I’m on a crowded subway train with Lauren Tsai on a rainy Tokyo afternoon, headed to Harajuku. We just had lunch at a Korean restaurant in Meguro, our conversation soundtracked by our sizzling bowls of Bibimbap. By this point, I’m well aware of her celebrity status in Japan—her 494K followers and counting on Instagram, her status as a crowd favorite from the cult Japanese reality TV show Terrace House, her thriving modelling career, her impressive art skills—and I’m expecting a fan to approach us any second. I get the sense that she’s anticipating the same because she’s wearing a baseball cap that covers most of her face.
She points to a poster on the train featuring a smiling girl and tells me that she’s one of Japan’s top “idols,” a segment of superstardom reserved for young, cute, industry plants. We disembark the train and start walking towards the exit when a young woman dressed in baggy denim, platform sandals, and a Kangol bucket hat approaches us. She’s a huge fan and she gushes over Tsai for a few minutes.
Tsai, 20, was born in Massachusetts, raised in Hawaii, and now resides in Tokyo. She speaks Japanese (not as well as she’d like, she says), and it surprises people to find out that she’s actually Chinese-American. Her career launched with her casting on the 2016 season of Terrace House: Aloha State—a Japanese reality show that films six strangers living in a house together for four months, all while being observed by a panel of six commentators. Think Big Brother but sober and unsensational. Shortly after the show wrapped she moved to Tokyo where her modeling career started to take off. She’s found a home here and a massive fan base. Now, she’s focusing on building her career as an artist, a lifelong passion of hers. I caught up with Tsai to talk about her burgeoning art career, her ongoing journey to feel confident in the public eye, and why she chose reality TV over college.
Let’s talk about Terrace House. You were either going to go to college or go on the show, how did you make that choice?
It was definitely from a place of fear. It was an opportunity that I had in front of me that I could take but the only reason I wouldn’t do it was because I was scared of it. I’m more grateful than ever that I decided not to go to college and to go on the show instead, to move to Tokyo after and live a life that is a little bit different. I knew that if I was going to go to art school, it was because I wanted to be able to tell people that I was going to a good art school. It didn’t feel like something that I honestly felt I wanted to do. I’m glad I didn’t get the things that I thought I wanted back then.
It’s rare to be on a reality TV show and not end up becoming a meme. To not end up with notoriety based on drama or embarrassment. Terrace House seemed so positive, the fans genuinely care about your wellbeing.
I’m really glad I did it and I learned a lot about myself. By now, people have seen me cry, be very immature, be stressed, and work hard. When you watch Netflix etc. it’s escapism, but I think with Terrace House it’s inspiring to see normal people living their lives and the beauty in that. You get to see the beauty in the quiet moments and the simple things.
The situation with Yusuke—your Terrace House roommate that had a crush on you—was so relatable, we’ve all been there! I wanted to give him a hug.
I never realized how bad and uncomfortable I am in romantic situations until I was on the show. I think a lot of people think I was very cold to him or that I should have done something different, and I also feel the same way too. I felt everything curl up inside of me when the cameras were on and when I was in that situation. I don’t feel like I would even be comfortable in that situation off the screen. I realized that I have such a long way to go in terms of communicating to people about how I feel.
Aloha State was filmed in Hawaii, where you’re from. What was it like growing up there?
I grew up on Oahu, in Honolulu, but a 15 minute drive or so outside of it. I never really identified with being the outdoorsy, beachy, “Hawaii” kind of person. I had a lot of time indoors to just work on what I wanted, what I was excited by. I got exposed to the online art community—YouTube, DeviantArt—all these websites, and that’s where something exploded inside of me. I was like, this is what I want to do.
There’s such a strong fantasy element to your art. How do you deal with the vulnerability that comes with showing your work to people?
I mean this all happened so quickly for me. Before Terrace House I was drawing all the time, but I never really felt confident showing my work because I always felt like people were going to judge me. In middle school people would always tell me what I was drawing was weird because I was really into gore and wolves and anime and dark nerdy stuff. I never thought that people thought that was cool, so I never thought that I was cool myself. But it was this thing that I couldn’t give up on, no matter what people said. At night in my room with all the lights off except my desk, that was like watching a movie. Even now it’s terrifying when I upload on Instagram. But I know that when I’m scared of something that means it’s important to me and that means it’s something I have to do. I think that using fear as a compass has been the most helpful in building my career.
Some people never confront that fear their whole lives. It’s cool that you move towards it.
It’s easy to go crazy on social media, to get way too caught up in the lives that everyone is curating for themselves. But I think the beauty of social media is that it’s also a great way to just be like, “Fuck it, this is me, this is what I like.” I love that I can use that platform to connect to people directly.
You’re taking initiative, using it to carve your own path.
Before, when I was modeling in Japan, I would just sit in my apartment and wait for auditions and wait for jobs to come through, it’s very lonely. I was really depressed. I didn’t feel like my career was my own, I felt like it was something that was given to me or I only got offered because of the way that I looked at the time and that feels so empty.
Do you read the comments?
With Instagram, I’ve definitely gotten messages that have hurt before, I’ve had people be like, “Her work is shitty, it looks like an undergraduate student.” First of all, I’m 20, so I’m like an undergrad [laughs], but, I’ve had a lot of people critique me saying my style is boring or it’s copying someone else. I’ve had a lot of people talk about me and say, “Lauren only books jobs as an artist because of the way she looks.” That ignites something inside of me. I think it’s ok for women to post pictures that make them feel confident. If I feel sexy or want to post a bikini pic, that doesn’t take away from my art or my craft or my legitimacy, in any career. People say, “Who do you know? What guy hooked you up?” I’m really tired of that. I just have to keep doing my best and putting myself out there.
When it comes to living in Tokyo vs. the US, there are lots of cultural differences in the way people communicate and interact with one another. I’m feeling super aware of it here, I want to be extra cordial, polite, and respectful. Do you feel like you have to balance the differences in order to cater to your fans?
I love Tokyo and I love living here, but it was really hard for a long time. I wanted to post stuff that was very happy, very cute, because that would cater to the audience here in Tokyo. People in the media here expect girls to be happy and cute and positive, and I hated that. I was so frustrated with it because it didn’t feel like me. It was hard to make friends and to work here because I constantly felt like I was compromising some part of myself. Now I feel like Instagram and working in the states is helping me build a public image that feels true to me. But it’s definitely hard and can be very isolating to constantly feel like you’re acting, or you’re not being you. It’s ok to not be perfect all the time. I like to dress up sometimes and whatever, but it’s ok to be EMO, to feel down. You don’t have to be happy.