Few modeling careers rival that of Alva Chinn’s. The 1980s supermodel worked as an international runway star, a “Halsonette” girl, and one of Oscar de la Renta’s favorites. But for Chinn, modeling was just the beginning. She went on to pursue an acting career in both film and theater and now teaches yoga, something she loves because, like modeling, it has allowed her to connect with her body.
“Once you’re 40, you’d better have connected with your body. If you haven’t, it’s just going to get harder. But there is a way. Yoga is kind. I think that alignment is key to life and alignment is not just physical; it’s mental, spiritual, and emotional. Yoga has it all. When you discover that, you find joy even when things aren’t necessarily great. You find peace.”
Chinn’s extraordinary career started at a deli on Boylston Street in Boston. She was crying over a boyfriend when a waitress approached her and said that her friend worked at an agency and was looking for someone like her. Chinn was intrigued. “This is what’s wonderful about being young and being open and knowing when something feels right, because if there was a moment when something didn’t feel right, I wouldn’t have done it.” It did feel right, and so Chinn called the agency, got her Polaroid taken, and booked a job the next day.
Originally, Chinn’s interest in the fashion industry was to design clothes herself, but, instead, she ended up modeling for celebrated European designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace, and later in New York for the iconic Oscar de la Renta. Great designers, Chinn says, make truly beautiful clothes suited for any woman’s body. “We all come in different shapes and sizes and I think it’s really important to honor that. In my day, models could be all different sizes. No one should be a zero or a two unless they’re naturally that way.”
“one of the most fun jobs you can ever have. It’s like creating a little story. If you’re blessed enough and you work well enough, you get to create a new story every day.”
When asked whether she’s seen diversity in the industry increase, Chinn explains that it has actually declined. “There used to be girls in a show that were every hue. That’s where I think we should be, but we’re not.” Chinn says that the labels that agencies use to categorize models are one way that the industry emphasizes these divisions—divisions that exclude models based on their race or size. “Race is a topic that works really well to keep people separated. Size also works.”
Despite being called “ethnically ambiguous,” walking off of a shoot after a designer referred to her as “you people,” and being told by a makeup artist that she should get her nose done in order to land a major beauty campaign, Chinn still believes that working as a model can be empowering. “I think that the empowerment comes from knowing that you decide how well you do your job and you decide whether you take certain jobs.
Chinn’s success didn’t occur overnight. She explains that while most people unfamiliar with the industry see modeling as glamourous and easy, that’s not necessarily the case. Modeling takes skill and being a truly successful model takes experience. “It would be unprofessional for me to show up at a job and not know how to do my job—not know how to connect with the camera, not know how to walk, not know what’s expected of me.” These are skills that Chinn says should come naturally, but something that models should also work to develop and improve. And yet, she says modeling is still “one of the most fun jobs you can ever have. It’s like creating a little story. If you’re blessed enough and you work well enough, you get to create a new story every day.”
Recently, Chinn has been pursuing a career in acting. She just completed a feature film, shot a pilot for a web-series, and finished performing in a play. But it’s yoga that brings her peace of mind above all else. Yoga has allowed Chinn “to create and to inspire others” and to live out what she calls an “expansive existence.”
Looking back on her career, Chinn is grateful for all of the opportunities that modeling given her, but she feels that girls who are considering a modeling career should hold off and have the chance to enjoy their youth. “You’re not going to get that time back,” she says. To those who want to pursue modeling, she offers sage advice: “If you make a lot of money, save that money to get an education. Save your money so you can learn what you really want for the rest of your life because that’s a much longer period than a modeling career.”