"It's so weird. I found this four-leaf clover when I was at middle school," says Xiao Wen Ju, pulling out a tiny laminated card from her wallet and showing it off. "I wrote down all my dreams on the back of it, and one of them was 'I want to be a model.'"
Now she is, and how. Xiao Wen—literally translated from the Mandarin, "emerging cloud"—broke onto the international modeling scene in 2011, having left her native Xi'an in the Chinese province of Shaanxi, initially for six months in Hong Kong, then, at the beckoning of mega-agency IMG, for New York. Her first European season, she walked the runway shows of the only two brands she had heard of at the time. They were the key gets of Prada and Louis Vuitton. ("I was actually disappointed because I only did one show in Milan," she says; some would call that a coveted "Prada exclusive.") "The thing with Xiao is that you can't help but fall in love with her," says Michelle Lee, casting director of KCD Worldwide, who took a chance on her for the Vuitton show. "She's got this amazing presence, which makes you gravitate toward her."
Xiao Wen's rise has paralleled that of Asian models in Western fashion on the whole, and in particular, of Chinese models. "At first, I would learn from them because they came before me," she says, with a naughty-sounding giggle—maybe because she's gaining ground and holding her own against her "big sisters." She was the first Chinese girl to front a Marc Jacobs campaign, just as Fei Fei Sun was the first to be on the cover of Vogue Italia and Liu Wen the first to be a global face of Estée Lauder.
Now Xiao Wen, 20, is working constantly—not always on the runway, where her diminutive size can be an obstacle, but on the page. "I'm very confident in shooting," she says. "I know how to move and how to change. At a show, it's not me. You have no expression when you're walking." What's next—"Maybe I want to get into acting? Maybe I can be an artist?"—is still undecided. Right now, she is enjoying life in New York, soaking up the creative atmosphere in the studio of her friends' fashion label BabyGhost and experiencing the freedom of the city, which she says is hard to come by in China. "Everything I do has to have significance," Xiao Wen says, all wised-up assertiveness. "I really care about that. Even if I'm watching TV, I want to learn something."