Former model Kaila Yu takes center stage in the early 2000s
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a golden age for being an import car enthusiast. Magazine covers were covered with Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII, the turbocharged and modified Honda kids every four-cylinder they could get their hands on, and the scene went from an underground movement to immortalization in the top three. Fast Furious movies. Kaila Yu was there for everything.
“If you haven’t been to an imported auto show in the 2000s, you’ll never know what it looked like,” Yu, a former Taiwanese-American model, singer and socialite told me via a Zoom call. recently. She, along with other women like Aiko Tanaka, was an import model when the scene was at its absolute peak. Women, especially Asian women, have posed and modeled on hot rides, like the then modified Honda S2000s or the latest generation Mazda RX-7s. Yu’s presence, looks and charisma have earned him the cover of a multitude of imported magazines such as Super Street Magazine and DSport. Eventually, she even ended up with a small role in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
“Hot Import Nights – I mean there were 25,000 kids, 500 cars, and everyone was ready for a party,” she recalls. At the time, there were many import models at these shows.
[May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here at The Drive, we’re celebrating it by lifting up and highlighting AAPI voices in the automotive space. Our hope is that in driving visibility, we can help make the car community an even more welcoming space—to convince those who perhaps have not always felt like they belonged that they absolutely do belong here. Diversity in perspectives and backgrounds only strengthens the group as a whole. It is why representation matters.]
Now those days are over. Hot Import Nights and most other import auto shows are much smaller than they used to be. Magazines that have gone out of their way to feature Asian women posing provocatively on tuned cars are all mostly dead. Import models have evolved, cars have been sold and for many people the party is over – an era that is only remembered at the very beginning. Fast and furious movies.
Not for everyone, however.
Lately, Generation Z has fallen in love with the Y2K aesthetic and culture. Highlight. Platform flip flops, crop tops and high-loss jeans are worn by TikTok’s most popular stars like Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio. Hyperpop – a whole genre of music that intentionally refers to old pop music trends of the 1990s and 2000s – is one thing. It was only a matter of time before TikTok users found and settled on the import models. And you can’t say “import model” without also mentioning Yu.
Yu, as the overwhelming majority of the comments on his videos read, is “The Blueprint.” It’s a slang term for someone who is so fundamentally themselves at a time that they aim to emulate that they’re obviously the epitome of that trend. or The Blueprint, if you will. His popularity is undeniable: Yu has nearly a quarter of a million subscribers on the app, and many of his insightful videos regularly reach over a million views. And thanks to the ubiquity of TikTok, Yu has spilled the tea on what it was like to be in these spaces at that time and where a lot of these other models went.
Yu started his TikTok during the pandemic, and initially he wasn’t focused on his past life as an import model, or his vision as an Asian woman. “At the beginning, I made catchy content, like toilet paper for example [shortages], “she says. She also branched out into style and news content, which skyrocketed her viewership. Then she tightened things up when she realized that a big many Asian women were watching her videos, and from there she was able to make things more personal and talk about her own experiences, which resonated on the platform.
In particular, she shares a lot about her days as an import model in the early 2000s. Sometimes it’s videos of typical 2000s outfits she wore; Gen Z can’t seem to get enough of airbrushed tube tops and warm feather pants. Most of these kids weren’t alive yet and they clung to Yu. “I think Gen Z hates Gen Y but loves Gen X,” she said, risking guessing.
With 1.5 million views, her most popular import video template is “What Happened to Kaila Yu?” Although Tiktok has a 60-second time limit (recently increased to three minutes for some creators), Yu offers a full look at her career after importing models. Most of Yu’s videos follow a similar format – a preview of an import model or a prominent Asian woman in the entertainment business. Or, sometimes its content talks about some of the things she noticed while modeling, like why DSport magazine models weren’t allowed to wear shoes.
Of course, there are legitimate criticisms that the sexualization and fetishization of Asian women can be harmful, which Yu herself spoke about recently. Yet in the same way, there were so few Asian women of this era who were universally considered attractive or even sexy. Along with other import models, Yu’s visibility was very important to a young Asian girl who could have been constantly told that she was not attractive because contemporary beauty standards almost always reinforce how much the whiteness is ideal.
That was certainly the case for Yu. As a teenager, she explains, there just weren’t many Asian female models in the media to admire. “I get a lot of messages from girls who say they want to be an import model,” Yu laughs. “You must be dreaming bigger than that!” Yu says his influence is twofold, explaining that import modeling isn’t exactly a career that changes the world.
Yu considered Sung-Hi Lee, an Asian pin-up model, as an inspiration that eventually led her to import modeling. “When I was growing up, my only role model was Sung-Hi Lee, so that shaped my path where I chose to go,” she says. At the start of his career, Yu submitted his photos to Lee’s website. Lee was so impressed that she left a voicemail message on Yu’s phone and introduced Yu on her website. From there, Yu’s modeling career took off.
And this era, this golden age of auto shows and tuner culture? It was mostly Asian, according to Yu. “When you went to Hot Import Nights, Asians ran the show,” she says. “We felt like we were in power. It was that little niche where we could go where you felt like community.”
But on his TikTok, Yu has issued sharp criticisms for the Fast and furious films, which have drawn attention to the import scene. As a leading force in the import model industry, Yu was a staple for the Tokyo Drift movie. Everything was going well with the world as it looked like Asians were finally getting their due for the scene they created. Yu was thrilled to be in the movie.
But Yu wonders if Tokyo Drift was a really good performance. The film is set in Tokyo, but there is no capable Asian female role and the Asian women in it are basically eye props. (Although Yu says she heard a rumor that Neela, the Tokyo Drift romantic role played by Peruvian-Australian actor Nathalie Kelley, was originally written as an Asian woman.)
Yu only had two words in the movie. In the now iconic scene where Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) and Takashi (Brian Tee) first face off in the parking lot, Yu and fellow import model Aiko Tanaka are the ones saying, “Ready. Go. ” That’s it.
“It was so exciting to have a movie with all these Asians, it was a big deal,” she tells me. “[But] I wasn’t a feature film, I was just a supporting character. It looks like they could have at least done an Asian woman in a movie set in Japan. “The film is not perfect and we have improved since then, but some argue that the Fast and furious movies are what could have been the beginning of the end of the import tuner scene.
The tuner and the import scene were not only Asians, because many people of other races also participated. But after the release of the Fast and furious movies, it began to change. Yu says things have integrated, and while it was cool, the stage has grown bigger, the sense of community and empowerment within the Asian community has also started to be lost. “When different cultures and trends become mainstream, people forget where it came from,” Yu says.
Modeling is a job. Standing, looking pretty, and posing for pictures is work that deserves dignity and respect. Yu’s job was to pose in front of cars; she’s being honest in saying that she didn’t know much about cars (and didn’t have to). And yet some still mistakenly assume because Yu – or any model, for that matter – doesn’t know much about cars, it also means that all the women in motorsport are out there to be candy in the arms, ignoring the automotive scene they occupy.
“I’m talking to TikTokers racers, girls who really know cars, like who.frs and sheinekasi, and observed that they still spark a lot of hate,” Yu says.
But the performance itself is now better than it ever was. “This generation of Asian girls, they have so many girls to look up to,” Yu said. “Asian girls have YouTube stars, actors. You can choose to be anything because there is at least one [of us] the representative. “
This is probably due, in part, to the fact that most of the prominent women in the import model scene used their success to go into other ventures. They became singers, booked other modeling contracts, or worked in entertainment.
Yu certainly enjoyed her time as a model during the early days of the Aughts, even though she didn’t for so long. “I do not regret [my time as an import model]. We have traveled all over the world, “she said.” The friends I made from there, I am still friends today. It was truly one of the most memorable times of my life. “
After her stint as a model, her followers moved with her to the new Myspace. Eventually, this led her to other career opportunities, like being the lead singer of an all-Asian girl group, Nylon Pink. These days, she’s a journalist, covering food, culture and what it means to be Asian. His work has been published in Vice, Newsweek, Charm, and elsewhere.
There isn’t really a singular reason why the entire import tuner scene has shrunk dramatically. Some blame pop culture, movies like Fast and furious or games like Need for speed underground and Street Racing Union (in which Yu was also) thinning it to the point where it was no longer cool. Some say it was the Great Recession of 2008, emptying the pockets of future tuners. Others claim that modern cars are just not as do-it-yourself as they used to be.
But one thing’s for sure: Aghts’ early aesthetic makes a comeback through Gen Z, giving us a chance to look back with a fresh take on a glorious import scene that once was and people like Kaila Yu who lived it. She really is the role model.
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