Aris Van Calster
“We live in a time when you can choose to be you. And just go online, and create your own world.”
Words Jules O’Brien Photography Akif Hakan Celebi
Aris Van Caster clad in fuchsia fur and bubblegum boots, she sits tall against trays of mangoes and durians. Her multi-coloured braids cascade to her thighs, and the gold hues on her face tell-tale a long day outdoors.
This weekend in Hong Kong, I learn how a shy, young art student has become one of Asia’s humblest and most captivating influencers. We start our interview over dinner, through the steam of our wonton noodle soups. She’s softly spoken and mesmerising.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Aris grew up in Antwerp, Belgium, before venturing into Asia — where she now lives in Bangkok. It all began when she starred in a reality television show in Belgium. She chuckles, “as you might have guessed, there aren’t so many black TV stars there! I wasn’t ready for the attention that came with it. I had to get out of there. So I moved to Italy for a while.” On her first move to Asia, she recalls, “My parents were working in Qingdao, China. So I ended up moving over. It was probably the most courageous decision I’ve ever made.”
Brave, but not easy, she says –, especially as a young black woman. “I had people grabbing my ass on a daily basis!” Even women? I ask. “Especially women! At the time I had a big ‘fro so people would just pull at my hair in the street. They’d want to just, feel me. It’s just a difference in culture – maybe it’s the one-child policy. It’s like they’re raised to believe that they can do what they want. After experiences like that, you become immune to a lot of things. It builds character.”
She brushes off her stories but reveals that it’s never been easy to appear optimistic. The more we talk, the more she reveals the darkness that’s shackled her for years: “I’ve always been depressed, and I never knew why.”
Now, against the neon pandemonium of the Mong Kok Ladies’ Market, Aris is a vision in white; chin thrown back, totally unfazed by attention from crowds with pointing fingers. The next question writes itself: how does a girl who grew up feeling so small, rise to become such a spectacle of strength? Our chat continues in an opulent cocktail den on Hong Kong Island, where she remembers her first trip to Thailand. She had experienced a kind of self-renaissance, arriving in the middle of the 2014 military coup d’état.
“Suddenly, the world opened up. I thought, wow, other people have way bigger problems! Depression is an introverted thing, but now I was getting to experience life outside of myself. It changed me. When I returned to China I was a different person. Not long after, I decided to move to Vietnam.” The most crucial step towards self-discovery wound up being the most heartbreaking. After months of self-study and therapy in Vietnam, she realised a destructive relationship with her mother was stopping her from moving forward. “I started reading about the effects that narcissism in parents, can have on children. My relationship with her checked all the boxes.” She created YouTube videos as an outlet. Adoring viewers would empower her with messages of unity. But when she tried to discuss things with her family, they shut her down.
“That’s when I knew I needed to step away. If you can’t express yourself with the ones you love, there must be something wrong.”As if freeing herself from an anchor, she cut off contact with them. We spend the next day walking through the chaotic and tranquil corners of Hong Kong. Smiling every step of the way, it’s like embracing the city with an old friend. She tells me about this one evening at a bar in Ho Chi Minh. She was wearing a trilby. Her eyes were glassing over as her date performed some mediocre monologue.
Out of nowhere, someone lifts off her trilby and runs away. “Who the fuck does that?!” She knocks back her seat and chases the mysterious figure. After a night running after him, she closes lips with the man who would later become her fiancé.“We decided to move to Thailand, and luckily he found an art gallery that wanted him. He was just… Awesome. Supporting me with anything I wanted to do. He’s helped me through so much.” After a stint in corporate styling (“It didn’t make me happy!”) Aris began to build her own brand - designing her website, finding her voice in a blog, and building her Instagram presence.
“We live in such a time that you can choose to be you. And just go online, and create your own world.” She adds, “And it’s the most amazing feeling knowing that the reason people want to work with you is purely that they like your aesthetic, and find power in the way you express yourself.”
As the trip closes, we grab drinks on a rooftop in Wan Chai, the city’s red light district. The conversation falls on her idol, Grace Jones. “I love when you watch her interviews; she shuts people down with the snap of a finger. She’s taught me that it’s okay to have boundaries and say no.” Aris reflects on the responsibilities that come with influencer life. “I saw a comment the other day that said, ‘I want your life!’, and that to me was so sad. I know some influencers whose whole lives revolve around putting pretty pictures up, with no meaningful substance. That’s no way of living.”
“Everyone’s got baggage,” she adds. “The only difference is that some people recognise it, and others keep on pretending. Us influencers, we need to show the world that we are human.”
The next evening, Aris Van Calster returns to central Bangkok to her fiancé. Meanwhile, back in Yau Ma Tei, flecks of gold dust still glisten on the ground. The old man stamps his smoke out on the fruit-juice concrete.