How 106-year-old Apo Whang-Od Became Vogue’s Oldest Cover Model

From the beginning, Vogue Philippines editors had no plans to style or dress Whang-Od. The goal was "representation, not appropriation."

An elderly tattooed woman smiling on the cover of Vogue magazine
The April edition of Vogue Philippines gained worldwide attention. Audrey Carpio/Vogue Philippines

The April edition of Vogue Philippines gained worldwide attention when it put 106-year-old Apo Whang-Od—also known as Maria Oggay—on the cover of its Beauty Issue. Choosing Whang-Od was an especially bold statement considering it has been less than a year since Vogue Philippines released its debut issue in August 2022. The move sets up the new publication as one that tells important women’s stories and depicts beauty beyond the Hollywood influencer-model-actress archetype.

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Whang-Od is not only the oldest person to ever be on the cover of Vogue but also a beautiful person with a fascinating story to tell. As the accompanying article by features editor Audrey Carpio revealed, the thousand-year-old practice of batok tattooing will continue purely because Apo Whang-Od has been training her descendants in the tradition.

According to Carpio, Filipino culture and heritage were at the core of their vision for the magazine from the beginning.

“At our very first meetings as editors of the new Vogue Philippines, Whang-Od was already part of the line-up of dream stories,” she said. “It was just a question of when. We first tried to plan a trip to Buscalan in July 2022, but it was also the rainy season, and then a big earthquake hit the area, causing landslides along the highways.”

Carpio, along with a team from Vogue, was in communication with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the local government of Tinglayan. It’s a recent requirement for media, owing to the backlash against blogger Nas Daily’s perceived exploitation of Apo Whang-Od in 2021, and accusations of defamatory language towards Filipinos.

“I think after the Nas Daily incident, the NCIP became stricter with handing out permits,” Carpio said. “During our visit, we were accompanied by a representative from the NCIP, who ensured that everything we did was proper and within the agreed-upon coverage. He also acted as a guide and translator.”

Who is Apo Whang-Od?

The Filipina tattoo artist from Buscalan, Kalinga—a 12-hour drive from the capital of Manila—is the last mambabatok, or traditional Kalinga tattooist, and a part of the Butbut people of Kalinga. Whang-Od is also the first and only female mambabatok of her time.

Since she was 16, she has been tattooing the indigenous people of Butbut in Buscalan within the Tinglayan region of Kalinga, a traditional hand-tapping art form that has drawn international tourists to Buscalan for nearly two decades. Despite the international media spotlight, she only communicates in Kalinga and the northern region’s Ilocano language.

The Philippines was once called Las Islas de los Pintados, or ‘The Islands of the Painted Ones,’ because when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s they saw that the people were covered in tattoos,” Caprio shared. “Tattooing was a widespread practice across all the regions but disappeared over the course of colonization.”

Carpio’s Vogue story revealed that the scars of colonialism are more savage and painful than any type of tattooing. Before the American Catholic missionaries came and built schools in Kalinga in the early 1900s, there was enormous pride and beauty inherent in village girls bearing tattooed bodies (“badges of honor, wealth, beauty, and bravery”). The American missionaries insisted that the girls wear long sleeves to cover their arms. Tattooed bodies—shunned by Western, religious concepts of femininity—were associated with shame, especially in urban regions of the Philippines.

A rebel without intending to be, Apo Whang-Od continued to ply her craft and introduced the art to her grand-niece Grace Palicas at the age of 10. Now 26, Palicas and her 23-year-old cousin Elyang Wigan tattoo from Grace’s house in Buscalan.

“Grace was integral to this shoot because she was our link to Whang-Od,” Carpio explained. “They are very close, and Grace is also protective.”

An elderly woman and a younger woman with tattoos stand with arms linked in front of cloth backdrops
Whang-Od with her grandniece and protege, Grace Palicas Audrey Carpio/Vogue Philippines

Vogue led with authenticity

The cover was captured by Filipino fashion and portrait photographer Artu Nepomuceno, who has previously shot covers for Philippines editions of Esquire, Tatler, Town & Country and Southern Living. His assistant, Sela Gonzales was the only one on the Vogue team who could communicate with Whang-Od in Ilocano, and she was the first of the team to be tattooed on the day of the shoot.

Carpio wrote, “Culture survives through representation, not appropriation,” and she, like the rest of the Vogue team, was tattooed by Apo Whang-Od, Grace and Elyang. She explained, “…we are now indelibly inked and linked to the last Philippine tribe that has managed to hold on to its tattooing heritage amid colonial erasure in the rest of the archipelago.”

The plan from the beginning was that Vogue wasn’t going to style Whang-Od, nor to take any fashion items for her to wear.

According to Carpio, “Whang-Od wore her own lipstick. She’s known to love lipstick. Artu brought cloth backdrops, but aside from that we just wanted it to be as natural and comfortable as possible.”

Much has been written about Whang-Od, in both the mainstream news media and travel blogs, so the challenge for Vogue was to find a way to share her story while revealing something new, timely and important.

“I think there was an implicit challenge to create an image that would be different from Jake Verzosa’s iconic portrait of her, which is part of a collection that was exhibited all over Europe and hangs as fine art photography in several collector’s homes,” Carpio said.

Whang-Od’s cover made a sweeping impression

The story spread across social media, garnering shares and praise from the likes of Halle Berry, Kourtney Kardashian, Gigi Hadid and Naomi Campbell. But Carpio said that just how much the cover resonated with women across the world was unexpected.

“I did not imagine the extent of it and perhaps underestimated its significance. To us, Whang-Od is like a rock star, worthy of being on the cover. She had already been featured extensively over the years, so I didn’t think of it as particularly ground-breaking, just that we were sharing her story with a different audience. Amazingly it has resonated with people all over the world, and especially struck a chord with Filipinos in the diaspora. I think we’re now realizing the extent of what a platform like Vogue can do.”

Carpio continues to marvel at her cover model, who has both defied convention and cooperated with commercial culture on her terms.

“Whang-Od kept the tradition [of batok] alive by starting a tattoo tourism industry, and that in itself is remarkable,” she said. “The ritualistic significance of receiving a tattoo is different now, or may not apply at all, since most people don’t take heads in tribal warfare. They just want a cool tattoo from the oldest living mambabatok. But Whang-Od’s renown and the renewed interest in batok has also led Filipinos to look more deeply into this practice, the culture and history surrounding it, discovering the ‘wisdom of the ancients.’”

The Vogue cover doesn’t represent the pinnacle of Whang-Od’s notoriety but rather a fresh beginning.

“I know there’s so much more to Whang-Od’s life story that needs to be uncovered,” added Carpio. “She has been resisting colonial or oppressive forces for a long time.”

How 106-year-old Apo Whang-Od Became Vogue’s Oldest Cover Model