We had the good fortune of connecting with Hellin Kay and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Hellin, how do you think about risk?
Risk taking has been a large part of my career and life in general; not following the path others wanted or expected me to take has been how I’ve lived. When I was accepted to Bard College at 18, I had $16 in my bank account, yearly tuition was $25,000. I was raised in a single Mom household in Baltimore and we had emigrated from the Soviet Union to America ten years ago at that point, no one had that kind of money but I was determined to go to film school there and somehow with loans, scholarship and hustle I not only went but graduated. When I moved to NYC, I had $500 to my name but I found an apartment to split with a roommate in the East Village, got a job at Quad Cinemas selling tickets and scrambled to pay for my first feature with credit cards, which was the 90s way. There was never a guarantee of anything; no “ROI,” no future directing jobs, no funding…I made films all through my late teens and twenties because it’s what I loved to do. And it was a huge risk. I didn’t always know how I was going to pay rent month to month, but I managed (there were always credit cards involved), working temp jobs, and freelancing. In my mid-20s I took a job as Fashion Director for Vogue Russia and was then hired for the same role at Russian Harper’s Bazaar & Elle magazine, where I photographed, styled and commissioned fashion shoots all over the world. That was risky because the Russian fashion market at the time was not what it is now, or rather until recently, when the war in the Ukraine forced many of these publishing houses to pull out of Russia. I was one of the few, along with Deborah Turbeville and Natasha Singer, from NY and Europe who really championed those magazines at the time, while others in the industry looked down on them as “foreign markets,” not worthy of attention or respect. A lot of photographers, even Ukrainian, Russian and female ones living in NYC, refused to work for Russian magazines back then but they all shot for them until a few weeks ago because me and my friends paved that road. For me, the bigger the risk the greater the reward, which is what I would always say to myself. The reward has been a life of adventure, surprises, and incredible experiences I never would have had if I hadn’t risked leaving the beaten path, and going blindly into a world where I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know any of the industry rules either, which I think worked to my advantage because I just did what I wanted and could take even bigger creative risks in Russia without anyone objecting. Even though getting work as a female director was near impossible in the 90s and it’s only in the past decade that I’ve come full circle to directing again, I managed to build a career in the meantime as a fashion photographer and fashion director at some pretty amazing magazines because I kept taking risks and refused to let fear or lack of resources stop me. I think risk taking is the soul of being a creative person. If you’re not taking risks, you’re doing the same old thing and our job as creatives of any kind is to discover things, learn a new language, invent a new dialogue, create a new style, listen to your gut and inner voice. And if you’re listening to your gut, it’s actually not that big a risk, because deep down, you already know.
Please tell us more about your work. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
I’m a filmmaker and have worked for many years as a photographer and director for music videos, films, and advertising. I went to film school at Bard College but ended up working in the fashion industry for a lot of years after moving to NYC because it was hard to find work as a female director in the 90s (it’s still not easy). I got to where I am today through a lot of mazes and roller coasters. I emigrated here as a kid at age seven with a single Mom after floating around Europe as refugees for a few months, so have always had a unique perspective on life and have seen it from many angles, which is what gave me the tools to survive a lot of things. There are so many challenges in life regardless but choosing a creative career in a city like NY or LA comes with its own set. Looking back, I overcame a lot of obstacles through sheer determination, as they say; I just wouldn’t give up, no matter how broke I was or how impossible something seemed, I just did it and made the best of it. There were a lot of good years, even when they were challenging; I survived them and now I’m here, excited to be working on a new feature film with incredible producers, after releasing a new short film in 2020, which played almost 40 film festivals. The lessons I learned came early; growing up in the Soviet Union, where being Jewish was (still is) looked down upon, ridiculed and ostracized, I came into most challenges with a layer of thick skin from having experienced that at a young age. And then coming to America, being an immigrant, an outsider and navigating a new language in a foreign country without financial resources, also gave me a determination and stubbornness about succeeding that was helpful in not giving up. That’s really it, don’t give up. No matter what people say, no matter who says you can’t, don’t believe them, stick to your passion, be yourself, love yourself, always stay open to learning what you don’t know, and let whatever internal light you have guide you.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I love Conservatory in Weho for food and drinks. Another one of my favorite spots is Cafe Stella in Silverlake and Loupiotte Kitchen in Los Feliz. There is a new food & wine shop that just opened up, also in Silverlake, that I am obsessed with called Rapido; they sell fresh breads, sardines, spreads and great wines, all perfect supplies for a night of film at Cinespia at the Hollywood Cemetery. The next day we would swing by Rory Devine Fine Art (aka RDFA) to check out whatever show is up (it’s always something great), followed by drinks at The Dime on Fairfax and Taco Vega for incredible vegan food, a few doors down. We would definitely take a road trip to Neptune’s Net on PCH for shrimp and crab cakes, and maybe stop at Nobu Malibu for dinner before spending the night at the Surfrider Hotel. The next morning, brunch at R&D Kitchen in Santa Monica for the best deviled eggs and bloody mary’s. Lunch at Oui Melrose (that tuna sandwich is bomb) and scout some vintage down the street. My favorite spot for cheap and tasty sushi is Sushi Stop on Franklin Ave, which is also my favorite block in LA, next door to The Canyon, a cute dress shop for inexpensive summer threads, followed by a long meander through the bookshelves at Counterpoint Records & Books.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My Mom. She is the biggest badass, risk taker, supporter, and champion in my life. She literally left her entire life and country, first from the Ukraine and then Russia, with a few suitcases and $200, to bring me here in order to build us a better life and she did just that as a single Mom for a lot of years. I owe everything to her. She is the one who took me to museums, theater and operas as a little kid in Russia, and throughout Europe while we were living there as refugees for three months. She busted her ass night and day when we got to America to earn a living, and make sure I got an education and everything I needed. Before we had a car and she learned how to drive, she would take me on her day off from working as a computer programmer and learning English, to downtown Baltimore on a bus for violin lessons at Peabody Institute every Saturday. She taught me survival, strength, compassion and perseverance, and gave me a lifetime belief in the importance of art, music and books, and that has affected everything I do in life. Everything. I don’t know if I will ever have enough words of gratitude for what she has done for me. She also married my wonderful step-dad who has been a rock for her and for me over a lifetime. I would be nothing without them.