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Shei Phan: On a Mission in Shei Land
By Ash Hoden
The first time she traveled by airplane Shei Phan was 21. It was a one-way ticket from Oklahoma to New York — her ticket out. She had been working three jobs and studying for a degree in art education when her break finally broke. “It was a little scary because I didn’t know anybody [in New York]. No friends, no family, no nothing. I just thought, ‘Well, lets see what happens.’ It was my first city outside of Oklahoma and Texas.” She had also lived in Bakersfield briefly and Vegas for a month, but we’ll get to that.
Shei is cool, easy-going, and unguarded. I enjoy talking with her. During our conversation I begin to recognize how strongly intuition guides her through life. Rather than charting the course in advance and establishing a long-term framework to keep her on track, she lives her day-to-day is it comes. When an opportunity arrives, she makes a decision based on an intuitive feel for the situation at hand. She’s good at it too. One of the things I appreciate about people who prefer their instincts to grand master plans is their lack of boundaries. They will test road after road after road, unhindered by the need to stick to a set way. Some may live ten different lives in one, going wherever their hunches lead without needing to hold on to past successes. No need to stick to one groove, playing it on repeat. It’s a continual process of refinement that touches all facets. In this sense Shei is something of a diamond, steadily being polished by life’s twists and turns and her willingness to explore. Leaving Oklahoma was a big leap, shifting that refinement process into fast forward.
“I’ve come to the realization that there’s no guideline for how to live your life. There’s no rules. There’s no certain way you have to do it. If you think about it honestly, this is your life. No-one will ever know completely how you feel. No-one will ever know completely how you think. I got to the point where I just live my life. Even with the girlfriends I’ve had, it gets to where it’s drama, it’s cattiness… I don’t want to talk about hair and makeup all day. Let’s just chill and talk about life. Relationship-wise: I will never understand how a relationship works. First of all, just seeing how my mom was in relationships. That did nothing for me. I always told myself, ‘I’ll never be in an abusive relationship.’ Why would I allow someone to treat me like that? I look back on it now and I know the signs. When it comes to a guy disrespecting me, I don’t allow it anymore. I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to argue. If I can find someone like that, then it’s good. I feel like guys will never understand women and women will never understand guys. Relationships are weird. They get complicated, and a lot more rules pop up for no reason. There’s all these games. How many girls you can have. How many guys you can have. Everyone puts out there how a relationship is supposed to be. Why are you in my relationship? I feel like once people understand: just live in your own relationship—”
And apply that to all of life.
“Like I said, this is my life. This isn’t your life. Why are you mad that I did something? How is that affecting you?”
This right to be offended.
“Did it hurt you? Did it kill you? If not, leave me alone. People have told me, ‘Honestly, I thought you were a bitch.’ What?! I’m a weirdo, ok. I’m a straight-up weirdo.”
From the age of thirteen art was Shei’s primary passion. Drawing, painting, sculpting — her middle school art teacher, Miss Fisher, encouraged her to pursue all of these natural talents. But when you’re growing up in a town devoid of professional artists, it’s difficult to envision the possibility of making a career of it. “At that point I thought, ‘Oh, art’s fun.’ I enjoyed doing it but I didn’t know what I was gonna do with it.”
Shei and her four brothers were raised by their single mother. She hasn’t seen or spoken to her father since she was ten. “We moved a lot. I probably went to ten elementary schools, two middle schools, and only one high school, thank gosh.”
Was your mom just finding her way?
“My mom never graduated from high school. She got her GED. After my dad, she never had a real support system. She would just work. So we moved a lot. With housing, it was always like, ‘Oh, we gotta move. We don’t have the money to stay here.’ Or something would come up and we would just leave, you know. It kind of sucked at one point because I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t even want to make friends anymore.’ But the friends that I did make in that short period of time, they were awesome people.”
Her mother remarried when Shei was in elementary school and they lived with her step-father for a couple of years. “He was cool — to a point. But he had anger problems and he would get crazy.” His relationship with Shei’s mother was both brief and tumultuous. Shei recalls one of the times they took to the road: “My mom and step-dad got in a huge fight and my step-dad left for work. My mom comes in my room. She wakes me up and asks, ‘Where do you want to go?’ I said, ’I don’t know. California?’ She told me, ‘Alright, pack your bags. Let’s go.’ We packed our bags and left for California. We did. We left. My mom always made it fun. ‘Oh, we’re gonna go on an adventure.’ We stopped at rest stops, we slept on the roof, watched the stars… On our way, before you get into Vegas, my mom wakes us all up. ‘You guys have to look at this.’ We saw all the lights and stuff. It was really cool. And we got to Vegas… We lived there for about a month. We actually stayed in a shelter. We didn’t have anywhere to go. It was funny, as soon as we got to Vegas… Picture this: my mom is five-nine, blonde hair, green eyes. She’s a curvy woman. She’s walking around with three little Asian kids — we’re like eight, nine — walking around with us in Vegas. We went into a casino and they told her, ’You can’t have the kids by the slot machines.’ So we waited in the aisle while my mom went and played a couple penny slots. ‘Maybe we’ll win some money!’” Shei laughs as she tells me about it. “‘Yep. That’s our mom.’ It was a cool experience. Even meeting the people that lived in the shelter. It was kind of like a family. We went to school and had uniforms and everything… And then we ended up going to California. I don’t know how my mom made some things happen. Even just finding places for us to stay.”
Shei and her siblings attended elementary school in Bakersfield, getting accustomed to its new and busier surroundings until their step-father drove out and wooed their mother into returning with him to Oklahoma City. It was a short-lived reunion, however. “I feel like I went on this journey for a reason. Because I feel like I think differently than a lot of people. Yeah, I’ve been through some crazy terrible situations. Sometimes I question, ‘Why is this happening to me? I’m a good person.’ But I look at it. I feel like there’s a reason. I hate when people act the victim. There’s no reason for you to feel like a victim. Cry about it and get over it. Learn from it. Become stronger. You’re still alive, right? Ok, just grow from that.”
How do you think it’s different, the way you see things?
“I’m always positive. I get that from my mom. I feel like there’s no need to dwell on things. I try to look at the good in things and in people. If you’re always thinking negative, that’s all you’re gonna attract.”
When Shei was discovered, signing with an agency in New York, she moved into a company-owned residence that she shared with ten other models. “Girls from all over the world, which was crazy. We used to fight all of the time.” But she also met some of her closest friends in that house; people she now considers to be like sisters. Her life changed overnight.
“Full time modeling and partying, legit, that’s all I did. I was hanging with the top promoters at the time. We went to the top clubs. And we were hanging with celebrities. It was something I’d never been around. I’m like, ‘This is a fuckin’ movie.’ You know those parties you see on TV and everyone’s in black and white and you dress up and there’s someone playing the piano and walking around with champagne and hors’ d’ oeuvres? I was there. I went to those parties. I kicked it with those people. It was crazy. I just wanted to do that. I was not doing art at all. I wasn’t doing anything.”
How was the TV deal?
“It was cool. When I was little I used to watch America’s Next Top Model. I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that. I know I could do that.’ I tried out when I was eighteen. I didn’t get on. And then a friend brought the idea up again, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I made it on the show and I made the top five — so pretty far. It was amazing. Working with Tyra, those photographers, and even the people behind the scenes. It was awesome to see it all come together. Doing the challenges. That adrenaline. I had a lot of fun. It would get frustrating at times because it’s a TV show and not a real competition. I couldn’t really say what I wanted to say. But it was a cool experience. I don’t know if I would do it again. Because, on the show they called me a stripper.”
“Kelly, she called me a stripper. She asked, ‘Have you ever stripped before? I mean you were a go-go dancer?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but my clothes never came off.’ And then we were all drunk one night and I gave a lap dance to this guy. He isn’t even attracted to girls. At night we would drink and dance and have fun. They would catch it on camera, and Will — he was amazing, he wore heels on the show — I gave him a lap dance. In the next interview they asked me if I ever gave a lap dance for money. I hang out with a lot of dancers. We have fun. It doesn’t make me a stripper because I gave someone a lap dance. Whatever. I had fun. I have great fans from it. I had some negativity at some points, but my fans be on it.”
How did you deal with that?
“I was worried, because I’m sensitive. I’m a lover. I’m not the type to start fights, but I’ll stand up for myself. When I started getting mean comments, I just ignored it.”
How long was the show?
“We were on set for two months. So two months with no phone, no TV, no internet… Cut off. Which was amazing. That was one thing I can actually say I appreciated doing with that show. I’m a simple person. Me and technology do not get along, so to be able to step away from that and just be with myself and enjoy what I was doing… Half the time I was there I didn’t know what day it was, what time it was.”
What did you like about being cut off? Not having that information overload coming at you day and night?
“Yeah. I’m always about living in the moment. I’m that type of person. Let me take it in and learn from it and just enjoy life. I feel like so many people are so consumed in technology, it’s like they forget to actually look and see what’s around them.”
Just look up a little bit.
“Exactly. The house that we stayed in… It was amaaaazing. The backyard was amazing. On one side you could see all of the valley, and then on the other side you’d see all of downtown LA. I would get up in the morning, pretend that it was actually my house, grab me a mimosa or something, and walk around the backyard. Beautiful grass. There were little sculptures and fountains. Bougie-ass rich shit. I pretended, ‘Yeah, one day this will all be mine.’ When I live in my own world, I live in my own world. I love my life, because I don’t like to be bored. For some reason I always go on missions. I feel like everyday is a mission somehow. I’ll just be in my own little world and pretend I’m a ninja or something.”
Whats an example of a mission?
“Oh my gosh! This was a huge mission. I don’t even know how I completed this mission. This was when I was driving back to Oklahoma from LA, after my breakdown and drug binge and all that. I leave LA, it’s Valentines day. I have to make it there in two days because I have a photoshoot set up. I’m driving, listening to my music, and it gets to the point that I need to sleep. I pull over in this little town and try to find a hotel. All of the hotels are booked because it’s Valentines day. So I pull over into this hotel parking lot. I have my knife in my hand, lock the doors and everything, and I park. I’m on and off, trying to be aware of what’s happening and still trying to sleep. There’s this truck a couple of cars down, and it’s been there. I look over and I see someone in there. I start freaking out a little. So I slump down and put things in the window so you couldn’t really see. My windows are tinted too. I made it through the night and get up at like five-thirty. Let me drive. Let me get somewhere. I’m driving and it starts to snow a little bit. Ice started building up on my windshield wiper and it wasn’t wiping. So I pulled over and tried to break the ice off. I pulled the windshield wiper and it breaks off. This is on the driver’s side of the car! I didn’t know how I would keep going. It was ten o’clock at night and I cannot see at night when I’m driving. Night driving is a mission to begin with. Top of that, it’s coming down… I’m driving, driving. ‘Please lord don’t let it come down too hard.’ Driving… GPS, out. I had no idea where I was going, and I can’t really see, so I think there is an exit. I’m about to turn off. It was not an exit. It was a ditch. And right before the ditch is a tow thing. There was a lady in the little tow thing. I get in the ditch. I’m trying to get out and it’s kind of muddy. I felt like I was stuck, so I just gunned it. I come up out of it and I get to the tow thing. I roll the window down. The lady is like, ‘Are you on drugs?’ I promise, ‘No no no no. I’m lost. I’m trying to get to Ardmore. Please tell me how to get to Ardmore.’”
The lady gave a series of convoluted directions that Shei asked her to repeat three times just to clarify the details of.
“Scary ass movie. Just imagine: there’s no lights, it’s half dirt, half concrete, and on both sides it’s just fields and black. It’s one o’clock in the morning. There’s no phone service. I didn’t know where I was going. I was just out in the country. If I broke down someone could kill me and no-one would ever know. I finally make it to Ardmore at four o’clock in the morning. I have to wake up at six o’clock because I have to be in Dallas at nine for a photo shoot. So I had two hours of sleep. Thank goodness my sister-in-law offered to drive me to the photoshoot. I knock out the shoot — I don’t know how. It was like five hours long. Finally, we go to Buffalo Wild Wings after that, and on the way home I’m out. That was a crazy mission. These random things just happen to me. It’s good for writing, it’s good for my art, it’s just great storytelling.”
Do you write a lot?
“I’m starting to. When I go out, even if I’m high or drunk, I pay attention to how people interact with people. It’s really funny. Especially in New York. I try to remember so I can write about it.”
You become like a social voyeur when you write.
“We are a weird-ass species. I don’t understand us. I think god is like a scientist up there, running experiments on us. One thing I know about life: it’s forever a test. Let’s see what you’ll do next. Lets see how strong you are. Mentally, physically, everything. If people understood that concept they would understand life a little better. And if people actually wanted to understand how other people are… Especially with today’s generation, a lot of people don’t think for themselves. They let media think for them. They’re influenced by the stupidest shit. When I influence people, when I inspire people, I don’t want it to be on a stupid level. If people could really understand how they work and how they think, it would be crazy to see what we are capable of doing.”
There’s so much creativity in the world.
“It’s really wild. Even myself — I surprise myself a lot.”
That’s the beauty of it.
“It’s kind of scary in a way, because when I paint I step into a whole different world. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m doing, I’m just doing it.”
Shei’s art teacher, Miss Fischer, shifted over to the high school the same year that Shei did. “She came to me and said, ‘I want you to be in AP art. You’ll do different assignments, we’ll have shows… I think this will be really good for you.’ So I ended up doing AP art. I mainly did sculpting with clay, wire, plaster, metal. Pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I started in 2D as well. My first oil painting was a self portrait, and it was huge. She was an amazing art teacher. She would stay with me in the studio until one o’clock, helping me finish projects for shows. I always had three or four projects going on at one time. I would be like, ‘Oh Miss Fisher I have this idea.’ She’s like, ‘Let’s do it. What do you need?’”
In her high school yearbook Shei was voted ‘most likely to be the next Picasso.’ “That’s how everyone knew me. I was the Asian that did art and was always dancing. My principal would actually come to me and ask, ‘Are you coming to the dance? You know it’s not a dance without you.’ Hell yeah I’m coming to the dance!”
Were you the one Asian family in the area?
“There were some other Asians, but they were full Chinese. I was poor. We were really poor growing up and I had to stick up for myself. All the popular kids, they’d try to pick on me. Because I was little in high school. Like little. Like skin and bones. But it got to the point where I was cool with everyone. I had my crew, but I had friends everywhere. It keeps life interesting. I like to go with different people.”
Shei was the first in her family to graduate from high school. The first to go to university. Inspired by Miss Fischer she studied to be an art teacher, transferring her sophomore year to the University of Central Oklahoma because it had a quality teaching program. Then she was discovered.
En route to her friend’s house, all dressed up and ready to party, a radio spot cued her to the fact that a downtown bar was doing an open call. They were looking for runway models for a show featuring the work of a Project Runway designer. “I was always interested in modeling. So I went and auditioned for it by myself. It was really random. I met the designer and he told me, ‘Yeah, I want to work with you.’ I did a catalog for him. It was prom dresses and stuff like that. That was my first time doing a photoshoot. After that happened, my friend was like, ‘I’m doing this music video for Baby Bash and this new group called Meant To Be. Do you want to do it with me?’ We did the music video and her agent was on set. She told me, ‘I like your look. I want to set you up with a photographer and do a test shoot with you.’ What’s a test shoot? I didn’t know these terms. It was kind of terrifying. He said, ‘Well, if I like you I might have you stick around. If not, I don’t know what to tell you.’ We did a beauty look and then an editorial — kind of more fashionable. After that he told me, “I like how you move. There are certain things that you do that’s model material. I want to shoot with you more. I’m not going to charge you. Just come over.’ After that I was at his house before classes, after classes, before work, after work — seven days a week. He pretty much put me through modeling boot camp.”
What goes into that?
“He was a photographer in London and he worked with agencies there — the European style. We went through everything. He taught me how to be comfortable, knowing my angles, with my eyes, all this stuff… It was a lot of fun working with him. It was a fun, artistic outlet for me. I did that, I ended up getting signed, and it was my ticket out of Oklahoma.”
Not long into New York, adapting to her newly broadened horizons, Shei started buying small canvases and paints. She took photos and printed designs on t-shirts. She craved something deeper. “Modeling is not doing anything for me. It’s not making me feel complete. You go in there and you’re nothing. You’re the canvas. You can’t say anything. That’s what killed me. I’m a creative person. I need to speak. I need to be involved somehow. Now when I model, I set up the shoots. I look at the pictures. I have the outfits. I design it. I’ll do my own hair and makeup. So, I run it. When I was modeling professionally, I would meet these people on set and we’d get to talking. ‘Yo, let’s do something creative. I’d hook up with these people and say, ‘Let’s get wild with it. Let’s get weird.’”
You stayed in LA for awhile after the show?
“At that point I had this apartment. I always wanted to live in Los Angeles. I was working a job. I was doing photoshoots but not as much as I should have been doing. I don’t know what was going on with me. I was in the whole Hollywood scene. I was wrapped up in partying again. I love to party. I’m not gonna lie. I love to have fun. In LA it’s so beautiful — be nekked half the time, go to beaches, hang out. And I had money, so I was chillin’. I was legit, livin’ this life. Then my friends, they moved out of the apartment before I came back. The house was a mess and they still owed me money. My car was broken into. I was working so hard to save money and there’s all these things happening. I was just out partying and doing drugs. I look at pictures — I was really skinny. Unhealthy. It didn’t click to me that I was behaving like that. I was escaping from everything. I did drugs to be away from all the stress, the problems… Obviously, I was in a situation that I shouldn’t have been in. God was like, ‘Let me test you real fast. Let me see if you can get up and do what you’re supposed to be doing. Because you’re not doing it.’ It made me realize what I need to be doing. Let me get to New York. Let me get on my hustle. Art is something I have to do. The modeling industry broke me down, too. I never looked at myself in the mirror and judged myself, and I catch myself doing that. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh I need to lose weight. I’m too thick.’ But I’m not. As much as I love modeling, the whole industry is fucked up.”
It’s been over a year and a half since Shei’s escape to Oklahoma from LA, and her return to the city. “Back in New York, doing the art thing has been great. It really has. The projects I have coming, the people I’ve met… It’s incredible. This year I’m finding who I am, where I’m supposed to go and what I’m supposed to do. It’s tough, because I still do a lot of it on my own. I don’t have a manager, but I’m learning. I can do it. I’m a very social person. I’m able to talk to people and connect with people the right way — build those relationships, because that’s what matters. I’m growing up. Even though I’m not really growing up. I don’t think I’ll ever be an adult.”
Like Peter Pan?
“I’m always in Neverland. Shei Land. I live in my own world. I know when I have kids they’re gonna be crazy as fuck. I want them to talk to me. I want us to have a good relationship. I’m still trying to get to the point that I can talk to my mom about some things. I try talking to her about guys and stuff, which is kind of weird because I was a big tomboy when I was little. A huge tomboy. I looked like a boy — buzz cut, boy clothes… Then I started becoming a girl. That’s why my mom gets so excited about this modeling thing. She wants me to be a model because I’m a girl.”
We delve a touch deeper into her thoughts about god:
“People sometimes just need to be pushed a little bit. ‘Let me see what you got over there. Let’s bring it out. Dress how you want to dress. Do your hair how you want to do your hair. It’s your life. It’s your body. Why not be happy and live it the way you want to live it? Don’t live it by anyone else’s rules.’ I feel like god gives you a path that’s black and white but you choose the colors to paint it. Some people stay in black and white. They will never pick up a paintbrush and put color to their path. And there are those who are gonna fill it with color. They’re creating their own dream. They’re creating their own life. They’re living how they want to live.”
So, he gives you a path that’s black and white — you have a set way through life that’s already defined — and then it’s up to you to make the most of that; to give it the spice and variety?
“Every single person on this planet, they all have a purpose. We’re all creative people. God is an artist. Obviously every single person on earth is creative. It’s how you bring it out in yourself. He’s not gonna be like, ‘Boom! There you go.’ You have to figure it out. Everyone has a path. But obviously you have detours that go off. Sometimes people go off and they get lost. Sometimes it’s the devil calling you over. But that main path — your purpose in life — will always be there. It’s not up to god to say, ‘Do this. Do it. Do it. Do it.’ It’s up to you to figure it out. It’s there. It’s in black and white. But once you know who you are as a person, knowing where you want to go in life, that’s when you start putting color to your own picture. Putting the people in your life that you want in your life. Putting in that environment. Where you want to live, where you want to go. I feel like the main thing that stops people is money. I hate money. I’ve never been rich. But the opportunities I’ve had and the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met… God’s like, ‘I see you working hard. Let me give you this opportunity. It’s your choice, take it or not.’ I’m not a religious person. I don’t go to church. I feel like churches create too many rules. But I’m very spiritual. I have a relationship with god. I know he talks to me and he guides me. And, that’s a homie. I’m still figuring out my way, but that’s one thing that we are born with: decision. Right and wrong. Everyone knows what they’re doing. You can’t say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Everyone has that little voice in their head that says, ‘I don’t think you should do that.’ Then you say, ‘I’m gonna do it anyway.’ People want to be bad. You can’t always be right. You can’t always fall that way. You cannot honestly introduce me to one person that has just done right all of their life.”
That would be so boring. You would be the most boring person in the world.
“Exactly. There’s nothing wrong with being bad, but know that there are consequences. Karma is real. I still get karma on some of the things I did, and for some reason I know that’s why I’m getting it. God reminds me, ‘Remember when you did this?’ He teaches me a lot. That’s why I think differently. I like psychology. ‘Why is this person doing that?’ And then I think about the things they’ve told me about their life, or how they do certain things, and it kind of makes me understand. People can’t honestly tell you, ‘My past does not affect me.’ I remember shit when I was two-years-old. It affects me. I have daddy issues. Can’t lie. My dad was never there. It affects me. I’m learning how to deal with it though. I’m learning to not blame that and let it control my next relationship.”
That’s a really good lesson to learn.
“Even the guys I’ve been with. They all come from somewhat broken homes. When they do certain things to me I can kind of understand why they did it. I’m not justifying it. I’m just understanding it. We all do things that we don’t understand that we do. We do them subconsciously. People don’t know how they act sometimes. I try to understand it. I don’t want to hate anybody. But there’s only so much I can give. If you don’t catch on as fast as I catch on, then I’m movin’ on. For real. I’m not trying to be one of those girlfriends that holds everything over your head — like, if you tell me all your secrets I’m gonna use it against you. I just want to understand who you are as a person. That’s why I’m trying to learn more about my mom. How she grew up and how she acted with her mom and stuff. She’s told me some things and it helped me understand how she acts. I understand how I act too, sometimes. I’m like my mom. I get crazy.”
Has it helped to learn that?
“It opens your eyes. If I can understand my mom I can understand myself better. Now, every time I go back home it’s like, ‘When are you going to settle down? When are you going to have a baby? Coming from Oklahoma, everyone starts young. It’s like straight out of high school, straight out of college, married, have a kid, nine-to-five, two dogs… Yeah, I’m behind. Last time I went home I was around so many pregnant people and babies. I was like, I gotta get outta here. I am not ready to be a parent. I still want to travel. I want to do things without having to take care of another human. And when I have kids I want to make sure I can give them everything. But I’m not there yet. I’m still struggling with myself — to do what I want to do. I’m not rushing.”
“That’s the thing about Oklahoma. They have their ways. It’s just how it is. Me coming out here and doing nudes, I got shit for that. They said, ‘You need to reconsider your morals.’ It’s the Bible Belt. And the fact that I wear all black now too. In Oklahoma you don’t wear black like that. In high school and middle school, wearing all black was emo or gothic or devil worshiper. In Oklahoma you don’t dress up for a regular day. Jeans, boots, and a tank top. A hat. My boyfriend at one point: I’d get cute and he’d say, ‘Who are you gettin’ cute for?’ What, you want me to wear basketball shorts all day? Can I get cute for myself? I always told myself, ‘I’m making it out of Oklahoma, one way or the other.’ I fell in love with New York because I love people. Oklahoma is still kind of segregated. My boyfriends were black and we’d get the worst stares. I remember when I first moved to New York, I saw an Indian guy with a beautiful black girl and I thought: ‘I’ve never seen a couple like that.’ Just walking around New York and seeing so many different cultures coming together… These beautiful people. Yes, I’m home! I love New York. I do.”