I was never trying to be an import model. I just wanted so badly to be Sung Hi Lee. I was obsessed with her. I remember the first time I heard about her…I was sitting in my high school English class and my friend Reuel was raving about her, she was featured on a party flyer. Later on in college it seemed like every single Asian guy in the world was in love with her. I collected every single magazine and calendar that she appeared in. In those days there were literally no Asian celebrities for youth to look up to as the ideal of a beautiful Asian woman, she was it. There were Asian stars in Asia of course but no Asian American stars here in the US.
I tried for years to get noticed as a model in college, shot with a bunch of shitty photographers and never got booked. I submitted my photos to calendar and magazine publishers and never got a reply. It was not until Julie Strain (pin-up star and now photographer) took me under her wing that all the momentum hit all at once. I met Julie Strain because I was searching for a photographer for my own pay site. I had observed that all my favorite models, Sung Hi, Lisa Boyle, Shae Marks, they all had their own pay sites so I needed one too. I had hired a web designer to build my site but nothing was happening! So I just bought my own HTML book and built my first pay website. It wasn’t going to win any design awards but it got the job done. The first day that I put that credit card billing page up the orders flooded in with $500 made immediately. I was in business!
My first shoot with Julie Strain
At this time Sung Hi Lee had her own pay website and she was starting to feature emerging models on her website. One day, out of the blue, I get a voicemail from SUNG HI LEE asking me to her model for her website. I almost died and I saved that voicemail for a long time.
Photo from Sung Hi Lee’s website feature — I was scary skinny!
At around time Shae Marks, a playboy playmate with a popular website also featured me on her website at about the same time as the Sung Hi feature. Both features came out at the same time, and for me, the internet exploded
Shae Mark’s feature photoshoot. I love this photo, kinda classy right?
Income Source #1: Subscription Website
Sung Hi and Shae Marks both had the same photographer/web designer named Misha and soon after my features came out, she reached out to me about coming aboard as one of the websites under her team. Of course! That was a no brainer, she was the best in the business and it was a huge honor to be on the team with all these girls that I had idolized for years. The first check I received was for $4500 for one month of subscriptions. After Misha took out her photographer fees, webmaster fees and her cut, my cut ended up being around 50%. Can you believe that at one point my website was generating $9000 a month?! The subscription model website is the best, unless all your subscribers cancel, you have a pretty steady income every month, almost like a salary. I wish that someone had taught me to manage money back then, but I was only 21 years old so I was spending the money as fast as I was earning it.
Misha’s website for KailaYu.com
Income Source #2: Online Shopping Cart
My website also had a shopping cart where I sold signed 8×10 prints, posters, calendars, magazines. I would package and ship these all myself! This generated on average another $500-$1000 a month
One of the photographers that I had shot with, Carlos from IClique invited me to go check out my very first car show. I believe that it was Hot Import Nights Long Beach and it was surreal. When I walked in, people somehow knew who I was. People were walking up and asking me for a photo and pronouncing my name incorrectly, “hey its Kayla Yu!” After that car show, the import scene started calling.
So how much do import models make?
Note that the rates I have posted are from almost 15 years ago, rates for models have jumped significantly from that time!
Well, it really depends. For my first car show, I think I made $150-200 and I had to drive my own ass up to San Mateo! Later on when I did SEMA, a three day car show, the pay was $500 for three days. As a no-name model, you don’t make much.
Income Source #3: Car Shows and Appearances
When I started to get a name in the industry I would average $500 for a one day show, where I was then allowed to sell my merchandise. On average I would make another $500-1000 on merchandise sales. The most I ever made off merchandise was at my first appearance in New York — which was a huge market for me. I made $2000 in cash and the line to see me was over a hour long. Another source of income was club appearances which ranged from $500-1000. All that was required was that you show up for a couple hours and party. Photoshoots were about $500-1000 also. With appearances and car shows happening every weekend and photoshoots during the week, you can do the math! I remember one hectic weekend where I had a music performance in LA on Friday, caught a flight to Vancouver the next morning for a Import Car Show and then caught another flight the next morning for an Import Car show in Hawaii.
In the end, what really what killed it all me in terms of earning were the go-go dancers. First of all, I didnt go-go dance (I suck at dancing) Second of all, whereas I required $500-1000 to host a nightclub party, a go-go dancer would show up to the same nightclub in lingerie and dance all night long. I’ve heard of gogo dancers earning as little as $150-250 for a full night of work!
How much do import models make now?
I don’t know for sure but I can make a pretty fair guesstimate. I imagine that Name import models still get between $500-1500 to appear at clubs, go go dance, feature at a car show. No one really has subscription based, members only websites anymore but now girls have Fashion Instagrams and have respectable brands who want to work with them, like Chanel and Burberry! It’s possible to charge $500 for a post on Instagram per half a million followers. Instagram has definitely changed the game, you can make money without leaving your bedroom, I wish it had been around when I was at the peak of my career!