“I used to see my race as a liability rather than an asset but then I realised that change had to start with me“. – Kenjai, Miss Illustrated Pinup Australia 2014
She is the National and State title holder for the Illustrated category of Miss Pin Up Australia 2014, an internationally published pinup and one half of the glamorous Sugar Twins. Somehow between juggling a sold out fringe show, a fullltime job and family comittments, Kenjai still found time to chat to me about her Pin up journey so far.
The first time I came across Kenjai was during the W.A heats of Miss Pin-Up Australia in 2014. I would like to point out here that I come from a very small pin up scene in what some would consider an isolated part of Australia. Just to hear of another pin up who identified as a woman of colour was enough to send my radar into overdrive. At the same time i found myself ever the cynic: How would a non white woman fare in a competition that, through no fault of its own, seldom sees contestants of colour? And yet from the moment she set foot on stage, Kenjai broke down so many of the barriers that hampered the journey of many pin ups like her. I have to say, seeing her compete and eventually take out the title of Miss Illustrated WA 2014 was one of the most inspiring things I had experienced that year. I was instantly struck by her feisty and fun loving personality and the confidence with which she owned the space around her.
Many months later, we found ourselves chatting in a beer garden at the Perth Fringe Festival about the trials and tribulations of being a Pin up of Colour in Australia. And the conversation went something like this:
MM: Tell me a little bit about your background
K: I come from a mixed European and South east Asian descent. My mum Is Thai and my dad is of Anglo-Celtic descent. I was born and raised in Australia, but i lived overseas in Thailand for a little while when I was a child. For the most part I grew up here.
MM: Have you always felt connected to your Thai heritage?
K: More so now than I did growing up. I think, growing up in Australia in the 80s cultural diversity wasn’t as huge a deal as it is now and the small handful of Asian kids around me just wanted to fit in. Any ethnic kids that I knew at the time didn’t want anything to do with their roots. This was because it was all about fitting in and sadly having non English names and bringing weird lunches to school didn’t make you too popular.
MM: Why did you decide to pursue pinup?
I have no idea. I have always had a real love of vintage even from teenage years but my style didn’t fully refine until the last five years or so. Being a plus size girl I found that the styles were more flattering to my body. I am not comfortable with ultra-short skirts anyway but with a lot of vintage and pin up style clothing I found it just flattered my shape a lot better.
MM: How do you reconcile your pinup style, which is often vested heavily in a very white, very American context, with your own background?
K: Sometimes I hear people deny that pin up comes from white American culture. They tend to get quite defensive about it in fact. I want to point out that this is not necessarily a criticism, it is just stating a historical fact. Pin up had its heyday during a very different time to ours. It was during a time of segregation and so of course the popular culture that pin up came from was predominantly “white”. It is not a criticism, it is just acknowledgement of history.
The world is a bit different now but it’s still hard (for pin ups of colour). There are still a lot of people who think of pin up as a white thing and yes that is obviously where the roots of popular pin up lies but we are not living in the 1940s or 1950s segregated America, we live in a multicultural world now. Pin up should not be limited by race. I do try to bring my Asian heritage to my pinup style and outfits. I try and diversify my looks as much as possible.
MM: With pin up competitions, do you sometimes feel like the odds are stacked against you?
K: When I entered Miss Pinup Australia, my first instinct was to pick Asian influenced outfits. A friend of mine who wasn’t really involved with pin up said to me “I think you’re making a big mistake. I think you should stick with Americana”. I decided to ask the organisers of Miss Pin Up Australia whether it would go against me if I steered away from Americana and the answer I got was very supportive. I was told that I should embrace my heritage and what I saw as my pin up persona. I decided then and there that I was going to enter the competition with the best version of myself. I embraced my Asian heritage in every aspect of my costuming for that competition.
MM: What are some of the detriments in the way mainstream media portrays Asian women?
K: I think the oversexualisation of Asian women in mainstream media is a huge problem. Our women have a very sexualised stereotype attached to them. We are not represented in a very positive light by mainstream media and there are still a lot of negative stereotypes out there that needs to be combated. That’s just stuff you come across outside the pin up circle, I feel there is less of that stereotype within the pin up community. However, there’s still not a lot of representation of pin up models of non-white backgrounds.
MM: Where do you think the pin up scene in Australia is going to end up in the next ten years? Do you think we are going to diversify?
K: I think so and I hope so. I think in terms of diversity we can only get better as time goes on. I like to think we have become more accepting as time has gone by. I mean you look at how we are today compared to ten or twenty years ago. We still have problems for sure but I think the door is opening for more and more women. The idea that pin up is primarily a white thing is starting to lift. Seeing more women of colour entering these pin up competitions is heartening.
MM: Your year was a particularly interesting one for Miss Pin Up Australia in my opinion as a Pin up of Colour myself. Not only did you take out the title of Miss Illustrated (WA) we also saw an Asian Miss Neo Pin up (WA) (Rosie Boudoir, pictured on the right).
K: We had a couple of entrants of Asian background actually. It was great to be part of such a successful year for W.A where both the state representatives were women of colour. I don’t know if that’s happen before.
MM: Any idols who inspire you to do what you do?
K: I know she has nothing to do with pin up but Kimora Lee Simmons has to be one of my idols. She is part Asian and part black and what I love is how she embraces her heritage in its totality. Maisumi Max is another person who has been breaking barriers for non white, particularly Asian, pin ups for some time now. And of course let’s not forget Tura Sutana, possibly one of the biggest bad asses to have ever walked the earth. I just love her. I have been planning a Tura Sutana tribute for a long time now.
MM: We were talking earlier on about how hard it is to find makeup and tutorials that work for pin ups of colour. Could you elaborate on some of the struggles pin ups of colour may go through in getting the look down pat?
K: Makeup can definitely be tricky, especially when it comes to photo shoots. I have started doing my own makeup for shoots now, I don’t even use makeup artists anymore unless it’s something out of the ordinary. Every photo shoot I have ever done involving a makeup artist, I have had to pre warn the photographer “Can you please tell your makeup artist I am Asian and that I will need foundation that suits my undertone”. It’s amazing how many photographers were oblivious to the fact that a lot of mainstream foundations don’t work for Asian models because we have a completely different undertone to white models. I have always had to bring my own foundation to shoots because most makeup artists didn’t stock for what they perceived to be the minority.
A lot of the vintage make up blogs and hair tutorials out there aren’t necessarily compatible with non white features. Our hair is different, we need different setting methods. Our eyes and face shapes are different and so we need different ways to apply makeup. To get that authentic “pin up look” isn’t as simple as it could be for pin ups of colour especially if you are brand new to the whole thing. There is definitely a lack of resources aimed at us and tailored to us specifically.
MM: Any words of advice to other women of colour who wish to venture into the wonderful world of pin up?
K: Be the change you want to see
I say this about everything in life. If you want to see more pin ups of colour, be that person! Don’t wait for someone else to do it. The lack of representation is one of the things that held me back in the beginning but it’s also what propelled me forward. I used to see my race as a liability rather than an asset but then I realised that change had to start with me. And this change in attitude and representation will continue with you taking that first step on your pin up journey. If you want representation be prepared to represent!
To follow Kenjai’s Pin up journey you can find her on Facebook or instagram: @kenjaipinup