At her first test shoot in Los Angeles, Tsubasa Watanabe was surprised by the outfit the photographer was asking her to wear: Hanging from the fingers of his outstretched hand was a pair of thong underwear.
“This is the outfit?” she asked.
“Yup,” he answered.
“Ok,” she said. “Let me change.” She walked into the bathroom and gathered her thoughts.
At this point, Watanabe had been modeling for several years in Japan after walking into an agency in Nagoya in high school, so she definitely had runway experience. But belying her striking looks, she’d grown up in rural Japan in a very traditional family and was accustomed to wearing a little more clothing, even on the runways.
She debated calling her agency and wasn’t sure she should do the job. Maybe the photographer was trying to take advantage of her, maybe he thought she wouldn’t say no because she was Japanese. “This is a test,” she told herself.
When she danced her way out of the bathroom in the thong with a smile on her face, the photographer laughed and started taking pictures, which set the atmosphere at ease. “You’re good!” he said.
This was in 2005. Watanabe is now a veteran model with years of experience in New York City: She has in all likelihood walked more seasons outside of Japan than any other Japanese model in history. Her success has been the result of steadfast focus, flexibility within a foreign culture and a refusal to accept setbacks.
Watanabe was born and raised in Shirakawa, a small town of 9,000 nestled between rivers in the Japanese alps of Gifu Prefecture. She played classical piano from the age of 4 until the end of junior high school when she was not accepted into a music high school.
Even then music was a significant part of her life: She discovered J-rock and the Beatles, played in a rock band that covered power pop songs and decorated the walls of her bedroom with punk rock posters. She was somewhat of a tomboy and dressed in goth fashion. All the while, she shot up to nearly 180 centimeters in height, was naturally thin and had large eyes beneath beautifully angled eyebrows.
“My friends in high school were like, ‘Why aren’t you modeling?'” she says, but it just hadn’t occurred to her before.
Little by little, however, the fashion world began to seep into her everyday life, even as isolated as she was. She found the magazine “Mode et Mode” at a small bookstore in town and discovered the striking fashion of Alexander McQueen. When she later saw Betsey Johnson incorporate punk girls into her high fashion runway shows, she remembers thinking, “This is it!”
All she could focus on from that point onward was how to access that world.
After walking into an agency in 2002, Watanabe was soon commuting three hours one way to go to lessons and casting calls in Nagoya. Her teacher, a former model, drilled Watanabe and her classmates for hours on how to walk.
The work paid off, and she was booking jobs in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Osaka and Nagoya. When she finished high school she faced a decision that most rural Japanese graduates would never even consider: Should she move to Tokyo or to Los Angeles?
Despite a contract offer from an agency in Tokyo, Watanabe chose LA because of inspiration from Riff Randell, the Ramones-obsessed female lead of the movie “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”
In Los Angeles, Watanabe heard many Japanese complain about the inconvenience of living in the U.S., but it felt easy to her. “Even going to the supermarket (in Shirakawa) was so far,” she says. “LA to me was convenient.” She managed to get by without a car, relying on public transportation and walking.
A year later she moved to New York and had castings right away, quickly getting set up in her new hometown.
Watanabe purposely set herself apart from others in the Japanese community, not just other models. “I wanted to learn American culture,” she says. “I didn’t want to be an outsider who just follows their career, I wanted to be a local who lives here and has a job. From a certain point, modeling wasn’t my dream. It was just my job.”
Not everything has been easy. Shortly after arriving in New York, she booked a big designer’s show in Bryant Park for fashion week. The fitting the night before took nearly five hours and lasted until midnight, and she was running around the city early the next day for other castings. When she showed up to Bryant Park she posed for street photographers and was congratulated by a Japanese photographer for her newfound success.
However, when she tried to sign in at the venue, her name wasn’t listed. After some confusion, she discovered that they’d overbooked and she wasn’t needed. Dejected, Watanabe walked out past the street photographers and went home, crying the whole way.
Watanabe also misses Japan, mostly her family, the nature she was surrounded by and Shinto traditions. Her parents, both very traditional, haven’t visited her in the U.S., but they did sign up for the cable channel WOWOW when she was featured as one of the models in the second season of “Project Runway All Stars”; she’ll reprise this role for the sixth season later this year. Watanabe makes the trip home once a year or so, and she’s married an American and since made her home in New York.
The Bryant Park incident was the first and last time Watanabe let herself cry because of modeling. The setback eventually helped her learn to stay level and not take things too seriously.
Sixty percent of her work is runway-related, and the rest is e-commerce and fashion editorials. However, the runway is what really motivates her. “Of course, we walk the runway to show the clothes, but to me it’s a performance,” she says. “When I hear the beats backstage right before the show starts, that’s when I come alive.”
Her work has given her the freedom to pursue her passion for music in her free time, but she has settled down a little from her punk days and is working on soundtrack projects.
Watanabe used to dream at night of being back at her home in Gifu with her family. Her New York dreams were nightmares in which she was lost, wandering the unfamiliar city. “Recently I had a dream that I was in my apartment in New York,” she says. “This means a lot to me.”
Name: Tsubasa Watanabe
Hometown: Shirakawa, Gifu
Key moments in career:
2002 — Begins modeling in Nagoya
2004 — Moves to LA
2006 — Moves to New York
2012 — Appears in the second season of “Project Runway All Stars”
Words to live by: “Single-minded focus”
Things you miss about Japan: Nature, Shinto
Strengths: Can sense good and bad energy, avoid people with bad energy