I’m always aware of my surroundings and the people in it, but sitting at a table at Coffee Talk I decided to grab my phone and text my location to the person I was about to meet, when I suddenly became aware of a willowy person looming silently above me.
Dressed casually all in black topped with a black hoodie and ball cap, with a touch of color from round yellow specs, Lauren “Lala” Tsai moved quietly and quickly enough to escape my detection, but she did not go unnoticed by a fangirl who, all smiles and nerves, asked for a selfie.
Tsai happily obliged but it’s clear after talking to her that she’s not one to let newfound celebrity go to her head. The model/illustrator has a clear vision of her life’s direction, and the steely determination and work ethic to make all her dreams come true.
Her focus has already paid off, catapulting the 20-year-old to the top of fashion and animation worlds with work as an illustrator for Marvel and collaborations with such powerhouse brands as Nike and Marc Jacobs. Not bad for a soft-spoken introvert who spent most of her life feeling more comfortable in virtual communities and fantasy worlds created by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli and Laika Studio—in animated films such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Coraline—than in real life.
Born in Massachusetts, where her uncle chef Ming Tsai still calls home, Tsai moved to Hawai‘i with her family at age 7. Even with Hawai‘i’s majority Asian population and culture, she felt alone in her passion for Japanese anime. As a shy student with few friends to commiserate, she relied on her drawing skills to work through her emotions and fears, and in middle school turned to online communities for friendship.
Like the animated and fantasy worlds she loved, being online gave her a sense of camaraderie and opportunities beyond geographic boundaries and she set her sights on a life of stepping into the unknown in search of adventure, like the protagonists of an anime film.
Initially, modeling provided that opportunity. Tsai, who is half Caucasian and half Chinese, started modeling at 15 during summer breaks from school at Pacific Buddhist Academy.
“I moved to Japan right after graduating in 2016. It was a natural thing to try to continue. My parents wanted me to go to college, but I really wanted to take that gap year. I’m really grateful they gave me that opportunity. By that time, I had spent so much time in Japan that I knew what it would be like to live there, but it wasn’t going that well.”
Not quite 5-foot-9 and more Asian in features than the Caucasian hapa look preferred, Tsai says she was chosen for catalog work rather than high-fashion jobs.
But an opportunity arrived via Facebook, where she learned of a Netflix program that would be based in Hawai‘i, and casting for “cool, single people ages 18 to 30.” Tsai felt she met the relationship and age requirements and applied for the show that turned out to be the Japanese reality program, Terrace House: Aloha State.
Though lacking the drama of American-made reality roommate series, the show became an international sensation, and Tsai, though uncomfortable with revealing so much of her life on camera, found fans that could relate to her low-key, at times awkward, demeanor.
“Being in a series was something I’d never considered. I felt pretty comfortable modeling, but not vulnerable to that extent. But even worse than that fear of being vulnerable is the feeling of not knowing what would have happened if I didn’t try. I never want to take the safe option.”
During the show, she was focused on her artwork and ultimately, staging her first exhibition at Ars Gallery Cafe. In the process, she found haters and people who criticized her artwork, and initially took it personally. She had felt the pressure of social media’s demands to look cool and interesting every waking moment and felt compelled to participate in the charade.
“I felt like I had to change to have people like me. I got so tired of it. What I learned was you can be as real as you want on social media or as fake as you want but no matter what you do, people will still find a reason to hate you. People will still judge you, but you can’t take it personally because it’s a reflection of their insecurity.”
It also saddened her that the online world where she once found solace and friendship, had turned into one of competition, conflict and alienation to so many people. She wanted a return to the true meaning of “social,” starting with her own Instagram feed.
“I wanted to show something true to me because I realized it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. You could look successful on the outside, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel that way about yourself. I want people who follow me to feel that being themselves, as they are, is everything.”
With that in mind, she calmly brushed critics aside while maintaining focus on her goals. “It’s tough to put your art, yourself out there, but if you don’t, it’s impossible for the right people to find you.”
Meanwhile, the right people were watching Terrace House, and back in Japan, Tsai was being inundated with modeling offers to appear in magazines like GQ Japan and Vogue Japan, and in TV commercials. She found herself being flown out to fashion week events around the globe and initially she was happy, but that feeling faded as her life was thrown out of balance.
“I felt like I was happy and that I was extremely lucky. After working so long at it, I finally felt I had everything I wanted, but the line between work and my personal life was becoming blurred. Basically, I was working too much. I had no weekends off for a year, no time for friends. I had a low period when I wasn’t drawing and not feeling like myself.”
Then one day during a photo session for a bridal magazine, she was sitting in the makeup chair when she looked in the mirror and saw a stranger. “I felt like I was floating, that everything was surreal and that I was not doing the things I wanted to do and I that I had to take a step back.”
She felt it was time to return to her sketchbooks.
“There’s a lot I love about modeling, but I didn’t have balance. It’s easy to find comfort in social media or go home to Netflix, but I wanted to dedicate my life to storytelling. I think people are searching for stories that make them feel connected, feel represented and inspired. I really think stories like that can change the world.”
The CEO of Marc Jacobs Japan had seen her artwork while she was on Terrace House and the two had been corresponding online. It just so happened that she was in New York to see a Coach fashion show in fall 2017 while he was also in town for business and they arranged to meet. Leaving her sketchbook in his care, she went back to Japan and waited.
In January 2018, she got the call confirming, “Marc wants to do this.”
“It felt like a dream because my path to getting there was so untraditional,” she says.
By February, she was back in New York at the Marc Jacobs offices, spending three weeks participating in the design pro- cess. The result was a Lauren Tsai x Marc Jacobs capsule collection of handbags, small leather goods and apparel featuring her otherworldly illustrations, that launched in back in October.
This new year promises more break- throughs as her cover illustrations for Marvel have led to her variant take on female superhero Captain Marvel debuting this month, plus more high-profile projects that will keep Tsai in the public eye.
She views each undertaking as a stepping stone toward one day heading her own animation studio by facing her fears one at a time.
ABOUT THE SETTING
Much like its varied past, the Hawai‘i State Art Museum (HiSAM) serves many purposes today. Its two galleries are home to the Art in Public Places Collection; it serves as a peaceful oasis in downtown and popular lunch spot (thanks to Artizen by MW). On First Fridays, the museum features live music and DJs in the outdoor Sculpture Garden. sfca.hawaii.gov