. Every weekend, hung out at jazz bars, shot George Benson, Al Jarreau, etc. Contacted publicists, hung out at clubs, shot the Brat Pack (Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy), Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke.

All I did was build my book — always working on my craft, always shooting.

Took a break after year one of school in Milan with friends, stayed 5 months. Wanted to emulate George Holz, who, after graduating, assisted Helmut Newton, and was advised to move and work in Milan.

We lived the fashion lifestyle. For the first time, I saw how fashion was used in everyday. It wasn’t pristine, people wore-out their Armani jeans. Went to every big magazine, never got a job. Got feedback.

My eye honed quickly, I was European-ised. In 2 weeks, I threw away all the pictures I ever took.

Restarted school in Los Angeles. I used my new book to audition for LA Times Magazine, a Sunday supplement. She loved it, booked me for 6 celebrity and fashion spreads. It was my first decent-paying job. My first major spend was on a Selmar Soprano Saxaphone! Shot supermodel Kathy Ireland, a Sports Illustrated cover model, Alexa Singer, south african model with most covers in the world (4 Vogue covers a year).

Went to New York thrice. No one wanted me. Depressing.

Antonio Lopez taught a class in my school, saw my book. He’s the most prolific fashion illustrator. He discovered Jerry Hall, was best friends with Karl Lagerfeld. When Karl started, he was inspired by Antonio.

I told him I’d failed in New York. He got me an interview with Vogue photographer; was offered 4th assistant. But I needed money. The studio manager, Asian-American, said privately I didn’t need the job. He saw something in me.

I’ve never assisted a day in my life.

Returned to Singapore in 1990. Always kept in touch with people back home. Was told it’d be easy for me to work here. Held a huge exhibition of my celebrity portraits at The Hilton to introduce my work. Rented a small studio. My first campaign was for TANGS, then Singapore Airlines account. Came up same time as Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts. Life was good.

Always kept in touch with connections made in LA, New York, Milan, etc. In 1996, met Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh for Supercop launch party in New York. Jackie and his manager invited me to Hong Kong to shoot them. Got my first TIME Magazine cover with Faye Wong (Wong Fei).

I felt like everything I’d done for 16 years prior was in-training for this moment. After, I was known as the TIME cover photographer for all celebrities. I’ve shot 17 TIME covers.

TIME Magazine covers; Courtesy: Russel Wong

They would call when they had new movies. Shot all of Zhang Ziyi’s press, became her mentor/confidant. Taught her how to dress, speak English. Shot Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Gong Li, Chow Yun Fat. Worked with directors Through Ang Lee, Zhang Yi Mou, Takeshi Kaneshiro.

I helped Hong Kong’s biggest celebrities achieve international publicity. I had all the contacts of the big magazines in the west. Till then, they’d only done production photography, in-motion. I convinced them to shoot portraits for magazine covers, 8-page spreads.

I’d tell the celebrities so-and-so magazine wanted their pictures; then, I’d tell the magazines I was the set of so-and-so movie, and that I’d give them first dips of my pictures. It worked. They saw me as not-just a photographer, but sort-of publicist.

I took over after Annie Leibovitz’s contract ended to shoot Peninsula Hotels campaign, “Peninsula Moments”. Then, travelled to Tokyo, shot publicity for Ken Watanabe.

I sell my asian landscape photos at Christie’s. I shoot like asian paintings. I’m working on a book on the life of Geishas.