Jessica Gomes: A Beauty Below the Surface
By Paul Cullum
When this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was unveiled on the Late Show with David Letterman on February 13, cover model Kate Upton, a pert Sunshine State blonde, got all the attention. But it was Jessica Gomes, the Australian brunette who is half Portuguese, half Chinese-Singaporean, also appearing in the issue (her fifth consecutive one—the most for any Australian since record-holder Elle Macpherson, and the most for any Asian model), whom everyone should have been taking note of as well. For Gomes promises to move well beyond her SI success to become one of the standard-bearers for a new East-meets- West aesthetic taking hold in the mega-billion-dollar global beauty industry
The subjective nature of beauty aside, the reasons for shifting perceptions boil down to basic economics. As capital markets migrate, so do our sensibilities about what is attractive, according to Dr. Eva Ritvo, coauthor (with Dr. Debra Luftman) of The Beauty Prescription, which deals with the science of beauty. “We live in a globalized world, so our concept of what’s beautiful is expanding,” says Ritvo. “That’s evolution. What you’re seeing, as [major] capital shifts to different parts of the world, is that what we define as beautiful will shift accordingly.”
Recent history has certainly borne this out. The post-World War II ideal of the California blonde followed the rise of American power. The increased European influence on beauty and fashion in the ’60s and ’70s fell on the heels of the creation of the European Community and its rising prominence in the international economy. Now global capital is on the move once again—to China and the potential four billion-consumer Asian market— and the traditional gatekeepers of style and fashion are on notice. As widely reported by ABC’s Nightline and others, last fall’s Fashion Week runways were overrun with Chinese models, and The New York Times recently put Chinese supermodel Liu Wen on the cover of its T Magazine.
So it’s not surprising that 26-year-old Gomes seems perfectly primed to emerge as a bridge figure between East and West as the style industries grapple with what’s modern now. Diane Smith, senior editor of the SI Swimsuit Issue, points out that Gomes’s timing couldn’t be better. She says with contemporary societies experiencing broad cultural shifts, “there’s a wider acceptance of nontraditional kinds of beauty.”
Smith adds that SI is always in search of “unique kinds of girls” as well as those who “don’t look like typical models with skinny anorexic-looking bodies.” Well, Gomes is certainly all that and more. Smith describes the model as exuding “that kind of Marilyn Monroe appeal: She knows exactly how to use her body, in terms of what works in front of the camera…. You’ve got to be smart to pull that off.”
Gomes won’t go so far as to describe herself as the face of new beauty, but senses her moment has arrived. “In Australia in the last couple of years, I got a lot of Asian girls who came up to me and said, ‘I’m half-this, half-that; I just feel like I can relate to you,’” Gomes says. “So I definitely feel like I’m a pathfinder for these other mixed-blend girls.”
Gomes left behind a semi-rural tomboy childhood on the western coast of Australia at 17 to model in Asia and eventually found her way to New York, whose melting pot of immigrant influences spoke to the racial confusion and cultural diversity—she prefers the term “ethnically ambiguous”—harbored within her. “Perth is the most isolated city in the world, far and away,” she says from her new home in Los Angeles, where she recently relocated. “Not that many people get to leave it. It was very hick, and kids would tease me about being Asian and say horrible things. It made me very shy and insecure. I saw my mother experience that too. I just wanted to fit in and be blonde-haired and blue-eyed so I could get through a day without being called names.”
Gomes says when she first came to America, “I felt so much a part of it. I was meeting so many more people who were like me. I just feel more accepted in places like New York, Miami, and LA. Whereas in Australia, I was the only one.”
Gomes is a veteran of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim in Miami and responds to the city’s beach culture and weather, which recall her childhood in Australia. “I fly to Miami all the time for photo shoots,” she says. “I love the old hotels, the Art Deco buildings and white exteriors. Walking around in your bikini and your sandals, that’s what we do back home in the summer.”
Physically adept and naturally gifted at sports—in netball (a variation of basketball with seven-man teams), gymnastics, and even bowling (she once scored a 272)—Gomes got an early taste of acting at age 10 when she worked as an extra on Bush Patrol, an Australian miniseries filmed in Perth about the magical adventures of a group of students in the bush. That same year, her mother enrolled her in a model academy in Midland, near Perth. “I started modeling and doing little photo shoots and fashion shoots,” she says, locally and then later in Sydney. “I wasn’t really interested in school. Modeling was definitely my escape. When you grow up in the country, where you’re surrounded by your family, you see the same people every day. So it was lonely.” Wishing for a slower-paced environment in which to raise their children (Jessica is the youngest of four), her parents opted out of Sydney for the semirural isolation of Western Australia. (Both her parents emigrated to Australia, her father from Portugal via Paris; Gomes’s Chinese mother was born in Hong Kong but raised in Singapore.) Although Gomes visited Singapore during her childhood, she didn’t meet the European side of her family in northern Portugal until she was grown and a successful model.
And that modeling success came quickly. By 17, her distinct looks had landed her work on the runway, magazines, and eventually TV in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Asian markets. “She is the exotic girl in Asia because of the mixture that she brings,” says Steve Erle, an LA-based mixed-Asian photographer (his father is from Russian parents, and his mother is Korean) who shot her 2009 Sports Illustrated appearance in the Canary Islands. “It makes her somewhat at home in Asia, because she looks Asian, but at the same time she separates herself from the pack because she has the Australian personality, with this non-Asian body— meaning voluptuous, curvy. So she’s kind of unlike anyone else.”
Despite the ties to West and East, Gomes always knew where her bread would be buttered. “I wanted to work,” she says. “People of mixed races are big in Asia. It provides a mystery: What am I, exactly? I wasn’t going to go to Milan or Paris, where I’d just sit around for two months and not work. So I went to the places where my look was in demand. I did tons of TV commercials, cosmetics jobs, and Singapore Fashion Week. And because Asia is so close to Australia, it wasn’t like I was traveling too far.”
In 2004, when she was 20, she signed with the influential IMG Models and relocated to New York, where she appeared in ads for DKNY Jeans, Urban Outfitters, and Enprani Cosmetics (which launched a new lip gloss called Gomes Pink), appeared on the covers of Biba in France, FHM in Portugal and Australia, and Maxim in the US, and in 2008 landed the first of her five Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues.
A major hip-hop fan, she also became something of a mascot for the closeknit A-list East Coast hip-hop community through a combination of serendipity and professional bookings. She starred in a campaign for Jay-Z’s Rocawear clothing line, was the face of Sean Combs’s Unforgivable Sean John fragrance for Estée Lauder, and appeared opposite him in a TV commercial. She inadvertently provided the signature drop on Jay-Z collaborator Rick Ross’s Maybach Music tracks, after she and another model spontaneously recorded a brief promo while hanging out in the studio. Gomes subsequently became the mysterious “Maybach Music Girl,” whose identity was only leaked this past January. She’s even name-checked in Kanye West’s “Christian Dior Denim Flow.”
Gomes has picked up the ball and run with it, initiating quite an empire in Asia based on the strength of her first 2008 Sports Illustrated spread. She appeared in a Korean TV ad for the LG Bikini Phone (in a bikini, naturally), making her a household name there virtually overnight. She performed on the Korean version of Dancing with the Stars (placing third), was featured in music videos, launched her own line of Korean cosmetics, and starred in her own reality series on the English-language network On Style, helpfully titled My Name Is Jessica Gomes. During the second season, the series followed her to New York, in turn raising her profile in fashion circles—she was seated in the front row at a Fashion Week show of Korean designers—and making her something of a cultural ambassador for the pan-Asian diaspora.
Even as Gomes recounts her many successes, she goes out of her way to praise Elle Macpherson, Australia’s most successful supermodel, as well as the iconic China Machado, a Richard Avedon model and muse from the late ’50s, who shares her complex heritage and last year was signed to IMG at age 81.
“China Machado is so fascinating because she’s half Chinese, half Portuguese,” says Gomes. “And she’s someone I look up to because she made changes in the industry and definitely created some waves. Her story is unbelievable: She was Richard Avedon’s muse, she was the first Eurasian model to be on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar [in 1959, and the first non-Caucasian model on the cover of any US fashion magazine]. They didn’t want to put her on the cover, but Avedon said, ‘If you don’t, I won’t shoot for you anymore,’ and they did. She’s gone through some adversity, and I like that. She made a difference in the industry, pushed the boundaries, and created something different and beautiful.” Sounding like those star-struck teenagers in her native Australia, she adds, “I just feel like I relate to her a lot. I want to be like her.”
Since relocating to Los Angeles, Gomes has fallen in with the tight-knit Australian film colony of actors, directors, and fellow models, all of whom, she says, are supportive of one another so far from home. (A friend of the late Heath Ledger from his native Perth, she had lunch with him in New York the day before he died.) Gomes has been regularly going on auditions—and has taken acting lessons at Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York—but she remains tight-lipped about her prospects.
Gomes is just beginning to define her ambition, and while it includes film, she sees herself beyond it, too. “I would love to have my own brand,” she says. “I love to design, create a product, whatever it is. I’m really interested in Korean cosmetics and beauty stuff, and I love having the opportunity to design for Mambo [her line is Mambo Goddess by Jessica Gomes, for the Australian surfwear company Mambo]. I’m really interested in property and property development, real estate. My dad did construction, so I’ve definitely been surrounded by that way of thinking.”
Gomes says that whatever path she chooses, she’ll try to have some fun on the journey. “I really love the whole process of finding something and seeing the future in it,” she says. “That’s what keeps me on my toes—that sense of not knowing what the future holds.”
Photography by Erik Almas; Styling by Nikko Kefalas at u-nikko.com; Stylist’s assistant: Athena Saridakis
Hair by Riad Azar at Opus Beauty using TRESemmé; Makeup by Joanne Gair at joannegair.com using MAC Cosmetics
AG Jeans design director Mark Wiesmayr and stylist Jeanann Williams on denim's cultural footprint.