Welcome to Influencers!
Today, I have the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Aya. For those of you who had listened to the last episode and tried to figure out who she is, here were the hints: Aya is clearly in fashion. She styled Michelle Obama while Barack Obama was our President and went to the White House to do so. She styled Scarlett Johansson. Her job requires a lot of lifting potentially hardworking and dramatic people. She is not white. Who is Aya? Let’s welcome her on.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Have A Strong Cultural Base with Aya Kanai
Hi, everyone. My name is Aya Kanai. I am Japanese. For a career, I am the Chief Fashion Director at several magazines. Some of them are Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Woman’s Day.
Not only that, she is by far the best dressed person I have had the pleasure of interviewing.
That’s definitely not true, Jon. That’s 100% not true because I know the people that you know.
More importantly though, you’re the raddest. Let’s just dive into some fun stuff. You literally hold the attention and provide knowledge to millions of readers a month. You have this incredible impact and I’d also say responsibility for helping direct the fashion world. How did this all happen?
It was definitely a progression. I have been a fashion stylist for several years and came here to work on Cosmopolitan. About two years later, I took on Cosmopolitan and Seventeen. Most recently, I am working with some of the lifestyle magazines which are Redbook, Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day. I have to say, as someone who thrives on creativity, I am truly grateful for the added responsibility because I have never once been bored at my job. It’s always changing and there’s always something new going on.
I’m super curious because there are certain jobs that really lend themselves to people having an image of what it’s like and what you’re doing. When people hear what you do, what’s their first question?
“What is it like to work with celebrities?” There’s a real fascination with celebrity culture in America that as someone who does work with celebrities, I almost wish that I could say, “Please. You don’t have to focus so much attention on this.” As you know, working with creatives and talent, that you want to point that stars are just like us. These are people who are doing a job just the same way we are.
They just happen to be on a camera so we see them. I find more fascinating is that, and I actually use this example quite often, the person styling them probably has more influence on our culture than they do.
That might be true. I certainly like to think that it is a job with a lot of influence and it’s something that I take really seriously. Also, I do think that one of the interesting things about fashion and working with talent is that you are seeing a person in a really vulnerable moment. You’re dressing them so you’re in a changing room while they’re trying on clothes. You’re both discussing what’s the right look. You want that talent to be happy, but you also have to achieve your own creative objective, which is the mandate of the magazine. You’re juggling a lot of balls in the air. To make sure that the talent is happy and the business needs are met is certainly something that doesn’t always dovetail. It definitely involves a little bit of magic in there. At the same time, you’re dealing with a person. Any time you take off your clothes and try on someone else’s clothes that aren’t yours, it’s scary. You stand in a changing room when you’re trying out bathing suits by yourself, that’s scary. To do that in front of the eyes of millions of people, can you imagine how hard that is?
It really is important as a stylist and as a creative person, to make sure that the talent feels like they are being held by you, that they are not going to be taken advantage of or put in something that doesn’t flatter them. The point of this media is to celebrate what that person has to offer, whether it’s a curvy woman or a model-sized woman or an upside down person. All those things are what we should celebrating. It’s really important as the person who is participating and creating those images that you make sure that that is met.
Is there something that you feel that either you do very well or you’ve learned from other people that allows to create that level of trust?
It has to do with knowing that half of the battle is a psychological game. If you can create trust with the subject, whether it is the First Lady or Gwen Stefani or Sarah Jessica Parker or whoever you are there with, if you create trust with that individual in the moment where you are presenting them with your creative vision, then if you have that trust, in theory, you could put a paper bag on their head and they would be happy. I’m not going to do that, of course, but it just means that you have created a bond that will allow the work to get done.
I’m sure you get approached by friends for their niece’s internships and all those kinds of favors. If somebody actually wants to get into the industry or succeed in it, what are a few tips that you think they should really know ahead of time or that would really make the difference in having them succeed?
For young people, whether you’re in high school or in college or just starting out in your career, having a really strong cultural base is important. A lot of people try to get involved in fashion and they only learn about fashion designers and fashion shows and fashion, fashion everything. For me, as a creative person, it’s really important to go to museums, see films, have a broad cultural base because those are the references that I’m discussing with photographers. It’s not only about what is the latest collection from XYZ designer brand. Of course I have to know that too, but I do think that being a creative person that works in media, you really need to have a broad cultural base that isn’t just an obsession with clothes and shoes. At the end of the day, is that an important part of what I do? Of course. I have to know what the coolest clothes and shoes are, but that’s not it.
I just realized that we totally missed out on highlighting a certain aspect of your career. You’re on two TV shows.
Another part of the media business that has changed so much in the time that I have been working in this business is the advent of fashion as a cultural moment on television. I am a judge on a television show called Project Runway Junior which is on Lifetime. It’s a great show, so fun, with talented teenagers who are designing clothes for the Project Runway show. I am also playing a smaller role on a television show called So Cosmo, which is on E! which is a reality show about the life of fashion editors.
After this I’m going to have to get your autograph.
No, no. I don’t know if reality TV is that way anymore. I do think that it is interesting how the cultural appetite to learn about fashion is still there. People really want to know about what makes this business work. In many ways, watching a reality TV show about it is a great way to get a little taste of what it’s like.
What are a few things that nobody talks about in the industry? Obviously, there’s a lot of glamour associated to it and a lot of sexiness and there’s a celebrity aspect. Clearly, when you walk through the hallways here, all these people are working just constantly and late hours and early mornings and all that. Any industry requires a lot of effort. What is it that people don’t talk about?
There are a couple of things. When the very famous movie called The Devil Wears Prada came out several years ago, there was this idea about fashion people being nose in the air and super snooty. The reality that I have experienced for the past twelve to fifteen years of doing this is that fashion people are cool and normal. They have families and boyfriends and girlfriends and lives outside of their career. They’re creative but it’s not like they are trying to operate under the assumption that fashion is the only thing in their universe. There was a portrayal out there like that. As a person who’s worked in this business, I don’t meet people that are like that.
My experience is completely aligned with what you said. It actually seems that the more senior the person is, the less of an attitude that they have.
Isn’t it the case in most industries? I’ve only ever worked in fashion so I don’t know about too many others. But I do find that when you get to a certain level, you’re not pretending to be something, you are that thing.
It might be a little bit different. I know surgeons might have a reputation of being very egotistical. There are certain industries that have a rep but it could be just as inaccurate as the portrayal of fashion. It seems like in fashion, when you’re starting out, there’s a lot of attitude and it seems completely out of place. Every Editor-in-Chief or Deputy Editor, Senior Editor that I meet in the fashion industry, they’re just too busy to have attitude. They just need to get stuff done.
That’s definitely true. That leads me to the other thing that people don’t really talk about, is all the changes that are happening in the business. We are so busy that I don’t have time to put my feet up on my desk and pretend like I’m such a big deal. I’m just working. We have too many projects going on. Quite frankly, all the brands that I work on are brands that have a lot of traction in the marketplace in different demographics of primarily women. It’s something that for us, the magazine itself is a platform that leads to several different, what we call, brand extensions. Those brand extensions are just as robust as the magazine itself. We have to be participating in various different other projects that are not necessarily only editing a magazine. Let’s say Cosmopolitan, Cosmopolitan is a printed magazine. It’s also a website. It’s also a Snapchat discover platform. It’s also several other brands. It’s a TV show. It’s many other things. We, as the people who work here, have to participate in all that as well.
What’s something completely unexpected of reaching this level in your career?
Something completely unexpected is that at this stage in my life, I’m in my late 30s, when I look back on my 20s and my early 30s and I think about how laser-focused I was on my career to the expense of everything else. I do think about what is the way for young people to pursue their career goals but not do it at the expense of spending time with family or finding a partner or having a family yourself or all these things. Often, women who have big careers sometimes feel like they have to do one thing or do the other thing. In my 20s or early 30s, I was all about creating this career, which I am so grateful to have now. I also recently got married. It’s more when I think back on young people and when I think about the young people in my life who work on my team, I wonder for other people, what’s a way to create more balance. Sometimes, we can feel like we need to be striving, striving, striving so much that we forget that there’s all these other components of life that are just as meaningful.
Do you think that it’s possible to be at your position, with your experience, and have done those other things at the same time? That’s one question. The second is, do you think that maybe because we’re living longer now and we can continue to have children long into our 40s now, then is it that we’re giving it up or that we’re just pushing it away to a later point?
I do think that I could have the career that I have now if I had also been having children in my late 20s or whatever the median age is, but I didn’t. I’m only speaking about my personal experience, that I was so much more interested in advancing in my career that I really wasn’t interested in the development of those personal aspects of my life at that time. As a woman in my late 30s, I have a partner who is amazing. I have a great husband and a life that I would not regret any part of it. But I have struggled with trying to have a family with my husband. It’s 100% possible for women to have families deep into their 40s. It’s more like I didn’t think that I would be this person. It just happened because, as you know, when you’re starting and pursuing your career in your 20s and your 30s, just the years fly by and you don’t know where you will end up.
It’s more like when I think back now, when I think about all the young people who work on my team that I care about, I wonder what are the ways to have a greater sense of balance. There are these trends for minimalism and stripping your life down to the essentials and all these things that are an interesting way to approach these different problems with too much information that we have in our lives. I do think that as people who develop these big robust careers, of course which give us a lot of joy and a lot of creative fulfillment, there is also another side of life that can and should be introduced at some point.
Let’s shift gears a little. Is there a book that you think is essential for everybody to read or that has influenced you a great deal?
One of my favorite books was a book that I read as a child, it’s called Pippi Longstocking. It is about a girl who wears a ragged dress and men’s oversized shoes and mismatched socks. She flips pancakes and sticks them to the ceiling. I always liked to think of myself as that kind of girl.
That’s something that I hold true to my heart in the sense that I’m obsessed with Peter Pan and another book called The Little Prince. There are those certain books in childhood that just define or solidify aspects of our life.
Of all the things that I read as a child, I thought about, “This girl is so cool. She has braids in her hair and she doesn’t care how she looks. She wears a crazy outfit.” I wanted to be that kind of girl who just didn’t care at all. Maybe I still am that kind of girl but I do think that as a “fashion person” there is this idea that we’re all obsessed with brand names and it has to be the fanciest thing and it has to be from a luxury brand. The reality for me is that I was always interested in creative expression from a visual point of view and that can come any way.
Let’s say you get a random message, an email from somebody. What would have you accept an invitation to meet them? What would be in that message or what would they be inviting you to that would make it worth your time and effort? If you got an email from a listener saying, “I’d like to meet you for coffee.” Chances are you’d say yes?
In the past, when I have received emails from young people or individuals who are interested in fashion asking for informational interviews, I have always been amazed by the fact that that person has not read one interview that I have done before. They will ask me questions that are readily available online. That makes me roll my eyes a little bit. If you want to ask a smart question, you should know what questions have come before. For me, it’s the most important thing when you’re meeting anyone that their opinion matters to you, is to find out what questions they have been asked in interviews before, read those answers, and then come up with follow-up questions. “I read that you said XYZ, here’s my question that jumps off of that and goes deeper.” I just think that as a question asker, you get more value. As the person who’s answering it, you get to dig deeper and it makes you remember that person more.
I remember doing an interview with Richard Kind, who’s an actor. He said, “A lot of people walk up to me and tell me that they’re fans. It’s really nice. It’s flattering. But the ones I love are when people said, “I remember you doing this obscure show on the West End or out in Long Island somewhere and I loved that you portrayed this,” whatever it was. He says he loves those because it shows that it’s somebody who’s actually really interested and not just somebody who happens to have come across him or remembers his face or whatever it is.
People sometimes forget that there is a whole lot of information out there already. If they want to really make an impact on the person they’re meeting, they will read those things first before they jump into that swimming pool.
Besides Scarlett Johansson, who you’ve mentioned you want to play you in a film, do you have a hero? Somebody who’s influenced you a lot.
It’s mainly because she has such a cool voice. She has a great voice and she’s an amazing actress. Obviously, she and I look nothing alike. That’s the main reason why. I would say in my career, one of my greatest mentors is Joanna Coles, who’s the Chief Content Officer here at Hearst. Her leadership style has been something that has really taught me a lot. In my personal life, this is a boring answer, but it is definitely true, it’s my parents. My parents have really taught me how to be the kind of person who has a passion for your career but also puts your family first.
Were your parents here during the internment camps?
No, my parents came here in the late ‘60s. They actually met here in America. They came independently; my mother to go to college and my father to go to graduate school. They had a mutual friend that was, “You should meet my friend so and so.” Then they’ve got married and had two American kids. At the end of the day, they’re often, “How did this happen?” Because they still live here in America, here in New York.
Let’s dive in and explore a bit of a human touch now that we’re on such a familial topic. Is there a certain non-profit or social cause that you’re really committed to?
I am definitely interested in supporting Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. I do significant monthly donations to both organizations. On a personal growth level, I grew up next door to a Zen Center, which is such a funny and random thing, right here in Manhattan. I often go there to meditate. I contribute to their organization as well.
What’s a personal secret you’d be willing to share that you’d feel comfortable sharing with the audience? In the past, people have shared things like, “I’m an extreme introvert, people see me on stage and they think I’m an extrovert.” People have shared before that they have anxiety and that they suffer from that and have to do a lot of work to get around it. There’s a certain human aspect that when people seem larger than life or hold these positions that they think they’re invincible. From the outside, it’s easy to see that. What’s something human that you might feel comfortable sharing?
For me, I am 5’10” and I’ve been this height since I was about twelve or thirteen years old. I was one of those girls in the class who was about a foot and a half taller than all the other little petite girls. Growing up, I was really, really insecure about being so gigantic. I would hunch over, and even these days I have to remember to stand up tall and remember that being tall is actually considered a good thing. Growing up and thinking that I was too big and taking up too much space really gets into your mind. As an adult, you can sometimes carry that on with you. I do know that being tall is a pretty good advantage.
You have this very big friendly warm personality that it doesn’t seem to have really held you back too much.
I hope so.
Last two questions. If you could be a comic book hero, who would you be?
Edna from The Incredibles. I was really into all of the characters on The Incredibles. That’s one of my favorite animated films. Edna was a fashion person.
If you could meet or have dinner with any three people, they have to be living, who would they be?
I have to say being at your dinner was definitely an opportunity to meet some really interesting people. I recently met Adam Grant and that definitely ticked a box. He wrote a book called The Originals, which I have devoured. I would love to have dinner with Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist, also another one of my life heroes. I’d love to also spend more time with my grandparents. It would be a whole bunch of Japanese people, and Adam Grant.
I have to say, it was an absolute pleasure hosting you. Thank you so much for joining me today. For all the listeners that want to be in touch with you, do you have a website, Instagram? What’s the best way to find you?
Listeners, feel free to follow her on social and read her website. Keep listening because in the second half, you’re going to have to figure out who our next guest is.
About Aya Kanai
AYA KANAI is the Chief Fashion Director at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Woman’s Dbaay Magazines.
She is also a judge on Project Runway Junior on Lifetime.
Previously she was the Senior Fashion Editor at Teen Vogue Magazine, Head Stylist at Shopbop.com and Fashion Director at Nylon Magazine.
Twitter/ Snapchat: @ayakanai
Anonymous Guest Interview
I’m so excited to be hosting our next guest. Pay attention to all the hints. Dan, welcome. Thank you so much for joining me on Influencers.
I feel so mysterious, Jon.
You are an international man of mysteries, so that’s not surprising. Let’s give the listeners some hints about who you are. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Detroit. I moved to Florida when I was eight. I grew up mostly in Florida.
Nowadays, where do you live?
I live in the West Coast equivalent of Florida, so I live in Los Angeles.
Was there an incident, a teacher or an experience, or something that inspired you to go down the path that you have gone?
Yeah. I took my first international trip in college. I stayed in Greece for about a year. I had this very cliché but a real awakening where I thought, “I can do whatever I want to do, so I might as well take this path.” That was a big catalyst.
What was it that made you think that you could do anything you wanted to do?
I was on a boat and I was going to Egypt. I was looking at the coast of Egypt. I had this very existential experience where I thought, “Through a series of events that almost didn’t happen, I arrived here.” Similar to a 2 AM experiment-type thing. I looked at that and I thought, “I bet I can do other things that will bring me to other cool places.” I started to try new interesting things. I wound up doing a bunch of crazy experiments. Now, my life has taken me to LA.
Of all these things that you’ve gotten to play around with and experiment and do, are there a few that you’re just really most proud of, certain accomplishments or certain people you’ve had the pleasure of interacting with? Is there a story?
It’s a very full circle thing. When I was a kid, I lived with my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother had this closet in the master bedroom. From a very young age, I can remember clearing out the closet. We had just moved from Michigan to Florida. She still had all her old, heavy winter coats in there, which were completely useless. I cleared out these coats and I set up this old Gateway 2000 computer. I don’t know how that dates me, but you can see where I’m at. Gateway was big at the time. I remember it had 256 MB of hard drive. I thought, “This is crazy cool.” It came with this big book of CDs. I first learned to type on this computer. I started writing my first short stories and my first books. I used to tip a sign on the closet that said, “Quiet. Writing in progress.” I had this large imagination that I was a very serious writer. I would study the habits of different writers. I would even get cranberry juice and pretend it was wine, pretend I was brooding over this plot. I was thinking, “How can I pretend to be drunk and also artistic?” I go in there, I do my thing. I scribble these pages out.
Years later now, this is 25 plus years later, I got to do the real thing. I got to write a real book. To bring it full circle, I originally left in college to go study abroad in Greece. I wrote the book. I went back to Greece to write it. Full circle, me, writing in real life just as I did in the play world as a kid. Me, bringing it back to Greece after having traveled there and having my first existential experience there.
Did you develop diabetes from all the cranberry juice while you were writing the book?
Yeah, that and a couple other nervous ticks, which I realize were just psychosomatic and not real, like grinding my teeth. I would get these fake cigars. They had these cigars that you get in trick shops that had baby powder, where you blow on them and baby powder comes out, not smoke. I thought, “I want to have some real vices, because I want to become a great writer.”
In line with that, who would play you in a movie?
When I was a kid, I copied Will Smith a lot because his personality was so big at the time. I was growing up in elementary school. It was mid to late ‘90s. Will Smith was doing all his big movies. He was doing Independence Day, Bad Boys I and II. He was the big star for me. I copied a lot of his mannerisms. I think people ended up mistaking my personality for his after a while. I think him.
Is there a certain movie that represents your life?
For the last year, it’s been The Revenant. Before that, it could be anything from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Have you seen the movie Blank Check?
Yes, about some ten-year-old kid who pays himself a million dollars.
His grandmother left the amount of the money portion of the check open. He’s like, “I’ll just make out a million dollars to myself.” I watched that movie a couple of weeks ago and I said, “This is perfect. This is exactly what I want in my life, to get a blank check.”
Somebody came to The Salon that had those clearing house checks like, “This million dollars might be yours.” He went into the bank with it and actually cashed it.
You used to be able to do that, and now they got smart.
He ended up winning and just taking tens of thousands of dollars by cashing the check.
Now, you get those checks in the mail and they say, “This is not non-negotiable. Not a check.” Some idiot made it look too much like a real check.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done that caused your success? You’re a pretty daring person. You’ve done a lot of antics, I’m sure, or stunts. Is there one that really stood out as really beneficial?
I have a good one. This will illustrate the value of just going for it sometimes. A few years ago, I just moved out to Los Angeles. I was growing my platform, my business, I guess you can call it. I was looking for one or two big levers that would make me a little more visible. I was doing an Amazon search. I thought to myself, “What if I started looking for other authors, big authors, who were coming out with books who needed promotion but they were a few months away, so people weren’t already attacking them and asking to interview them?” You can filter out these authors by book release dates. You can see even big name authors who have a book coming out six months away before they even upload the cover to Amazon. You can filter these and check these out.
I started doing that. I saw that one of my idols, Lori Greiner, was coming out with a book. She’s the cute blonde lady on Shark Tank. She’s a big investor. She’s on TV and all that stuff. She’s coming out with a book. I thought to myself, “I bet you I can get to her. How can I get to her?” I went on this website called WhoRepresents. WhoRepresents is basically a site for big media and PR companies to list who represents different authors and actors and celebrities and whatnot. I looked up her publicist. I emailed her publicist, “My name is Daniel. I write for the Huffington Post,” at that time, I was contributing there. “I’d like to interview Lori.” She said, “I Googled you. Sure, that sounds good.” She gets back to me, and she said “Actually, since you’re in LA, funny thing, Lori’s going to be in LA in a few weeks. Maybe you can interview her in person.”
Shit, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I think to myself I have nothing else to lose, so I emailed her publisher and I said, “Lori’s team granted me an interview. Send me a review copy. I’m a very important journalist.” They sent me a review copy of her book. Now, I’m scrambling. I’m thinking, “What am I going to do? Am I going to take this lady to my apartment? Where am I going to interview her, in a restaurant? What am I going to do?” I started calling out my friend and started asking around and seeing how I’m going to get this thing produced. One of my friends just happened to have gotten a job at a television station. It was more like a private TV show. It was a streaming television show. They had a news desk. I said, “Can you get me in there? Can you hook me up?” He introduced me to the owner of the station. He’s like, “Yeah, sure. I’m not going to be there next week, but you can come. The studio’s open. Our cameras are there. I’ll just let some of my crew know you’re going to be there, maybe they can run the cameras for you. Have a nice day.”
That was weird. I get in and I get to do this interview. Turned out the studio was awesome. I rent these really fancy Uber Blacks to pick up Lori. We bring her back to the studio. We record it. It has this TriCaster, so there were three cameras going. There’s a crew in there, so I look super legit. The stage is awesome. We do this interview. I shoot it. The owner of the studio, and he’s also the executive producer, ended up seeing the video. He’s like, “This is actually not bad. Do you want to just host a show for us?” From there, I ended up hosting a TV show, which ended up to all these opportunities and different interviews. It led me to this.
Was there a moment that you felt you had arrived to some degree? I know we never arrive. The way I described it for myself is when I reached about the age of 30, I felt I was baked. I was ready to go.
I’ll tell you one thing. This is the moment when I thought I’d arrive, but I realize it wasn’t. I’ll tell you what I thought it was. I just started doing well with the business. My girlfriend, Sarah, told me, “Go out and get some groceries.” She made me a list. I started going out and getting the groceries. I went out and bought a Mercedes. I put the groceries in the Mercedes. I came back. She’s like, “But you forgot the almond milk.” I realized I thought I had arrived, but I didn’t bring the almond milk.
I love that that was her response. I think I can see why you two were dating. It wasn’t like, “Oh my god. You mad man. How could you come home with a car?” It’s like, “Where is my damn almond milk?”
“I told you I wanted to eat this cereal. I’ll look at the car later.”
Last question, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
This is a riddle, and you can look this up if you ever try to look up my legal last name. My hyphenated last name has a Johnson at the end, because I’m Black and Italian. You can guess which name is the Black name and which name is the Italian name, when I tell you the Italian. My name was almost Jamal Johnson, which means that I was almost an NBA player, but instead, I have a different name.
I think that your last name sounds like America’s favorite food.
It does. That’s haunted me.
Listeners, I hope you paid careful attention and see if you can figure out who our friend, Dan, is between now and the next episode.