Five months ago, Lauren Tsai made the decision to uproot her life in Hawaii and pursue her dream of moving to Tokyo—the events of which unfolded slowly through the quietly dramatic filter of Japanese reality TV. We catch up with the rising model and illustrator to talk about the ways in which her move has affected her both personally and professionally.
How has the transition been treating you so far?
I started working in Tokyo about 3 years ago, when I would come during my summer vacation for 2 months at a time to model. So, it isn’t a completely new environment for me, but moving here was definitely a big step.
When you made that decision, did you plan to focus more on pursuing modeling or illustration?
I came here on an entertainment visa, so a big chunk of my work is modeling—but my passion is still illustration. Slowly, I’ve been trying to find more jobs that will let me do it professionally, and that will let me meet more people in the Japanese visual art industry. This July, I’m actually going to Korea to do an illustration job, so there’s a lot of little work like that coming in. Hopefully next year, I can do a gallery exhibit in Tokyo.
Tell us about your art. What medium do you naturally gravitate towards?
I used to do a lot of digital work, but I became more interested in traditional techniques recently because I like that you can’t really control or erase it, which feels more genuine. When I have free time, I like to sit down and properly use watercolor or acrylic, but generally I’m drawing between jobs or auditions in cafes and even photo studios, so I’m just using a ballpoint pen and my sketchbook. What I love about it is that you can’t erase it, so you have to learn to just go with it, which is exciting. It’s probably my favorite thing to do.
Since the move, do you feel like your style has evolved as an artist?
Recently I find that I’ve had to develop a new side of myself. Culturally, the way people do business and interact here is very different. There are a bunch of formalities that I didn’t know about and had to learn.
It’s interesting because I never considered myself a social person, but as a model, one of the most important parts of your job is networking, and more than that, connecting with people; with the stylists and makeup artists, and also with the people that you meet when you go out to events. I found that it’s something that I actually love doing. I’m building a new side of myself that I had never really pushed in the past.
Do you ever feel like one role is more satisfying than the other?
I think people expect me to say, ‘Oh, the modeling is just for the money.’ It’s true that there’s more money in it, but modeling is actually really fun, and I get the opportunity to meet people and to push myself in a different way, and to see how far I can go with that.
The first time I came across your work was on Instagram. How do you feel about being discovered by people through social media?
A lot of people like to talk shit about social media, but honestly, it’s a great way to promote yourself because you have complete control over it. I think it’s a great way to show people what you like. Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t really want to do necessarily, like post a bunch of selfies, because that’s what gets people looking at it, but I’m extremely grateful for the platform.
Are you more intimidated by the idea of exposing yourself through your art or as yourself on TV?
I’d say it’s equal because with the reality show, the way they edit it, I have no control of how it’s going to come out. It’s hard because when people watch it, they perceive it as reality. They take everything really personally, too. People will contact me and be like, ‘Yo, why’d you reject this person like that?’ And I’ll just be like, ‘Woah! I’m sorry that I’m not perfect.’ It’s good though, because I like being criticized. I’ve learned a lot about myself through that experience.
But then again, showing my art is a different kind of scary. Like one time on Instagram, I posted a drawing that had these scribbles next to it—because I also journal on my sketchbook and write down random things I’m thinking—and people took what I had written down really seriously and started messaging me asking if I was depressed. I got so freaked out and just deleted it. If someone comments mean things on a selfie, I don’t care, but if it’s about my art, that’s very personal.
How do you deal with that?
I think just dealing with it is the only option. You just have to learn to be okay with people not liking your work or saying things like you’re trying too hard or not talented enough or depressed. Whatever they want to say, I have to be okay with it, because no matter what I do, people will always have something to say.
What would you say your greatest influences are as an artist?
I think I’m most influenced by the media that I expose myself to. The movies and animated films that I watch, and the people that I follow online. Definitely all of the Miyazaki films, movies like Coraline… Whenever I go to a bookstore like Tsutaya, I’ll look around and find an art book that I really like and obsess over that. I look up to other artists like Katsuya Terada, James Jean—
I was going say that your work reminds me a lot of James Jean.
Yeah, a lot of people tell me that! People would actually comment that on my posts before I found out who he was, and when I looked his work up I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ There’s also this Korean artist that I follow on Instagram, Kim Jung Gi (@kimgjunggius), who is really amazing. He’s famous for doing ink illustrations with no sketching, he just goes in freehand and creates these elaborate worlds, which is a level that I never expect to get close to. I respect him so much.
Do you have any sort of ritual or process when it comes to creating your work?
Usually I draw when I’m listening to music or I’m feeling sad. I just draw whatever makes me feel the most satisfied. So if it made me feel satisfied to draw a bee, for example, then I follow that feeling. It feels cleansing because I like to draw a bunch of different things on one page, whatever they may be, and not worry about it. It was kind of my way of escaping high school, too. Like whenever I’d be in class feeling horrible, I would just let it out and draw and think about how that would be my way out.
Now that you’ve made this big move, what comes next?
Like I mentioned, I really want to do an exhibit. I just need to find the time to properly block off a month and isolate myself and think about what I really want to do. It’s definitely a goal of mine by at least next year. With modeling, whenever I book a job that I’m really proud of, or I get to work with cool people to create something that I think is genuinely interesting, that’s satisfying; but to create something from myself, that only I worked on—that’s an irreplaceable feeling that I definitely want to pursue.