'Today's models are spoilt'

She belonged to the glorious heyday of globetrotting Singaporean models such as Hanis Hussey and Nora Ariffin in the 1980s, but former supermodel Pat Kraal says those days are history.

Today's crop of girls are "spoilt", she declares. Most prefer to stay in Singapore and do not actively seek jobs.

"The thought of going alone to a foreign country without your maid following is a bit scary," she says half in jest.

Kraal, now 51, should know. She left for Paris alone at 19 and scored modelling stints with luxury brands such as Givenchy, Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, Pierre Cardin and Jean Louis Scherrer.

"It was freezing, plus there were the language and cultural differences. The biggest challenge was not being able to speak French."

Still, she recommends that every model try her luck in Europe. "You don't wait at home for your booker to get you the job and ask, 'Oh, how much does it pay?'" says Kraal.

In the competitive European modelling scene, wannabe models approach agencies, turn up for jobs on time and develop a portfolio of Polaroids to promote themselves, she explains.

Kraal, still enviably lean, is now a model scout for Global Faces Management. The talent-spotting agency is a subsidiary of modelling firm Carrie Models International Group of Companies.

Based in Paris, she got the job last year when Carrie's managing director Linda Teo asked her to join the new talent-spotting arm of the business.

Kraal promotes about 40 Asian models to work in Europe and the United States.

It has achieved some success: A dozen of her models have found work in fashion capitals such as Paris, Milan and New York.

Kraal, in town as a judge for a model search organised by Jurong Point held yesterday at the mall, has rejoined the workforce after 21 years as a stay-at-home mother in Paris to her four children, aged 13 to 22. She and her French businessman husband are in the midst of settling a divorce.

Unlike the glamour of modelling, Kraal says talent-scouting is a desk-bound job. She selects and sends pictures of models to agencies in Paris, Milan, London and New York, which decide whether to book the models.

The basic requirements of a model are a good complexion and a minimum height of 178cm for women and 187cm for men.

The fashion industry, the 178cm-tall Kraal notes, has changed since her day. Pretty faces are no longer in. Instead, those with "ugly but prominent" features are in demand.

"If the model is Chinese, the agencies like them to be really ethnic-looking, with small, slitty eyes," she explains.

Another difference? Models just do not know how to catwalk any more, she adds.

Compared with the 1980s models who attended catwalk classes - Kraal paid for social etiquette, make-up and catwalk lessons before moving to Paris - designers now ask models to function like "clothes hangers". "They go out all robotic, not moving their face or arms."

But ask her if she would like to rejoin the fashion industry and Kraal demurs, saying she would rather stay behind the scenes. "My glory days as a catwalk model were the best so I want to keep it that way," she says.

A comeback, a la American supermodel Christie Brinkley, 60, who graced the cover of People magazine in a swimsuit in February this year, is not on the cards.

"What for? I didn't do bikini shoots while I was modelling, so I'm not going to do one now."

Kraal, who is of Eurasian-English, Thai, Portuguese and Dutch descent, says she stays youthful thanks to "good genes".

Meanwhile, her 15-year-old daughter, April, has expressed her wish to follow in mum's footsteps - provided she finishes school first, says Kraal.

"Of course I am not going to stop her. Make your money while you can because the lifespan of a model is so short."

Kraal's parents did not share this view when the second of three children - she has an older sister and a younger brother - announced her intention to model.

She had tagged along with a classmate who wanted to model and became interested in the job.

"My parents were very against it. At that time, in the 1980s, being a model was like becoming a prostitute," she explains. Her father, former editor of the New Nation and Sunday Times newspapers and author David Kraal, later relented - and found his daughter her first agency.

Joining the cut-throat world of modelling felt, surprisingly, like walking into a world where she was accepted.

"Growing up in Singapore, where you are as tall as I am, you always feel out of place. Then you join a modelling agency and there are these girls who are tall and skinny too. It was wonderful," she explains.

The industry is well-known for the catty behaviour of models too. She recounts how a model once sprayed hairspray into another's eyes by pretending the canister was not working, all because she was jealous her rival was landing more jobs.

Her first foray to Paris was meant to last just one season. A friend was working there and had asked her to try her luck. Kraal said yes, and her first stop was to see top fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.

Says Kraal: "He liked me and wanted me to start working straight away. There was no looking back after that."

Her stay was extended when her agency felt she was doing well in Paris.

"See lah, go back, go back. Now, stay there permanently," says Kraal, who speaks fluent French, in addition to English, Malay and, of course, Singlish.

She counts working for Givenchy and being introduced to late film icon Audrey Hepburn by him among her proudest moments.

She still keeps in touch with Singapore designer Francis Cheong, but has lost touch with other models from her time.

"Most of us live in different parts of the world now and are busy," she says.

Asked how her life might have turned out if she had not become a model, Kraal says she might have worked as a school teacher.

"But it is very boring: I would probably have gotten married, had kids, got fat and stayed at home, that kind of thing. It would have been a completely different lifestyle."

Strutting down the catwalk in haute couture, as well as the adrenaline rush that comes with it, is what Kraal misses the most about her modelling days. Ageing, however, does not faze her.

"Like an exceptional vintage Bordeaux, I'd like to think I get better with age. The best is yet to come."

This article was published on April 27 in The Straits Times.

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