Cover Feature

Julia Lee: Model and Activist Shares Her Upbringing and What Led Her to Activism

Photo courtesy of Kezi Ban

Model, activist and Philadelphia native, Julia Lee, began her modeling career in her own way before stepping into an activist role for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Lee works alongside talented designers and creators in many projects along the way, including a music video for Puerto Rican artist Myke Towers with over 557 million views.

Lee had an interesting upbringing being half Chinese and half Vietnamese. Lee is a first-generation American whose parents came here for education. For Lee, a traditional career stemming from a college education was the professional path her family always expected her to take. None of them would have imagined modeling as a choice for her. Her Asian culture was prominent inside the home, but on the outside, in high school and other environments, it was very American. Because of her exposure to two vastly different cultures, Lee grew up feeling like she was part of both, but never fully belonged in either.

For Lee, an interest in clothes and fashion was always there.  A relevant part of the Asian community and culture is to get together every Sunday, but Lee never had any kids her own age at church. Her Sunday get-togethers turned into shopping with her mom which served as a “bonding time” and ultimately added to her love of clothes and fashion without thinking modeling could be her profession.

Her nine years of modeling started with something most people do often, walking in a mall.

Lee was asked to try out for Philly Fashion Week and after being chosen along with nine other models, Lee’s mom forbid her from doing the show. “When my mom was my age, she also got asked to be a model,” Lee said. “She always said it’s just not something we approve of.” However, Lee’s curiosity led her to try out for the fashion show again the next year and she was picked once again.

To take matters into her own hands, Lee skipped school and found her own way to Philly to do this fashion show. “I took a bus to Philly, stayed with a friend and walked in the show,” Lee said. “It was really exhilarating and such a rush. I still feel that when I do runway shows now.” Having a creative outlet to express herself allowed Lee to focus on the thrill of the show rather than the nerves that come with it. She took this feeling from playing piano at a young age in front of an audience. A run-in with the agent was the start of Lee’s career, though at the beginning this path was always a family concern.

Her parents were looking for Lee to take the traditional route after school but eventually agreed to find a way to blend modeling with her degree. Besides the runway, a career in modeling also includes marketing, advertising and social media. So she made a general plan to pursue the career.

Along Lee’s journey, she’s experienced some pinch-me moments she would like to relive. A highlight for Lee was being on the cover of Harper’s Bizarre Vietnam, which ended up being shot in Philadelphia, Lee’s hometown city. “It was totally unplanned and for that to happen organically was beautiful. That’s when the best moments creatively happen. When they’re spontaneous and not planned,” Lee said.

Aside from Harper’s Vietnam, Lee says her other pinch-me moment was walking for Haitian designer Jovana Benoit, saying this was her favorite show to walk in. Lee opened the show wearing the same dress Brazilian model Adriana Lima wore for the cover of Numero magazine. For Lee, wearing the same dress as Lima while opening the show was a surreal moment. She was able to lead the way for other models and set the tone through that first song the designer was looking for.

Lee has been in talks with some designers to walk in their shows but for this year’s September New York Fashion Week, she’s looking forward to being on the opposite side. “I’m excited to see the shows because it’s interesting to be on the other side of things, knowing how much chaos happens backstage getting ready for the show,” Lee said. “It’ll be nice to just sit at the show and enjoy it. To take time to look at each piece and at the runway show as an attendee.”

With fall being a significant time for the fashion industry, both attendees and models have lots to look forward to. For Lee, getting reconnected with designers she was able to meet at the Summer Sizzle event held in the British Virgin Islands by Terry Donovan is something she’s looking forward to. “We had a whole night of runway shoes. I’m excited to reconnect and kick off fashion week with them,” Lee said.

For each show, a model will have a different walk according to what the designer envisions. With beachy clothes, a walk could be flowy and with gender-neutral clothes, like Lee experienced with NYC designer LANDEROS, the walk doesn’t require a super feminine touch, and allows streetwear looks to be casual. Lee uses music and cues from the designer to put herself into different characters. “I think that listening to the designers, what they want for the walk, knowing what you’re wearing and kind of channeling that with your core is important when it comes to walking,” Lee said. She goes on to note how garments that don’t fit all too well require a “make it work” mentality. “I’ve had dresses that are a bit too long, so I scrunched them up on the side. You may have to take bigger strides, so the dress doesn’t get caught in your heel speed and pace too.”

Julia Lee, the model, is also Julia Lee, the activist. After a hate crime in April of 2021, she took to social media to speak up and found people were asking how to help after not being informed about what was happening. People started reaching out to Lee to host rallies and events and through these Lee was able to connect with other activists.

After growing up in a culture where it is expected to respect your elders, Lee was appalled after hearing about a grandmother getting assaulted in New York. “I want to be able to speak up for the people who might not be in a position to say something,” Lee said. “I wanted to say hey, what you’re doing isn’t okay and stand up for my community.”

In Lee’s future, she hopes to tell her story more and educate people. She hopes to tell stories that resonate with people and take her modeling into further avenues like acting to produce her own film that shares stories about people who haven’t been heard yet. For Lee, using her platform is allowing her to give the AAPI community a voice and show who they really are.