The greatest adventure of our lives is discovering who we really are. Social media sensations Jessica Jann, Laiza Ng, Ashley Lam, Kayla Wong and Elva Ni invite Natasha Gillespie-Wong behind their carefully curated feeds to reveal their true selves, their inner critics and the passions and fears that drive them to ever greater heights of success.
It is a sweltering 33degree day as the leading ladies arrive for their shoot. A solo makeup truck is our base for the day as we shoot in a dilapidated colonial-era house in Yuen Long. Despite the broken down, overgrown nature of the house, the timeless beauty of it remains. As sunlight streams in through the broken windows, this durability is manifested in the elevated style and enduring elegance of the Louis Vuitton Capucines bag, that the ladies are posing with.
We’re sitting in the make-up truck when Jessica Jann bursts in, apologising profusely for being late (she wasn’t). Jann then proceeds to introduce herself to every person in attendance, asking for their names and responsibilities in return. Clearly, the actress, food blogger and beauty business owner has not allowed her many successes to get in the way of good old-fashioned manners.
Some take on a certain persona at work, another when with family and still another with friends. Switching between these different “selves” can make it difficult to unearth your true nature, but Jann’s bubbly personality is shared with everybody. Her friendly, easy-going disposition is evident as she sits down for make-up and her interview.
“I open up quite easily,” she says. “My inner critic tells me I’m not good enough – which I really, really don’t like – so I always try to do more.”
Growing up in Orange County, Jann was a stone’s throw from Hollywood and before long she was looking to pursue a career in acting. But the journey was tougher than expected. “When I first started out acting professionally, I went to so many auditions,” she says. “You need to be thick-skinned because there’s so much rejection. I remember this one casting on the Warner Brothers lot. It was my first time there as an adult and I was so nervous that I just cried in the audition.”
All the disappointment and hard work paid off in the end, however, as Jann now has multiple films under her belt, including Enter the Fat Dragon released last year. But despite fame in the entertainment industry and having her own skincare brand, Jessica Beauty, Jann remains humble. “I’m proud of the person I’ve become and I’m really proud of my relationships,” she says. “I’m really close with my family and have a lot of close friends. I’m really, really proud of that. I love having good relationships. They’re my greatest achievement.”
Championing exploration, Jann encourages people to express their needs and desires however they see fit. “I think there will always be labels,” she says. “People like to try and define you for their own purposes, so I let that happen but I try really hard to be positive. I just like to be positive, but also I love seeing followers be really positive. And when they say things like, ‘Your positivity really affects me’, that makes me so happy.”
So what does the future have in store for Jann? Maybe something a little out of character. “I think I’m very Type A. I like to be in control, I hate being late, which is why I was freaking out earlier,” she says. “But because we haven’t been able to travel or do much recently, I just want to break free. For me, going skydiving would be the ultimate uncharacteristic thing to do.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This is the ethos that Laiza Ng lives her life by. The fashion, beauty and lifestyle influencer spends much of her life online and is therefore acutely aware of the effect all the additional attention can have. Having been mistaken for a quiet, potentially surly person in the past, Ng refuses to make assumptions about others. Despite the misconceptions of her life and self offline, Ng is an advocate for social media as it’s the reason she got back in contact with her mother after 18 years apart. “I didn’t grow up with my parents so I needed to be my own parent,” she explains, “I didn’t have a role model or know what I wanted, but I did know what I didn’t want and that’s what kept me going.”
Learning skills like pottery, photography and Gangnam-style dance may come across as random, but each one has played a part in making Ng into who she is today. “Your mindset is stronger than anything so if you know who you are and what you like, opinion doesn’t really matter,” she says. “You can’t please everyone so just please yourself.”
In contrast to her neutral, tranquil Instagram feed, Ng lives her life in technicolour. “The photos I choose to put on Instagram are quite quiet, peaceful and I don’t really smile in them,” she explains, “So I think the perception is that I’m very quiet, maybe a bit self-absorbed, not a very happy person. But in reality I am smiley, happy and I love to talk.”
Spending time behind the camera as well as in front of it, Ng appreciates the nuances of a person’s character and the individual journey they everybody is on. Aiming to capture this on camera, she spends hours patiently photographing other people, her favourite muses.
Ng’s experience with pottery began as a hobby, but a hand injury spurred her to take it one step further. “I had surgery on my left hand a couple of years ago, so making ceramics was not something that was suited to me, because it’s all about balance in both hands,” she says. “The inspiration to start my company was because they – my doctor and my pottery teacher at the time – said I couldn’t, but I was determined.” And it was that determination that drove her to open Laizas Ceramic, which officially launches later this year.
Ng finds tranquillity in creating. The process of building and making things from scratch reflects the human experience. “I’ve only just started so I don’t think it’s my biggest achievement yet,” she says, laughing. “I think my personality is my best achievement.”
Wanting to showcase her greatest achievement to the world, Ng is looking to diversify once more. “Videos are something that I want to put out there because that way you really get to know people better,” she says. “When you look at pictures you don’t know what people are like. Sometimes even their voices or accents are different to what you imagine in your head. Video creates a whole new dimension.”
First to arrive and still a little bleary-eyed, Ashley Lam completes her skincare routine and composes herself before her interview. The songwriter, actress and architecture student is not what most people expect when they meet someone from the entertainment industry. “In the music industry, a lot of people are loud and demand attention, but that isn’t me,” she says. “Sometimes I think, should I be like that? I feel very conflicted, even at this point.”
What goes on in her head, however, is a whole other story. “I think I have a relatively harsh inner critic, so nothing is ever enough for her,” Lam explains. “When I have to be confident or perform on stage, I tend to put duct tape over her mouth, just to shut her off.”
Lam’s distinct looks and personality have meant she’s been in the spotlight for the entirety of her young adult life. Between her academic pursuits, there isn’t always time left to work on her music, although not for a lack of desire. “I would like to focus a bit more on music, I guess. Because it’s a bit difficult. Sometimes I have to put music on the sidelines,” she laments. Having music as one of her few means of true self-expression, it’s clear that Lam regrets not having more time for it. Music is an emotional outlet for her, when talking just isn’t an option. “I think I’m emotionally stunted,” she says. “I don’t really like to talk about stuff, but my guitar calls to me.”
Not wanting to outwardly express emotion means Lam spends a lot of her time in her own head, which she describes as “narcissistic”, but is adamant that she’s working on herself to change that. “I tend to keep to myself, so I guess I’m hard for people to understand,” she explains. “I think the way that I’m different, it’s less obvious. It’s not in the look, it’s not the way I carry myself. It’s more about the way I see the world.”
She translates this easily into her social media presence. Despite being totally caught up in the aesthetic side of social media when she first started on Instagram, Lam has since grown past her obsession with a perfectly curated feed. “I don’t feel restricted by what I can and can’t post,” she says, “I guess I just try to be as authentic as I can.” A glance at her Instagram feed and it’s apparent that she’s succeeded. Littered between photos from glamorous fashion shoots are Lam’s baby pictures and lots of posts dedicated to her friends and family.
Looking to the future, Lam already has ideas on how to recover her sense of self, which includes distancing herself from today’s hyper-connected lifestyle. “For a long time I’ve had to be connected to everything and everyone,” she says. “When I finish school, I would just like to be disconnected for a couple of months. I want to travel until I’m ready to come back to reality.”
A fixture in Hong Kong’s fashion and philanthropy circles, Kayla Wong has made a name for herself as the owner of a sustainable fashion business and an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Her Instagram profile reflects her sunny personality with photos of nature, her film photography and life with fiancée Elaine Chen Fernandez and their pups.
“If you look at my Instagram, it’s actually very personalised,” she says. “I think it’s very much more like a journal and obviously here and there there’s commercial stuff.”
Staying true to herself, and sharing that truth with others, has not always come easy for Wong. Perhaps it was the challenge of growing up in the public eye as the daughter of Michael Wong and Janet Ma, but she’s starting to see a shift in the media focus. “I think people are finally seeing that I’m an individual and not just the daughter of my parents,” she says. “At this point, I really try to live my life with a ‘f*ck it’ attitude. Because of this, the way I am and the way I’m portrayed in the media match up. I say what I believe and I’m very strong-minded. So I think I’ve really shown people what I stand for and how I am as a person.”
That’s not to say that Wong doesn’t have moments of weakness. She is human, after all. But she’s not one to let her inner critic get her down. “I’ve questioned my brand Basics for Basics – and therefore myself – for a long time, but now I’m finally happy with where it’s at,” she says. Wong may be an inspiration for many, but this isn’t something she ever intended on. She’s shocked by a report in The Guardian that becoming an influencer or YouTuber is now the number one aspiration for children and teenagers. “Really?” she asks, wide-eyed. “To be very honest with you, I actually felt very insecure for today’s shoot, because I knew that my body was very different from all the other girls and it does mess with your head. “You feel like you need to be a certain size, a certain skin colour. So in that sense, I think social media can be damaging to younger people, who maybe haven’t developed that thicker skin yet. And they shouldn’t have to at such a young age.”
Learning to live authentically, to reassemble the infrastructure in our mind, is just the first step. Wong credits her tenacity to her family and fiancée. “They always tell me how capable I am,” she explains. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy being pretty. Enjoy it, but that shouldn’t define your worth, it shouldn’t be everything. People shouldn’t see it as contradicting. You can enjoy dressing up and wearing make-up, but still be smart.”
Elva Ni wears many hats: actress, model, TV presenter, wife, mother and yoga studio owner. Having so much going on at once may seem overwhelming, but for the soft-spoken and unassuming Ni balance is the name of the game. Raised in Canada, Ni won Miss Chinese Toronto in 2005 before leaving her twin sister and parents to move to Hong Kong in 2006 to develop her acting career. Amidst the madness that is the entertainment industry, Ni was juggling acting, presenting and cosmetology, but found solace through the medium of yoga.
Fast-forward 10 years and Ni has starred in several films and TV series, has 228,000 subscribers on her YouTube Channel, and her own sustainable yoga and wellness studio, Be Earth. Reflecting on her acting career, Ni says, “In movies, characters are really different in each role, so there hasn’t been anything I want to take from them. When I look back at the movies I was in, I’m laughing. I was quite bad at acting.”
Crediting yoga with making her feel grounded and boosting her confidence, Ni decided to share this passion with others. She encourages her students to keep an open heart, believing that everyone has the power to heal themselves and find peace through yoga.
And having found her balance in own life, Ni doesn’t let anything get in the way of her journey to self-discovery. Not even motherhood. After giving birth to her son in November last year, Ni compared labour to an MMA fight in her Instagram announcement. But it’s a fight she won and with great reward. “Motherhood hasn’t changed who I am,” she says. “It’s more like an addition to who I am.”
Ni – who boasts 797,000 followers on Instagram – acknowledges the negative side of social media but champions using it to discover more about oneself. “It’s hard when people see and judge you just from pictures. When I first started out I thought sharing was scary, so I didn’t put anything personal on my accounts. Now I care less, so I share about 90% of my life online,” she says. “Being online is a good form of exploration, and people can do it when they’re young. On the way, they can build their own brand, earn their own money and figure out what exactly they like, want and need.”
Proactive and resilient, Ni continues to pursue what makes her happy, using online resources to her advantage. “When I was very young I played piano and then I injured my fingers so I had to stop, but I really liked it,” she says. “I’ve wanted to pick it up again, but something has always got in the way, so now I’m teaching myself. use YouTube.”
Photography / The Buffacow
Stylist / Daniel Cheung
Hair / Peter Cheng
Make-up / Deep Choi
Styling Assistant / Alex Loong