National footballer Lila Tan is not your average cool girl
Lila Tan, national footballer and runner-up to Miss Universe Singapore 2021, wants to change preconceptions about femininity and athleticism
A national footballer was among the top three winners of Miss Universe Singapore last year, which few would have expected.
Add to that, second runner-up Lila Tan was a pageant rookie, and at the age of 18, was one of the youngest finalists in the competition.
The past two years have been a whirlwind for Lila, during which she was spotted by her current modelling agency Misc. Management via her Instagram (@lilaatan) – she currently has over 16K followers and regularly posts photos of herself in Y2K-inspired outfits.
On the sports front, Lila was called up for trials with the national Under-19 women’s soccer team in 2020. She was later selected for the squad going to the Asian Football Confederation Women’s Asian Cup Qualifiers last September in Tajikistan. By the end of 2021, she was part of the national team.
Lila took up football at 11, after seeing how much her three younger brothers, now aged between seven and 16, enjoyed it.
Playing the sport has also made her an advocate for gender equality and inclusivity. While her parents have always been supportive, to the point of her going professional, she has met sceptics who have riled her with the perspective that girls should not play contact sports like football.
“There’s a lot of stigma around girls involved in sports, that girls aren’t supposed to fit in the category of sports like football where it’s rough, dirty and aggressive. That is a huge misconception that needs to be abolished. We girls should be allowed to do what we want to do,” says Lila, who counts Canadian Jordyn Huitema, who plays for French football club Paris Saint-Germain, and American soccer activist and captain of the US women’s team Megan Rapinoe as her role models.
Lila’s sporty lifestyle is matched with an equal passion for fashion and photography, which led her to several freelance modelling gigs in the past one-and-a-half years. But she soon found herself in the dark space of comparing her “thick waist and thighs” against the conventional willowy model frame.
“My body image has been something I’ve had to deal with when growing up. It became more prominent when I started modelling,” she shares. Initially, when she started freelancing as a model, she was advised to lose weight around her waist until it was 24 inches to increase her possibilities of landing assignments.
“I said ‘no’. It’s not something I’m very fond of, losing weight just to fit in,” Lila declares firmly. “I think I’ve been successful in doing what I want to do, and I don’t need people to tell me what to do with my body or what it should look like.”
When asked if girls should be told more often that it is more important to be healthy than skinny, she replies unhesitatingly: “OH, YES. Especially in our generation right now with social media, I think that needs to be said more often. I don’t want to blame social media, but its content does affect a lot of young women, their body image and confidence.”
While she believes that “everyone should be free to post whatever they want to post” on their social media accounts, she feels that it should be an expression of one’s creativity rather than a validation of self-worth. She would temporarily suspend her Instagram account whenever she feels the content is affecting her negatively.
Now that she has completed her final International Baccalaureate exams, Lila will be focusing on her football training, which occurs four times a week. She plans to take a gap year to further her football ambitions, develop more content for her social media accounts such as fitness and lifestyle videos on Youtube, as well as apply for a scholarship to a university in the United States that would allow her to play football semi-professionally alongside her studies.
She has also launched her own fashion collection online named Aiheartyou with her own savings and support from her parents. She describes it as a label that is eco-friendly with “very inclusive sizing from XXS to XXL”.
“It would be something that’s very my style – out there, very fun and sexy. I don’t want it to be conventional, so it might not be for everyone, but I’m okay with that,” she adds.
Lila sees her journey of confidence as an on-going one, as she learns to apply positive thinking daily, especially when she feels anxious about her looks and starts doubting her self-worth.
“If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you’ll fall into a negative spiral. My mum taught me to talk to myself in a positive manner, that I can do this and that. And always be kind to yourself,” she says.
PHOTOGRAPHY Wee Khim, assisted by Alwin Oh
CREATIVE DIRECTION Windy Aulia
STYLING Lena Kamarudin
HAIR Sean Ang
MAKE-UP Lolent Lee, using Cle de Peau Beaute
The interview is first published in Her World.