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Check Out Hellin Kay’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Hellin Kay.

Hi Hellin, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
My Mom and I came to the U.S. in 1980 from the Soviet Union (today’s Russia) with $200 to our name after traveling through Europe as refugees for three months. We went to live in Baltimore, where my mom’s brothers and sisters had arrived a few years before us. I was seven when we landed and by the time I turned fourteen I had dyed my hair blue, stopped eating meat and started painting and going to political rallies and punk music shows, and even organizing local bands to play. It was then that I realized I wanted to take photographs and make music videos, which I did throughout high school. As soon as I graduated, I left for film school at Bard College in Upstate NY, which I paid for with student loans and scholarships. I made seven short films while there, all of them screened at film festivals and won awards as well as write-ups in Filmmaker Magazine and The Village Voice, thanks to film critic Amy Taubin, who saw one of my short films at a festival in New York City. Miranda July even put one of my early 90s shorts in her first Miss Movieola compilation! After graduating, I moved to the East Village for the better part of the next twenty years, where I kept making short films and music videos whenever I could but it was a different time and making a living as a female director was almost impossible so I went to work in the fashion publishing world. My first job was at Conde Nast’s Allure Magazine as the assistant to Creative Director Polly Mellen. I worked beside Samira Nasr, who was then the Market Fashion Editor and is now Editor in Chief of Harper’s Bazaar. 

After Polly retired I was hired as Fashion Editor for Vogue Russia, in Moscow, where I got to reunite with my father and grandma before they passed away. I went on to be the Fashion Director and in-house photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and Elle Russia as well as a Paris-based magazine called SPOON. While running the fashion departments at these magazines I also worked as a photographer and stylist for a lot of other publications, including Italian Vogue, i-D London, L’Officiel, The Fader, Glamour, Nylon and many others too long to list. My photography was shown in solo exhibitions in NY, London and Moscow during those years and published in art magazines. It was a lot of fun to travel the world that way. But I never stopped trying to get back to filmmaking and directing full time and was always working on my film projects in one way or another. In 2010 and 2015, I directed two music videos for Taryn Manning, who was one of my celebrity styling clients, and it felt like the right time to start focusing all my energy on that part of my life again because that was what had always brought me the most joy and allowed me to converge all my passions in one place: visual storytelling, music, fashion, production and of course, directing.

In 2017 I made a short film with my old friend Taylor Foster that played a few festivals. It was very low budget but those that saw it loved it and by 2019, I decided I needed to make a new short film with a bigger budget, which is when I wrote, directed and produced Abby And Emily Go To Palm Springs. Abby & Emily, which stars Jessie Cohen, Vico Ortiz, Jessalyn Wanlim and Bob Clendenin, has been doing the film festival circuit the past few months and gotten a great response. We finished post-production on March 5, 2020 so that tells you how our first year on the festival circuit went… but thankfully, we’re finally screening at some wonderful festivals and even a few with a live audience again! In June 2021 we played the Lake Travis Film Festival in Austin and in the next two months we will be at the Berlin Short Film Festival, Oregon Short Film Festival, New Filmmakers LA and the Palm Springs LGBTQ+ Film Festival. In August we will be playing at Film Pride Brighton LGBTQ+ Festival in the UK, which will also be on television over there!

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Definitely not. I moved to NYC in 1995 and stayed in a classic East Village dump of a building for over two decades while putting everything into my work. It’s been rough from the get-go but I knew from the start it was never going to be easy but worth it. To be blunt, unless you have family money to help float you through the hard years of trying to make a living in any creative field, it will always be hard. There were some years I worked for free or even recently had clients who didn’t pay me and still owe me money, or paid me well below the market value of my work. A few years ago I worked with a designer from NY who now lives in LA and she still owes me $10K. Being underpaid, undervalued or not paid at all, I think has been the biggest struggle. A few years ago I photographed an advertising campaign for a national bank where I made 1/10th of what the male director made. Literally. He made $22,500 a DAY and I made $2,500 a day. It was infuriating to say the least. While the sacrifice and struggle to make a living doing what you love results in getting to do what you love (which is priceless) that doesn’t justify the many ways in which people take advantage of creators and it shouldn’t be this much of a struggle to earn a living when you do a good job for people. I may love what I do more than money but I still deserve and want to get paid and paid equally.

Being taken seriously as a female creative has always been a struggle in itself. There is always someone who wants to “put you in your place.” Because I had been a photographer and director before coming into the fashion world, when I started working as a stylist for magazines, I realized very quickly that I wanted to also be behind the camera. There weren’t many people doing both at the time, this was the late 90s and I think Manuela Pavesi at Italian Vogue was actually the only one photographing and styling her own shoots. And Deborah Turbeville, who was a fashion editor at Vogue, but she stopped styling to become a photographer, and was one of the few who made that transition. Deborah and I actually worked together for several years when I was her main stylist for Italian Vogue but that’s another chapter. Around that time, when I started photographing and styling my own shoots in 2000, I got a lot of slack for it from everyone; my agents, other photographers and stylists, everyone who thought you had to “pick a lane and stay there.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “but what do you REALLY want to do?” As if I was some confused child who couldn’t make up my mind, instead of a creator who knew exactly what I wanted to do and was just doing it.

I stopped styling for a few years because of that even though I loved it and was great at it. But whether it’s directing, photographing or styling, it all encompasses the same goal: visual storytelling. And that was always my first love. Even though I was working shooting editorials for magazines all over the world and advertising for brands like Club Monaco, Anthropologie and Joe’s Jeans, I went back to styling for a few years as well because I needed to pay my bills and got hired as the West Coast Fashion Editor for Women’s Wear Daily. After the market collapse of 2008, when the publishing world began to crash and burn, I worked as a celebrity stylist with some incredible actors including Matthew Perry, Taryn Manning, Laura Prepon and Tia Mowry.

Regardless of the bumps in the road, I worked really hard to take full advantage of all the opportunities my Mom struggled to give me early on and pushed through a lot of tough years and survived. I learned that from my Mom as well.

It’s still not easy to make a living as a director but I love what I do too much to give up. So while the journey has not been smooth, it has been adventurous and life-changing and that in itself I think is a success. I’m proud of all the times I persevered and didn’t give up when that was all I wanted to do and grateful for my unique way of seeing the world, from all the angles I’ve been fortunate enough to see it: as a refugee, an immigrant, a Queer Jewish woman and an avid traveler who takes to the road alone sometimes, it’s made all the difference.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I’m known for creating original work with a distinct voice. My strength is building something out of nothing; I can make a $10 dress look like Gucci or a small budget look like a million. Though I do plan on having that million dollar+ budget too and making three million look like thirty.

During 2020 I finished Someday It May Be You, a feature script I’ve been working on for several years, inspired by my favorite female musician and now have two amazing producers on board to help get it made. We just started casting and getting the financing and will be shooting in the Spring of 2022. I’ve also been working on a memoir for the last few years about all of the above and then some. Lots of stories! And I just finished a pilot script about a group of women working in LA’s fashion and entertainment world, kind of a female centric “Entourage,” or “Girls,” all grown up, but with a dark side.

How do you think about luck?
I don’t know if I believe in luck, though I do love how the universe works sometimes. There is definitely some privilege in certain spaces, and hard work, perseverance, but life is what we make it. I just followed my passions and my gut early on and am still figuring it all out, which is a lifetime endeavor. But I do think having a good gut instinct to guide you is really important. There will always be someone or something that wants to trip you up but you can’t let that happen. Eyes on the prize as they say. And you can’t depend on luck either. You have to believe in yourself and go after the things that bring you joy no matter what people around you think. Where there is joy, sometimes luck will follow.

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All photos Copyright Hellin Kay

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