Asia's Next Top Model winner Sheena Liam talks about the contest, the hate mail and her excitement at going to London
Even as a child growing up in Kajang, Selangor Sheena Liam had a way with clothes. So much so that her mother was convinced she would someday be a model.
Last Wednesday, Liam, 22, proved that a mother’s always right by bagging the top prize in the season finale of reality modelling competition “Asia’s Next Top Model” (AsNTM), where she did Malaysia proud by consistently impressing the judges.
Now, she’s all geared up to claim her main prize – a three-month modelling stint in London under Storm Model Management; along with a RM120,000 (Bt1.2 million) cash prize (which she gave her parents), a brand new car (also given to her parents), and a fashion spread in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore and Malaysia (not something she can give her parents).
But it was a tough journey to the top for Liam, more so when everything she did was broadcast to the entire world. Throughout the nearly three-month weekly broadcast, the world bore witness to countless cat fights between the contestants, lots of tears, and all their successes and failures in the various modelling challenges.
“The fighting is real, the emotions are real,” says Liam the day after the finale. “There’s no one coming in saying: ‘Oh, today you have to fight with her’. So, everything was self-initiated.”
With so much at stake, the emotional stress became a common theme throughout the competition. Sure, it made good TV, but as Liam can attest to, it really wasn’t easy to deal with.
“I (had to) psych myself up all the time,” she says.
“When I watch the show on TV, I realise how seriously I took everything and how much pressure I put on myself. If I could do it all over again, I would actually chill out and have some fun.”
The stakes were so high it even got to the judges. According to Liam, two of the judges (she wouldn’t name names) were at each other’s throats during the finale, where they had to choose between Liam and the other two contestants – Filipinas Jodilly Pendre and Katarina Rodriguez.
“You could see how seriously the judges take it. It wasn’t (as simple as): ‘Yeah, we like her, so we’re gonna pick her,’” Liam explained. “They were fighting among themselves over the judging.”
Eventually, of course, Liam was famously (or infamously) announced the winner. The big announcement was slightly bittersweet for Liam, though, as social media was soon flooded with hate messages, ranging from the typical keyboard warrior-type “you’re so ugly you look like a horse”, to more extreme death threats, and claims she only won because producers felt sorry about the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
“I would post a picture of me like, ‘check out my new socks!’, and I’d get like 5,000 comments on how ugly I am,” she says.
“I was expecting a backlash the moment I realised I was in the finals with two Filipina girls,” she confessed. “Filipinos are so passionate and supportive of their own people. I’ve seen it because I follow pageants and I follow sports, so I know how supportive they are.”
Liam is only just getting used to life after AsNTM, having kept a low profile throughout the past 13 weeks the show was airing. But during a recent appearance in Indonesia, guards were needed to keep a horde of fans out.
“There was a little girl there who was so excited to see me, so I went over to say hi, and she just burst into tears. It was so sweet.”
Despite her new-found popularity, Liam comes across as the same girl-next-door.
“For me, the most challenging times and definitely the most draining were the eliminations, You have to stand there for a very long time and you cannot move. It gets easier as the numbers go down, but when there were 16 girls, you’re just like, ‘oh my goodness!’ And after every girl, they’ll reset the lighting and touch up all the judges’ make up.
She attributes her quietness on the set to being filmed around the clock.
“When you’re at home and you have your bad times, you are private. There’s no world judging you. But we were being judged on everything we did. I really tried to keep that in mind and it helped that the Malaysian flag was behind me all the time. It reminded me that I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing an entire country.
She denies, though, that the Malaysian setting for the series gave her any advantage. “The only thing I knew that the other girls didn’t is what the place looks like. And there was no Malaysian judge either, so the accusations, like the rest of the backlash on social media strikes me as being very unfair.
“These days, I’m numb to the comments. There are 5,000 posts on every single picture I upload and while I’m cool with the insults – everyone is entitled to their own opinion – I do get upset by the death threats.”
She’ll soon by flying to London to start her three-month contract with Storm Model Management though is still waiting for the final details to be arranged.
“I really excited. The money and car don’t mean all that much to me but working with a prestigious company like Storm London will be such an experience.”
“Of course, I am worried about being kept on after the three months, particularly because I am petite for a model. I’m tall for a Malaysian, I’m tall in Asia, but when you think about the international market, the girls are much, much taller and really gorgeous girls.
“I can only hope that my modelling career takes off but if it doesn’t, I’ll focus on writing. I just won a short story competition for Reader’s Digest. It (will be out) in April, and it’s a horror fiction story! So when my modelling career is dying down, I’ll still have a (writing) portfolio, I’ll still have a job, I’ll still have plenty of experience.”
Does she have any advice for aspiring models?
“I can only tell them that they are going to be rejected and hear all sorts of bad things. Anyone who wants to be a model has to become really thick-skinned, because it’s an industry that’s based entirely on looks. My advice: listen and learn.”