San Fermin’s Charlene Kaye Is A Powerhouse Of Her Own

Photographed by Yu Ling Wu.

And she’s also really, really cool

For Charlene Kaye, music was always a passion; a fact made crystal clear to me when I recently saw her perform at the Mercury Lounge in New York’s Lower East Side. Even those who didn’t know her name when the show began left the venue with fandom in full effect.

Kaye is fresh off of the release of her latest EP, Honey, which features dreamy pop-rock tunes and catchy choruses. The singer-songwriter doesn’t stop there. In addition to her own projects, she still has time to lend her voice to pop band San Fermin. I caught up with Kaye recently and found out how she first got into music, her dream collaborators, and why 2013 was such a strange year for her.

What are you up to today?
Not much! I’m headed to [meet] Ellis [Ludwig-Leone of San Fermin] to record some finals for our next album.

That’s great that you’re able to work with San Fermin in addition to your own stuff.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s really fun to be a part of a bunch of different visions, and I really like playing sideman. I play guitar in this other pop band this fall, in addition to doing my own stuff and San Fermin. As long as I’m surrounded by music, it makes me happy.

Which came first: singing or playing guitar?
Oddly enough, first came classical piano. My mom grew up in Singapore in a very poor family of eight siblings. When she moved to America, she really wanted the best for my sister and me, and she threw every instrument under the sun into our hands. Later, I picked up guitar on my own and fell in love. When I told her I wanted to be a musician for a living, she was like, “Wait, what? We didn’t want this to actually be your livelihood—we just wanted you to be well-rounded.”

Like a hobby, capital H, to put on your resume.
Exactly, but she’s come around. Now she knows that I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. I completely appreciate the length my parents went to, to give us some of these opportunities, and I think I would certainly do the same if I were a mom.

Tell me about Honey. What was the inspiration for it?
Honey was born in this murky period between when I had released my last album and when I joined San Fermin. I was struggling with some major life changes that were happening at the time and dealing with a breakup and stuff with my self-esteem. I just needed to write a song that entailed the complete opposite of how I felt, and then I needed to see if that changed my world view, and it did.

What was the first song on the album that you wrote?
The first song that I conceived was actually “Armies.” I wrote it when I was thinking about how humans connect to each other. There is a line in the song that was inspired by two characters in this book called On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Basically, there are two characters who are a married couple and they are constantly at each other’s throats, which was a really, really profound image to me. These two people love each other deeply, but will never truly connect because they can’t communicate.

How has the response been so far?
It’s been awesome. I’ve seen on social media that a lot of people have really connected with “Carry You,” which is my favorite song of the EP and the song that I wrote for my sister. In that murky period that I mentioned, there was something about that year that just felt very like...

I remember your mentioning 2013 being a crazy year at your concert...
I don’t know what it was. It was like, “Oh shit, there’s like a reckoning happening collectively here.” For me, I wasn’t totally sure if I even wanted to continue with music because I was in this quagmire of self-doubt, and writing didn’t seem as free and as natural as it had in the past. I think I was trying to, like, shove a square peg into a round hole. I was trying all these different things, so I just took a step back and lent myself to Ellis’ vision, and the San Fermin vision really helped me see why I fell in love with music, to begin with.

If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would be doing?
I had a really inspiring English teacher in high school and originally thought about doing that. I’ve always been interested in the psychology of people and talking about relationships and figuring out what makes people tick. I think there was something interesting to me about talking to young kids and helping them figure out one of the messiest and confusing times of their lives, which is teenagedom.

If you could collaborate with any other artist right now, who would you want to collaborate with?
Oh my gosh. This is daunting. My younger self would say, Rufus Wainwright. I also want to collaborate with Awkwafina. She is a badass Asian rapper. I want to be a voice for young Asian-American girls who might not think that they can be pop stars or rock stars because they don’t see anybody that looks like them doing that. I think Awkwafina is somebody who is really pushing the definition of what it means to be a pop star, and I would love to collaborate with her. And Janelle Monáe, too

There is definitely more diversity today than there was even a decade ago.
Yeah. I grew up in the '90s, which was the boy band era and when Britney Spears was ubiquitous. I think the idea of what it means to be a woman and what it means to look like a woman has expanded and evolved so much. You don’t have look like Britney Spears to succeed in music today. I think there’s been a renaissance of diversity in the pop culture landscape. Now, we’re seeing more and more examples in the media like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None that actually represent how I grew up.

The same kind of goes with being a woman.
There used to be so much stock put in the likeability of being a woman, and I feel like there was a lot of pressure growing up—and from my parents as well—to be beautiful and delicate and pretty and not make too much of a fuss and don’t be too opinionated because that won’t make you an attractive person. And so, I was like, “What is the point of being likable if you’re gonna round out all the edges of yourself that make you special and make you who you are?” And you won’t really be telling your real story if you do that, and that’s not being honest. I think trying to be likable would eventually make one milquetoast which is the worst thing of all.

If you could travel anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?

What are you currently binging on Netflix?
I watched Stranger Things, of course, and I also just finished The Night Of on HBO. It was excellent.

If you were going on a road trip, who would you put on the playlist?
Oh, man, I’d put some Weezer, some Fiona Apple, some System of a Down. These are all bands that I listened to in my childhood. And I’d throw in some Beyoncé for good measure.

Do you have a life motto or any words you live by?
I found this thing on Instagram that someone shared—it’s my phone background right now—and it says, “Failed? No problem. Next idea.” There’s so much I want to do—I want to produce stuff for other people and I want to co-write for other people, I want to write big pop songs for bigger artists. No matter what I decide to do, I’m gonna figure something out.

Lastly, and clearly most importantly, do you have a favorite flavor of ice cream?
Yes, mint chocolate chip from Morgenstern’s [Finest Ice Cream].


Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.