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Not many people over the age of five can pull off a bowl cut. Nora Vai — née Giedre Vaisnoraite (“My real name is very difficult,” she laughed) — is among the rare few. In fact, her Sixties Mod coiffure was something of a lucky charm: The first modeling gig the 25-year-old Lithuanian model ever landed was for a hair salon in London.
“I’ve had this hair for maybe four or five years,” Vai said. “I’m blonde naturally, but not quite this blonde. I cut it like this and then I got discovered.” She spent a few years modeling in Hong Kong before moving to New York three months ago, where she signed with One Management. While flipping through her editorial book, which featured images from Vogue Italia’s Web site and various indie mags, Vai stopped at an image of herself in the Hong Kong-based Baccarat Magazine, which pictured her in a desolate fish factory surrounded by hanging carcasses. “That’s dried fish skin,” she said. “It’s very expensive because it has a lot of collagen, and I think they make soup with it. This was a fishing village outside of Hong Kong.”
Vai walked in her first runway season last February, and closed the Marc Jacobs show. She has a keen interest in fashion with plans to start her own blog soon. Wearing an all-white T-shirt-and-jeans look, she showed up to WWD’s office on a recent afternoon thinking she would just be attending a run-of-the-mill casting. “I wish I would have known it was interview,” she said. “I would have dressed up.”
WWD: How did you start modeling?
Nora Vai: I started in London, actually. I was working at the Vivienne Westwood shop. It was three years ago. They came up to me and offered to do a hair job [a photo shoot for a hair salon] and then I signed with an agency. But I wasn’t [in London] for long. My boyfriend [at the time] went to Hong Kong, so I followed him there. For me, it’s quite a new thing now to be outside of Asia.
WWD: How long did you live in Hong Kong? What was that like?
N.V.: I was in Hong Kong for about two years. I went to Shanghai first, so that was crazy, because obviously everyone speaks Chinese. But Hong Kong is easy because it used to be a British colony so they do speak English. They loved me with my white hair. They would stop me on the street. It was very intense. I didn’t expect to work there, but I worked a lot. I got to travel a lot in Asia. I saw so much.
WWD: And now you live in New York.
N.V.: Yes, I’ve been here for three months, living in NoLIta. I live with two other girls. They’re fine, they’re not models — we’re sort of all neutral together. I love it here. People call Hong Kong “Asia New York.” The pace is much crazier there than here, so it was all a very easy adjustment. But New York is where I want to be forever. I fell in love with this city, and I thought, How could I have lived in Asia for so long?
WWD: What was the difference between the modeling industry in Hong Kong versus New York?
N.V.: It’s much more inspiring here. Hong Kong is more commercial, and it’s very fast-paced. Here, people are more relaxed. I just shot with Rankin and Andrew Gallimore…that was amazing.
WWD: What were you doing before you got discovered?
N.V.: I studied fashion [at University of Manchester]. I’ve always wanted to work in fashion. I did loads of stuff while I was in London. I was working a lot with Express Mada, a magazine in Lithuania. I did some styling and some street-style photography for them. I actually wanted to get into buying or maybe have my own label. But then [modeling] happened, and it’s great because I get to see so many different industries, to see what I like and don’t like, and meet so many different people [in the industry]. I’m gonna start a blog soon, I’m excited. It will be mostly visuals and all the things that inspire me, people that I meet and myself, the different outfits I get to wear, backstage stuff. I have so many different things to share.
WWD: Growing up in Lithuania, did you ever think you might become a model?
N.V.: I think I got a lot of attention because I was always dressing a bit crazy. I loved vintage. I was always very “out there,” especially as a teenager. People in Lithuania dress pretty normal. But I became much more subtle and minimal once I started modeling, because it’s so much easier to travel [with less clothes]. For castings, you have to dress quite minimal, like a white canvas. I actually did get told, “You should sign with an agency,” but I never really wanted to. I always wanted to be on the other side of it, working in fashion.
WWD: What do you like to do in New York?
N.V.: I love running. I love dancing and discovering new places or going to art galleries on Thursdays in Chelsea. I go to Cafe Select a lot. I go to Paul’s Baby Grand as well. It’s so good, amazing music, I’m so happy there. There are so many good places in New York. I’ve always lived in quite busy cities, which I love. A lot of good parties.
WWD: You closed the Marc Jacobs show in your first runway season. Were you nervous, excited?
N.V.: I didn’t know until the last minute. I got called in for a fitting. I was already celebrating the end of fashion week and having a drink with a friend, and then my booker called and was like, “You have a fitting for Marc Jacobs.” I was always an option for the show, but since it was already 9 p.m. the night before the show, I didn’t think I would get cast. It was very exciting.
WWD: What’s your favorite part of the industry?
N.V.: There are so many areas in it. I’ve worked with magazines, catwalk, showrooms. I love doing shows. They’re very exciting, but they’re also quite stressful. You don’t get to meet the people, because it’s very rushed. I love location shoots. I’m shooting next week by the sea, at night. They said it would be, like, two hours away.
WWD: Do you have any dreams in modeling?
N.V.: For me, it was never really a goal to do something in modeling. But of course, it’s a lot of excitement. I’d love to be in i-D or Love Magazine.
WWD: What is your idea of happiness?
WWD: When do you feel the most free?
N.V.: When I feel comfortable with myself and when I’m surrounded by good people.
WWD: Have there ever been moments when you weren’t as comfortable with yourself?
N.V.: Yes. It’s always based on appearance, and you can’t control it. You have good and bad days. You don’t always feel like going on a photo shoot, you get pimples; all sorts of things. I have my moments…when you just wanna stay in bed all day and you have six castings.
WWD: What’s on your bucket list?
N.V.: I want to travel more. I want to see it all. I want to have a different career later in life, maybe start my own brand, do something creative and be successful in it.