Tao Okamoto has come a long way in fashion since the bowl cut she once sported when she first began modeling in New York. She is now one of the new crop of East Asian beauties currently making waves both in modeling and, most recently, acting. In our increasingly globalized and fast-changing world, the importance of adaptive excellence has never been greater, and Okamoto’s chameleonic mindset allowed her career to blossom across the world and she paved a new direction for philanthropy.
Okamoto began her modeling career at the age of 14 when she was discovered on the street. After years of modeling in Japan, Paris, and New York alongside some of the best names in fashion, she now finds herself in a position where she gets to pick and choose the projects she wishes to get involved with, a luxury for which she is very thankful. When asked about influential people in her career, however, she actually gives credit to rivals.
“Even in school as a little girl, I always had someone I really respected and wanted to be like,” she said in an interview, “I wanted to be better than them. Finding people I can aspire to always gives me the energy, power, and motivation.”
Motivation expires quickly in the fast-paced fashion industry, but in Okamoto’s words, “anyone can be inspiring.” She feeds off of the positive energy of those around her, in the industry or not, and then gets inspired to grow personally. Being an Asian model was peripheral to the experience. She said: “An agent once told me: ‘We don’t care if you’re Asian or not, we just need you to be a good model and just focus on doing a good job.'” She agreed, adding that everyone should have that objective mentality to not be distracted by expectation. This combination of competitive drive and commitment to excellence is the fuel that has propelled her career.
A constant push to grow and change translates into what she likes best about fashion. According to Okamoto, fashion has the ability to transform and continually evolve. She describes how one day she can be girly, but with short hair or a leather jacket, her personality can change. “I like that I can be someone one day and I can be someone else the other.” To get focused and prepared for the day, she makes sure to get into character by taking the time to understand the person she is embodying with the costume, hair and makeup that was put on her for the day. No matter what it is, she tries to get an idea of how she looks in the photo to fully embrace the character and to work harmoniously with the crew. “I try to open my heart,” explained Okamoto, “I just try to be myself and see how the chemistry is. I am good at changing my mind to adjust to someone, whether it is to a photographer or stylist, but what I hate is just being a doll or puppet.” Luckily, her latest project combines all the elements of her ideal role: continuous challenge and great chemistry with the team.
About a year ago, Okamoto had opportunity to star in the next installment of the X-Men film series, The Wolverine, alongside Hugh Jackman for her first on-screen role. At first, she was disinterested because she never thought she would be acting, but after being told she would be Jackman’s main love interest, she decided to give it a try. “He’s a great entertainer. Even though it wasn’t the best reason to give it a try, it was the first step. I got into it, and I really wanted to do it. I tried hard to get the role.” Her interest for this project grew further after meeting with director James Mangold where she was able to get some advice. “I learned so much from whatever he said, and I wouldn’t forgive myself if I couldn’t get this role.” The combination of her commitment, performance, and the film crew’s teamwork allowed her to become Mariko Yashida for the film.
Her transition to acting may seem unexpected, but in reality, becoming Mariko was just a natural progression and evolution in her career. Her years spent modeling had given her a great instinct and understanding of how she looked on film without seeing it; she was a natural behind the camera. Even in fashion, she always loved transforming into a character. “I always loved when I had a shoot with a story or background behind it,” said Okamoto.
Being told “you’re playing this girl” always helped her to deliver something more. “Maybe I’ve always been acting even when modeling.” she observes. Although, at the beginning, she was worried because she never took any acting lessons, movie director James Mangold told her not to take any lessons or advice from others. Furthermore, she realized she could relate to her role, Mariko; both she and the character had similar struggles in finding their place. The role ended up being a more personal endeavor than Okamoto expected.
Okamoto said she was most grateful for the opportunity to explore an unfamiliar industry with such an amazing team. She learned about the technical aspects of film and loved the collaborative process. She said, “I loved that I was nobody, very new, but everybody was still respectful, asking me what I wanted to do, what my thoughts were. They needed my idea[s] to deliver something and I rarely had that when I was modeling. With modeling, you go to the studio in the morning and leave in the evening. You don’t give ideas and creativity, but this time, I felt like I was creating something.”
Although there were many aspects that were very different from modeling, she was able to approach each challenge with flexibility and fearlessness. Martial arts training, stunts, and on-screen lines proved to be a challenge, pushing her outside her comfort zone. “The audience is a lot bigger,” said Okamoto, “especially for this kind of blockbuster, especially for a Japanese crowd. I hear some people saying ‘She’s just a model. She’s never done acting. What can she do?’ I’m ready to get that. I understand people think like that so I know that having just started, I have to get my audience. From now on, that’s my newest aim.”
Okamoto’s ability of turning challenges into new opportunities has allowed her to forge a path beyond modeling or acting. Even in the event of a natural disaster like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, she was able to see an opportunity. Instead of seeing it on television, she happened to be with her family in Japan right after Paris Fashion Week and she was able to feel the effect firsthand. After this eye-opening experience, Okamoto went back to New York, feeling obligated to do something for others who weren’t so fortunate. The idea after RagTag for SAVE JAPAN was born out of the idea that she did not want to just ask for money or help; she wanted to also give back to the people who helped. With this in mind, she met with five Japanese friends who also worked in the fashion industry and held a charity bazaar featuring pre-owned clothes and designer items (all contributed by designers, editors, and friends including a slew of A-list catwalkers from Naomi Campbell to Liu Wen). She remembered people who came to enjoy themselves while shopping for the cause. “That was the most important thing. I didn’t just want sorrow for disaster, but I needed something more positive. It’s more about reminding people about the great feeling of helping others and respecting nature and power. I didn’t want them to forget how many warmhearted thoughts there were,” said Okamoto.
Now the disaster in Japan has long passed, Okamoto said that she felt it would be almost selfish to ask for help with the same cause, especially with other disasters and causes confronting the world today. “I have dreams of starting something else,” she said. After the tsunami, she found herself watching “Desert Flower,” a film about a Somalian woman, Waris Dirie, who fled from Africa to be an American supermodel and ultimately to become the UN spokeswoman against female genital mutilation. Okamoto was touched by how she came from a difficult life only to do great things for women and the world. Okamoto added, “Dirie realized she was different from others. The more famous she became, the more she had the chance to tell the truth of what is happening in Africa. She was born with her beauty and she used it to make people listen to her.” Okamoto confesses she has the same aspiration to stand up for something like Dirie did. “It’s very vulnerable, and I’m struggling with that. But, I have issues I want to solve. It’s not easy, but I have a dream to do something. I hope, after a few years of acting, I can have the opportunity,” admitted Okamoto.
What will Tao Okamoto do next? With the X-Men role under her belt, she hopes to continue modeling and acting to make more appearances, get more inspired and create more so that she can be one step closer toward achieving her dreams of philanthropy. “I thought I didn’t like getting in front of people, but maybe that was the reason: modeling and acting is helping me to prepare to stand in front of people [to make a difference].” In the meantime, she hopes to play more roles, maybe even a musical, another one of her goals where the character is quite opposite to her own. “I’m kind of interested in being a villain, but I just want to do more and learn more,” she added.
When asked if there was one thing she could change about the world, she said, “We would learn from past mistakes. We would never have war or any disaster again and just remember what we had in the past. “If there is one thing that her modeling and newfound acting career has taught her,” Okamoto said, “Just be brave. Listen to someone who believes in you. It’s easy to hear negative comments and it’s easy to get yourself dragged lower by someone.” Okamoto sees the world as a much more open place now, especially in America, and she is grateful and hopeful for its continuation. In a world of endless inspiration and possibility, if there is anyone who can use beauty – both inner and outer – as a power to influence, it is Tao Okamoto. Regardless of whatever questions unfold before her, she remains confident because she now, knows what she wishes she had known when she was 14. “Know about yourself. It’s not what people think about you. It’s what you know about yourself,” said Okamoto.
Portrait by Seiji Fujimori
© Twentieth Century Fox, Hugh Jackman and Tao Okamoto
from the movie, “The Wolverine”.
Styling by Aya Funakoshi,
Makeup by Cedric Jolivet,
Hair by Conard Dornan,
Model: Tao Okamoto at The Society New York.