Eileen Gu on fashion, fame and success – the Olympic idol opens up about discrimination, her Chinese roots, Instagram empowerment and modelling for Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co.

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Eileen Gu on fashion, fame and success – the Olympic idol opens up about discrimination, her Chinese roots, Instagram empowerment and modelling for Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co.

This didn’t keep her from showing up to the shoot bright and early, looking fresh and displaying none of the tetchy attitude you might expect from a celebrity dealing with sleep deprivation. Despite the prospect of a long day ahead starting with this interview, followed by another hair and make-up session, and then the photo shoot – all before 2pm.

Eileen Gu at Tiffany’s opening party at The Landmark, in April. Photo: BFA

But this is par for the course for Gu, who since the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics – where she competed for China and won gold medals in big air and half-pipe, and a silver medal in slopestyle – has turned into a phenomenon. Forbes listed her as the third-highest-paid female athlete in the world in 2022. It’s no exaggeration to describe her as a generation-defining role model in both her native US, and in China, where she has a rabid fan base.

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Gu couldn’t do all this without Yan, her manager and also her mum, a constant presence by her side and the driving force behind her incredible discipline and focus. The two have an almost symbiotic relationship. Switching freely from English to Mandarin, Gu and her mother act as a united front. While Yan is visibly proud of her daughter’s achievements, she also keeps her on her toes – supporting her in all her endeavours means making sure she finds the time for that coursework as well as enjoying all the other experiences of life as a university student.

Eileen Gu, shot for Style in New York, in April. Photo: Mike Ruiz

Unsurprisingly, Yan is the person Gu looks up to the most. “I find that the older I get the more I become like her in terms of my thought process, work ethic, prioritisation and even mannerisms,” she says. “When I’m making a big decision or facing something that’s more critical I can hear her voice in my head and ask myself what I should do – we spend so much time together that it’s hard not to absorb all that, so I would say she does have a big influence on me.”

Spending time with Gu, you get the sense of the many hats she wears on a daily basis – whether she is worrying about midterm exams, getting ready for campaign shoots and appearances for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, or keeping up with the rigorous training regimen that keeps her fit enough to compete professionally.

You constantly want to push yourself – it’s addictive … there is always room for improvement and to grow and challenge yourself

At this stage in her life, Gu is prioritising school, explaining that she wants to have all the experiences that took a back seat when she was busy winning championships in China and around the world.

Eileen Gu competing in the slopestyle final at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, at the Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou, China. Photo: Kyodo

Gu, who speaks fluent Mandarin and grew up in the Bay Area in Northern California, is extremely attached to her Asian roots. As a child and teenager, she spent every summer in China, where she played the piano, rode horses and practised basketball.

“Mandarin is my first language and I grew up eating Chinese food – my grandmother doesn’t speak English,” says Gu. “I spent every summer in China until I started skiing and had to train over the summer, so the times would get shorter but I would still go.

“It’s always been central to my life and I try to maintain that cultural fluency and being able to navigate different cultures. In terms of places I travel to, Europe imbues me with a sense of open-mindedness. I consider myself to be a very global person and travel allows me to be open-minded in all things.”

Eileen Gu, shot for Style in New York, in April. Photo: Mike Ruiz

She is aware that young people – not just aspiring athletes – look up to her, and with more than a 1.8 million followers on Instagram alone, she works hard to use her platform to make a difference. She peppers her feed with posts of her daily life, as well as those of her at glamorous events that any normal student could only dream of attending, and she stays grounded amid all the attention by enjoying hotpot dinners and hanging out with her sorority sisters.

“First of all, it’s a great privilege to have the platform that I have. I never take it for granted and I’m forever grateful for the people who support me and put trust in me. I try to do them proud and I try to advocate for all things that empower people and keep positivity at the forefront,” she says.

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“I try to focus on sports and breaking boundaries. Now that I’m at school, I’m expanding that by not being put in a box and not being afraid to try new things. But there are times when you need to realise that equality is empowerment and if people are not enjoying equality and being discriminated against, you have a duty to speak out against that, regardless of gender, race, whatever. You can be Black, white, Asian …

“We’re all humans and it’s important to recognise if there are injustices and to play a part and treat people equally.”

Eileen Gu celebrates winning silver for China in the women’s freestyle skiing slopestyle final at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Photo: EPA-EFE

Wise beyond her years, Gu is able to hold her own while talking about technology start-ups with luminaries such as JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon or about her favourite fashion finds with creative minds like Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière.

Gu is quite selective when it comes to the brands she works with, explaining that she is able to separate her modelling from her sporting career and that she enjoys both for the way they enrich her life.

“When I’m Eileen the model I really channel my creative energy and try to be expressive and take it as an opportunity to explore my femininity. It’s something I’ve been working on as of late and a place of curiosity for me, a way to find strength in art and beauty, and ask questions and step out of my comfort zone,” says Gu.

“But in a lot of ways the message is the same in skiing and fashion because they’re both deeply expressive and personal, and there’s an element of performance.”

Eileen Gu, shot for Style in New York, in April. Photo: Mike Ruiz

As someone who didn’t grow up steeped in knowledge about luxury or fashion, Gu has also come to appreciate the work that goes into the creation of the beautiful things available to her now that she is a bona-fide fashion influencer.

“Being in the industry, you also see a lot of what goes into creating beauty: it doesn’t just spawn, it takes hours and all the behind-the-scenes stuff that the general public doesn’t get to see, which gives you a different appreciation of it and a sense of nuance,” she says.

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“The best experience is to learn first-hand and I’m grateful to have that opportunity and to work with the brands that I work with, for them to see my message and me as me, and to put their support behind me and all the work that I do with Louis Vuitton and Tiffany. They’re always trying to innovate and see what’s next. The Tiffany event wasn’t just jewellery but also art, culture, fine dining, fashion and music. This is what I love about it, that it celebrates that intersectionality that I have and the brands that I align with often have similar values.”

Eileen Gu, shot for Style in New York, in April. Photo: Mike Ruiz

Gu’s rise to global fame has been quite an adjustment following her previously regimented life as a professional athlete, but she is taking everything in her stride and can’t emphasise enough how grateful she is for all the opportunities that have come her way.

“To a certain degree, I feel that I do have a level of responsibility that I carry wherever I go and it’s my duty not to just forget about the purpose and mission that I have,” she says.

Eileen Gu at Louis Vuitton’s cruise 2024 show in Italy, in May. Photo: Handout

While she has a healthy relationship with social media and with her “very protective” fans, Gu is aware that she’s not the average university student. “While I try to live like a normal person I remember that I have those responsibilities,” she says. “But at the same time [I’m] a freshman in college and trying to figure out my whole life, and learning lessons about friendship and work ethics and school and passion and failures and all those critical moments of a young adult’s life, while also feeling as though I have to represent myself and the sport and youth culture in a positive light.”

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At the same time she is not resting on her laurels. Far from it. She applies the same concentration and dedication learned on the slopes to her schoolwork, which she doesn’t see as any less challenging.

“Obviously being an Olympic skier comes first: that is the result of 10 years of hard work and planning and dreaming and putting my head down and being patient. At the same time I bring that to school every day,” she says.

“You constantly want to push yourself – it’s addictive – and that’s my message. You always want to be a striver and that’s what makes all the challenges I have so much fun because there is always room for improvement and to grow and challenge yourself.”

Eileen Gu, shot for Style in New York, in April. Photo: Mike Ruiz

While her legions of fans may be impressed by her looks and her glamorous life, Gu says that empowering those who look up to her achievements is her true mission.

“I have this unique opportunity to create not only change within free-skiing culture but more globally in sports culture, and play a little bit of a role in encouraging more girls to find their own purpose,” she says.

“What I’m doing with that is not yelling at people to do this and that, or do what I do, but a new form of boundary breaking, which is that you don’t have to be just an athlete or model – you can be you, and there’s something unique about you whatever your intersections might be. The options for everybody are limitless and they should pursue their passions.”

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