Born and raised in New York, Kristen 9-5's as Social Media Content Manager for Shopbop. In her spare time, she works with brands and creatives for her personal online presence, @kristengracelam (aka she's a bonafide influencer).
I've known Kristen for years. Our meeting story is the most millennial; we met on Instagram before influencers had a name. Over the years and since my move in New York, we've kept in touch.
She's incredibly grounded, funny, has the dopest taste in music and is as self aware as you can get. I'm just at ease dancing at an electronic show in Williamsburg with her as I am when we're drinking cocktails at an event.
I wanted to pick her brain about the balancing act that is being an influencer. How do you keep the passion alive when your brand is literally your life? Where the boundaries when what you do for fun is also what makes you money? She has the biggest bean bag I have ever seen in my life in her living room, which we sat on while Tom Misch (her fave) played in the background. We snacked on freeze-dried beets while Alvin made himself a real meal while we talked.
Manhattan, New York. Edited for brevity.
Kristen Lam: Hello!
Jess Tran: Hi! How did you end up in New York?
KL: I was born and raised here. I went to HK to live there for a year, and then I came back here, then we went back to Hong Kong and we stayed there until 1999.
JT: You’ve had your Instagram since we were 15 years old; that was ten years ago! How did you get into sharing your life in this way?
KL: My first PR job was at Bollare, I started as an intern there part-time. There was an assistant who worked there who also wanted to start a blog, so we started together. We would shoot each other in the middle of the street. That's how I started; just posting the same outfit photos. When Instagram rolled around, that’s when I started posting more on Instagram. Instagram was so different back then. I used to use filters!
JT: I think if you scroll back far enough, everybody was using filters.
KL: Yeah; so I did that for a while. Now I don’t have the blog anymore. I used to put myself in this box of what I thought a blogger should be; outfit photos and lifestyle shots, but it didn’t work out well. I think it’s transitioned into such a different thing.
JT: You’ve had a full time job the whole time until very recently, right?
KL: The whole time. I had a full time job up until last year.
JT: I know it comes very natural to you, but it's still hard to maintain this online presence when you have so much going on in your life. How did you manage to balance it all?
KL: I don’t think I balanced it very well, you know what I mean? Whenever I was gifted product, I would forget about it, or I wouldn’t put as much thought into it because I already had a job and I was just thinking about it as free shit. I didn’t want to take it so seriously, so I didn’t want to stress myself out. I try to make sure it’s stuff that I would actually wear so I don’t accumulate so many things. My strategy from the beginning has just been to wear things that I would actually wear. It makes it so much easier, when I'm just going out to get a coffee, I'm just wearing the clothes that I like, that happen to be gifted, so it's easy to produce content around it.
JT: So you’ve never organized shoots with a photographer to do a lot of street style images in one go?
KL: No, I’ve never done that. I’ve never had time. I know photographers but I’ve never had time block out half a day. Also, I’m sure in Australia, the weather is nice, but you can’t do that in New York; it’s too cold!
JT: You obviously enjoy what you do. When you monetize a blog or an Instagram, it can feel like a job. Now that you’ve become more full time with it, is it starting to feel like a job or is it still enjoyable?
KL: I think I have to make it feel more like a job right now. I have to enforce more deadlines for myself, I have to be more disciplined in content creation and outreach. I feel like I owe it to myself after giving up such a good job for this Instagram thing. Now, I’m trying to find a happy medium between having it be fun, approachable and effortless on both my end, and what I’m putting out there while having it be profitable. Just trying to find a medium.
JT: Do you think that the more you approach it in a structured way, the less you’ll enjoy it?
K: That’s what I’m scared of. Even Alvin (Kristen's boyfriend) is telling me that he’ll help. He knows it’s not my expertise. I think creative people air more on the side of unorganized, messy and kind of scatterbrained and I definitely err on that side.
JT: Are you still having fun doing it?
KL: Trying to. Definitely trying to.
JT: Do you think not being full time with Instagram before made it easier to continue going with it?
KL: Right now I think there is some pressure, so that’s why I get stuck. I think “Damn, is this good enough?” Let’s say I’m doing this for money or for a partnership; am I good enough? Is what I’m putting out there good enough? When it wasn’t a business, when it wasn’t full-time, those thoughts didn’t occur to me – I would just put it out there.
JT: It’s so rewarding to be able to say, “This is me – it doesn’t matter if I’m good enough, it’s good enough for myself and I’m doing it for myself.”
KL: I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to be more comfortable with myself and what I put out there. I’m trying to believe that I am good enough because my whole life, my parents have asked me to strive for more. It’s an Asian thing, you’re never really good enough even if you get that A.
KL: I was never as studious or a book-smart person. But I think this whole Instagram thing, creativity and creating content; it’s so hard to put a label on it, “Yes, this is good enough.” Because it’s all subjective, right? So, I’m slowly staring to learn how to be more comfortable with where I am and what I’m putting out there, because it shouldn’t matter to anybody but myself.
JT: I agree with you, and I think a lot of people agree with you conceptually but it’s really hard to put that into practice.
KL: You can’t just block out all the noise.
JT: You can’t block out the feelings of inadequacy! I’d like you to talk about about how specifically pursuing this kind of work in New York affects your feelings about yourself.
KL: New York is a place where everyone is striving to be the best and the greatest; everyone is always striving to get ahead. Most of the time, people step on other people. That’s the experience I got whenever I was working in the corporate world. It’s very catty and your work is never really your own and is never recognize.
In New York, that’s amplified a lot because there are so many other people trying to do the same thing. I think what’s really important and what keeps me grounded is having genuine interactions and friendships within the industry and outside of it. Like you, for example, I feel like we have such good conversations about what we’re doing on the side, but also about our relationships, boyfriends and sex. We talk about things that are outside of this industry.
You have those moments but I think it’s important to realize that there are those true, genuine people who will keep you grounded outside of my friends and people that are in the industry too.
JT: It’s staying open to having those human connections within a really weird industry.
KL: I think that’s what will keep you motivated; just knowing that there those people. If I’, trying to be someone genuine, and I’m striving to have real content… I’m not buying followers, I’m not striving for an unrealistic lifestyle.
KL: I have to know that there are people that are doing the same. It’s rare, but you have to be mindful that everyone is just trying to make it in New York and you can’t blame them for trying to the best that they can. It just sucks that the best that they can do is not real. It doesn’t feel real.
JT: You know how I feel about this. I think Instagram can be so damaging. You’re so deep in this; this is fully your life now, but you’re also one of the most down to earth people I know doing it. Do you have moments where you feel like what you're putting out there isn't totally you and you had to check yourself?
KL: I want my friends and the people around me to keep me accountable, and if I ever am not true to myself, they’ll tell me. If I ever am putting content out there that isn’t me, then tell me. My friends have told me this before.
I think that because it’s a business, and you’re trying to get to a place where you want it to be, you have to make certain decisions. Yes, this particular brand or product may not be so ‘me’ but how I can make it work for me? How can I negotiate or switch up the concept to make it more my brand or my aesthetic?
JT: In order to do that, though, you need a really strong compass on who you are. How do you find yourself improving what you stand for? That’s almost hand in hand with who you are on Instagram and who you are as a person.
KL: I think that’s secondary. The primary is just being comfortable with yourself and being sure you know who you are. I don’t even know how to do that. I’m still trying to find myself, but I think it’s having that foundation of friends and an open line of communication with your significant other. It’s also about having people in your life who you can talk to about harder things, like things happening with your career and whatever is happening in your personal life. So, I think the first thing about being successful in this whole Instagram thing, is be comfortable with who you are and what you’re putting out there.
Nobody is there yet. I don’t even think the big bloggers are. I feel like they definitely have more noise than we do – but they’re still trying to stay strong. Everybody is just trying to do their best. The internet is a crazy place.
JT: So – this is all about hobbies. Why do you do this? What makes you happy about it?
KL: Let’s talk about the more material benefits first. I love working with brands and being able to try different clothes, and I’m really grateful to all the brands that have worked with me.
There’s also beauty stuff. That's the material things. But the non-material things, being able to meet people that have a cool eye but are also genuinely amazing in person. That’s what I strive for in life.
I want to surround myself with people that I can help build up, but also can build me up. I want a good foundation. I also like that this whole Instagram thing has brought me so many opportunities that it gives me the personal freedom to pursue other things; for example, working out. I didn’t start working out until 2014.
I used to not enjoy working out because I thought that once I start working out, I’m never going to stop. Why do I need to do that? But this whole working out thing has just brought me the freedom with my body – I feel more comfortable with my body.
Instagram has brought me the freedom to have a flexible schedule to workout and to feel better about myself, but it’s also given me the freedom to pursue other passions in my life. I loved music since the beginning. When I was living in Hong Kong, the only reason I knew English was because my parents had these two CDs; ‘Greatest Love Hits of All Time’ and it was Whitney Houston. The Internet in general has helped me discover so many cool new artists and it has really developed my passion for music and live music. That’s the biggest thing – it’s helped me realize what I do and what I don’t like in life.
JT: It’s given you the flexibility to explore. In all facets of your life.
JT: Let's talk about New York. There are always so many things to see, places to go, and time for yourself is low on the priority list because there’s just not enough time. Why is it so important to find time to do certain things for yourself?
K: In a city of however million people, the most important person should be you. As much as you love your friends and you love James, and I love Alvin. At the end of the day, if anything happens, you’re the one to fend for yourself. That’s why I think that it’s important to work out and be physically capable, but it’s also important to be mentally capable, and I think people exercise that in different ways.
Some people turn to drugs, some people turn to alcohol, some people turn to food…some people turn to hobbies. They want to pour their love into something else, whether it’s something physical like ceramics, if it’s something like cooking and food, or whether it’s working out, knitting. For me, it’s creating things, creating content. Some people are music. I just think it’s important to have that outlet for yourself. Whether you create something that’s for other people, that decision to create is for yourself.
J: It took me a little time to figure out what I want to do before I started working on Ghost Vintage. When people want a hobby but don’t know what it is; how do you figure that out, how do you explore?
KL: It’s hard, because at what point do you push yourself and at what point do you allow other people to tell you what you should do? With hobbies, you’re on nobody’s timeline, but your own. Nobody is going to push you but yourself. I think if it’s something big like going back to school and you’re not going to school or taking classes and are just sitting on your ass, that’s when you should allow other people to say something.
JT: But at the end it’s your choice and decision.
KL: You have to take care of nobody but yourself and if you don’t choose to take care of yourself with hobbies, eating right and all of that, really what do you have?