[EXCLUSIVE] CLEO Chats With Asia’s Next Top Model Season 6 Mentor Monika Sta Maria

Printed dress, Moschino; boots, COS

It was a sunny morning, but nothing was sunnier than the atmosphere of our exclusive shoot with Asia’s Next Top Model (AsNTM) Season 3 runner-up Monika Sta Maria. Comfortably ensconced within the four walls of our photographer’s house, Monika looks completely at home as she gets gold glitter applied to her eyelids while the hairstylist gently coaxes her hair into relaxed waves, jumping into the random conversations abound with enthusiasm — a far cry from the “fake, beauty pageant” persona her competitors on the show gave her.

“It was such an experience that it made me really reflect on life,” Monika recalls her time on AsNTM Season 3 with a laugh, “Because I really wanted to win! It really pushed me beyond being comfortable — I was done with trying to control or think of where I thought I should go; I didn’t care anymore. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, go to different countries and just be fearless — because I have nothing to lose.”

It’s no secret that AsNTM is not a walk in the park — no competition is. Of course, the shows (and its franchises) have far deviated from being purely a modelling competition — it is reality TV, after all. The contestants are deprived of anything that would keep them to themselves, cameras are around all the time and of course, drama is in the air. That is enough to plague the strongest of performers, such as Monika who earned consistent praise for her performance on the show. So what made her decide to come back for another round?

“Well, when Season 6 came along and they casted me again, I was initially hesitant and wasn’t sure if I wanted to go through that experience again; it’s very stressful — it’s a difficult competition, but you know what? Not everybody gets a second chance to be on the show again, so I thought — ‘I’m just gonna go and be fearless,’” she explained.

Left: Cropped top, Shawn Er; pleated skirt, H&M; bag, Coach, necklace, Atelier Swarovski by Tabitha Simmons; loafers, COS. Right: Hooded jacket, Love Moschino; pants, COS; tassel earring and kitten heeled boots, both from H&M

At the time of the interview, the half-Malaysian, half-Filipina model could not disclose her upcoming role on Season 6 though, since the show’s premiere on August 22, it was revealed that she would be coming back as a model mentor alongside fellow alumnae Shikin Gomez and Minh Tu.

“Season 6 is going to be so much more interesting, because it’s so different from any of the past Seasons. I can tell you now — there’s so much more drama with the girls,” Monika said with an all-knowing smile, “Everyone has such different personalities — it’s going to be a crazy season.”

The first episode certainly was a teaser to the craziness. Filmed in the vibrant city of Bangkok for the first time, the contestants were met by their mentors and immediately whisked off to their first challenge: a selfie-runway in the middle of the bustling Chatuchak Market. But, as is the industry, that is totally normal — it’s not uncommon for a model to head off for a casting or a job the moment the plane touches down the runway. After all, a model’s got to be fearless to survive in such a dog-eat-dog world, right?

Sleeveless top and pants, Shawn Er; furry sandals, Manolo Blahnik; bangle, Atelier Swarovski by Peter Pilotto

“Being fearless has taken me to New York, which has always been a huge dream of mine since I started modelling — which I stumbled into, by the way,” Monika said. “I was thinking — what is the best in this industry for me? I didn’t care if my hips were too big or not, I just decided to go to New York and visit agencies and say, ‘Yes, this is me. These are my measurements, do you like me or not?’” To her surprise, there were. “And I would have never known, if I had been comfortable in Asia and thinking New York was too far away – now that I believed and just went for it, I could actually make it!”

Her fearlessness certainly paid off. After her first foray into the Big Apple, the 5’8” lass signed with Major Model Management (a major moment indeed for any model) and managed to walk a few shows during New York Fashion Week.

“In New York, they accept everything. I went for castings [for Fashion Week] and there were plus-size models, skinny models, models with straight hair, models with afros and models with all types of skin colour — it’s so beautiful how they accept everyone’s beauty,” she recalled wistfully. “That’s what I loved about my experience in New York; that a freckly-faced girl like me can book beauty campaigns.”

Jumpsuit and coat, both from H&M; necklace, Atelier Swarovski Core Collection

That’s not always been the case up until recently, however. Fortunately, of all the trends that the fashion and beauty industry have chosen to jump on, inclusivity is a huge one that looks like it might stand the test of time. Fashion runways have come a long way from a meagre sprinkling of “colour” among the dominating Caucasians, and it is not uncommon to find beauty brands with, at the bare minimum, 40 shades of skin tone — a much-welcomed change. Of course, despite these amazing changes, Monika keeps a level head.

“The world is changing, definitely. People are becoming more open-minded, but as a model, it just depends on the client’s taste. Everyone has their own taste, so you have to accept it,” she affirmed.

“Fashion, to me, is self-confidence. There are so many trends but at the end of the day, you need to be comfortable and confident in your own skin and how you look.

Staying calm when facing rejection, which is rampart in the modelling and acting industry, doesn’t always come easy. After all, most models join the industry hoping to find a better life, not just for themselves but for their families, and often don’t have a privileged life back home.

It’s hard to imagine staying optimistic in such a competitive industry, but perhaps Monika’s positive outlook on life can be attributed to her activities when she’s not working the runway or a lens. A fitness enthusiast, Monika is an avid cyclist — a hobby she actually picked up during her stay in Malaysia. When she’s not hitting the road on two wheels, she’s either sweating it out with HIIT training or yoga.

Quilted shirt dress, Love Moschino; peep-toe bootie, H&M; earring, Atelier Swarovski Core Collection

“I feel like my personality always wants to keep busy — I don’t feel comfortable not having anything to do.”

Her love for staying active does come with more upkeep, however.

“I really need to apply sun block and moisture my skin a lot. Since my sports is outdoors, I really need to make sure I have sun protection, otherwise I’ll burn — oh, and I also need to put overnight cream so my skin is refreshed in the morning,” she shared.

Of course, the fearless girl does plan on reining it all in… eventually.

“I do wish to earn my Masters in Positive Psychology, so I have something more than just modelling. I used to have a job here in Malaysia, which involved a lot of things, but my favourite part was when I conducted sessions with people to make them envision their goals in life, and give them the tools to get there. I loved seeing their fire burning and being passionate about something and empowering them to reach it,” she said, her own passion visible in her eyes.

“Everything is never easy — you just need to have the right mindset in anything you do to really achieve the best.”

Monika’s exuberance is contagious — even while playing back rough cuts of the videos and sifting through the photos taken on that sunny morning. But more so is her carpe diem attitude. Whatever doubts and hesitation she may have had before, she’s chased away akin to the sun breaking through the clouds. It’s safe to say that the girls she’s mentoring on AsNTM Season 6 are in good hands — much like Monika’s own future in the industry.

Text & Interview Joash Kong Creative Direction & Styling Voon Wei Photography Raisa Azzam Videography Hanny Tan Makeup Pearl Tan Hair Danny See Assisted by Meghan Angelica Paul, Cheryl Lee Special Thanks Monika Sta Maria & Evenstar Management

Watch Monika in her element in our behind-the-scenes video of our shoot, and hear what she had to say about modelling, her past AsNTM experience and how being fearless changed her life: