From the darkest depths of a challenging childhood and deteriorated mental health, this mixed-race fashion model has fought her way to the top. She opens up about being bullied, how starving herself nearly killed her, and how martial arts helped her reclaim her power and fight against unrealistic beauty ideals
Growing up was confusing for Mia Kang.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, the half-Korean, half-British model recalls her days at Discovery Bay International School, where she would be “bullied for having Asian food in my lunch box at primary school by the white kids. How crazy is that, to be bullied for being Asian in Asia?” says Kang, who is now based in New York. She was also picked on for being overweight.
Tired of the merciless teasing, at 13 years old, Kang hung a poster of Tyra Banks’ 1997 Sports Illustrated cover in her bedroom, halved her weight, and was swiftly scouted by a modelling agency. It was the acceptance she had always hoped for; or so she thought—because even though she had transformed her appearance, Kang was still fighting an internal battle.
“To this day, I consider Hong Kong to be my home, but I don’t feel like Hong Kong fully accepted me because I am not Chinese. I always felt like an outsider. I never felt Korean enough, I never felt white enough, I never felt I really belonged anywhere,” says Kang, who went to Island School during her secondary school years in Hong Kong. “I remember we used to have Cultural Day, where kids would dress up representing their culture or bring traditional foods for the class to try, and I never knew where I was supposed to be from. As a child forming my sense of self and developing confidence, it was confusing. I always felt like there were these pre-existing boxes that I just didn’t fit into, and it caused me to develop deep, core insecurities.”
The modelling industry at large is notorious for pressuring young girls into looking a certain way. But Kang—along with many of her peers—says this is amplified in Asia, which is known for its rigid, often homogenous beauty standards. “The word ‘slim’ is everywhere—in ads on TV, signs advertising weight loss treatments on the MTR [subway system], in the press when talking about how gorgeous a certain celebrity looks. The societal fat-phobia is not subtle,” says Kang. “I think Asian media has less diversity than in the west. We are only seeing one definition of beauty, which reinforces people’s beliefs and the standards we hold ourselves to.”
For Kang, her mixed-race background and naturally larger proportions made suffering part-and-parcel of her success in the fashion industry in Hong Kong. By the age of 18, she was a frail 44kg (she’s 179cm tall), anorexic, bulimic, addicted to laxatives, and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. “Every moment of my day, from when I opened my eyes to my last thought at night, was spent wondering how I could be thinner and lose more weight,” says Kang. At that time she was dating a male model who gave her diuretics he would buy without a prescription from local pharmacies. “They make you pee out kilos and kilos of water so you look emaciated. I’m not proud to say it, but I used to abuse them frequently to look as thin as I could before photoshoots and runway shows.”
The thinner she looked, the more she caught the attention of high-profile fashion clients, who asked her to lose even more weight, often encouraging methods like liquid-only diets for prolonged periods of time.
“Although I was getting so much praise from the modelling industry and people around me for looking like what society deems beautiful, I was miserable and drowning internally,” Kang recalls, adding that she remembers thinking, “What the hell am I doing? Is this worth it? I’m ruining my health just to be as thin as I can be and I am miserable. This isn’t what life is about.”
In her 2020 memoir Knockout, Kang admits to having suicidal thoughts because she felt that killing herself was the only way to escape this cycle that was steadily eroding not just her physical health, but also her mental health.
Having been asked by her latest client to stick to yet another liquid diet for an upcoming photo shoot and on the verge of burnout, Kang took a holiday to visit family in Thailand in 2016. “I had hit rock bottom with my eating disorder. I had had enough,” she says. The trip would prove to be a turning point.
Captivated by Muay Thai fighters she had watched fight, she decided to take a class for fun; before she knew it, what was meant to be a 10-day break became a six-month stay in Koh Samui, taking part in an intensive Muay Thai training camp.
Today, Kang credits the martial art for saving her life.
“I fell in love with the anonymity that martial arts brings. On the mat, everyone is an equal—it doesn’t matter what your occupation is, who you are, how much money you have,” says Kang. “I loved how Muay Thai was continuously showing me facets of myself that I had never known. It was showing me strength that I never knew I had—both external and in the form of discipline, determination and heart.”
For the first time in her life, Kang saw her body as more than something to scrutinise in the mirror or to manipulate in order to get work. For once, she recognised her body as her own; as a source of power.
“I loved how empowered I felt. I loved being absolutely embodied with myself—I felt, for the first time in my life, I was really at one with my body. I had finally found something that taught me that moving my body can be a happy and fun experience. It doesn’t need to be a punishment,” says Kang.
For most of her life, Kang had demonised entire food groups. If she broke any of her self-imposed rules, she would force herself to “burn it off” in the gym the next day, viewing exercise as a punishment for eating.
“There is something called orthorexia, which is when one is obsessed with what they believe to be healthy practices. I went through this when I was obsessed with being a specific weight,” Kang explains, adding that she would take “a mountain of supplements” every morning, drink green juices and eat kale, and work out twice a day. “I thought I was just being healthy and this must be what fit people do. But health is so much more all-encompassing and multidimensional than being a certain weight or maintaining a certain diet. Health includes your mental health, your relationship with food and exercise, your body image, stress levels, work-life balance, personal relationships. Until I addressed my unhealthy relationship with exercise and food I was never going to achieve the lifestyle changes needed to find the ‘health’ that I sought.”
And, she says, it was Muay Thai that helped her come to this realisation.
“I unlearnt so much of what society and the fashion industry had taught me to hate about my body. I learnt how to nourish my body; I learnt that food is not only fuel but so much more than that: it is culture, it is family, it is creating memories.”
The year 2017 was a major turning point for Kang. The then 28-year-old was named Swimsuit Rookie of the Year by Sports Illustrated, after winning the Sports Illustrated 2016 swimsuit model search—a full-circle moment from hanging that Tyra Banks cover in her bedroom as a teen. She competed in her first professional Muay Thai fight—and won: round three, total knockout via multiple punches to her opponent’s head. And in November that year, she gave a TEDx talk at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, opening up about how her childhood trauma affected her adult life, and how Muay Thai taught her to “respond rather than react” to life’s challenges.
“Life is not about finding yourself, it’s the journey of making those decisions and creating yourself and becoming who you want to become,” she said at the end of her talk. “I always knew I wanted to become a strong and independent woman, so I became one.”
It was like a gap had finally appeared in the clouds. Kang had reached a major milestone as a model while feeling the healthiest and most confident she had ever felt. She had begun to take back control of her body— and her narrative.
Kang stopped obsessing over food and her weight, and began embracing her natural curves and the muscular build she had gained as a dedicated Muay Thai fighter. She weaoponised her past experiences to speak out against the fashion industry, and her career skyrocketed. She has since modelled for brands including Christian Siriano, Kith, Nordstrom and Skims—not just as a model, but as Mia Kang.
“I think a pivotal moment for me as an adult was when I realised that it’s OK to just be myself,” she says. “My body looks different to everyone else’s and it doesn’t need to look a certain way. I am a unique person, I am who I am, and I am proud to be who I am.”
In 2021, Kang appeared in her first Victoria’s Secret campaign. The role of the lingerie and loungewear brand in perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards is well documented and heavily criticised. “When I was anorexic, my agents used to dangle Victoria’s Secret in front of me like a golden carrot on a stick that I was chasing but could never quite get,” Kang recalls. In recent years, however, the company has worked overtime to overturn its toxic reputation, and Kang says she’s “excited to be a part of the change”.
“People think that [Victoria’s Secret] just had a marketing meeting and hired some more diverse models. That it’s too little too late. What people don’t realise is the entire company has changed inside and out; it’s not just that the decisions being made are different, but the people making decisions have changed to alter the entire structure and get rid of a toxic culture,” says Kang, who appeared again this year in Victoria’s Secret’s Fall and Holiday campaigns.
Posting a photo from the campaign to her Instagram account, where she’s dressed in a grey floral lingerie set, Kang wrote in the caption, “I am so proud to see myself at my natural weight, recovered, finally healthy, and a VS model.”
From a frail and insecure girl who felt lost and hopeless, Kang has emerged victorious, as a woman whose power is felt through her presence and who is no longer afraid to bare it all.
“This means so much to me,” she says. “If the starving and insecure 13-year-old girl could only see me now and know that all she needs to be is be herself.”