Interview: Zhang Zilin

With three beauty pageant titles and four acting credits to her name and a loving husband by her side, Zhang Zilin appears to have it all. But it hasn't always been this way. The aspiring screen idol tells us about her transformation from sports-mad ugly duckling to Miss World — and missing her chance with Chow Yun-fat

At an imposing 182cm (five-foot-11), Zhang Zilin must constantly feel like she is in a room of midgets. “Oh, it runs in the family!” exclaims the beauty queen-turned-actress flashing her million-dollar smile, as if to reassure me that her towering height is ‘no accident’. She does lament later, however, that it restricted her choice of suitors.

Eloquent and elegant in a wardrobe from the Max Mara Elegante collection, the former model and Miss World is also, as we discover during the course of a four-hour shoot at the Shatin racecourse, exceptionally nice. She requests that we give due credit to Jock, the grey stallion she shares our cover with. Although not a horse rider herself, she is looking forward to spending the day at the Hong Kong races as ambassador of the Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse (which took place November 3).

Hailing from a well-to-do family – her father was a top-ranking Chinese general, her mother a university professor – the 29-year-old is nostalgic when speaking of her sports-filled childhood in Beijing. Gifted with a tall, slim frame, Zhang's athletic abilities were discovered at the tender age of eight. “The 100-metre hurdles and triple jump were my forte,” she says with a glimmer of past thrills and pride in her eyes. She hurdled her way through school competitions. Clinching gold at the citywide high school track and field competition was a highlight. Becoming a professional athlete was far from her mind, however: “I knew I wasn’t good enough for something like the Olympics.”

Instead she pursued business administration at the Beijing University of Science and Technology. “I sort of jumped into it after high school,” she says, pun perhaps intended. “Looking back, my university days seems more of a phase, allowing my transformation from a sports-loving girl to what I am today.”

Zhang admits to suffering from ugly duckling syndrome in high school. “I had short hair and braces, was horribly dark – oh, and not to mention all the pimples! I looked and acted like a boy. Nobody complimented me on being beautiful.” A boy did confess his crush once, but thinking that he was only “fooling around” the gawky teenager flung his rose back at him and stormed away. “I don’t know why I did that. I just remember being infuriated,” she recalls with a smile.   

As a beauty contestant you tend to focus only on physical appearance. Being in a room full of girls with golden locks and porcelain-white skin – I really felt quite ordinary!

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It was at university that the swan-like Zhang emerged. She entered a modelling competition during her first year and then signed with an agency. “To be honest, I was only doing it half-heartedly,” she reveals. “School was busy enough!” But goaded by a close circle of stylists and photographers, she took a leap of faith and entered the Beijing Beauty Contest in 2005. From there she went on to clinch Miss China and Miss World in 2007.

Once shunned by conservatives and feminists, the last few years have seen a sudden surge in the popularity of beauty pageants in China. A trend no doubt propelled by Zhang’s captivating Miss World win at Sanya six years ago. When asked of her speedy ascent to fame, the leggy beauty puts on a defensive stance. “People think I lead a very glamorous life, being surrounded by beautiful clothes and people and all, but away from work I’m a very ordinary person,” she grins.

Her post-beauty queen life has been far from ordinary, however. Based in London, a city she grew to adore, Zhang travelled the world in 2008 to fulfil her duties as charity ambassador for the Miss World organisation. She reminisces about a 24-hour telethon in the US that raised a total of US$3.4 million. She also witnessed many tear-jerking moments at a children’s Aids centre in South America. “Sometimes it’s not just about monetary donation; a lot of these kids just need somebody to visit and talk to them,” she shares. “It’s important to bear in mind that you have to talk to them as an equal, not as a saviour.”

Zhang still gets invited back to judge the yearly pageant. “You look at beauty a tad differently when you’re a judge,” she muses. “As a contestant you tend to focus only on physical appearance. Being in a room full of girls with golden locks and porcelain-white skin – I really felt quite ordinary! As a judge, you have to take many things into account. It’s no longer about picking the girl with the best looks.”

A lot of these kids (at charity-run centers) just need somebody to visit and talk to them,” she shares. “It’s important to bear in mind that you have to talk to them as an equal, not as a saviour.

Leaving her modeling and beauty pageant days behind, Zhang is making a foray into the movie industry.  In The Monkey King, coming soon to Hong Kong cinemas, she plays the celestial NuWa who, as legend has it, patched a hole in the sky with smelted stones. Hong Kong director Cheang Pou-soi assembled a star-studded cast for the film, led by Donnie Yen in the tile role, Aaron Kwok and Chow Yun-fat, but Zhang reveals that she didn’t see any of her illustrious co-stars on set. “I pretty much acted on my own.” Her only regret? Missing the opportunity to act with her idol Chow Yun-fat, who plays the Jade emperor in the 3D fantasy action flick. “There is a scene in which Chow and I appear together, but they filmed us separately, so I had to pretend that some flying rock was him,” she says sadly.

She pored over books and comics to get into character. “The most challenging aspect of my role was that nobody knew what she looked like,” she says. All that flying around also proved to be physically taxing. “I had to do quite a bit of wire work. Fortunately, I had years of track training.”

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The Monkey King is not Zhang’s first movie outing. Her first was as the doomed wife of a retired Chinese soldier, played by fellow mainland actor Liu Ye, in dark cop drama He-Man (2011).  She also had a cameo in the Wang Ziming-directed, Jet Li-starring Badges of Fury this year. While these roles might have provided little opportunity for the aspiring actress to show her chops, Zhang will take up the lead role in her next silver screen endeavour – “a disaster film” – slated for a 2014 release. Unfortunately more details, including the name of the movie, were still under wraps at time of writing.

Zhang doesn’t seem to mind the delay. As her agent Chao Lu later says: “Taking it slow and steady might not guarantee her instant fame, but Zilin has always been quite adamant about the way she wants to lead her life.” And perhaps that is how she managed to steer her relationship with longtime beau Neil Nie away from the rafts of media frenzy until August 2013, when the lovebirds tied the knot in Phuket. Gossip rags had a field day trying to figure out to whom she was betrothed.

Joined by family and friends, the couple escaped to a two-bedroom pool villa at Indigo Pearl on the Thai holiday island, a resort that brought back fond memories of a previous holiday together there. “It was a very small and low-profile wedding,” she says, flashing yet again her trademark grin.

Zhang and Nie, a financier at Citic Securities in Beijing, first met in 2008 – a year after she was crowned Miss World – though neither remembers much of the brief encounter. “I don’t really believe in love at first sight. I guess you could say I’m rather conservative at heart,” she chuckles.

People think I lead a very glamorous life, being surrounded by beautiful clothes and people and all, but away from work I’m a very ordinary person.

It would be another two years before they were formally introduced. “I’m more bubbly and chattier, whereas he is more contemplative. We are very different, but somehow we make it work,” she says when asked to elaborate on their relationship. Nie, for those interested in such trivia, is a couple of centimetres taller than his bride.

Has her husband hinted at drawing the line when it comes to racier film scenes? Zhang laughs. “He’s not that strict. Most of the time he just lets me do whatever makes me happy. As for me, it depends on the script. I don’t believe in shocking for the sake of doing so.”

Kids – “two is ideal” – belong in the family plan, though “not now”, she emphasises. “We are still in our honeymoon phase. If we were to have a baby now, we’d be too busy looking after him or her. We wouldn’t have as much time to ourselves,” she rationalises. Her mum, though, has been dropping hints. “She had me when she was only 27, so she probably thinks it’s time for me to have some of my own! She’s constantly saying stuff like ‘Oh, you know, who-and-who just had a baby’ or ‘Isn’t who-and-who’s baby cute?’”

Having swapped her beauty crown for movie roles, though, Zhang is not to be coerced. The screen idol-in-the-making is steadily and determinedly leading life her way.

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