Tweenage Memories: Stylist, Amelian Kashiro
Photography by painter, designer, and stylist Amelian Kashiro.
Interview: Isis Nicole
On family origins and life in Alaska:
Amelian Kashiro: Growing up was a bit rough being the oldest of four girls. I had heavy big sister responsibilities especially in my tweens around age 12 (I was born in 1984). My sister Jessica was 11-years-old at the time, Clarissa 8-years-old, and Shamira, the youngest, was 4-years-old. My father is African-American from Louisiana and raised in Oakland. My mother was born and raised in Azabu - a posh district of Tokyo. My parents met when my mom was an exchange student at Alaska Pacific University. My father was there playing baseball and paying his way through school. They married when my mom found out that she was pregnant with me. Because of my father’s race, and prior plans he had for my mother post college, my Japanese grandfather was against the union. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a prominent contractor and the founder of a black owned construction company. He was a part of our life but had a new wife and full family. Because of this, we didn’t really have a super close family unit. We struggled unlike my mothers upbringing. When she told me stories of her past I absorbed them but glazed over them in the same sense because of the way we were living from hand to mouth. Her [past] life almost seemed like a fairy tale. The grape vineyard my Japanese grandmother made after having a swimming pool dug out in the backyard, my grandfather, Kashiro, made movies with the likes of Frank Sinatra. He was a producer at Toho Studios. His independent projects were movies about seasons where he would show winter snow fall transitions to spring flowers or movies documenting Disneyland as he was in charge of filming those shorts for cable. That’s all I remember of my Japanese side as a kid. My mom [would say] that she had four girls to make up for the absence she felt having distanced herself from her side of the family as she wasn’t going to budge in her decision to be with my father.
I was the responsible big sister. My mother Yoko’s English wasn’t very good and I was speaking for her, ordering pizzas and yelling at people in stores that were rude to her as soon as I could complete full sentences around 4-years-old. I thought it was normal to wake up to the night as every morning we would get ready for school at 6 a.m. Coming home, I had to make sure to heard all my sisters together and walk home in a group as the 3:30 dusk would start, with darkness hovering over around 5 p.m. There were a lot of predators and child molester stories shared amongst us little girls and boys. Kidnappings were common place. Dad always told me if someone fucked with us pick up the biggest stick possible and beat that fool. The Oakland survivor mentality was definitely always a factor in our household. Alaska was wild and guns were everywhere as conceal and carry was always legal as far as I could remember. It was normal to see your parents with guns, a lot of boys hunted with their families. Guns would show up at parties as shooting were really frequent in high school. This was common. We had our Rottweiler named Shaka and she was my escape and excuse to get out the house. My parents were cool with me being out alone if I had Shaka with me. I would walk Shaka to meet boys or see friends at the park. I had a group of guy friends, Mark, Andre and Alban who came over [and] we absorbed the whole Fugees The Score album when it first came out on my little boom box. I had an advantage over the other kids because my mom was cool with buying me any CD I wanted if I gave her the money. She didn’t care if it was explicit or maybe she was oblivious about the restrictions because of the cultural bridge.
On being "cool" in the 90s:
AK: My mom sewed our clothes sometimes and we had fun designing my prom dress. I picked out the fabrics and pattern with her. I had a interest in design and the arts at a young age, always doodling or drawing. I collected rocks which I kept under my bed in giant Costco mayonnaise jars and clippings from the newspaper of moose, deer or nature photos Elmer glued in spiral bound notebooks. My sisters and I were always left home alone since [our parents] worked so much. They gave us things to fiddle with like video games, outdated encyclopedias, instruments from thrift stores, oil pastels sent from my grandmother and recordings of Anpan Man and Miyazaki cartoons of NHK (Japan's largest broadcasting organization) on VHS. I read voraciously, Goosebumps books and begged my mom to buy me another … and another. It was a big deal for Alaskan adolescents as we would trade. Growing up in Alaska as a tween in the 90s and early 2000s, you really had to have interests. I took up ice skating. It was an easy way for me to keep occupied. Roller skating was super popular since it was indoors. If you were not at the rink on a Friday or Saturday, your life totally sucked. Going to the movies was a big deal [and] logo culture, too.
People stuck strongly to whatever they identified with brand wise, musically, or through movies from watching what was going on in “cooler places” from MTV and BET. Alaska didn’t have anyone notably famous pop-culture wise, no sports team even. We all had to wear snow gear to school and the first sign of being cool was if you had the right jacket. Starter, First Down, Triple Fat Goose, Lugz, Mecca, Fubu, Nike, Fila, Columbia, North Face was all the rage. Also, back in 1996 in my tweens, there was an obsession with gang culture. I remember how dark that time felt. It was crazy how my peers and myself thought that was so cool trying to emulate it as a badge of honor. Some kids had real gang affiliation because many were shipped up to live with relatives in Alaska or their family moved to get away to start a better life. We had gangs for sure but various ones depending on your ethnic background. It was really cool to grow up among a melting pot of races - Black, White, African, Samoan, Tongan, Filipino, Korean, Alaska Native, Iranian, Albanian, Hmong, Vietnamese , Laotian, Thai, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan, Lebanese you name it. There was [also] a lot of fighting. I was the mediator often times, convincing girls not to handcuff, cut the hair of, or beat another girl they considered “a slut” as often I was friends with the girls people were scared of and the girls people hated, too. Sometimes I had to fight and that was par for the course, mostly with guys who had no problem hitting a girl. There is a lot of violence in Alaska, people take things too far since you can’t really escape or leave. A lot of depression from a seasonal affective depressive disorder that is onslaught because of the long dark winters and lack of sunlight. This was really common and a treatment for it was a special light one had to stare at for a period of time that replicated the rays of the sun. I had teachers through my life that were open about having to treat their SAD.
On friendship, AzN pride, and early style:
AK: We moved a lot. I didn’t understand at the time but I think moving so much, and not fitting into any standard being Black and Japanese, made me feel really neutral. I was never fearful of initiating a friendship and always stood my ground. If you were my friend you were my friend. I didn’t turn on people because others had a misconception or judgement. I hung out with various groups and never stuck with one race. I loved being friends with anyone cool regardless of race, sexuality or background. Around the age of 13, I had a best friend named Kaye who was full on goth. She was half Filipino and half white. People would ask me why I was friends with her and I would say, “Why not?” I remember Kaye called me freaking out because the only other goth cutie called her and wanted to come over. At this time she shared a room with her older sister who was super pretty and would wallpaper the entire room every other week with issues of Vogue. Kaye was mortified because Vogue magazine wasn’t goth enough. "Dude I need you to come over and draw anarchy signs on all the foreheads of the models before he comes. I’m freaking out!," she wailed. I was so tickled by this and wanted to have my girls back. “Yeah dude I got you! Be over in 30.” I hopped on my bicycle, rode to her house, and spent two hours drawing anarchy signs and pentagrams on photos of waif models. When we finally finished she breathed a sigh of relief and I snuck out on my bike just in time for her crush to show up probably thinking she was punk as fuck upon entering her bedroom. In Anchorage our interests and taste in music mattered so much. If you liked Nirvana and Marilyn Manson you were labeled a “skater” or “goth” etc. Still everyone was going through the full effort of looking their lifestyle, even when it was too cold. In junior high we would think we were Bloods, Crips etc and wore colors, baggy clothes, argued over Biggie and Tupac, listened to Bone Thugs & Harmony E1999 Eternal deciphering the backwards cryptic text in the spine of the CD jewel case. In high school it was the Baby Phat, Bad Boy R & B take over. Mase, Missy Elliot, OutKast, Cam’ron, State Property, WuTang, plus No Limit influence. It was so magical I can remember all the layers now. The boys usually wanted to look like Cisco from Dru Hill with the blond hair or tips. All the AzN pride kids had the highest spiked hair. Jnco rave denim or the WuWear, Enyce, Phat Farm, and Sean Jean were looks. My main focus, alongside my childhood best friend Ginger, was to look like a video vixen in a Mystikal or Donell Jones video when I was sneaking out to a bar or club. I had a fake ID freshman year doing shit I shouldn’t have been doing. Ginger and I would wear white cowboy hats to school, coordinating cotton-candy-color polar fleece, fake leather coats, pvc plastic coats and skirts that cracked and crumbled in the cold Alaskan winters. While my AzN boyfriend and friends were raving in crop tops, neon candy bracelets and vicks vapor rub face masks, I would show up in Baby Phat and a boot on my way to the 18+ Hip-Hop club just to say hi. I never thought 'because I’m going to a rave I should dress like a raver.' I always stayed true to myself and my varying fashion moods.
A lot of kids identified strongly with where there family was from in the “lower 48”. I found some sadness in this because I would talk to classmates that talked about “Cali” like it was a badge. Everyone was strong about where they were “actually” from because being Alaskan and ethnic seemed like a badge of shame. “My mom is from Cali” or “my family is from New York” was always reiterated. The sadness I mentioned was from kids who had never taken a plane to see those places or visited at a young age and hadn’t been in years but just lived in the relic of this identity south of us. Alaska at this time was expensive flight wise and in Anchorage, where I am from, you are pretty much stuck there as the next major city, Fairbanks, is around 9 hours away. You could drive out through Canada and that takes a week or so. If you were poor family vacations were not happening unless dividend season hit. Dividends are a yearly check every resident of the state receives from oil revenue which could range from $600 - $1500 a person. It was crazy to see the kids who’s parents let them have the whole check at 13-years-old. People were fanning bills at lunch, ordering limos for their birthdays. Everyone felt rich once a year and acted like little mini rappers. My parents only let me have $100 which I spent on clothes, sneakers usually.
On coming of age:
AK: I really came of age [during a] summer in Oakland. My grandmother still lives in the same apartment she raised my dad in. I was a pretty fearless kid even though I was shy at times. My grandma would let me catch the bus alone as I fell in love with travel. Away from the protectiveness of my parents, it was cool to push myself as a young person in the Bay. I got my first relaxer in Oakland as Grandma made sure that happened to all of us. I had no idea what was going on as she took us to see a hairdresser named Michael that acted like a big ol’ queen and happily married to a woman. He had us sitting in his east Oakland salon with women waiting to sit in his chair. Finally when he got hold of us the look of horror in his eyes as he put the relaxer in our hair, picking up mine as its enveloped in the stinking white mess of lye saying, "My GOD look at this big ol’ log! All this hair! This head of hair honey!” Just enamored at the mass of hair unattended to by my ambivalent dad and Japanese mom who would give us a lesser grade of sporadic not lined up Stevie Wonder braids. We left the salon at 3 a.m., hair so straight and shiny I didn’t wash it for three months for fear of not knowing how to make it do what Michael did in his laboratory.
Oakland taught me how to just be cool, literally, and go with the flow. I wanted to be easy and chill like my aunt Tiffany. I remember the summer I came back in high school she told me she knew Tupac’s cousin and he worked at Musicland in the Southland mall. At this time Tupac had been passed but he was still considered God to myself and teens across America. I remember the day he was announced dead, I was home from school sick and cried for days mourning my favorite rapper. I begged her to show him to me and one day, three bus transfers later she brought me to that Musicland and by god this man looked exactly like Tupac, smile, long lashes and cocoa skin. He greeted Tiffany and introduced me. I was in awe. Meeting Tupac’s cousin was one of the high points of my teen life and again I giggle. Bringing that moment back to Alaska with me made me so happy. The kids were in awe of my Pac cousin encounter and I was in awe of my magical popular social butterfly fly auntie that told no lies.
On favorite pastimes growing up:
AK: When I became a tween the Internet was available and it really changed my life. I remember being 12-years-old and my father brought home a SONY Vaio desktop. My best friend Desteny had a computer, too. We were addicted to Napster, downloading all the new Makeveli cuts, ravishing through so much music. Desteny also had to watch her siblings all the time so when one of us could stay at the others place we got on our AOL accounts or Netscape. Name was KASHIRO98. We would talk to boys and make up fake accounts and go into various chat rooms in the ruse that we were actually speaking to two other guys our age. Pretty much we were cat fishing the hell out of the Internet out of boredom while sneaking chugs of her moms box of Franzia wine. We did this religiously while burning mixed CD's. When asked to describe ourselves we would just repeat characteristics of Maya Campbell, Stacey Dash or Tatiana Ali. Those were the girls EVERYONE wanted to be circa 1995 - 1999. We were really good at it and did this until we started going to actual clubs and parties. When the Internet developed more during my high school years, social media groups started forming like Asian Avenue and Black Planet. Since I was Blasian, bwahaha, I was on both. I was in the social AzN girl circle in high school and knowing your html, designing your page with the works: twinkle stars, custom cursor, music, rearranged custom page layout and a photo so high in flash and beyond blown out with high brightness and high contrast circa Facetune. This and blogging on Blogspot or Xanga was all the rage and I was a real G at this. Myself and various girls around Anchorage would maniacally work on our pages competitively with various shit talking on comments. Yes, we had blogger drama even leading to physical fights in person. I look back now and think the beef between so many of us girls was so stupid and pointless. Messaging on AIM was a cute way to meet boys from other schools or chat with people, I remember how long my friend list was. If you were AzN or into a boy with a Honda Accord or Acura with a underbody kit, they probably had a screen name with alternating caps locks.
I was also obsessed with Vibe magazine and would purchase new copies as soon as they came out. After I read it back to back I would take them apart to plaster my walls using nail glue to collage the bedroom I shared with my sister Jessica. I spent my money on music, makeup, clothes, hair products, getting my nails done with a square tip and magazines. We didn’t have much access to other magazines besides what was mainstream and available, so I read a lot of Seventeen and Cosmo growing up, too. Working was a pastime I loved because I loved making my own money for clothes. I ran track and field, become captain my junior and senior year, and had a boyfriend who was into import racing. I would go to illegal street races with him when the snow would melt at some hidden street late at night with tons of other racers from all over town. I would watch races or sit in the car with him while he raced until the police showed up and we all split. He also dropped out of school and would play pool so sometimes I would skip and play pool, too. I also loved Dance Dance Revolution in my teens, even burning songs from the game and listening to them in my little busted Chevy Blazer! When I read I dove into Terry McMillan and Amy Tan novels. Learned about Asian and Black womanhood through the voices of these imaginary family dynamics explored in these novelists stories. I also enjoyed challenging teachers on the fallacies in white history books and questioning the lack of black history often getting kicked out and sent to the hallway or office. I loved writing and enjoyed creative writing and AP English. I loved the challenge of disputing anything I felt was unfair by the administration or local paper regardless of the authority figure. Sometimes I would [even] read the newspaper and write a letter in dispute.
On favorite fragrances growing up:
AK: I discovered Angel by Thierry Mugler when my mom brought home a sample when I was 15-years-old. I still wear it to this day. I wore Donna Karan Cashmere, Angel by Victoria Secret, and I went through a Gucci Rush period, too. One time I inherited an old bottle of Pasha Picasso from my moms friend when I was 12-years-old. I had no idea about what it meant for a scent to work with my chemistry. I laid out my clothes on my bed and sprayed the hell out of them. When I wore the clothes I walked by my dad and he stopped me.“Baby, that’s too much perfume and it smells like shit. Go take a shower,” he said. I was mortified but also he was so right. That moment makes me laugh to this day. My dad gives zero fucks.
On parents support of creative expression:
AK: I was always good at anything creative growing up. I was always into clothing, drawing designs, and I never went to school in a incomplete outfit. It was always a full concept look! I was self taught and my artwork would make it to whatever museum or achievement that would pertain to the arts since I was in elementary school. My parents were supportive in the way that they knew and acknowledged I was good at the arts but didn’t supplement me with extracurricular activities or encourage me to go to school for the arts. They didn’t really engage when it came to my future much, not having a opinion at all. When I decided I wanted to go to college they tried to talk me out of it. They tried to convince me that I needed to do some local supplemental courses as they felt I wasn’t “prepared.” I had to dissect this and come to terms with the intent vs notion they were projecting on me. I was angry and insulted, thinking they wanted to hold me back and they thought I was stupid. I was very smart and took AP courses so why would I need remedial course at a community college? I carried resentment over this until I came to the realization that it was their fear taking over. They said these things for fear of me leaving. For fear of losing the daughter they depended on so much since they had no parents or brothers or sisters to depend on. I took the place of immediate family to lean on. They feared me being in Las Vegas, leaving them and going off, unable to protect me. When I discovered styling was a job over 12 years ago I immediately told my parents that’s what I wanted to do. I had to explain it to them and over time they totally understand. The thing with my mom and dad is I can’t resent them for not knowing how to present the tools or education a creative butterfly artist daughter would require. Where I’m from, none of that was happening and I still navigate through this world figuring it out one day at a time and I’m 34-years-old. One thing I do love my parents for is that they have never doubted my gifts and talents even when they didn’t quite understand them fully. I am super supported by my family now more than ever as a stylist and visual artist. They don’t question me or try to convince me to take a more stable path. They understand and support the vision and for that I am grateful. That is something one must allow loved ones to come to terms with or not come to terms with. I made the decision to follow this life and had to stick to my guns regardless of my parents, and during a time when most people had no comprehension of what a wardrobe stylist is or does.
On imagining life today:
AK: You know, my good friend Keesh, who is like a big sister mentor to me, always says, "If you don’t know what it looks like you won’t know what it is once it’s in front of your face.” I’ve kept this mantra deep in my heart as I used to take the negative aspects to depth when in actuality the good and bad showed me how to dissect experiences to use in a way to collage my future. My life is better than I ever imagined. I dreamt of being a artist and I had no idea what that would look like or how to get there growing up in Alaska. I left it in God’s hands and trusted it would happen for me. I was completely clueless about the art world and anything to do with styling. Zero exposure to any professionals or even the notion this was a job. I made friends, lovers and had opportunities good and bad that molded me into the being that I am. I learned that crafting a lifestyle, not a life, is the epitome and essence of being an artist as your vision and self should be all encompassing of your product. I love where all the pain and struggle led me to, also the joy and sheer happiness in the incredible experiences I’ve been able to witness. I know what it looks like now so when I’m in a moment I can sit there and soak it up. When I’m down or hit rock bottom I know it’s because God is preparing me for something greater. It always gets better. No matter what it will and does get better if you do the work.
On remaining present:
AK: I listen and work on my comprehension skills. It’s very important for me to process what people say. I read as much as possible. I love to engage with people. I enjoy deep conversations with Uber/Lyft drivers who I think are the ashes of the road. I call my friends and talk. I listen to my parents and anyone older and younger than myself for perspective. I practice my hobbies such as ice skating to keep centered. I go out in nature when I can. I reminisce and thank God I am exactly where I need to be in the moment. I do the work of letting go, I don’t hold on to things too hard. If I fuck up, I accept that I fucked up and I move forward. I take responsibility and see the bad as a learning experience and I don’t get too comfortable when things are good. Gotta keep it moving always. I’ve adapted to change because change is imminent and necessary for growth. Since I was a kid I was always changing. Sometimes I would come home and the house was in boxes and it was just time to move. I didn’t have time to really wallow and sink into stability. I still don’t as my whole life has been in a storage unit for almost three years. I learned to just let go and accept the cards God dealt me. Music has helped me as I think crafting the soundtrack to whatever is going on whether it’s chaos, beauty, loss or rebuilding. Listening to music that feeds your moment helps with coping. I accept that God has a plan and if I resist change I in turn am saying to the universe that I am blocking my blessings. That is a message I never want to send because I have zero control over what happens to me. The ability to adapt is a tool and if your attitude is in the right place, one can surf the waves of life. That’s my attitude, I can only adjust my outlook and mentality but not the various challenges that come my way. That’s God's work.
On what is missed about the past:
AK: Damn, I miss phone conversations and would trade that in lieu of text any day. I miss going to Blockbuster and browsing movies in cases, reading the back and mulling over which one to rent. Netflix and other streaming gives me a headache. The surface is presented in these quippy images but the copy about the movie is what really matters in my opinion! I miss watching random music videos on The Box late at night, I miss BET Uncut and VH1 Soul. I miss the fashion and individuality as we live in a sea of disingenuous copycats. I miss how engaged we were. I miss the time when people were looking at each other and what shoes you were wearing and how much that mattered instead of staring into phone screens all the time. I miss my Nike Air Max collection from high school and wish I never gave them away. I miss R&B album drops, the real good shit and how it was always up for discussion and sharing. I miss watching music videos and how well executed and important they were.
On improvement for the future:
AK: I want to really hone in on my craft and take things to the next level. I would like to reach a more stable place as being a freelance creative right now is challenging. If I’m able to get to a good place I can better help others. I would like to show others how to navigate through this crazy freelance lifestyle.
On the word "increase":
AK: It could go good or bad. Greed and generosity both have a price.
On increased aspects of life personally and/or professionally:
AK: I had a high paying job as a stylist for a network at a young age. I got exactly what I asked God for, but at a price. I realized I can get exactly what I want, but need to be specific. I had a crazy recollection of myself watching TV in my bedroom at 16-years-old saying out loud that I wanted to work for E! one day as I watched Aisha Tyler religiously on The Soup. She was it to a girl like me in a small city. Fast forward [and] it actually happened. I cried my fourth year in. I wasn’t growing as a creative there, and it was a toxic environment for people of color. I was lost and miserable but able to pay my bills. I didn’t fit in. I had to silence myself [and] my politics. Race issues in the news became more prominent but it seemed to be no ones concern in the building as celebrity death paid overtime for the coverage and extra hours worked which made me sick. The excitement of making more money and people buzzing, almost high off the “breaking news” felt bizarre to me. I had become a shell of myself with my abundant creative drive and soul dwindling. I started to look inside myself as well and noticed I always had a lover or boyfriend and thought about the quality of the relationships. I realized they weren’t that great. If it was good, it went bad for some reason. I was attracting partners that were not getting the full version of myself so of course it wasn’t a match. It’s kinda like the theory of social media. If one is selling themselves as nude sexy etc everyday the moment you drop some deep knowledge there is no interaction as this isn’t what the audience signed up for. I use this as a extreme example but I wasn’t in love with myself as I needed to really get in line with the real Amelian.
I lost the job, got rid of my apartment, and various bills. I moved back in with my family and rebuilt myself. I was suicidal for a while in a deep depression ready to quit styling as I doubted myself. Painting saved my life and soon I began planning a show. From there things started to fall back into place. I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore and made a pact with myself to follow through with my first art show and see what happened after. I reevaluated my sexual partners and pulled back on relationships as they were also a way that I was distracting myself from dealing with my shortcomings. I stripped myself back down to the bare roots, reflecting, being grateful, and reprogramming my mind to focus on the positive. Also reconnecting with my mom and dad healed me. I was living smaller and thinking bigger. For the first time in my adult life my womanhood began to recalibrate. Right now, in this moment I am truly happy with my professional life and work. They feel like me as I feel like me. I’m happy with next to nothing. I found my creative voice as a artist. It’s been rad to execute ideas and step back in review when it’s tangible. I would rather be broke producing work one I'm proud of than to be rich with an emptiness in the projects I take on that don’t emanate love and my passion for wear. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. My sense of self, intuition, politics and voice are not muffled any longer and everything is merging into the perfect stew. It feels amazing! I am so blessed, loved and supported.
Originally published in IN #7, Fall 2018