This morning’s shower was so cold it practically stung; I’d pushed the faucet so far to the right, I half-expected the water to turn to sleet on its way down. Masochistic as it sounds, freezing myself was actually an act of self-love — a beauty and wellness tip I’d learned from influencer extraordinaire, Vanessa Hong.
“Sometimes it's painful,” Hong had warned me, “especially when you're in a cold place like Copenhagen and you can see your breath.” Regardless of where in the world Hong wakes up — which is constantly in flux for the jetsetter — it’s always with a frigid shower. “It really flushes everything out,” she’d explained. “Instantly you're awake and you just feel like you're ready for the day.”
Hong is an “influencer” in the truest sense of the word, I mused, as ribbons of icy water pummeled my back. Only someone with as much clout in the beauty, fashion, and wellness worlds could convince me to forgo hot water in November. (For what it’s worth, I did feel fantastic post-shower.)
In addition to “influencer” — a term that didn’t even exist when Hong started blogging in 2010 — the 35-year-old is also a model, designer, and, most recently, a podcast host. Hong’s pursuits weren’t always so glitzy, however. The Vancouver native studied pre-med courses in college and graduated with a degree in biochemistry. Despite her pursuits in the sciences, though, fashion always felt like an outlet. Hong didn’t channel her prowess for style into something tangible until a tech-savvy friend suggested she start a blog. “I didn't even know what a blog was at the time,” she tells me, approximately a decade later, over the phone.
Her friend’s suggestion spurred Hong to create one of the first bonafide fashion and lifestyle blogs, The Haute PursuitTM. (When Instagram® arrived, Hong cultivated a following on the platform, too; she has amassed 646K followers.) The site quickly garnered a dedicated fanbase, and what started as a fun project soon snowballed into myriad opportunities. For instance: the night we chatted, she’d been simultaneously readying herself for a party at the Guggenheim hosted by Dior. The fashion house had outfitted Hong in a steely, oversized pantsuit for the occasion; makeup artist Meghan Nguy created a matching smoky eye using the Dior eyeshadow palette in #457 Fascinate. To complete the look: a flash of silvery highlighter from the brand’s Backstage Glow Face Palette and a rusty red lipstick from the Rouge Dior Absolute Matte collection. When I ask Hong whether, as a new blogger, she’d expected The Haute Pursuit to propel her to a life of such exuberant glamour, her answer surprises me. “I had no idea any of this was going to happen,” she admits.
Shortly after Hong launched her site, the burgeoning blogger grew restless. “I grew up in Vancouver, and had been there my whole life,” she says, “I felt like I needed to do something drastic — so I quit my job, I cut off all my hair, and within two weeks, I was in Beijing.” Yet, even overseas, Hong seemed to have an almost clairvoyant understanding of the next big fashion trends. The most notable instance, perhaps, involves faux fur. “In China, it’s very custom for people to have clothes made for them,” Hong explains. And, at the time, she’d wanted a faux fur coat. “So I used my resources and had one made.” Shortly thereafter came a lightbulb moment: her own luxury faux fur line, which the fashionista started in 2015. Her pieces became a must-have for a bevy of fashion insiders and celebrities — including Lady Gaga. Hong’s coats became so desirable, in fact, that she swears they directly inspired other big name fashion houses to follow suit. (Hong recalls one time during New York Fashion WeekTM when a brand debuted coats that were virtually identical.)
Today, the trendsetter resides primarily in New York City. She has abandoned the coat line (“It was extremely expensive — I was funding the entire thing on my own”). And, while she is still deeply entrenched in the fashion world, Hong is expanding her reach; these days, she pours her heart into her podcast, Vanessa Wants to KnowTM. The goal, she says, is to highlight what she calls #AsianExcellence — both through sharing personal, cultural-centric stories, and by interviewing other Asian power players in the beauty and fashion industries.
Below, Hong reflects on why she feels that 2019 was the year she finally embraced her “Asianness,” plus, the exact products she uses to keep her skin glowing and her hair color camera-ready.
Spotlyte: You were one of the first fashion bloggers — what types of difficulties did you face as a pioneer in the space?
Vanessa Hong: I was not tech-savvy at all. I didn't know what Photoshop® was. I didn't know what a digital SLR [single-lense reflex camera] was. I essentially taught myself. I was also working a full-time job while I was blogging full-time. It was a lot, but it paid off really quickly.
Spotlyte: How so?
VH: Within one or two months of me starting my blog, I was cast for a window campaign for Aritzia® in Vancouver. I’d always had dreams of being a model, but back then, if you were not of a certain height, it just was not possible at all.
Spotlyte: How tall are you?
VH: I'm 5'6".
Spotlyte: Do you have a beauty and/or style icon?
VH: I've always loved Tina Chow — I love how she played with androgyny, and how she seemed to have a joy for life. I love looking at old ‘80s photos of her with super short hair and big bushy eyebrows.
Another beauty icon, of course, is my mom. She has always been obsessed with beauty. I remember she had drawers of makeup. My sister and I would always joke that, if there's ever an earthquake, my mom would still make sure she’d leave the house with her eyebrows on.
Spotlyte: Have you always been blonde?
VH: No. I went blonde maybe five years ago. I don't even remember what I looked like as a brunette; I feel very much like myself as a blonde.
Spotlyte: As someone who naturally has dark hair and manages to maintain platinum blonde, what’s your secret?
VH: My colorist, Douglas Cornwall — I just call him 'Dougie' — he’s a wizard with color. I found him through a friend of mine at yoga two years ago after I started developing a bad allergic reaction to bleach.
Something that people don't tell you when you want to be blonde — especially when you're going from such a dark color to such a bright color — is that you could have an [allergic] reaction.
Spotlyte: What happened?
VH: My body would get very hot and I’d get chills.
The worst time, I was in a chair — not with Douglas, this was somebody else — for eight hours . . . which is reprehensible for new color. You should never put anyone under that much stress. I remember my lips went blue, my hands were shaking. I felt like ants were crawling over my body. I had a massive allergic reaction. And after that, I was like, I have to go back to just having dark brown hair again, because I can't live through another [episode] like that.
Spotlyte: That's so scary.
VH: It was so scary.
One of my friends from yoga, another blonde Asian, recommended Douglas. He's worked with Victoria [Hunter] at The Whittemore House® Salon. Douglas is no longer there, but he worked there for years. He uses the Whittemore [powder-based] bleach, which processes super fast.
Spotlyte: Blonde is notorious for turning brassy — which products do you use to maintain your color?
VH: Douglass introduced me to Intelligent Nutrients®. The stuff really works — and it's all organic, and has all of these wonderful accreditations.
I also love Christophe Robin. He has a line of toning [products]. I’ve tried every purple shampoo — the granny ones, the [drugstore] ones — and [his hair mask] is literally the best. No matter how long I leave it on for, it doesn't make my hair purple. It turns it white.
Spotlyte: As far as skincare, do you have a solid routine?
VH: Yes. In the morning I always gua sha. I focus more on my drainage points, like behind my ears and around my clavicle. I also use an all-natural oil face cleanser from PaiTM. Then, because I travel so much, I always spray my face with rose water afterwards — I love the one from Sun Potion®. (Water has different pH everywhere in the world; my facialist has told me that it really messes with the overall landscape of your face.) Then, I use a Korean toner that’s made from fermented flowers. It smells so nice and it actually hydrates my skin.
If you take blood thinners, talk to your doctor before using a gua sha or rolling tool.
Spotlyte: And then?
VH: Moon Juice® has a plumping serum that I love. I'm always a little wary of brands that start pivoting into a completely different direction — but I have to say Amanda [Chantel Bacon] has done such good for beauty products.This serum has reishi [mushroom] and rose water — all this wonderful stuff that literally gives my skin that crazy dewy glow all year round.
If I just need an easy cream, especially now because it's winter, I definitely use the Augustinus BaderTM cream. There are no crazy ingredients in it.
Spotlyte: You mentioned your facialist — do you get facials regularly?
VH: I do. I have three facialists I rotate, depending on who is in the city. My friend Philip Lim introduced me to Joanna Czech. Joanna has been working for 30 years, and she is so generous with her knowledge. Her facial massage technique is amazing. The other wonderful woman I see in the city is Cynthia Rivas. I feel she’s going to be the next big star facialist who will one day get her own [skincare] line. She's super talented and has a lot of cool devices in her office.
[Lastly, I’ll see a woman named] Soo-mi. She's Korean and she does acu-facials, and she makes these calming homemade masks out of Chinese herbs. You won't be able to tell her age from looking at her.
Spotlyte: Are you into lasers or peels?
VH: No, I'm not. I don't have issues with my skin; I’m very lucky. I always do my yoga, and [am] just a generally happy, carefree person.
My mom has been telling me to wear eye cream since I was 12. There is a reason why they say “Asians don't raisin.”
I thought: “Why am I so embarrassed by who I am?” It was just a crazy epiphany moment in my life.
Spotlyte: Do you ever wear a foundation? Or is your skin naturally glowy?
VH: I don't really wear foundation anymore, but if I go to an event, I use a formula that’s as natural as possible. The foundation I've been using for several years is by this brand named SapphoTM. I apply it with a beautyblender®.
Spotlyte: Any other complexion products?
VH: I like to use those pods that double as a lip balm and blush. I love the RMSTM Lip2CheekTM.
Spotlyte: You're always rocking a bold cat-eye. Any tips?
VH: My makeup artist, Meghan Noi, does a crazy cat eye on me. Asian women have very differently-shaped eyes than Caucasian women. [Growing up], I’d always felt I didn’t have the real estate around my eyes to follow the tutorials in Allure® or other magazines.
So, the only [eye makeup] that I could do was an eyeliner. Over years of not really doing anything else, the cat-eye has become very easy for me. I also think I've got the right eyes to do it as well — my eyes are cat-like already — so, I just follow the shape.
Spotlyte: In a recent Instagram post, you reflected on how, as a child, you believed there was only one form of beauty. How has your perception changed — and to what do you owe the shifted perspective?
VH: What a wonderful question. This [perspective shift defined] 2019 for me. Maybe it was on the wings of watching the success of Crazy Rich AsiansTM, and seeing my culture publically championed — and not just made into a punchline. Seeing all of these incredible, super high-profile Asians coming out and telling their stories [inspired me].
Spotlyte: In what ways do you feel like you grappled with your heritage before you came to this realization?
VH: [I struggled with] the complexities of growing up first-generation in a country where I didn't look like everybody else. I grew up in a neighborhood in Vancouver where most people were Caucasian. The only connection I had to my heritage was through my family — and as a kid, as a teenager, and as a young adult, you don't really want to be hanging out with your family that much. So I've had to downplay my Asianness — which is crazy, because I have these eyes and this body. It's hard to hide.
Spotlyte: Do you remember the exact moment you decided to stop downplaying who you are?
VH: When we were brainstorming ideas for the podcast, I thought: “Why am I so embarrassed by who I am?” It was just a crazy epiphany moment in my life.
I thought to myself, I have a platform, and I have a very complicated relationship with Instagram. On one hand, it pays my bills. It connects me to people. There are so many positive things to it. But, something that had been ruminating in my mind for at least three years is, “What am I doing with this following?”
I thought, I have a responsibility. And then came the podcast and my desire to work more with other people who look like me, who can share similar stories. I feel so grateful that I [have this platform]. If my message reaches just one or two people, and can somehow touch them and change their idea of what beautiful is, it's all worth it.