This jovial island girl with the very sexy Caribbean accent and tenacious spirit was exactly everything I expected. With no cameras, no editors and no commercial breaks, she was everything you saw on TV – real laid back, funny and engaging. No pretense here, just Anya, in her true form…up close and very personal.
In case you live under a rock, Anya Ayoung-Chee is a former Miss Trinidad and Tobago pageant queen (2007-2009), amazing fashion designer of her own line, PILAR (named after her decease brother) and now one of the stars of Lifetime TV’s Project Runway Season 9.
Read on as I get into the mind of the multi-talented Miss Chee, digging into her scandalous past, discussing her bright present and getting details on what’s next to come in her out-of-this-world future.
Jay Blessed: How does it feel to be back in NY, chilling at Miss Lilys?
Anya Ayoung Chee: Trinidad is home that would never change but NY is my second home. I feel very comfortable here especially when the weather is nice. But when winter starts, I backtrack; but it’s a great city. I love being here.
JB: Fact or Fiction – Were you born in the United States?
Anya: Yes! I was born in New York. That’s why it’s in my blood. I am so Trini that people are confused like…”wait!” (Chuckling) I left when I was two years old but I grew up in Trinidad. But it’s doesn’t hurt to have a U.S. passport, I never complain about that. (Laughter)
JB: You are the only girl out of 6 children. How was it growing up?
Anya: It was six of us. I am the first child, only girl out of 5 brothers after me. It is what it is; being the only girl, but it was an absolute joy. They are more than my brothers, they are my best friends. They are everything to me. And having a big family too is a real blessing. It was hard and stressful on my parents having a big family but for us as children, I could never imagine growing up without this frenetic, crazy loud, always having a party kind of household. Our house is constant a lime.
JB: As a Chinese –Trinidadian, was it difficult growing up in Trinidad as a minority?
Anya: I mean I honestly never noticed. I know it sounds clichéd but I never noticed what I was until I left and came to New York and people would constanttly be asking if I was Filipino, if I’m Malaysian, If I’m whatever, and I’ll be like, “No, I’m Trini.” Growing up I was called “chinee girl” my whole life but I never noticed anything other than that. When you come to the states and you call people that it’s a problem but in Trinidad…I am a chinee girl, what yuh want me to do? (Laughter)
JB: You were born in the US, so you are an American by birth paper, however, your accent is distinctly Trinidadian. Gabby Walcott, whom you know very well, was recently scrutinized for not sounding authentically Trinidadian in her Miss Universe interview…what is your view?
Anya: Well you know it’s funny. I was filming when that happened and I found out about it when I came out. I was so surprised because Gabby and I are friends and she is as Trini as can be. Sometimes you get nervous, sometimes you do things you’re not even aware of, you know? People are not necessarily aware what it is to be interviewed and you’re outside of your comfort zone. And sometimes it’s not even conscious. Obviously, I’d prefer if Gabby spoke about it and she apologized publicly herself, but I think it ‘s much of a stretch to label her on something so trivial because she’s very trini.
JB: You are probably the most famous contestant ever in the history of Project Runway, before Season 9 even debuted! What do you think attributed to your popularity?
Anya: You think so? (Laughter) OMG…I don’t know. I think for sure the lack of sewing skills was a talking point. Having Heidi Klum talk about me on the morning shows before the show even aired was definitely like a sort of boost. So things like that for sure.
JB: Did you really learn to sew four months before Project Runway Season 9?
Anya: Fuh real, fuh real, fuh real. Delia Alleyne from Tobago taught me.
JB: Other than yourself, who are your favorite designers from PR season 9?
Anya: Um…Well that’s a really hard question because we really made friends with each other, so it would be easier to say that I really became friends with Joshua M., even though he was labeled as quite a bully on the show, but we really got along. Laura, Kathleen and I were like besties and in terms or design skills, Viktor was an excellent designer, esthetic wise I really loved Olivier’s work.
JB: Other than Meiling, who has been a staple in your life, who are some of the other major designers that inspire you?
Anya: Meiling is like my second mom. (smiles) But um…the late Alexander McQueen, who is sort of everyone’s God in some ways, moreso now that he’s not here. I’ve always loved him. He’s a a genius and outside of the realm of design, he was an artist. The Classics – Chanel. I have more recent love for designers like Isabel Marant and Mara Hoffman, who has a very similar esthetic to me, so I am always aware of what she does. The list goes on and on, I can list many for so many reasons.
JB: You’ve studied design in fashion capitals London and New York. Tell us more.
Anya: I studied communication design which is basically graphic design. I got my degree from Parsons and Central Saint Martins in London. And once I graduated, I worked as a graphic designer for a couple of years, until I went home and I did the pageant. And from that point on, I’ve been in fashion.
JB: Talking about pageants, Stephanie Lee–Pak was the first Asian-Trinibagonian to win the Miss Trinidad and Tobago crown. Have you ever met her?
Anya: I’ve met her daughter, but I’ve never met her.
JB: You are the longest reigning Miss Trinidad and Tobago. How was your crown experience?
Anya: (Laughter) Longest reigning by default. You know…my experience as Miss Trinidad and Tobago was at once very, very rewarding for me. Personally and career-wise because I was able to launch my fashion design off of that and then also work on the TallMan Foundation charity which I care a lot about. It is always nice to have a platform for those sort of things.
But the beauty queen side of things, I never felt comfortable about and it’s odd that I would choose to do it, knowing that, but there was some sort out of curiousity about what it would be like. I guess I knew it would be whatever I made it. But when it comes to the beauty queen thing, I am still very uncomfortable about it and what it says about women. But it gave me a platform and it is one of the few platforms that young women have, particularly in the developing world. You take what you have and you run with it.
JB: Tell us more about the TallMan Foundation.
Anya: The TallMan Foundation is a foundation based in Gonzales, Trinidad and it’s designed to create or facilitate the transformation of the youth through the arts. It’s was created by my mom, Michele Jodhan and you can find out all about it on www. TallManFoundation.org. There are classes ranging from photographing, videography, dance, music, art, everything. I am so committed to it because the arts is a vehicle for self expression, self identification, self esteem, all of these things. You may or may not want to become the next Kes or Elle (dancer) but the opportunity to know you have a voice and its valid and you can shout it loud, it is such and important lesson to learn, especially at an early age.
JB: In an interview with the late Allyson Hennessy for Gayelle’s THE BOX, you stated you are “so much more than a sex tape scandal.” Do you feel somewhat vindicated through your recent success as a designer and now an international tv star?
Anya: Words can’t really expressed how Project Runway has allowed me to really be myself publicly and regain a sense of my own inner peace. That entire scandal ran me ragged. You know? I felt so devastated by the version of me that people saw. Each human being is made up of so many different layers, so many aspects. To imagine that anyone should be labeled one thing, is not only unfair, it’s just untrue. I mean nobody is one-dimensional. But it is what it is and I’ve reconciled so much within myself that people’s opinions are their opinions and everyone’s entitled to it but I’m just happy their opinion is what it is now.
JB: What do you think their opinion of you is now?
Anya: Well, I think for sure they know now that I am a designer, I’m a fashion designer. I’m very passionate about it and I’ve been for a while. This is not a new thing. And that I am human. And in humanity there are highs and there are lows. I am grateful to have re-found a high and to be riding it.
JB: In comparison to two years ago to now, what is the feeling you’re getting specifically from Trinidad?
Anya: I mean, I’ve learn’t a lot about human nature and that we very naturally respond to what’s in our face. You know? Trinidad is an interesting place in the sense that it is very young. The idea that we fully understand ourselves is sort of ridiculous. We’re still learning. We react a little quickly and I’ve bared the brunt of that. At the same time, the loyalty is just…I can’t even describe it…there are no words.
JB: Project Runway is definitely acting as an international springboard for your own design label, what’s next for Pilar?
Anya: Well my intention from the inception, from the first time I showed the line in Trinidad was and is to build it into a full-on brand. I always wanted to branch out from clothes, to accessories, to just about anything. I really feel that what I have going for me is an entire lifestyle. The Caribbean is something that everyone wants a piece of and we are blessed enough to own it. I want this to be an international Caribbean brand.
JB: When is Pilar coming to stores worldwide?
Anya: The boutique is coming soon to Trinidad and very soon Pilar will be in outlets in the US. I will have a new collection between upcoming Christmas and Carnival time.
JB: Would you consider acting?
Anya: (LAUGHTER) I was considering but I don’t know how good I’ll be at it! Unless I’m just acting as myself! (LAUGHTER)
JB: Love and Marriage – would you like to be married one day?
Anya: That’s a good question. I’ve always felt myself to be not the marrying type of girl, not because I don’t respect it as a tradition – it kills my poor mother that I say this – but I just…I don’t know….I trust in life to take me on that path and I don’t think I’m there yet. But it’s not out of the question.
JB: How about kids?
Anya: I’ve now accepted within myself that I would really love to have children. (LAUGHTER) My poor mother! The only girl, six children and no grandchildren yet. It’s gonna happen but in it’s own time.
JB: What is one of your best life experiences or accomplishments?
Anya: Yuh asking answers! (LAUGHTER) Absolutely Project Runway! Forget the hype, forget the bigness of it, the tv and stuff. In essence, to have grown the way I’ve grown in the last few months from not knowing how to sew at all, to now having hands on full control over my life in this way and having the confidence to do that, is really….there is no comparison to that in my life, to this point.
JB: What’s your favorite Trini food dish?
Anya: Pelau. HANDS DOWN! A close second would be any kind of curry, doubles is way up there. But when you talk about comfort food, pelau anyday!
JB: You are grace personified. What advice would you give to any person who has been the victim of a public and salacious scandal?
Anya: That’s a good question, because I have noticed very early in my journey through my scandal that mine may have been relatively big but so many women suffer from some sort of persecution within their peers, friends, families, communities. It is devastating to realize how many of us, on an every day basis, deal with these things and are not given much credit for how difficult it is to deal with and overcome. In terms of being graceful, I think everything in life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you. So in that vein, when you look at every experience as a lesson, then you are never the victim and you are always in a position to learn and that’s a very powerful place to be.
JB: Ok, you just gave me goosebumps. That was powerful. How does it feel to get so much love and support from millions of people all over the world?
Anya: It is so overwhelming. So overwhelming. What I love about it, is that it is so genuine. It doesn’t feel fanatical, it feels so real and I just…I just all of a sudden want to know these people. I want to know them. It is so validating and humbling.
JB: What’s your zodiac sign?
Anya: I’m a libra.
JB: Wooohooo!!!!! Team Libra, I’m a libra too! What day?
Anya: October 17th!
JB: Doh lie!!!!!!! That’s me!
Anya: Same day??? Yuh lie!!!! That’s crazy. I’ve only met one person in my life with the same birthday and that was in high school. This is so weird and cool!
JB: What is one thing, word or experience that you would cherish forever from Project Runway
Anya: When I walked into the casting I was very humbled by this being my first real critique. When I was at Parsons, we had critiques everyday on my graphic design work but it occurred to me that my first critique EVER for my fashion work is going to be with Michael Kors, Nina Garcia, Timm Gunn and Heidi Klum. I was like “wait, wait, wait… this is not happening.” That was a really big moment for me. It felt very validating that I got passed the casting and people loved my work.
JB: To all the Caribbean youths looking up to you and dreaming to be a designer, or just wanting to pursue a dream, despite the odds; what piece of advice would you give them?
Anya: One thing I always say, risk being yourself fully. There is something very simple about that yet very challenging. It is sort of having this home to go back to within yourself. Come hell or high water, as I am testimony to, there is only one way to be really be successful and that is to only be yourself.