Tao Okamoto finds it hard to believe it’s been 15 years since she joined the modeling industry. “I started modeling with a very negative part of me—I didn’t really like myself or how I looked, because I was very tall for a Japanese girl,” the now veteran model tells The Daily Beast. “I started modeling when I was 14—I guess every teenager has this moment where you don’t really appreciate what you have, and you don’t really get why you look different from others. It was that feeling that I was really struggling to understand. So I started to model because I thought I could use it as an excuse to others, like, ‘Yeah, I’m tall because I’m a model.’ [Laughs] That’s the reason I wanted to start.”
Okamoto’s rash decision to become a model, however, has clearly paid off. In the mid-2000s, she became one of the only—and the most prominent—East Asian high-fashion models. She has since walked for the likes of Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, and Fendi, fronted campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Kenzo, and appeared in editorials in W, Vogue, and V magazines. The November 2009 issue of Vogue Nippon (Japan) was dedicated exclusively to her, she’s currently #30 on Models.com’s “Top 50 Models” list, and her unique bowl-cut style hair even inspired the beauty look for 3.1 Phillip Lim’s Fall/Winter 2009 show.
“I just wanted to be better and better, and now I’m standing here,” she says. “But I didn’t expect this.”
Despite her extensive resume, one of Okamoto’s proudest accomplishments is only just happening. To celebrate her modeling tenure, a new exhibit at Hudson Studios, aptly named Tao Okamoto 15, is paying homage to the longtime model through the lenses of 15 up-and-coming photographers.
“The first idea [of the exhibition] came up about last summer, a few months later I signed with my new agency, The Society,” she explains. “We were talking about what direction I should go in since I [recently] did a totally different experience with my first movie, and then I mentioned that I was going to have a 15-year anniversary of my modeling career, so they said we should celebrate and do something to present to people what I’m going to be doing next.”
The retrospective includes images by an array of newly established photographers, including Daniel Sannwald, Jeff Bark, Max Snow, and Victor Demarchelier, all interpreting Okamoto from their own aesthetic prospective—Sannwald, for example, has a very contemporary and futuristic eye, while Demarchelier’s is more classic editorial, clearly inspired by the work of his father, renowned fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier’s.
“I had never worked with any of [the photographers],” Okamoto says. “It’s always nice to work with established people”—she has worked with the likes of Mario Testino, Craig McDean, Alasdair McLellan, and Mario Sorrenti—“and you can kind of guarantee that the pictures are going to be cool…I was really concerned in the beginning because I’ve never done this kind of thing, and I felt like 15 photographers would end up capturing very similar images of me. I wasn’t sure if I could direct them or inspire them, but luckily they all have unique, individual ideas.”
While the exhibit is a welcome celebration of Okamoto’s successful modeling career, it also comes at a time when she is switching gears to focus more on acting. In 2013, Okamoto made her film debut opposite Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine, and she recently signed on for the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie (she says the official title has not been finalized yet), for which she’s set to start filming in June. Despite her love of—and success in—both modeling and acting, even 15 years later, she says she never expected to be where she is today.
“I just wanted to be better and better, and now I’m standing here,” she says. “But I didn’t expect this. I remember when I was little, much younger than I was when I started modeling, people always said, ‘Oh, you should be a model.’ But I didn’t like people telling me what to do… But I didn’t plan to transform into an actress either. It just happened.”
Tao Okamoto 15 is on display May 9 at Hudson Studios in New York City.