Hi Zuki! Tell us about yourself! You have such a unique look. Where are you from?
I was born in Tokyo. My dad is Japanese, my Mom Peruvian, which makes me half Peruvian, half Japanese. After my mom finished school, she flew to Tokyo to start working in a telecommunication company. I don’t know how she really met my biological dad because she never talked about it but I know that they had a tough love. That’s how I would describe it from all the stories I’ve heard: passionate, romantic but also very difficult. They broke up when they found out that my mom was pregnant with me as pre-marital sex wasn’t the proper Japanese way. My mom wasn’t engaged or anything and my dad, who was very much a ‚Mommy’s Boy‘ wanted an abortion. My mother refused. She said she would rather be a single mom and promptly broke up with my biological father. She continued on with her life until she had me and a year after I was born, she met my Austrian stepdad, who had been working in Japan for three years. They fell in love and then, from the beginning on, my stepdad completely accepted me as his own and adopted me in 2004 when he married my mother.
Since the age of three I lived in Austria. I must admit, from what I can remember, it wasn’t easy. Firstly, I had to learn not only the German language but the Austrian dialect – and in my house, they spoke Hochdeutsch. I didn’t belong with the other kids. They would bully me not only for my tan skin tone but also for being the weird kid who didn’t speak in a dialect. It was hard to make friends in that little town where I grew up.
Were you bullied? How did that experience affect your modeling work?
In the summer, when I used to wear t-shirts and shorts, the kids would pull my arm hair and call me a monkey since I didn’t have blonde hair. Everyone thought I was ugly because I didn’t look like them. I had black hair and I didn’t have pale skin. Even I thought I was ugly as a child and desperately wanted to be like the barbie dolls I played with. The thing is, as a child, you want to fit in. Some people want to stand out but I wanted to fit in. I wanted to feel normal.
It does have correlleation, I think, that I model now. It’s a big FUCK YOU to anyone who bullied me and didn’t believe in me. To my younger self: you can do it even if you don’t look like a barbie doll or like anyone else. I don’t look Japanese, I don’t look Peruvian and I certainly don’t look Austrian.
That’s very inspiring! What happened next?
Then there was Jonathan, a German kid with blonde hair, green eyes. We bonded over our Hochdeutsch and decided to go to the same middleschool together when it was time to graduate the Volksschule. We chose the one that had a theatre program, knowing very little about the school itself. The school was an old monastery. The walls were painted in a crusty pale yellow and the doors were tall, wooden doors that opened and closed with a bang. You could hear the teachers walking to the classroom on robust stone tiles that formed the floor. Outside there were gardens, there was a pond and a swimming pool.
In our lunchbreaks, we would walk outside and have lunch with our friends. We would go out on dates in the gardens and kissed each other there, hid behind the bushes and made out with whichever classmate you were dating at the time. Jonathan asked me to be his date to prom in the gardens. We went as friends, yet, this moment remains as one of my sweetest memories.
I had Latin, French, Italian, English and Spanish classes. The worst teacher was my first geography teacher who called me a bitch in front of the whole class. She would insist on playing a game that she made up called the Circle of Truth, in which she would dish out insults to all the kids and get offended whenever someone said something to her. But according to the teachers at that school, the most important subject was religion.
We had religion twice or three times a week. In the morning we prayed. Before lunch we prayed. Before leaving school we prayed. Religion class was tolerable until the pastor stopped teaching us and we started having lessons with a female religion teacher, who told us about how sacred viriginity was and how proud she was of her own innocence and how premarital sex will get us to hell. Once we had a discussion about abortion and I was pro-choice. After that discussion, I never got an A in that class again.
„Why are you so outspoken? What is wrong with you?“
I learned really quickly to keep my mouth shut. I couldn’t sacrifice my future and my grades for my opinions. That school diminished my personality a bit.
I felt out of control with my life. I developed anorexia.
The modeling world is often connected to eating disorders. Was there a connection for you?
As a child, I’ve always wanted to be a model. I was very inspired by Victoria’s Secret, Germany’s Next Top Model and Kate Moss. When my doctor told me that I would be 170-175 cm tall, I thought to myself, I can fulfill my dream of being a model. In every picture I had as a kid, I would always be doing some weird pose in my kiddy high heels. However, when I realized that I wasn’t growing any taller and that I was the shortest kid in class, I lost hope. I really lost hope.
It wasn’t in my mind for years until I developed anorexia with the mindset that „I might not be tall but I can always be skinny.“
One day I came home from Vienna after hanging out with a friend. My mother always asked me what I ate, what foods I tried? Food was her passion. I didn’t say anything because – obviously. My friend told her: „Deine Tochter ernährt sich von Luft und Liebe.“ Then my mother gave me an apple, wanted me to eat it. I said no. We had a big fucking fight over that stupid apple. Three hours I stood with my mom in that kitchen, refusing to consume the fruit. She told me that I was not to leave this spot until I ate that apple. I finally took two bites out of it. She looked me in the eyes and said, „Okay. I give up.“ I went to my room and cried. No, actually, I was so emotionally numb at the time so I didn’t cry. I checked myself in the mirror and I took pictures like always and then sat there, looking at the pictures, comparing. Usually, my head would be in the pictures but this time I didn’t have my head in. I realized, if that were someone else, that wouldn’t look good. That looks sick. That looks unhealthy. A little thing clicked in my mind. It wasn’t fully over yet but that was the first step to realizing I can’t go on like this.
What did you do?
I had to leave. It was pretty severe but that’s why I couldn’t stay there. I told myself that I had to push myself out of that situation because otherwise I would have died probably. I really had to go through it by myself. I didn’t have any help. I left for the States in 2019. I visited a school of 2.5k people in a new city where no one knew me and I felt free. I finally had a new beginning and felt like this is me. Whether people like me or not, I don’t give a fuck. Either they vibe with me or not. There’s no inbetween. Everything up to me.
In America, that’s when I decided that I can be a model. I am who I am and I can’t change that. I started using Instagram as an outlet where I had my own little different personality where I was confident. I wanted to be seen. Perhaps it was provocative for other people, I guess, but I didn’t care. I started attracting different people with different types of attitudes. I stopped making excuses for myself and I stopped the pity party. If I fail, I fail and if I don’t, that’s great. I gave it a 100% and that reflected.
When I scouted you, you were currently living in Tokyo. How did that come about?
Back in Austria a year later during the pandemic, I was watching the news with my parents. I usually never watch the news but I was frustrated and felt isolated and confused in Austria while my American ex was chilling on a beach in California. I was scrolling on the phone, sitting next to my parents, when a voice from the TV caught my attention. The news reporter was saying that Japan was opening its gates for Japanese people but not for foreigners. I lit up. Again, something clicked. I turned to my mom. She called her friend, who was working for a modeling agency in Tokyo and after a few emails, I was on a flight to Japan. When I stepped out of the plane, I knew that I was home. The air was different, the smell was different, the energy was different. Even though Tokyo is this humongous city with tons of people, the air felt fresh, full of joy, and a humid, warm breeze wafted into my face. After the cold Austrian February air, Tokyo smelled like sunshine.
That sounds beautiful! What happened next?
They put me into the quarantine hotel. I have to laugh, it was horrible. I had a window that I couldn’t even look out of. I was in prison. For three whole days, I stared at the wall, unable to leave the hotel apartment. Food was delivered to my doorstep. When the food arrived, there would be a beep and only then I could open the door, otherwise an alarm would go off. After my quarantine hotel stay, I had to stay with my grandparents in isolation for 14 more days. The Japanese would track your phone and call you everyday to check if you’re home. If you didn’t pick up your phone, a security guy would come to your door and check if you’re still there. But I was with family and that made me really happy.
After these fourteen days, I was so ready to leave and explore the city. I love Tokyo. I love how you can walk around and no one judges you. You see so many different people dressed in so many different ways. No one cares if you wear a skirt as a boy or a crop top that exposes your belly button. I mean, the old Japanese town people, okay. But in Tokyo, you’re free. You’re free to be whoever you want to be. Nobody would look at you in a weird way. And nobody would care. Coming from a small town in Austria, everyone knows who you are and judges you constantly. In Tokyo you’re unknown. Which, I think, is freeing.
Cool! So, what happened with your modeling career?
I contacted the modeling agency, went there and was super nervous. I was wearing a tight black top and my Dad’s comfy jeans from the 80s, which I got tailored so that they would fit me. I also brought six different outfits with me since I wasn’t sure what sort of outfit they would shoot me in. No makeup, just barefaced. Then I saw a model walking out of the agency, face full of makeup in a tiny little skirt and an embellished top and I freaked out. I hurried to the bathroom, put on a bit of mascara. They took my polaroids, my measurements and that was it. I was free to go.
Even for Asian standards, I was a bit short with my 155 cm but I told them about my height before I came to Japan so it was fine. But I definitely noticed it with the jobs that I was still… not… perfect… Let’s put it that way.
I can’t really talk about jobs but I can tell you about rejections. It was always several selection rounds. In the first round, you would take a recent picture of yourself and send it to the casting people. When I got into the second round, I was often asked if I were Japanese and I would say, yes. I’m biracial: half Japanese, half Peruvian. They would tell me I’m neither Japanese nor European enough for their standards since in Japan, the European-looking types, the blonde, bluehaired eyes, curly or red hair is very popular. If you’re Japanese, you have to be really Japanese: long hair, V-line Jawline, cutsey looking thing. I’m not. I have bonestructure and a sharp, androgynous face. I was too European for Japanese standards and too Japanese for European standards.
That was harsh for me. I had sent them the pictures. They knew what I looked like. Then, in person, the people at the casting would just say no.
„We don’t know what you are. What race do you belong to?“
And I would be like, okay, thank you. I’m multi-cultural. I love it. I’m finally really happy with myself. I don’t fit in. And that’s okay.
Then something really exciting happened. After I booked a job, I decided to get my own apartment in Tokyo. My very first apartment! My grandparents live in Tokyo but not very central, so I couldn’t spontaneously go to a casting at ten if I got booked at eight in the morning. When I got my apartment key, I was euphoric. It was too expensive for what it was but I was so happy.
Japanese apartments are known for being on the small side. Tell us about yours!
My apartment was tiny, as big as my current bedroom. It was 15 sqm: one room. When I entered it, a tiny table on the left side. On this table there was one portable stove and a sink. And on the right side, there was a door for the toilet, a sink and a shower next to it. Behind the shower, there was this little closet are with one Ikea rack and one tiny bed and a desk on the opposite side of the bed and a window and that was it. I stepped into the room and could see the whole apartment.
It wasn’t a pretty apartment but it was situated in Meguro, which is very pretty. Meguro consists of a long street with restaurants and a beautiful river. It was springtime so I experienced the golden week, which is when the Sakura cherry blossoms would bloom for seven days until they die off. During the pandemic, it was just us Japanese. No foreigners, no tourists. We walked on the riverside and looked at the cherry blossoms. Some people were strolling with portable plastic champagne cups and strawberries. It was very romantic: all those pink white flowers, couples interlocking arms, families having picnics.
But my apartment was really expensive. The pandemic caused Japan to start closing things down again. There were less and less modeling jobs and none of the jobs fit my type. Money kept trickling down the drain but I decided to stick around and see what would happen.
Why did you return to Austria, where you live now?
I tried making friends. And I made some friends. Then, one of the friends invited me to a restaurant. He was an older man but I was fine with that as I befriended older people all the time. At 5 pm, we had dinner. I went to the bathroom as I had to pee and we had been drinking. When I got back to the table, I took another sip of my red wine and that was the last thing I remembered. I woke up on his bed, in his apartment, stark naked. I was scared. Confused. There wasn’t anyone in the room. I grabbed my stuff, put on my underwear and my dress as fast as I could. Looking around, I searched for the exit and as I ran towards it, I saw him. He was sitting on the couch and had this really disgusting smirk on his face. His tiny dog was barking at me. I was leaving and crying. Ran down, got into a taxi and was crying all the way back to my apartment. It was a long drive. Even in a safe city, there are creepy people. People that do things that are not okay. I think you always grow from it. Being raped. Feeling so alone. Things closing down again. Missing the family. Being in this dark little apartment wasn’t good for me. I had to tell my parents the reason why I wanted to come home again. They were like, take the next plane home.
Oh my god, I am so sorry.
I decide that if I leave Tokyo, I’m going to make it a blast. I’ll make it great, I’ll make great memories of it. If I would have stayed at home during that last week in Tokyo, it would have caused my favorite country in the world to be a bad memory for me so I couldn’t do that. I went to the island Okinawa and stayed at Hilton hotels, where my cousins were working, for free. I explored the whole island and would switch hotels every two days. I laid in the sunshine every day for a week. Before that or during that time, I actually got into contact with Enfant Terrible Society, which was another great reason to come back to Austria. Because Enfant Terrible Society was the first agency that accepted me a 100% as I am. Being petite, whatever race I am. So I enjoyed my last week in Japan, spent time with my family and finally said goodbye to my country. And I dyed my hair blonde. That was the last thing I did in Japan. Dyed my hair blonde. I came back as a blonde girl, wearing literally nothing but this designer shirt from Myob-Cycle (very streetwear, very cool), coming back looking like a totally different person.
And here we are, now.
I got back from Tokyo, stronger, braver, kinder and determined. I was ready to start a new chapter of my life. I don’t have any regrets but I would tell myself: don’t give a fuck. Push through it. Everything will make sense at the end.
Thank you for sharing so honestly with us.
Rena Zuki Aumueller – www.instagram.com/callmezuki/