"Fetchingly attired in an oriental style dress, Chinese actress Helen Lee Mei uses the Chrysler building as a backdrop as she poses atop a building here Oct. 3rd. Miss Mei, who was supposed to represent the Far East in swim suit fashions in New York, said Oct. 4th that she will not pose in a bathing suit because she considers it immodest. She will be flown back to Hong Kong by the swim suit manufacturer." —UPI Photo, October 4, 1958
Helen Li Mei refusing to pose in a swimsuit because she thinks it immodest? Hmmm... that doesn't sound like the Li Mei I know.
While not quite an international incident, Helen Li's unexpected refusal to model for Jantzen, after being flown to the United States by the swimsuit manufacturer, was nonetheless noted by International Screen as one of the "Ten Biggest Events in 1958" (ranking third, right after Our Sister Hedy's Best Picture Award and Lin Dai's second Best Actress Award at the 5th Asian Film Festival). While it's impossible to know what really happened, the wildly different accounts in the American and Chinese press hint at — to put it nicely — a lack of cultural respect and understanding.
On October 1st, 1958, Helen arrived in New York to help publicize Jantzen's latest international collection of swimsuits and sportswear. Here's a news item showing her doing some preliminary publicity on the day of her arrival with the three other models participating in the promo tour.
INTERNATIONAL VIEWERS . . . The international model set was well represented by this quartet of lovelies who attended the premiere of the film "The Big Country" as Astor Theatre in New York Wednesday. From left, they are Helen Connor, England; Fay Vitucci, Rome; Mamo Howell, Hawaii; and Helen Lee Mei of Hong Kong. The first three are wearing variations of the chemise while Miss Lee Mei is wearing a traditional style Chinese dress.
—The Daily Review, October 6, 1958
However, it was soon being reported in the American press that Helen was refusing to wear a swimsuit for Jantzen.
No Swimsuit, No Publicity
NEW YORK (AP) — A Chinese model-actress from Hong Kong, flown here to help publicize a line of bathing suits, is being sent back home. She won't wear a bathing suit.
The wasted trip of beautiful Helen Lee Mei was described by a spokesman for the swimsuit manufacturer. He said Miss Mei agreed to come here and appear in the Jet Age International Show at Idlewild airport Tuesday, along with top-flight models from other countries.
Miss Mei arrived in New York Wednesday, and it soon became apparent there had been a misunderstanding.
"The other girls have created no difficulties," said the spokesman. "However, Miss Mei refuses to wear a swimsuit."
Miss Mei was not available for comment.
—Albuquerque Journal, October 5, 1958
So, what happened? Like I said earlier, Helen was no stranger to the swimsuit. In fact, she was one of Hong Kong's top pin-up girls, as this July 1958 calendar photo clearly attests.
According to Oldflames, International Screen had a quite different account of the Jantzen affair. Apparently, when the company had approached Helen's studio (MP&GI) and invited her to the United States to promote their new collection, they weren't very organized and never showed her the contract. However, since a press conference had already been held by MP&GI to announce the tour, she decided to just go ahead with it.
Evidently, when Helen finally arrived in New York, instead of welcoming her like the top star that she was, Jantzen only sent a low-ranking promotions assistant to get her signature on the contract. It is at this point, according to the American press, that Helen became "difficult" and refused to wear a swimsuit out of an alleged (and implied as inscrutable) modesty. But according to Helen, the real reason that she refused to cooperate with Jantzen was because their assistant was rude to her and the company had acted unprofessionally.
Rather than try and patch things up with her, Jantzen warned Helen that she might be deported if she did not change her mind. Upon hearing this, Helen became so angry that she decided to sever her relations for good. She even went so far as to make a public statement that she was not at all adverse to wearing a swimsuit but rather did not like the way that Jantzen treated her.
Again, it's hard to say what really happened, yet it is not so difficult to imagine a possible chain of events from Helen's perspective: a less than respectful welcome; continually, and incorrectly, being addressed as Miss Mei rather than Miss Li (see the news items above); and perhaps even being given the "China doll" treatment (this happened, after all, during the "Suzie Wong" era).
Perhaps I'm reading too much into this. Maybe Helen was a bit of a diva... I don't know. But looking at Helen, especially in the picture at the top of this post, I see a proud woman who was willing to stand up for the respect she deserved.
Helen Li Mei biography by Paul Fonoroff