Nguyen grew up in New York City and moved to London to study at St. Martin's College of Art. She was spotted by a photographer while shopping in Camden Town. Nguyen appeared in the 1996 Pirelli Calendar and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 1997, becoming the first Asian model to do so. Selected by People Magazine' as being among the "50 Most Beautiful People", she has modeled for leading fashion houses like Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Fendi, and Christian Dior, as well as large American firms such as: GAP and Tommy Hilfiger.
Among her movie credits are brief roles in Memoirs of a Geisha and Hitch. She also was in one of the TV episodes of Sex and the City. In 2013 she had a minor role in the Pawn Stars episode Shekel and Hyde.