Writers and musicians Michelle Zauner, also known as the indie rock sensation Japanese breakfast, is a force. Even over the phone in Brooklyn, her energy can still be felt, and her new memoir, Crying in H Mart, is mesmerizing. (I devoured it one weekend.) Here, she shares her favorite exercise exercises on YouTube, a precious self-care ritual and what it feels like to write Such a deeply personal book …
Many of your beautiful memoirs tell you about your relationship with your mother, who died of cancer when you were 25 years old. I must start with the question: What did your mother teach you about beauty?
Beauty is one thing in my life, similar to food, that always reminds me of her. She loves beauty – she eats well and takes great care of her clothes, skin and hair. My mom tried to instigate me a skincare regimen at a very young age, but I didn’t want to do anything about it. As a burgeoning young feminist, my rebellious way is to get rid of beauty. It feels like your beauty activities are hindering being taken seriously. Now, conversations around both beauty and feminism are more nuanced. It’s not only possible, it’s important to have balance.
How has growing up between two cultures influenced your approach to beauty?
I grew up in Eugene, Oregon and spent every summer different from my family in Korea. Skincare is a very important part of Korean culture, but even though I have come into contact with it, I didn’t have a skincare routine until recently! I did photo shoots in both places and it really exemplifies how different Korean and American beauty is. If you wear makeup in Korea, 75% of what they do is skin care. Most of the time is spent applying layers of lotion before putting on light makeup. In the US, it focuses more on actual makeup – coloring, highlighting and contouring. But recently, I’ve noticed that many Americans have started to borrow the Korean way of doing things.
Now that you have, what is your daily skincare routine?
I have very dry, sensitive skin. My friend Jason Kim, a writer and a Korean man with amazing skin, sent me to his dermatologist, Dr. Dan Belkin. Now I clean with Cetaphil, tracked by SkinBetter Science Alto Defense Serum, followed by moisturizer. Finally, and most importantly, a part of my daytime routine is Mineral cream MDSolarSciences, has SPF 50. I wear it all the time, even when I’m indoors near a window. I love it; I feel very sophisticated every time I put it on.
What about at night?
At night, I remove my make-up BioDerma Micellar Water, then wash your face with Cetaphil. Next I use it SkinBetter Science Alpharet Overnight Cream, including retinoids, because my dermatologist said I should use active ingredients. My mother will be very surprised by that. My skin definitely feels better!
Are there any body care rituals you are in?
Before the pandemic, I regularly went to a Korean spa where a woman bathed would exfoliate you and remove all dead skin from your body. There is a place called Chung Dam Spa, in Cheltenham, a suburb of Philly, where I used to hang out. Once I’m safe, I’ll go there and exfoliate. It was very intense, but I grew up to go to Korean spa, so I got used to it. I love it when they wash your hair – it’s like a divine experience.
I am amazed at your tattoos. What’s your first one?
My first tattoo was a very ugly stick and a girl’s poke and a spoon, on the instep of my leg. A friend gave it to me, and it wasn’t a good experience – there could have been three safety pins disinfected with a Bic lighter, and it hurts.
But you still keep going! How much do you have now?
After I got my first real, it was definitely easier. I don’t know how many of them I have, because my arm is a continuous thing. At least 10? Maybe 20. They all have a story behind them. A favorite is Kewpie mayonnaise guy on my arm. I love him because my mom often makes this scallop sashimi with mayonnaise and caviar, and I think of her every time I see him. Also, I really love the Kewpie Mayonnaise! I always have it at home.
When you’re not performing, how often do you wear make-up?
When it comes to everyday makeup, the most important thing for me is eyebrows. I have Asian eyebrows, my eyebrows are very long, but stretched out, not dense. So I always fill them out Anastasia Brow Wiz dark brown. It is very precise, which I love. The second I always put on makeup is mascara. Right now, it does L’Oreal Miss Manga.
How does your makeup change when you go on stage?
For a show, I enjoyed the large eyeshadow tables. That is more of a situation. When I put my eyeshadow on, I feel like I’ve done a lot, in a good way. I feel safe. I love This Urban Decay palette, and Palette Pat McGrath also great. I look like a teenager on Hot Topic, but that’s all I know.
Do you have a self-care ritual that makes you feel your best?
Every morning, my husband and I make French coffee – we like it ReAnimator, get out of Philly – then drink it in bed and slow down. My other ritual is to take a shower and then lie naked in bed for 10 minutes. I feel like a little casserole; that is a consolation. I had a bad attitude about taking care of myself for a long time, until one day when I watched an episode of Queer Eye where Jonathan says even brushing your teeth is self-care. It was a real moment for me – I finally understood that you don’t have to take a full bath with a bath bomb to enjoy yourself; it can be present in small things.
I know you love exercising. How do you incorporate movement into your life?
During a pandemic, my physical strength helped me steady. I love Chloe Ting Program; Move with NicoleThat is Pilates; and Madfit, who I think looks a lot like Anna Konkle’s character in Pen15 if she grows up and has a gym performance. For the past year or so, I’ve been obsessed with trying to get a six pack, which hasn’t happened. It is very difficult! But most of all, exercise improves my mental health.
Your book so beautiful. What is it like to write something so personal and heartbreaking and honest?
It was both terrifying and joyful. I want to start with something good, to relive my childhood and recall all those special moments. I also feel an urgent need to share what I have endured, to cover all my injuries. I braced myself for the cancer and death of my mother, and I felt so angry that somehow I had not been warned. I feel an importance around wanting to show that. I cried a lot on the computer, I had to take a break and go back to it. It’s a four-year process – I started writing by accident in 2016, writing most focused from 2018 to 2020, and submitted for the final revision in July 2020.
What is your personal beauty philosophy?
Everyone should do whatever they want! That is my philosophy. Also, even if it’s only three to five minutes a day, every time I use the right product, or just spend a little time with myself, I think of my mother.
Thank you very much, Michelle.