Liu Wen's career in the fashion industry began modestly: She entered a modeling contest in her hometown in China's Hunan province hoping to win a laptop computer while planning to become a tour guide after college.
She didn't win the contest, but Liu has more than compensated since, having become China's most recognized presence on the catwalks of Paris, Milan and New York.
Her professional debut was in Milan in 2008, and Liu has since modeled in shows for Donna Karan, Alexander McQueen, Chloe, Jason Wu, Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang and Tom Ford, among other designers. She also walked the runway for the Victoria's Secret lingerie show in 2009 and 2010.
Liu is currently ranked sixth on the top 50 list of female models compiled by industry website Models.com, and is the first and, so far, only Asian face for Este Lauder cosmetics.
"Liu Wen is one of the beauties of our time, and she has helped Este Lauder write a new chapter in beauty history," said Aerin Lauder, style and image director for the New York company founded by her grandmother. "We felt that her beauty and style would appeal throughout the world - in her native China and throughout all of Asia as well as the United States, Canada and Europe. She is a global supermodel."
Despite her stunning success, Liu, who now lives in New York, says she never imagined fashion would change her life the way it has.
"It was my mom who pushed me to participate in the modeling contest because she thinks I dress like a tomboy," the amiable supermodel told China Daily. "She simply wants her daughter to be more like a lady."
Liu, interviewed on a beautiful summer afternoon in New York's Central Park, shared stories of her life, work and plans.
When she first came to New York, Liu could barely speak English but has since managed to overcome beginners' barriers to the language.
"Modeling totally changed my life, but it was very difficult when I first started. I had a very blurry concept of modeling. I didn't even know how to walk in high heels," the 24-year-old recalled.
"When I was a teenager, I never imagined that one day I could become a model. After I started, I tried to read a lot of magazines, saw films related to fashion. I still remember distinctly when I was in front of the camera for the first time, I had a very difficult time posing properly. Admittedly, I was very shy. But I see everything as a different form of education and I always try my best to gain more confidence."
Liu, who is signed with the Marilyn agency in New York, melds beauty, confidence and an outgoing personality on the runway. Despite her elegance as a top model, the 5-foot, 10-inch Liu still prefers to forgo the primping when she's not at work.
"I prefer the tomboy style because it makes me feel more comfortable," says Liu, who on this day is wearing a casual top, denim shorts and little makeup. "I always need to wear pretty dresses or evening gowns designed for runway looks, so I like to feel more comfortable and free in my real life."
Supermodels are typically super-busy, and Liu is no exception.
"Modeling is a lot more work than people usually think," she says. "It has always been hectic during fashion weeks because you never know when you can go to sleep or have to wake up.
"For example, there was one time when I was in Paris fora fashion week, then I had a fitting at 4:30 in the morning before another 5 am show. There simply wasn't any sleep. Sometimes it could be four or five shows a day during the intensive fashion weeks."
During fashion's off-seasons, Liu enjoys the convenience of living in New York to indulge her appetite.
"It doesn't even take a split second for me to name some good Chinese restaurants in New York. Grand Sichuan, Chengdu Yinxiang or Cao Tang - famous for their great spicy Sichuan cuisine - are my favorite places," the super-slender model says, a wide smile on her face.
Though New York has become a second home, Liu's love for her hometown, Yongzhou, remains strong. She returns to China twice a year to visit her parents and overcome homesickness.
"I really love New York a lot; since now I have an apartment here, I feel it's my second home now. I have met a lot of great friends here - we go to movies, museums and Broadway shows together. But eventually I will go back to China because deep down in my heart, I want to be closer to my parents."
Liu isn't the only Chinese face to have impressed the world's elite designers. She says that as China's international profile rises and more prestigious fashion designers fuse Eastern and Western elements, more of her peers are gaining opportunities abroad, as she did. Names such as Sui He, Jing Ma, Ming Xi and Sun Feifei have become familiar at fashion shows around the world.
"I'm really happy to see this continue to happen," Liu says. "We have become friends during the fashion weeks. With more of my peers coming to the States, I believe more people will start to appreciate Asian beauty."
Having found success with a number of Western brands, Liu plans to draw on her reputation in the industry to help more Chinese designers reach a broader clientele.
"I'm so proud of my country," she says. "I will do my best to work with more Chinese designers so they can possibly get more recognition internationally in fashion."
Liu has exciting plans in mind once herrunway days are over.
"Things change all the time in the fashion business, but I will stay close to fashion after modeling. I will try to become a stylist, and maybe I'll also try acting."
Since that modeling contest back home, life has changed dramatically for Liu. But, whether in haute couture or denim shorts and little makeup, she's the same person she was four years ago - a young woman who loves to talk, smile and enjoy life.
"You can see my photos appear on magazine covers from time to time, but this doesn't really change a thing in me. I still love Chinese food, ice cream and French fries, and I'm still Liu Wen."