HATC Magazine Issue 4 Kelly Mi Li Interview

Since watching Bling Empire, I’ve come to find out more about Kelly Mi Li, from her exquisite business ventures to her tireless charity work all over the world, a list of achievements many avid watchers may not even be aware of. Her extensive portfolio of media industry investments shines a light on a woman passionate about finding and sharing inspirational stories both on the screen and behind the scenes. Kelly joins me from her LA home, as beautifully put together as she is on Bling Empire and we both rejoice over it being Friday. I’d been looking forward to interviewing Kelly for quite some time, as we are a startup company, I was looking forward to picking the brains of a seriously accomplished businesswoman.

“I didn’t grow up in the entertainment industry, I didn’t know anybody in the industry. So it was something I discovered later on in my life, which I wish I knew a little bit earlier. I think storytelling is so important because, especially for me, I love telling true stories. I think there’s so much that could be shared and told that the mass public doesn’t know. There are so many inspirational stories out there. And through storytelling, you can educate people on different topics. So that’s, I think the really beautiful thing about it, I love the creative part as well as, putting the deals together as I’m an entrepreneur and business person. I love putting pieces together at each project, it’s like your own baby. You watch it grow. Some projects have a really quick turnaround and some projects take, you know, 10-20 years to put together. But like I said, good stories don’t die. 

One of my scripts has taken 10 years to write and it’s just so good. But, I don’t want to rush this project, I want to make sure I do it properly. I like to have challenges every single day. I like to learn things every single day. So a lot of time with other businesses that I’ve owned, after a while the business is doing great and I’m like, Oh my god, I’m bored. I want more challenges in my life. Where with producing, you are never going to run into a problem, you know, every single project, you have new challenges with and new things that you learn, and then after it’s done, you go through another project and process. That’s what attracted me to producing, that’s why I love it. Every project you do, you leave a part of your heart and your soul in it, and that’s why every project I do I leave a part of me in the project.”

Head Above The Clouds started 5 years ago now and it’s difficult to explain to friends and family who work for someone else what it is like, starting a business from scratch. Kelly perfectly describes that maternal feeling of deep connection you have with a project that takes up more time than probably an actual baby would. It’s a relief and comfort to hear a successful woman in the industry feels the same way. 

“I’ve always been in a very male-dominated industry, some challenges come with it. But at the same time, you can set your own stories and you can set your narrative. When you walk into a room you have to have confidence in yourself, because a lot of time people have a preconceived notion about you, especially because you’re a woman, right? So, don’t let that get to you. Don’t let other people’s judgment bring you down. Because if you keep coming into the room and keep giving, adding value, sooner or later, you’re going to win them all over. And sooner or later, they’re not going to look at you just a woman, they’re going to look at you as equal. Have self-confidence and know your worth, know what you bring to the table.”

Finding that confidence can be incredibly difficult, there have often been times of self-doubt when I’ve thought ‘can I really do this?’. My father taught me from the get-go to have that fake it until to make it mentality, but it can only get you so far, especially as a woman in a male-heavy field. Having Kelly’s ear was an opportunity I wasn’t going to take for granted, so I asked her how she deals with the daunting process and what her advice is when it comes to new business ventures.

“When you put together a business plan it has to make sense, the numbers have to make sense. When I look at the company I look firstly at what it’s about, but right away I jump into financials because the numbers have to make sense. You’re investing in a business. Another thing is I invest in people a lot of time as well, you look at the people who are running the business because that’s really what is gonna make or break it. A lot of times, I get business plans, and I’m like, Okay, why is 10% of your business worth a million dollars? How are you backing that number up? And they don’t have an answer for it, and right away, that’s rough. You have to be able to explain why your company’s worth $10 million within this many years. The values have to make sense. Just know it inside out and have answers to everything. A lot of time if you are going to an investor meeting or pitch meeting, do pitch rounds with your so that they can come up with questions that you might not think of, just so that you are prepared. So always be over-prepared when you walk into a room and also sell yourself in a sense because people also want to be in business with you because they like you as a person that they believe in you.”

You can feel Kelly’s passion for production and finding gems to invest but she also has a huge place in her heart for philanthropy. “When it comes to charities I work with, obviously the first thing is that I had to be very passionate about the cause. I want to do everything, I want to help every single cause but you have to pick the ones that you’re very passionate about and give your all to those. A lot of charities I work with focus on kids, especially in developing countries. A charity I’m very passionate about is called Pencils of Promise who build schools in developing countries giving kids an education that they normally wouldn’t have. I tend to try to pick nonprofits that have to do with education as I think it’s very important.

I’m also a huge animal lover so if you adopt instead of buying that is amazing. To be honest, if I could have 20 dogs in my house, I would, but I had to learn to stop saying yes. Saying no is probably one of the hardest things when it comes to nonprofit, it’s one of the hardest things I always have to do, especially saying no to fostering dogs, before I would foster without even seeing a dog, knowing how old or knowing the condition, saying, of course, I’ll take him or her in. But it gets to a point where you’re like, okay, I have to start saying no a little bit and pick the ones that that other family wouldn’t take in possibly because maybe they have medical conditions and others can’t afford it. 

I have two of them and that’s plenty for me. Kilo was on the show in season one, his litter was left on the street by the garbage.  Sophia, I got last November and it was the same situation. Somebody called me and was like, we have an emergency can you please take a dog from us? I had no idea how big, no idea how about anything, it was my last day on set and ended up saying, of course, I’ll be home at 10pm just please bring her over. I remember saying to my partner at the time I have no idea but it’s an emergency let’s just take her in. She showed up and she’s is just so adorable, she was so skinny, to her bones and she had issues everywhere. She was from a puppy mill and already had two litters, and she’s so tiny so I couldn’t imagine her having babies. After a week, I’m like, let’s just keep her”.

As we speak about adopting not shopping and the impact her pets have had on her mental well being in the conversations turns on to the wider topic of mental health and the stigmas that still exist within Asian culture and the Asian American communty. 

“You know, mental health is so new to me, in Asian culture it’s a topic we don’t talk about so it wasn’t something I was educated on until recently. We tend to not speak about therapy or mental illness, and we kind of tend to hide our dirty laundry. You want to hide it from not just the public, but from your friends and family as well. 

When I started learning about it I thought oh my god, this is such a big part of life, and everybody should have knowledge of it and the support that is out there. It’s so important to take care of my mental health and I didn’t start until recently. I’d always heard of term therapy, but I didn’t start it until three years ago. It’s made such a big difference in my life I started realising that I didn’t know myself, somebody I’ve lived with for 30 plus years. Therapy feel’s like such a negative term, it’s the stigma like something’s wrong with you. Nothing’s wrong with you. I think everybody can benefit from going to therapy and it’s a message I’m very proud to advocate.  When I started to go to therapy everything started making sense, everything started connecting. I started to realise oh my god, these things trigger me because of that, and when you are aware of it and have knowledge of it, then you can make changes in your life. But if you just keep ignoring it and covering it up whether it turns into a downward spiral. There is a lot of help and support out there. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the education and, I didn’t start knowing about it until way later.

Also, when I start talking to more Asian Americans or Asians, I realised a lot of our problems have a connection to our culture, a lot of us share a lot of negative core beliefs just because of it. We always feel like we’re not good enough. It’s very competitive growing up, I would work really hard on a test I would get 90 marks, and she [her mother] would say, why didn’t you get 100. So we have this mentality that we’re not good enough and it expands into your self-confidence and it can lead to depression and other more serious problems.”

I couldn’t ignore the obviously painful effect the last year and a half has had on her community, the rise in Asian hate crimes around the world and the repetitive and almost callous presentation of these stories in the media has impacted the mental health of many. 

“Sometimes I had to turn off the news. It’s hard. I follow a lot of news social media accounts because I want to be informed on what’s going on but there are days I just couldn’t take it, it is very triggering with a lot of visuals. Even the wording is very triggering. Racism and mental health are hugely connected. Racism causes trauma. Trauma increases stress, which leads to depression and PTSD. Unfortunately, I’ve personally experienced racism and it can lead to issues with self-confidence, or depression, anxiety, or even overwhelming anger, and that leads to really negative stuff.”

It’s been a very painful time for people of colour around the world but especially in the United States. I wanted to see how Kelly manages her mental health and what she would recommend to those struggling with the impact of racist trauma. 

“We for sure have a stigma in the US as well as in Asian culture, I think even in the whole world, and that’s something we have to have changed. It doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you by going to therapy. I think everybody could benefit from therapy. I always say you would get a trainer for your body for your physical health, so you should get a therapist for your mental health. I do understand therapy is expensive, and some people might not be able to afford it, but there are so many resources out there, and there is more and more every single day now. There’s a lot of books out there as well. So that’s been great and helpful.”

“I’m learning to meditate more, it’s something that is still very new for me and I used to use the app Headspace a lot. Just learning to slow down with self-love and self-care, I didn’t understand how important is to have self-time. You had to learn how to turn off your cell phone and don’t use your cell phone the last hour before you go to bed and maybe the first hour before you wake up. I like to take a bath, even reading, you know, reading and learning, just educating myself, that helps as well. Yoga is also really great and going out of high speed and into nature, we have such a beautiful earth. I’m very lucky to obviously in LA have the mountains and the ocean. So I try my best to at least you know, get there, you know, at least once a weekend.” 

Having hiked around the Griffith Observatory and Mount Hollywood I can agree that the space is perfect to decompress. Kelly is a modern-day superwoman with passion and drive in every sense of the word. To speak with someone who is not only so talented but genuine and so focused on helping others is truly enlightening and humbling, and was a real chance to broaden my horizons and still learn a thing or two.

Words: Alice Gee

Photography: Alex Stone

HATC Magazine Issue 4 Anne-Marie Interview

I’m greeted by Anne-Marie beaming from ear to ear in her London home, brightening what was a typical gloomy British morning with her vivacious warm self. As we’re all accustomed to, we greet one another asking how we are and how we are managing the turbulent times we find ourselves in. It sometimes seems this pandemic small talk is so second nature we won’t be able to shake it, Anne-Marie herself also finds herself feeling stuck on a COVID-19 carousel which although isn’t gaining speed, is proving rather tricky to get off.

“It’s been all right. I’m glad it’s happened in stages because I feel like it would have been a lot to take. I mean, some people have had to go straight back into work so I think it might be just my circumstance where stages have been possible. As we still can’t do things in person, I feel like it’s slowly getting back to normal.  I’ve actually had a couple of panic attacks over the past couple of days, which I hadn’t been having lately, which I think is a part of things going back to normal and me not really being able to handle it yet. I’m sure a lot of people probably will be feeling that.”

As we talk about going back to some form of normality I’m glad I’m not the only one fearful of society falling back into old habits and the care we’ve shown for ourselves and each other the past 15 months thrown out the window.

“I’m the same, I’m hoping that our society, all our communities, somehow take something from what we’ve been through because that would be amazing. I don’t think it will go back to what it was before, because it was crazy and not doing us any favours. I’m hoping it does stay the same a little bit in how we are taking more notice of one another. I’m hoping that a lot of us have learned our boundaries over lockdown. I feel like before we would just push ourselves too far all the time, especially people who suffer from anxiety and other mental health struggles. I feel before we were just trying to be the same as other people and keep up with that constantly, which at that time I don’t know if that was okay. I was trying to deal with my anxiety by carrying on then when this happened, I got really low. I found I had to build myself up again, build myself into a really good place and now I’m worried, do I have to fight what I’ve just built? But I’m hoping that there’s more. I’m hoping this the start of a new world.

I think we can all relate to this feeling of anticipatory anxiety as a post-COVID life emerges. A world where happiness and health become second best in our list of priorities is not something I dream of going back to. As we try not to stress about the future I ask if she has learnt anything since last March she wouldn’t have without an international lockdown. 

“It was the first lockdown where I got really low. I had to then start making the journey back again. I just said to everyone, It’s obviously so horrific what we’ve been going through, it’s been a worldwide catastrophe, to be honest. We’ve all had time that we would never have been able to have, we will never have this time and pace ever in our whole life again. So all of us stopping has meant we have been dealing without mental health demons as we have with general physical problems. It’s like those life problems we have been putting off, we’ve been able to think to ourselves, and actually think I need to do this and I need to do that to make a change, and this is what makes me happy. I’m so thankful for this moment in which we’ve been able to discover that because otherwise, I never would have been this person I am sitting here right now.”

A vocal mental health advocate, Anne-Marie has been a symbol of hope and shoulder to lean on for so many of her fans over the years, someone they look up to for guidance and inspiration. Someone they can always trust to be real. As someone who hasn’t shied away from speaking about the realities of living and working in the public eye, I ask if the stage has exacerbated her anxiety or provided a safe haven.

“So what’s weird, I actually feel I get a break while I’m on stage. When I get on stage, instead of it being intensified, I feel a lot of anxiety and pressure is removed. People looking at me on stage hasn’t ever been the problem as you get what you’re given. You’re onstage, and this is an artist, and this is their songs. Whereas my problem is people looking beyond me as an artist. I can’t help thinking do they like me? I hope they like me, I’m gonna do this because it will make them like me. That’s what my thing was and that’s what I’m working on. So being on stage was that time where I could just sing, and forget about everything but that moment that I’m in. So luckily, I had that escape, which helped me. 

Being an artist was quite stressful at times thinking about it. Having mental health things going on in my head was really difficult but even more so because I felt bad that I had everything. Okay, I had a house to be in, I was able to travel, I was able to do all these things and it was almost harder for me to tell people I was actually feeling like sh*t. In the end, I was just hiding it for so long and that’s why I stress so much with people to just tell people what they are feeling no matter how small they think the problem is. I would always compare my problems to other peoples who had things happening over the other side of the world, and feel like ‘Who the hell am I to say to someone this is how I feel’ when people are having the worst time. So I found it quite stressful being open at times when I’ve felt I’ve been so fortunate. But luckily I realized it doesn’t diminish how you are feeling.

Being no stranger to mental health struggles myself, I can say from experience how charities like Mind have been a saving grace. They are an invaluable source of information and support for anyone experiencing a mental health problem and tirelessly campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. To become a Mind ambassador is a daily commitment to promote their work, raise awareness and encourage people to seek support when they need it. It’s a role Anne-Marie takes incredibly seriously.

“Being able to work with them, and be a part of that, knowing that I’m actually helping people is the best. I really do want to help people like that. A dream for me is to be helping people every day with how they feel. As an artist as I’m trying to do that, but you don’t necessarily see the work being done you just try and help people every day whether or not knowing if it’s helping.

So being a part of that keeps me knowing that I’m doing a good thing for people. Because with music, you just put it out and every now and again, get a tweet saying this song has really helped me, to which you’re like, Oh, thank God for that. But with charities like Mind, you know that every day they’re saving people. That’s why I’m so I am proud to be a Mind Ambassador. I’m proud of being a part of it. Of course I’ll continue to do stuff with them and other people and try and help as much as I can.”

When she’s not focusing on helping others what does she do to support herself? I ask what are the things that help her feel her best and the choices and activities that keep her feeling grounded.

“First of all, I love jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles have been my favourite thing to do in lockdown. They give me a moment to just think about what piece is going to go where instead of all this other stuff going on in my head. I also weirdly, like growing vegetables. It’s taking care of something, getting something out of it at the other end, achieving something and just concentrating on that. Saying that I’m very aware of knowing that distractions aren’t always the best way to deal with things. So for me, it’s knowing that there’s a balance taking my mind off things by doing jigsaw puzzles but not completely ignoring what’s really going on. For me, the best thing is therapy, which has been incredible. The best thing that I do is talking to a psychologist/therapist about how I feel which I do every week, every Tuesday, or at least I try.”

“Therapy to me is facing my head straight on, and it has been one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve had. To say that, it doesn’t mean to say that I’ve not tried therapy before, I’d tried it twice and it didn’t work for me. I essentially didn’t believe in it because of that but then, when I found I was right at my lowest in lockdown, I said to myself, let’s just try it again. I tried this one lady and it just changed my whole life. Sometimes I go into the session and I think I don’t really have much to say this week and that I feel okay, I’ll go in and at the time I feel it might as well be pointless and then it ends up being one of the best sessions. It’s all about continuing to do it and continuing the conversation with someone who doesn’t judge you, who has no opinion on you but has actual knowledge about your brain and how it works. After all, that’s so crucial to know. You can speak to your friends, right? For 100% your friends are part of our therapy, and so can be your family, but talking to someone that actually understands, scientifically what your brain is doing, really, really excited me and made me want to find out more about my brain. So that’s what I’ve been doing, and don’t get me wrong, I still do jigsaw puzzles, and I’m still growing vegetables outside. But the therapy is, is the thing that’s really changed me.”

I had been so excited in the build-up to speak with Anne-Marie about her most recent release “Our Song” a duet with not only former One Direction member but a talent himself Niall Horan. The song, which was reportedly written in two hours,  is about having that one song with an ex that is forever tainted after a breakup. As fans of them both, I was itching to know how the collab came about.

“We’d been talking about getting into the studio, I think, for about three years online. We’ve just been saying it back and forth but we’ve been so busy, but when lockdown happened we didn’t have the excuse or reason to say no anymore. So we just decided to try it out, and when we got in and it was just perfect. It was just like the most perfect session. It was really chilled with these amazing producers, and Niall himself playing the guitar and the piano, he’s so talented, I just loved it. We wrote about four songs and “Our Song’” was the first we wrote.

When I’m on the way to the studio, that’s the time I think to myself, what can I write about today? How do I feel when I look out the window, I’ll see if anything catches my eye and spurs on something to write about. So when I was on the way, a song came on the radio and I thought to myself, bloody hell, imagine having that one song with your ex that you just had together. It was your song and now you’ve split up whether he cheated on you, you just fell out of love, or if it was just not happening anymore, and having to hear that song on the radio that you had with them. I just thought oh my god, there’s got to be 1000s of people who go through that daily. So I went to the studio and was like we have to write about this. Niall created the guitar riff straight away and that’s how it happened. Since then we’ve become really good friends. We were on the phone all the time, which has been lovely. I think that the production was the funniest part of it all because obviously, I’m quite pop and electronic and Niall’s well, not electronic. The first time we got the production back, because obviously on the day it was just his guitar and when the producers were done with the production he actually texted me say I think it’s a little bit Fetty Wap. I just want that quote basically printed on everything. I think the song is so perfect because it is just mine and his brain in one song”

Anne-Marie’s debut album Speak Your Mind was both a commercial and critical success featuring collaborations with Marshmello, Clean Bandit and David Guetta some of the biggest names in electronic music at the time. 4 years later “Our Song” points ever so slightly in a different direction, I ask about the reason behind the long break in between albums and the creative opportunities it allowed her to take.

“I’m very creative, so as soon as the first album was out I was writing new songs. That makes you want to put music out straight away so it is a really hard situation to be in. For me when I feel certain things, I write about it, and of course, you want to put it out straight away, but then it gets past like the three-month line, and you’re like, I don’t feel like that anymore so I don’t want to put it out now. In the music industry, it takes so long for your song to come out it’s a long process trying to get it to the right place. After I released the first album, I decided I wanted to release something totally different I just didn’t want to write pop anymore. I was feeling really confident and I just want to write ratchet music. My label at the time were like just carry on writing, you’re doing really well. That was in 2019. It wasn’t until I had a show and a guy came out with his child before he came up to me and said, I’m so happy that my daughter listens to you. I’m so happy that she has you to look up to as a person. And I thought to myself, okay, I’m not going to put out the album I had. I just thought imagine that little girl listening to that f*cking song. So I had to just put that aside. 

With that said it doesn’t mean to say that in the future, I won’t release those songs, but it wasn’t the right time. From that conversation with that person, I just had a new feeling about what I wanted to be because I do want to be that person for young kids. I do want them to be able to listen to my music and feel good. That’s what I want. So this album probably started its process in January. I do think you look back on things and change your mind on releasing them. I know from my past that you find yourself writing something that’s really relevant at the time and when you go back to it, you look over it and think oh, God. I’m going to leave that one where it belongs.”

For fans of Anne-Marie, self-discovery and self-love aren’t new topics on the table. As a champion of the LGTBQ+ community, she has been a vocal ally and regular attendant of Pride celebrations around the country. She opened up to us about the pressures of finding who you are and how that community provided a space for support for her in times of hardship. 

“Well, first of all, finding out who you are, and finding yourself is a long process. I didn’t really know who I was, until, honestly, lockdown. All my life until that time was where I fully had to figure myself out. What always sticks out to me is like, you don’t have to f*cking know everything. You don’t have to know who you are. Unfortunately, there is a huge amount of pressure from society and the world. And I just wish there wasn’t. I wish that we could just live and then figure out very slowly on the way and not feel rushed into it. 

But when it comes to Pride that’s like the celebration of being able and being strong enough to be outspoken. And tell people your truth. That’s the time where people come together. It’s a safe place where people can be knowing you’ve all been fighting for the same thing. It’s very important to have communities, it’s so important to have that for one another.”

Something abundantly clear while talking with Anne-Marie is how important mentorship is to her and how seriously she takes her role in supporting and nurturing her fans. So it’s no surprise that in her role as judge and mentor on The Voice, her priorities were set to championing their mental health. “It was such a good experience. First of all, being next to the people that I was next to, I was just in awe of them, just learning so much about their lives, it was just so interesting. But yeah, the main thing was being able to hear the voices. Like I’m on Tik Tok all the time, listening to all these f*cking incredible singers that are 100 times better than most artists. And I’m like there’s just too much talent! It was quite annoying for me to not have the label to put all this out into the world so The Voice was that for me, I was able to actually hear voices and then allow them to be on TV in front of millions of people. I loved having that ability to do that.

I think more and more nowadays, it’s not about what you look like in the music industry, which is fucking brilliant. The Voice also had platforms to support these artists, they had their own mental health department which is great when you think how terrifying these shows can be. I just tried to help them with that. I mean, all of them were good singers so I didn’t really have to say much. I ended up saying as long as you feel confident and solid with that decision, and I’m okay with what you’re wearing. I was like doing more of that behind the scenes stuff if they didn’t feel comfortable in any sense of the word in whatever way, that’s where the problem is as they can’t be at their best”

As we wrap up the conversation, it has become the norm now to ask what her plans are with the world opening slowly opening up again.

“I just want to do everything. I felt that before lockdown happened I was a bit of a not going out person like when I was home yeah, I’d be like I don’t want to go I just want to chill, I just want to have my space and I really regret being like that. So I think now it’s opening back up. I will probably say yes to everything.” 

And although I sense we are both are laughing a little nervously about the thought of it I have no doubt the next time I see her, she will be back doing what she does best, performing.

Therapy is out 23rd July, pre-order now.

Words: Alice Gee

Photographer: Bella Howard

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