Model Sisters Yumi Nu and Natalie Nootenboom on Representation, the Fashion Industry, and Finding Their Roots

It’s 5 o’clock on a Tuesday, and the doors have just opened at Petit Paulette, a French bistro-style wine bar that grazes the southern edge of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. Lively swing music drifts through the speakers and, just outside the window, rows of white daffodils are already in bloom. The charming locale is a favorite of Yumi Nu, the 25-year-old model-musician who has just moved out of her house in Silver Lake, Los Angeles and into an apartment a few blocks away. The move was precipitated by her sudden rise in fashion—first landing an appearance in Sports Illustrated last July then the September cover of American Vogue a few months later, becoming the first Asian plus size model to do so. “This is very cute,” she says, entering the bar dressed in a black duster coat and cozy gray sweater (apropos given the brisk April weather). Her hair is neatly pulled back into a low bun and classic gold hoops dangle from her ears.

A few minutes later, her younger sister and fellow model-musician Natalie Nootenboom arrives, having flown in from their family home near Las Vegas for the occasion. Natalie, 21, is wearing a solid red tank top and a necklace with a dragon clutching a pearl in its mouth, her hair loosely braided to the side. Shrugging off her coat, she reveals a tattoo of the word Awareness on her inner right elbow, while a red snake slithers across her left forearm. “I did metal for a little bit, now I’m doing rock music,” Natalie says later, speaking with the cool, confident manner that helped her become the first plus size model to walk the runway for Anna Sui when she was only 16 years old. The sisters share an easy rapport. Natalie has a very dry sense of humor, cracking self-deprecating jokes with a practiced poker face that leaves her sister in stitches. They say a bit of distance has helped them grow closer — they tried living together for a bit in LA, but, “It was not happening. We know our boundaries,” Yumi says. Agreeing, Natalie adds, “you almost have flashbacks to growing up.”

Like many other famous sisters, Yumi and Natalie have found themselves climbing the ranks of the fashion world in near tandem, which has felt challenging at times given the comparative lack of opportunities for plus size and Asian models. “But I’m so lucky to have seen sisters like Gigi and Bella [Hadid], Dakota and Elle [Fanning], who lift each other up even though they’re in the same industry,” says Natalie. “It’s like, we’re on the same team.” Beyond blood, the sisters are bonded by their mission to champion body inclusivity and Asian-American representation in media. “I didn’t have anyone that looked like me growing up, so now I’m fulfilling that for myself and for others who look like me,” Yumi says, to which Natalie heartily agrees.

On both: Norma Kamali top and skirt. Natalie: Sergio Hudson hat. Yumi: Harlem’s Heaven hat.

Yumi and Natalie were born four years apart (“We’re both Libras,” Natalie interjects) in Englewood, New Jersey and seemed destined for greatness. Their mother, Kana Grace Nootenboom, is the eldest daughter of Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, the restaurateur who popularized Japanese teppanyaki cooking through Benihana. Supermodel Devon Aoki is their aunt, and DJ and record producer Steve Aoki is their uncle. “These girls have a lot of ambition and a lot of drive, and I noticed that when they were very young,” says Steve, who signed Yumi to his record label Dim Mak when she was 21 years old and introduced Natalie to his music mentor Dan Sena as a teen. “I’m just so proud of them. What these girls do is push themselves far beyond the limitations that are in front of them and conquer their previous selves.”

For that, Yumi and Natalie give credit back to their uncle. “He was a huge influence on us for music and also embracing our Asian roots,” Yumi says. “Steve and Devon were both breaking barriers on their own, and our grandfather Americanized Japanese cuisine and broke his own barrier. We’re surrounded by these people who are always pushing the edge of what could be possible.”

Yet the sisters had a grounded upbringing that nurtured creativity and open conversation. Their father Brent, a creative soul, passed on his artistic inclinations. They recall spending time in the garage, where he would play an eclectic mix of records—Sadé for Yumi, Ozzy Osbourne for Natalie—and create collage art to hang on the walls. For their birthdays, he would arrange elaborate scavenger hunts, placing pictures of animals onto construction paper with messages and clues. “He’s a very creative person even in the way he hides gifts, so I think to be around someone like that, you can’t not be inspired,” Yumi says. “He gave us so much space to grow,” Natalie adds, noting that he let her, a young animal lover, raise all the pets she desired. “I had maybe six guinea pigs at once, and he made this giant cage for all of them. Now we have snakes, we have a six foot long boa constrictor.”

From their mother, a marriage and family therapist, they received emotional intelligence and a propensity for self-reflection that helped their family through difficult times. When Yumi was 7 and Natalie 3, the family moved to Maryland, where they spent seven years in a predominantly white community. “Maryland’s hard because there’s not a lot of Asian people, so you grow up sticking out like a sore thumb,” Natalie says. Once at the dentist’s office, another child in the waiting room pulled the corners of his eyes up and an innocent Natalie had to ask her mother what he meant. “Oh no. I didn't know that,” Yumi responded to Natalie’s story, adding that she’d wondered what her sister’s experience with race was like growing up.

“I wasn’t trying to show my Japanese side, I wasn’t thinking, oh I wish someone looked like me, because I didn’t want to look like me,” Yumi says, remembering how her classmates would tell her she looked like Brenda Song from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, then one of the only Asian-American faces on mainstream kids TV. “They would say you look like Brenda Song or Mulan, who’s a cartoon character,” Natalie adds. Feeling the strain, the Nootenbooms moved to Newport, California, where Kana had grown up and the girls’ grandmother still lived. “In Maryland, my mom went into survival mode and kind of raised us in a white-washed way,” Yumi explains, “so until we moved in with my grandma, we didn’t really know much about our Asian heritage, our culture.”

“There’s a lot of toxicity in the culture that I didn’t like,” Natalie adds. “For years I felt I didn’t want to be Asian because I didn’t want to be put in a box, like I have to be really small and petite and I have to be subservient and put my head down,” she says about the stereotypical Asian woman misnomer. Then one day, her grandmother, who had finished writing her autobiography, asked Natalie to read it to her out loud. “Her perseverance and work ethic, that attitude of there’s no choice, just do it, was so inspiring,” she says. “The more time I spent around my grandma, the more I began to fall in love with my culture.”

Yumi calls it a game of catch-up. She’s been taking Japanese lessons from an older man over Zoom, who creates educational Powerpoint presentations illustrated with photos of his cat. They spent the early days of the pandemic building even deeper bonds with their mother’s family, holing up at their uncle Steve’s house for mini mindfulness retreats. (“In the very beginning, Natalie wouldn’t last 30 seconds in the ice bath,” Steve recalls, “then she eventually wanted to break the record and was in there for 45 minutes. It was incredible.”) This summer, the girls will head to Japan for a 10-day trip with their family to attend an annual boat race in their late grandfather’s name. “I was not trying to show my Japanese side, and now it’s a [180],” she says. “I’m trying to make up and heal those years.”

This change of mindset coincided for Yumi with a general self-awakening that occurred in 2016. “Even with my body, I was like, I’m so tired of not liking myself or waiting to be thinner, waiting to look a certain way to be happy with myself, so I just started embracing all sides of myself,” she says. She credits social media, which she describes as “a double-edged sword,” for helping her find perspective. “Social media was the first representation of people like me because that was the only free space that wasn’t gate-kept as a medium,” she says of discovering body positive influencers and activists on Instagram. “I was like, oh there’s actually people like me that like themselves and are happy and confident, and I saw that it’s possible.”

When Yumi began focusing on her modeling career in high school, the plus industry “wasn’t even a thing,” she says. “It was either you’re a size 14, the sample size for plus, or you’re a size 2, or you don’t work. My career was such a slow snowball.” To be the first Asian plus model featured in Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Issue was a milestone. As for the cover of Vogue, she was moving into her house in Silver Lake when her agent gave her the call; she sat on the floor in disbelief and burst into tears. “Everyone’s like, was this always your dream? I’m like, I didn’t even know it could be a dream,” Yumi says. “For me to be on the cover of American Vogue and not change anything about myself is a true testament of where we’re going.”

Natalie followed in her footsteps not long after, “because I had seen my sister do it, and then I’ve seen Devon do it, and I think my mom was a model, so I felt like it’s in my legacy,” she says, laughing. “I’m just grateful there are changes at all because I remember growing up in the era of the low rise jean and being like I can’t wear that because I have a muffin top,” Natalie goes on. (“Oh my God, Natalie,” Yumi opines with a laugh). “The fact that I can model, I’m grateful for the changes that are happening even if they are small.”

“The work ethic is the driving force for all of us to be able to get our voices heard,” says Steve. “I think that’s what these girls are doing—they’re putting their ideas into action, and once their action is met with execution, then they’ll be represented.”

Yet the triumphs have come with complications. “I spent so much of my life ignoring my Asian side and not feeling white enough, and then when I finally want to accept my Asian side, I don’t feel Asian enough. Being the first Asian plus model on Sports Illustrated or Vogue and getting comments of, she’s half-white, though,” Yumi says. “I’m trying to recognize my own privilege of being half-white in the Asian space.” She points out that the majority of Asian plus size models are at least half white. “I would love to see more full Asian representation,” she says. “I know some people don’t feel seen because we are half white, and I think we have to acknowledge that and our privilege in that. I want to push for more at the end of the day.”

“It’s very rare that you’ll see two Asian people on a set,” Natalie chimes in. “Or more than one plus model,” Yumi adds. “It’s like they’re just barely trying to check any of the boxes.”

On the flip side, the sisters have found themselves walking the line in confronting Japanese beauty standards, as well. Case in point: Yumi’s appearance on the cover of Vogue Japan this spring. “It’s a body-conscious issue, and it’s just a headshot,” she says, laughing. “But it’s okay, it’s a small step. I’m just happy to be there. As someone who is half-white and American, who doesn’t speak the language, if they would let me inspire body change and positivity, that was part of my dream for being on Japanese Vogue, just leaving space for people who don’t look like the beauty standard.”

“Sometimes we’ll get people being like, wow you’re so brave, and I’m like for what? I’m just breathing and I’m just existing,” Natalie says. “The truth is, we don’t have to try to be anything in particular, just us existing is the representation. So it’s okay that I’m a blend. I just exist and that’s good enough.”

Up next: Yumi has an alternative pop EP in the works, as well as an ethically made plus size clothing line that she hopes to launch later this year. Natalie is working on a cover EP of one of her favorite goth rock bands, Type O Negative, and is turning her attention toward acting after a turn in a thriller film that has yet to hit theaters. “You don’t see a lot of Asians in films either, so I want to do that,” she says, citing Gemma Chan as an inspiration. Both hope to work more with high fashion brands, who have only slowly begun to open their doors. Through it all, they’ll continue to uplift each other and others like them.

“We call each other pretty frequently and say hey, what’s up,” Natalie says. “I’m a huge fan of her music, I constantly have her stuff on replay. She’ll send me private Soundcloud links before stuff drops. I’m a huge, huge fan and supporter, so most of the time it’s just me fangirling.”

“It’s like you win, I win,” Natalie goes on, to which Yumi replies, with a smile: “Us winning together is what makes this possible.”

This article previously incorrectly stated that Yumi Nu appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She was the first Asian plus model to be featured in the magazine, but did not appear on the cover.

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