This article first appeared in Harper's Bazaar Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The April 2021 issue is out on newsstands now.
SINGAPORE - Togged in a jet-black Saint Laurent tunic and sunglasses, the captivating silver-haired woman on the cover of this month's Harper's Bazaar Singapore exudes chic and confidence.
You cannot miss the parallels with an iconic image shot by Juergen Teller for a Celine campaign in 2015, which featured prolific American writer Joan Didion, who was then almost 80.
Fashion has come a long way since - diversity is far more visible on covers and the runways - but still has a long way to go. At the very least though, we now greet it with open arms.
Ong Bee Yan - or Yan, as the 65-year-old part-time model, grandmother of two and co-founder of artisanal home-grown coffee brewery 1degreeC prefers to be known - notes the incredible impact of the campaign that helped create this welcoming climate.
"It's amazing and truly inspirational to see her front a campaign at 80! It really gives mature women the confidence to get out of their comfort zones and not let age define who they are."
This is precisely the message that Ong herself is empowering others with. Take one look at her Instagram (@grey_evolution) and you will see her warmth and motivating energy.
As she continues to document her family, style and work, she hopes it will encourage fellow seniors to challenge themselves to learn new things and take up new experiences.
"People are concerned about growing old, about the illnesses that will affect them in their old age; that they're no longer useful to society or that they can't learn new things," she says. "But everyone has to grow old someday. It's inevitable. That's life."
She herself has struggled with ageing, particularly prior to coming out of retirement to run a small business.
"I was starting to forget simple things," she says. "There was a period where I couldn't recall a telephone number that was given to me just a few seconds ago.
"The fear of having dementia crept into my mind as my mum and sister had it. However, since I started working again and keeping myself busy, I'm more alert and my memory is more acute."
She started her modelling journey just two years ago and already has scored a string of gigs.
Recent ones include campaigns for The Modern Singapore Collective, an exclusive collaboration between KrisShop, Design Orchard and the Singapore Tourism Board, UOB's International Women's Day, It Cosmetics and style brand Unda.
"So far, it has been an interesting and exciting albeit nerve-racking journey for me," says Ong, who admits she is camera-shy despite her line of work and her seemingly effortless appeal.
"I do get butterflies in my stomach at every gig, as I don't know what to expect. It was the same with the Harper's Bazaar cover shoot. As I was heading to the studio from the car park, I said a prayer, which is what I usually do, and just told myself to do my best."
That said, Ong admits that fashion shoots are the ones she enjoys the most, "as I get to express myself through my poses", though she is game for other types of shoots too.
"Being a health-conscious person, I'd like to showcase fitness clothes. I want to prove that one can teach old dogs new tricks."
It is clear that Ong wears the clothes and not the other way around because she is so refreshingly comfortable in her own skin.
Her style has evolved over the years.
"In my teenage years," she says, "my clothes were mainly mini skirts with thick belts and tank tops. I also liked hipster bell-bottom blue jeans and dolly tops. As a young adult, I went for grunge and quirky fashionwear."
Even today, she still likes designs with a little quirk as she continues to explore her personal style.
"I'd wear an oversize shirt dress with an unusual collar or sleeves and pair it with either baggy pants or skinny jeans. I just can't imagine myself in what my mother used to wear when she was 50."
With her sartorial flair, it is no wonder that fashion is something she hopes to pursue.
"My aim is to collaborate with someone on a fashionable, age-appropriate clothing line, and conduct workshops on skincare and make-up for mature women," she lets on.
The self-professed "elderpreneur" and upcycling enthusiast also wants to conduct other workshops.
"I want to encourage seniors to pick up new skills such as soap-making and candle-making," she says.
"Hopefully, they'll be able to run a home-based business after learning these skills."
So far, she has had a lot of support from her family as well as people she has met along the way.
"I meet many amazingly talented, beautiful and warm people in this industry. I'm learning new things, I'm enjoying what I do, I'm interacting with many young people in my work and I think that's what keeps me feeling young."
For now, she is enjoying life and opening herself up to all sorts of possibilities.
"Love what you do and do what you love. That's my motto."