Elaine Thi

On breaking the mold


Talent: Elaine Thi @elainethi

Photos: Jeremy Choh @jeremychohphoto

Fashion: Hannah Kerri @hannahkerrri

Makeup: Nicole Chew @chewchewtrain

Hair: Andre Gunn @888dre

Photo Assist: Chir Yan Lim @chiryanlim

In an interview with Timid Magazine, model and ceramic artist Elaine Thi reflects on her formative years, her professional journey, and the twists and self-discoveries that have paved her unique path so far.

Raised in a Vietnamese immigrant household in California, Thi initially pursued a career in nursing, driven by the weight of societal expectations and a desire to honor her parents' sacrifices. She soon realized the conventional path wasn't making her happy, and fortunately, other avenues presented themselves. Despite knowing that a career in medicine wasn’t the right fit, Thi knew that she ultimately wanted to help people. Not one to shy away from the unknown, she explored diverse careers and hobbies, discovering her love for self-expression through modeling, music, and hands-on creation. Instead of sticking to a single trajectory, she embraces an open mindset, nurtures her evolving interests, and maintains an unwavering commitment to introspection—a journey that has allowed her to remain true to herself.

Timid Magazine: Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into modeling?

Elaine Thi: I was born in the Bay Area, and then my family moved down to Orange County. My upbringing was pretty tough. My parents came to the US from Vietnam, and they had to start from scratch. They didn’t have much to give me, but they tried to give me everything. They were fearful, being in a new country, and they didn’t have all the resources to raise me. Growing up in that household, they were strict and hard on me. Looking back, I get why—they just wanted to give me the kind of life they didn't have back in Vietnam.

As a child, I was very sheltered. I took the medicine route and was studying to become a nurse, but I realized that I wasn’t happy. I was only doing everything that everyone told me to do. But I knew I wanted to help people. That's my goal in life—to uplift others and just be a good positive change in the world.

When I was 19, I dropped out of nursing school and moved to LA. At first I assisted a photographer, and through that I met a bunch of people in the modeling industry, and they were like, “Why don't you try getting in front of the camera?” This was when I got to explore my modeling career. It was super fun, but I feel like in this industry, you have to be careful. There are a lot of people who don't have your best interests at heart.

TM: Can you elaborate a little on that?

ET: When you were raised in a household like mine, you feel like you're all that your family has. I wanted to succeed so badly so I could give back to them, so I just kept going with it. Eventually, I had this accident and ended up breaking my leg, and it made me realize that the path that I was on wasn't right for me.

I was in LA for probably three years at the time. I was a go-getter, trying to power through everything. I was at a recreational center where they have rock climbing walls and a platform where you can jump off into a foam pit, something that’s supposed to catch you. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t working that day. I fell three stories onto the cement and broke my leg. It was a miracle. I think if I had fallen any other way I could have landed on my tailbone, and I would have been paralyzed. During the months prior to that I shot the Harper's Bazaar cover, and then I just shot my Vogue Vietnam cover two months after that. It made me take a step back. Maybe if there's a higher power up there or something like it, maybe it was God's way of telling me to reevaluate my life.

TM: How did you venture into ceramics?

ET: I have been working on pottery and getting better at it because I want to start my own pottery business. When I realized I could have been paralyzed from the fall, I decided to treat every day like it’s my last. I’m going to try everything I’ve ever wanted to try and see where that takes me. I still have that passion for photography and modeling, but what ultimately makes me the happiest is making stuff with my own hands, like pottery. I started learning how to DJ, and now I'm working on a haircare brand as well.

TM: Where do you draw inspiration from in your work?

ET: For ceramics, I kind of got into it as a way to cope with things. You have to center your clay on a wheel, and when I’m doing it, I feel centered too. Every piece takes at least three weeks, and when you look at the finished product you’re like, “I made this with my own hands.” Even if it’s a slow process, it teaches you a lot about yourself. When I'm doing pottery I feel like every way I touch the clay has to be intentional or I could damage or destroy it. You have to zone in, but you can zone out the world too. It’s all about being intentional and patient and trusting the process.

TM: As a Vietnamese American, do you feel like there are parts of your culture or upbringing that you bring into your work?

ET: I was just raised to not give up. My parents are survivors. They made so many sacrifices. This makes me more driven. Everything I do, I just want to give back to them. Growing up in a strict household and feeling very sheltered, it can cause people to have troubles with their mental health.

I hope that when people see me, they see an Asian American breaking out of stereotypes and someone who struggled, but is living for herself and wanting to give back. I take a lot of inspiration from the phoenix. In Vietnamese culture, the phoenix is a symbol of strength, but also rebirth.

TM: Modeling and ceramics seem like two distinct creative outlets. How do they complement each other in your life?

ET: Personally, I prefer a fast-paced life. The modeling and photography puts me on the right track. It's always one thing after another and then this after that. While that feels fulfilling, sometimes when you're in that mindset, you forget to check in with yourself. With pottery, it allows me to ground myself, and it's a great coping skill. It also teaches me a lot of values that I need to always keep with me.

TM: Reflecting on your career so far, what has been your proudest moment and why?

ET: I probably would have to say my Vogue cover. I never thought I'd do something like that. But even though I'm doing a lot, fulfilling my creative ventures, ultimately, the brand I want to build—my ultimate goal in life—is to help people and be a good person.

A few years ago, I was in Orange County, figuring out my life again, and I decided I always feel the most fulfilled when I'm volunteering. So while my proudest career moment was my Vogue cover, one of my proudest moments for my own soul was helping a group of very young girls who were survivors of sex trafficking. They were figuring out their lives again, and I came in to help provide the supplies they needed. They needed shampoo and other hygiene stuff or notebooks and school supplies. It touched my heart, and it made me realize that no matter where I am in life, it means the world to help others in some way. I definitely want to do more humanitarian work.

TM: The theme for our current issue is Reimagine. How do you envision pushing the boundaries of your work?

ET: I think my taste in certain things, whether it's music or the type of pottery I aspire to make, is very experimental. When I DJ, I play house music, but it isn't very genre-specific. When I go out, I don't often hear people playing that type of music. I hope to bring something unique to the things I'm interested in. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I'm a weirdo. I wonder if people will react negatively if I play this type of music like, "What is this? I'm leaving."

But I think the beauty of it is doing something that I like that might be different. I’m still just learning. I'm nowhere near where I want to be yet, but that's the type of stuff I want to create. I want people to have to do a double-take.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.