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Music Stars Making A Social Impact: How & Why Kristina Lao of Bombshell Brunches Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

Write every day, because you’ll never be that person tomorrow. At every age, at every juncture, write every day, no matter if you’re a songwriter or not. It’s your blueprint, and those ideas, those feelings, are unique to that point in your life. They deserve your documentation. I look back over some of my first songs and I still love them for exactly what they were to me then, and who I was. They are always relevant to someone.

As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristina Lao.

Kristina (she/her), is an Artist-Advocate from Hong Kong with over 15 years working internationally as a creator, connector and curator in Entertainment. A nationally touring actor, singer-songwriter, and co-founder of Bombshell Brunches, Kristina champions sustainable creative, accessible careers on a local, national and international level.

Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I like to say I was born, and reborn, in Hong Kong. I lived there during and after the Colonial era, with a Chinese-Nepalese mother who was born in India, and a British-Polish father who was born in the heart of London. I attended an international school in Hong Kong, before moving to New Zealand at age ten. We moved to Melbourne, Australia when I was 14, and then I moved to England when I was 21. I returned to Hong Kong for a few years after that, where I was welcomed by local music and theatre organisations. After landing two lead roles in musicals in Hong Kong and a scholarship for Advanced Music Performance at Hong Kong University, I headed to London to study at the London School of Musical Theatre, as the first-ever Hong Konger to be invited to attend.

I had suffered extraordinary stage fright growing up, being unable to open my eyes on stage or be filmed on camera for over five years, despite tens of thousands of dollars on private singing and acting lessons. I don’t know what compelled me to keep going. But something did. My stage fright resulted in me getting my first degree in International Business, as a ‘backup’ plan, but the reality was, I didn’t believe I could work in music or film as a full-time, sustainable career. My whole life, I was told the same.

As a mixed-race, trans-national kid, I struggled to find an identity. Instead, I tried on a few. Once more, I felt most accepted in Hong Kong, where my music colleagues at university would speak to me in a hybrid of basic Cantonese and English, honour our collective dualities (being Hong Kong Chinese in a colonised city next to Mainland China is a distinct lived experience, too!), and support our otherness. I grew up knowing that I wasn’t going to fit in, and music was there for me to process those emotions at every step of the way.

Before I could bring myself to sing, I would write — poetry, stories, diaries. I wrote and I wrote, and my older sister read and read, and the two of us spent hours contemplating existence in our own ways. My younger sister drew and drew, and I guess the three of us triangulated our nomadic existences into comprehensible careers. Or, I like to think, we tried. For me, I measured the world around me by writing it down, and processed my feelings by writing and listening to songs, and watching films. Those traveled with me, wherever I went. As Paul Simon so beautifully once said, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.”

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My mentors in Hong Kong, starting with my older sister, Raven, brought me onto my path as an artist-advocate. Having graduated from my first degree with a sense of despair (I did NOT want to work in an office, I couldn’t cope with the 9–5 and felt incredibly hollow, despite having an interesting job), I moved back to Hong Kong, where Raven introduced me to my now mentors in the Music & Media Industry. Hong Kong’s Entertainment scene is relatively small, and the upside of that was that it was a highly nurturing environment for such an anxious emerging artist (who had JUST started opening her eyes on stage). Schtung Studios gave me free studio time after listening to a few songs. A filmmaker made a documentary on myself and my music as an emerging artist, and Lindsay McAlistair at the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation cast me in my first lead as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. I was championed, and I am endlessly grateful. But, in fairness, it still didn’t pay my bills.

When I graduated from the London School of Musical Theatre, I had an agent, was connected to a producer (through another Hong Kong connection), and secured a publishing deal. On the outside, a dream come true. In reality, I was working numerous jobs, paying London rent and barely making ends meet. My parents sent me money to buy groceries. My producer and publisher didn’t release one of those songs, and I didn’t know how to navigate the industry, so I let them die. This is not a new story, but I began to abhor the ‘starving artist’ model that was so glamorized in the media. I simply didn’t fit this mould, either.

So, I left. I moved to Vancouver (where my parents live), via Hong Kong, where I grounded myself with my sister’s wisdom and hometown surroundings. I arrived in Canada, nursed my wounds, and recalibrated myself with my mother’s nurturing soups and my father’s business strategies. I slowly devised a career plan that allowed me autonomy in my career as an artist, while negotiating higher-level opportunities that would serve my artistic career AND contribute to the industry that almost broke me. I got an agent who believed in me (and who still does — thanks, Sara!). I worked part-time at a recording school in a newly-created role that allowed me to help others find sustainability as they worked towards their ultimate goals as producers, engineers and creatives. I noticed representation lacking in positions of influence, so I ran for those positions. In my first year of arriving, I saved $25,000 and released an EP into the stratosphere just so I could feel ownership of my music again.

After the age of 24, I never took another full-time job. I have my own consultancy in Career Pathways in Media & Entertainment, have finished a full-length album, and enjoy a busy career in front of and behind the lens. My music reflects the societal and social issues that we face as individuals, our sense of identity, and our participation in the world. The work I do encourages hybridity, value attachment to the Arts, and greater support of under-represented and marginalised peoples.

And now, as a founder of Bombshell Brunches with Raquelle Roodenburg, I’m able to take it a step further.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?

I have had some incredibly interesting moments during this whirlwind career. One of my favourites was going to an audition for the Lion King. At the time, London didn’t have a lot of musical theatre productions that were suited to a mixed race, mediocre dancer of Asian heritage. In fact, in the first year after graduation from the London School of Musical Theatre, I think I went to a grand total of four auditions, two of which were musicals. One was Avenue Q, the other was the Lion King. The only issue with the Lion King was that it was very dance-centric. I’ve seen it, I love it, and I am one hundred percent ill-equipped for that level of dance. However, my agent said at the time that ‘this was a singing-first role, so just get through the dance part and you’ll be ok.’ Bless her. She had so much unwarranted faith in me.

So I show up, and it’s a scene out of Glee or Flashdance; in my memory, people are walking around making weird vocal sounds in every square inch of hallway/green room/bathroom, high-kicking their legs up to their faces (mine goes to my hip… on a good day), and talking in high-pitched chatter about the latest production of show they’ve watched/been in/know someone in. This is the cream of the crop for performers. It’s the top ten percent who have an agent, got through the first few gates, and are making it into the room. They’re all a big deal, relatively speaking. Meanwhile, I’m reading a book on philosophy (which I didn’t get — philosophy can confuse the sh*t out of me), hiding in the only corner without someone warbling next to me, and doing my best to look completely calm and unflustered.

So, by the time we get to the dancing, I think it can’t be worse. Forty-five minutes, two dance routines, many legs flying in the air, and one roly-poly thing (what do you call that here? When you’re a kid and you scrunch yourself into a ball and roll headfirst like a hedgehog? Well, THAT) later, and I realise that I was wrong: it DEFINITELY got worse.

I walked outside, amidst the cold death stares of the dancers whose routines I had thrown by being so incredibly rubbish, and I called my agent. I told her, in no uncertain terms, that she needed to call the casting director and tell them that I was NOT a dancer and that I could not go up for those things. I didn’t want to be blacklisted for bombing that audition so hard, I told her. She quickly made the call.

And you know what? It made ZERO difference to anything. It didn’t hinder my career, because it wasn’t my career to have.

A little while later, I was on a stage performing to a series of radio producers with some of London’s top emerging singer-songwriters, with scouts for a big reality singing show in the audience, and two of my guitar strings were so out of tune that I couldn’t physically play the last song that I had prepared. So, I did the equivalent of that same roly-poly move, played the song with a weird guitar-chopping-a capella-song that I stomped to until the audience clapped along, and limped my way to the end.

I was invited to an exclusive audition for the producers of that show. When I asked why, the scout said ‘you could have stopped, or started again, but you chose to power through and get everyone on board with you.’

I should have tried to get him to call the Lion King producers.

When we started Bombshell Brunches as a podcast, Raquelle and I made two commitments: share from the scar, not the wound (credit Justine Sones’ episode with us for that gem), and normalise “failure.” I put “failure” in quotes because it really isn’t that — it’s iteration. You have to risk getting things wrong, in all walks of life, in order to progress.

The overarching lesson? It’s not up to you to decide if you’re right for the role, or if you’ll be ‘good’ at what you set out to do. It’s up to you to show up, give it your all, and let it go. What’s right for you will get to you. That’s not in your control.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

If I’ve done my job well, you’re inspired to take the things that you can from what I’ve achieved, and then build upon them, so that you’re even more successful in your own eyes. That way, I can come find you and do the same right back, until we’re all in this cycle of upward progression, getting more and more creative, and progressive, in our own respective ways. Success is a funny word — its definition changes from person to person. But, if you want to emulate my success, I applaud you. It means that you hold the same values as me: creative sustainability, with the means and the time to live a full, generous life, and always, always family first.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely — my older sister, Raven, opened the doors to me at every step of the way. Just last week, she sent me a pack of ‘Affirmation cards,’ and she’s the first to champion my music at every step of the way. My parents have supported me endlessly, with my mother literally keeping my fridge full to this day.

If I had to speak about one person, I would say that Raven was the start of me forming a winning team. To have someone who looks at your work, and your being, as a whole, and pushes you to iterate and grow, is invaluable. And on her side, I believe that she only connected me to the people she did, because she knew that I would value it.

Today, I have a team of people: from Bombshell Brunches co-founder Raquelle, to my Agent Sara at Principals Talent, to my Publisher (BeNoble Publishing), and my co-writing partner and producer Karl Dicaire. They embody the same things that Raven did from the start: they saw my value, AND my values, and showed me theirs. Raven taught me to build a winning team, and honour them. And yes, that includes YOU — Crystal Richard, PR princess!

How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?

I’ve done a number of things over the last six years, including helping raise $22.5 Million for our province’s Music Industry (British Columbia, Canada) with the Board of Music BC, sit on juries and panels that aim to create more access to sustainable careers, and mentor on an individual level.

My greatest culmination has to be the career pathway program that we’re developing with Bombshell Brunches. It’s in its naissent phase, and Raquelle and I are so excited to develop it further. We have essentially created a career pathway model that honours a value-exchange system, whereby our team members have immediate access to career coaching in their own Media & Entertainment-based careers. The pilot program has been hugely successful, with all of our team members gaining employment or gig-based contracts in the field they wish to work in. We provide in-roads, share skills, and develop their resumes — we even help them with individual applications! It’s an amazing exchange of value as we get to learn from their unique, existing skill set, and the happy by-product is the creation of a two-way system of value that I believe can eventually be scaled locally, provincially and even globally.

Sustainable creative careers has always been a passion of mine, and I’m just so honoured that I have an incredible team of people alongside me that believe in the same thing.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Gosh, this is a hard one. I don’t know that I had one ‘aha’ moment. I think that my songs, and the projects I work on, are already socially-charged, and have been as a result of the world that I lived in. The decision to be bolder and more vocal about why I think that, as well as how to give back, evolves over time. At the end of the day, though, I think that the ‘aha’ moment for Bombshell Brunches was actually Raquelle — she asked me to turn our in-person music industry brunches into a podcast. I freaked out at first, but as we worked on the plan, I realised that this one project would impact so many aspects of what I believe in. Our social impact reaches from the

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Someone wrote to me and expressed their gratitude for sharing one of the fertility episodes. They watched it, made a choice, and went to get further information about it. We uncover topics that can be taboo, as well as those we feel uncomfortable talking about (the financial freedom episodes can be really impactful in that regard, as there’s a lot of shame around money. Both The Boujie Budgeter and Mo’ Money Episodes are SO great for dispelling myths and normalized ‘getting financially naked’ — shout out to those two bombshells!).

We regularly get feedback along those lines, but one of my favourite recent quotes came from one of our team members, as she was QCing (quality control checking) the episode. Nicole Mikala said “I always look forward to hearing the interviews every week. They genuinely help me in my own life! It’s like a weekly therapy session where I just don’t talk.” That made me laugh, and my heart leap at the same time!

Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?

There are, and they are. And I’m right there with them, having conversations about how to create greater visibility for underrepresented groups, and reducing the barriers to entry for sustainable careers in Entertainment. I think there’s always something that these groups can do, but the thing is, they can’t do it all at once. The podcast is built to reach society, and we regularly invite conversations and discussions, and we welcome guest suggestions.

To me, it’s about figuring out with them what will be the most impactful right now, and then doing what only I can do to help inspire, engage, and inform at each of those levels of impact.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”

  1. You’re not too old. I started playing guitar at 24. I got my first network TV appearance at 30. I started our podcast just one year ago. NOW is your prime.
  2. Write every day, because you’ll never be that person tomorrow. At every age, at every juncture, write every day, no matter if you’re a songwriter or not. It’s your blueprint, and those ideas, those feelings, are unique to that point in your life. They deserve your documentation. I look back over some of my first songs and I still love them for exactly what they were to me then, and who I was. They are always relevant to someone.
  3. Read the contracts. I have met too many people who can’t get out of theirs. I was luckily not one of them. If you don’t know how to read contracts, give yourself a few weekends, and learn. It’s WORTH IT.
  4. Build your team. Until recently, I tried to do everything myself.
  5. Surround yourself with what we call “Fire Friends” at Bombshell Brunches. Those people who energize you because they’re doing what you’re doing. For so long, I was friends with people out of loyalty. Now, I surround myself with people who see my burning out, and add fuel to my fire by relating to what I’m doing. Just tonight I had a call with a DJ friend of mine who is running two events on the same evening, curating an entire winter series, and still makes time to attend a premiere of a socially-minded, highly impactful documentary that I’m moderating a Q&A for. Those are the people you want in your corner. Those are the people who will remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why it’s worth it.

You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would start an incubation program for creative industries in every rural area possible, partnering with companies and collaborators to create pathways for storytelling to thrive, and for careers in Entertainment to be accessible to all, in all walks of life. Self-expression is one of the basic facets of humanity, and I would love to bring that to the world in a way that is generative, and allows for us to create, acknowledge and appreciate art. Of course, there would have to be a brunch spot included… I do love a good brunch ;)

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

My favourite life lesson quote is to ‘fail brilliantly.’ As someone who struggled, and struggles, with imposter syndrome, I am a huge fan of learning to normalise failure. My theatre school teacher Susan Raasay used to say ‘f**k up brilliantly, darlings.’ As someone from an Asian culture, that was not the norm. It’s taken a long time, and the founding of a podcast, to normalise failure in my life. Bombshell Brunches sets out for every participant to ‘Be Brave, Live Full,’ which comes from our desire to get over those fear-based barriers to entry that stop us from applying to that big school, or asking that person out, or writing to that agent or label or manager.

As we build Bombshell Brunches into an international community, and I continue to work on my musical releases and collaborations, this phrase sits at the heart of my decision-making. Many people that I trained or played with are doing incredible work in the industry, and they are all willing to fail, willing to take brave steps, in order to live a full life. It’s something aspirational that you can never achieve, and that’s the beauty of it — it’s an eternal flame of self-development that encourages you to evolve as an artist, and it’s a great reminder to normalise mistakes and missteps — that’s often where we find unintentional magic.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Jennifer Lopez. A woman who built an incredibly hybridized empire, who refuses to be quietened, a true leading lady. I’d just want to bask in the attitude that surrounds a powerhouse like J-Lo.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

About The Interviewer: Growing up in Canada, Edward Sylvan was an unlikely candidate to make a mark on the high-powered film industry based in Hollywood. But as CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc, (SEGI) Sylvan is among a select group of less than ten Black executives who have founded, own and control a publicly traded company. Now, deeply involved in the movie business, he is providing opportunities for people of color.

In 2020, he was appointed president of the Monaco International Film Festival, and was encouraged to take the festival in a new digital direction.

Raised in Toronto, he attended York University where he studied Economics and Political Science, then went to work in finance on Bay Street, (the city’s equivalent of Wall Street). After years of handling equities trading, film tax credits, options trading and mergers and acquisitions for the film, mining and technology industries, in 2008 he decided to reorient his career fully towards the entertainment business.

With the aim of helping Los Angeles filmmakers of color who were struggling to understand how to raise capital, Sylvan wanted to provide them with ways to finance their creative endeavors.

At Sycamore Entertainment he specializes in print and advertising financing, marketing, acquisition and worldwide distribution of quality feature-length motion pictures, and is concerned with acquiring, producing and promoting films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subject matter which will also include nonviolent storytelling.

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