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Revealed after 60 years... the real Green Lady whose face is on a million living room walls

By Dan Newling

Last updated at 1:16 AM on 4th June 2011

The flowing black locks are instantly recognisable, as are the  flared nostrils and ruby lips.

But thankfully, her skin has lost its emerald glow.

This is Monika Pon, the Green Lady whose face has adorned millions of British sitting-room walls.

Was she on your living room wall? Monika Sing-Lee recreates the pose captured in Vladmir Tretchikoff's famous picture The Green Lady - the world's most reproduced painting that made the artist's fortune

The Daily Mail this week tracked her down at her home in South Africa and discovered the true story behind the world’s most reproduced painting.

Its artist, Russian-born Vladimir Tretchikoff, always claimed his subject was a woman he met in San Francisco.

In fact it was 17-year-old Monika Sing-Lee, who was a single girl working in her uncle’s laundry in Cape Town in the early 1950s when Tretchikoff heard of her beauty from a friend.

Striking beauty: Seventeen-year-old Monika Sing-Lee was a single girl working in her uncle's laundry in the early Fifties when she posed for the painting

Striking beauty: Seventeen-year-old Monika Sing-Lee was a single girl working in her uncle's laundry in the early Fifties when she posed for the painting

‘He walked in, stared at me and said, “Hello, I’m Tretchikoff. I would like to paint you. Would you sit for me?”,’ recalled Mrs Pon, now in her mid-70s.

‘I didn’t know what to say – I was very naive about these sorts of things. I had been told by men that I was beautiful and sexy, and my friends said when I walked down the street everyone noticed me.

‘But growing up in the apartheid era, everyone hated the Chinese and at home I was called “flat face”. So I never felt pretty.’

Nonetheless she agreed and, for two days a week over the following ten weeks, Monika posed for the Russian artist and 15 of his students in the sessions which produced the picture officially titled The Chinese Girl.

‘I would sit on a little stage, which was slightly raised,’ she recalls. ‘I wore a pure silk jacket that belonged to his wife. In the picture it’s a different colour to how it was in real life. But it’s the same one.

‘He was handsome and attractive and he made me laugh. We had such fun.  But he was always a gentleman to me.’

Tretchikoff paid her just over six South African pounds for her time: a fee equivalent to around £130 now.

Monika was happy with the money but the painting, when she eventually saw it, did not impress her.

The artist: Vladimir Tretchikoff painted Miss Pon in the early Fifties after a friend told him of her beauty

The artist: Vladimir Tretchikoff painted Miss Pon in the early Fifties after a friend told him of her beauty

‘To be honest, I didn’t like that green face,’ she said. ‘I thought it made me look ill.’

She went on to marry commercial traveller Pon Su-Suan and have five children, but they parted 40 years ago and she spent much of her life in poverty, working in a fish-and-chip shop and as a seamstress.

Meanwhile Tretchikoff went from strength to strength. While loathed by art critics, his garish paintings were hugely popular in the drab post-war years.

He made millions selling cheap reproductions of his work direct to the public. 

And of all his pictures, it was The Chinese Girl that sold the most.  Even now it is revered as a classic of 1950s kitsch.

While acknowledging he painted an early version of the picture in Cape Town, Tretchikoff claimed it had been destroyed by vandals and maintained until his death in 2006 that his model came from the U.S.

Experts think that he concealed its true origin through misguided fear of being sued for a portion of its earnings.

But Andrew Lamprecht, who is writing a book on the artist, said: ‘It’s clear as soon as you meet Monika that it’s her.’

And Mrs Pon says the artist privately acknowledged that she was the true Chinese Girl.

Reintroduced in the 1990s, the pair struck up a strong friendship. Pictures of the pair show them laughing together.

Mrs Pon said: ‘When we met, he didn’t recognise me so I told him who I was. He said, “Don’t be silly – you don’t look like her”. I replied, “Do you look the same as you did 40 years ago?” 

‘Then I told him how we met and little things that only the true Chinese Girl would know, such as how he liked to dance the jitterbug. That was that. Immediately we were laughing again.’

She added: ‘I’m not boasting but it was my portrait that made Tretchikoff rich. The Chinese Girl was the best thing that ever happened to me in my not-so-nice life.’

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