Yumi Nu and Natalie Nootenboom, Model Sisters, discuss Representation and the Fashion Industry03.06.2022
Yumi and Natalie, like many famous sisters, have found themselves in the fashion industry climbing almost simultaneously, which can be difficult at times due to the relative lack of opportunities for Asian models and plus-size models. Natalie says, “But I’m so fortunate to have seen sisters such as Gigi and Bella [Hadid], Dakota [Fanning], and Elle [Fanning], which lift each other up even if they’re in different industries.” “It’s almost like we’re all on the same team.” The sisters’ bond is beyond blood. They are united by their shared mission to promote body inclusivity and Asian-American representations in media. Yumi says that she didn’t grow up with anyone who looked like her, and that now she is doing the same for herself and others who are similar to her. Natalie agrees wholeheartedly.
Yumi and Natalie were born in Englewood (New Jersey). They seemed to be destined for greatness. Kana Grace Nootenboom is their mother. She is the eldest child of Hiroaki Aoki (the restaurateur who introduced Japanese teppanyaki to Benihana). Their aunt is Devon Aoki, a supermodel. Steve Aoki, a DJ and record producer is their uncle. Steve says that the girls are driven and ambitious and signed Yumi to Dim Mak at 21. He also introduced Natalie to Dan Sena, his mentor in music, as a teenager. They are so amazing. These girls push themselves beyond their limitations and overcome the past to be better versions of themselves.
Yumi and Natalie give their uncle credit for this. Yumi says, “He was an enormous influence on us for music as well as embracing our Asian roots.” “Steve, Devon and our grandfather both broke barriers and Americanized Japanese food. These people are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible around us.”
The sisters were raised in a home that encouraged creativity and allowed for open discussion. Brent, their father, was a talented soul who passed his artistic talents on to them. The children recall their time spent in the garage where he would play a variety of records, including Sade for Yumi and Ozzy Osbourne to Natalie, and create collage art for the walls. He would organize elaborate scavenger hunts for their birthdays. He would place pictures of animals on construction paper and provide clues and messages. Yumi states that he is a creative person, even with the way he hides presents. Natalie says that “he gave us so many opportunities to grow,” adding that he allowed her to raise any pets she wanted. “I had six guineapigs, so he built this huge cage for them all. We now have snakes and a boa constrictor that is six feet long.”
“I wasn’t trying to show my Japanese side. I wasn’t thinking, Oh, I wish someone looked like I do, because I didn’t want to be like them.”
Their mother was a family and marriage therapist. They received emotional intelligence from her and developed a tendency to self-reflect that helped them through difficult times. Yumi was seven years old and Natalie three years old when the family moved to Maryland. They lived there for seven years in a predominantly white neighborhood. Natalie states, “Maryland is hard because there aren’t a lot of Asians, so you grow out like a sore thumb.” Another child was waiting in the dental chair, and Natalie saw his corners. Natalie asked her mother what this meant. “Oh no. Yumi replied to Natalie’s story by saying that she didn’t know this and that she had wondered about her sister’s experiences with race growing up.
Yumi recalls how her classmates used to tell her that she looked like Brenda Song in The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. Natalie says, “They would tell you that you look like Brenda Song and Mulan, who are cartoon characters.” The Nootenbooms felt the strain and moved to Newport, California where Kana was born and their grandmother still lives. Yumi says that her mom in Maryland went into survival mode, and raised us in a white-washed manner. “So, until we moved in to our grandma’s house, we didn’t know much about our Asian heritage or our culture.”
Natalie says, “There is a lot of toxic culture that I don’t like.” She explains that she felt for years that she didn’t want to become Asian. After she had written her autobiography, her grandmother asked Natalie to read it aloud to her. She says, “Her perseverance, work ethic, and that attitude of there’s only one option, just do it was so inspiring.” “The more time I spent with my grandma, I fell in love more with my culture.”
Yumi describes it as a game of catch up. An older man has been teaching her Japanese over Zoom. He creates Powerpoint presentations that include photos of his cat and includes educational Powerpoint slides. In the beginning of the pandemic, they built deeper relationships with their mother’s relatives. They also stayed at Uncle Steve’s house to take mini mindfulness retreats. Steve recalls that Natalie didn’t stay in the ice bath for more than 30 seconds at first. “Then she wanted to break the record and was there for 45 minutes.” It was amazing.”) The girls will travel to Japan this summer with their family for a 10-day trip to attend the annual boat race named after their grandfather. She says, “I wasn’t trying to show my Japanese side. Now it’s .” “I’m trying make up and heal those many years.”
Yumi experienced a change in mindset that coincided with her self-awareness and self-improvement. Yumi says that even with my body, she was like, “I’m tired of not liking myself or waiting for myself to get thinner, waiting for myself to look a certain manner to be happy with me, so I just started to embrace all aspects of myself.” Social media was “a double-edged knife” that helped her see the bigger picture. She says that social media was her first exposure to people like herself because it was the only space that wasn’t gate-kept as an outlet. “I was amazed to see that there were people like me who are confident and happy, and I thought it was possible.”
Yumi says that the plus industry was “not even a thing” when she began to focus on her modeling career in highschool. It was either you were a size 14 (the sample size for plus), or you were a size 2 or you didn’t work. My career was so slow.” Being the first Asian plus model to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue was a significant milestone. She was just moving into her Silver Lake home when her agent called her to give her the opportunity to cover Vogue. She sat down on the ground in shock and then burst into tears. “Everyone’s like was this ever your dream?” Yumi said, “I’m like I didn’t know it could be my dream.” “It’s a testament to where we are going that I was on American Vogue’s cover and not have any changes about myself.
Natalie followed her example not long afterwards, “because my sister had done it and then Devon did it and so I felt that it was in my heritage,” she laughs. Natalie continues, “I’m just thankful there are any changes because I remember growing in the era when low-rise jeans were fashionable and feeling like I couldn’t wear them because of my muffin top.” Yumi laughs, “Oh my God Natalie!” “The fact I can model, I am grateful for the changes that have been made even though they are small.”
Steve says that the work ethic is what drives us all to make our voices heard. “I believe that’s what these girls do–they put their ideas into action and when their actions are executed, they’ll be represented.”
But the successes have not been without their challenges. “I spent so many years ignoring my Asian side and not feeling enough white, and then when it finally dawned on me that I wanted to accept my Asian side, my feelings of insecurity and fear have gotten the best of me. Yumi is the first Asian plus model to appear on Sports Illustrated and Vogue. Yumi said that she received comments like, “She’s half-white.” “I am trying to acknowledge my privilege of being half-white within the Asian space,” she says. She also points out that most Asian plus size models are at the least half-white. She says, “I would like to see more Asian representation.” “I am aware that some people feel invisible because they are half-white, and I believe we must acknowledge that and our privilege in this. “I want to push for more at end of day.”
Natalie adds, “It is very rare that you will see two Asian people together on a set.” Yumi says, “Or more than one plus model.” “It’s almost as if they’re barely trying to tick any of the boxes.”
The sisters are also stepping up to the plate when it comes to Japanese beauty standards. Yumi was featured on the cover for Vogue Japan’s spring issue. She laughs and says that it is a body-conscious issue. It’s a small step, but it’s fine. It’s a small step, but I’m happy to be there. I am half-American and half-white. If they allow me to inspire positive body changes and positivity, that is part of my dream for Japanese Vogue.
“Sometimes, we’ll get people saying, wow, you’re so brave. And I’m like, for what?” Natalie states, “I’m just breathing and just exist.” We don’t need to pretend to be something, but we can just exist as it is. It’s OK that I am a mix. “I just exist, and that’s enough.”
Next up: Yumi is working on an alternative pop EP and a plus-size clothing line made ethically. Natalie is currently working on a Cover EP of Type O Negative, one of her favourite goth rock bands. She is now turning her attention to acting after she was cast in a thriller film. She says that Asians aren’t often seen in movies, and she is inspired by Gemma Chan. Both women hope to collaborate more with fashion brands that have slowly opened their doors. They will continue to lift each other up and help others.
“The truth is that we don’t need to try to be something in particular. Just us being is the representation.”
Natalie says, “We call each others pretty often and say hello, what’s the up?” “I love her music so much that I have it on replay all the time. Before new stuff drops, she’ll send me Soundcloud links. I am a huge supporter and fan, so it is mostly me fangirling.
Natalie continues, “It’s almost like you win, and I win,” Yumi responds, smiling, “Us winning together makes this possible.”