Behind every chart-topping music artist, there is a look, whether it’s Justin Bieber’s hair or Lady Gaga’s theatrical armor. Those who endure are just as likely to change their appearance as their music style, for better or worse, just to keep audiences abuzz.
Yet, in perfecting their musical chops, the typical young musician writing songs in his or her bedroom often doesn’t dwell on personal expression through wardrobe.
But so many photos circulate through MySpace, Facebook and social media sites that music fans are just as likely to see an artist before hearing them, and well, just as with love at first sight, looks matter.
Fresh from her two-Hoku Hanohano Award win as Most Promising Artist and in the category of Contemporary Album of the Year for "Anuhea," Anuhea Jenkins’ growing discomfort with her stage appearance led her to team with local stylist Ralph Malani for a redo.
The two met during last month’s Hoku Awards ceremony when Malani, of Salon 808 and Hawaii Polynesian Models Talent, was assigned to work on her hair. The two hit it off when she proved game to wearing a modified mohawk. A few days later, she found him through Facebook to ask for help in creating a new look for her 25-city summer tour of the mainland, which begins next month.
For his part, Malani said, "I saw a cute, bubbly girl who was up for anything and I thought it would be fun to work with her."
DRESSING UP is new to Jenkins, but she was ready to take the plunge.
"I was so down for this. I knew I needed help but I didn’t know what to do. I’ve always been a tomboy. I was a surfer chick," she said of growing up on Kauai. Up until recently, the only footwear she owned were two pairs of rubber slippers.
"I played water polo. I was at the beach all the time. I definitely wasn’t girly. My prom dress was from Savers."
On stage, she favored jeans, cut-off T-shirts and trucker hats, whatever was lying around just before a performance.
"That was my look," she said. "It’s been my style for a while but I was feeling not so good about it."
On stage, rather than being concerned about forgetting a lyric, she self-consciously worried about things like whether or not her jeans looked OK.
"A lot of my songs are about female empowerment, and as an artist I have to stand behind what I’m singing, so I want to make the effort to feel that confidence."
She didn’t even have a circle of female friends who could help.
"I hang around a lot of guys all the time. My band is all guys," she said.
Jenkins’ curvy, womanly body added another layer of difficulty to self-dressing.
"For my body, I always had a hard time finding clothes. I’m not a size 2 or 4, like everything at Forever21, and I don’t have a lot of money," she said. "It was always depressing to go shopping and face a rack of clothes, and none of it fit right. I think that happens to a lot of girls, so they settle."
THAT CLOTHES matter is reinforced every time one turns on the television or opens a magazine, where photos are often accompanied by a short list of what celebrities are wearing.
"What people don’t realize is that all celebrities have stylists who give them an image, dress them, and keep updating their look to keep them current," Malani said.
"You can see the transformation of artists when you turn on the TV. It’s super vital to have a memorable style," Jenkins said.
That isn’t to suggest she condones a fixation on clothing or material goods, but says that feeling comfortable in what one is wearing goes a long way toward boosting one’s spirits, "and maybe you’re in a better mood that day and let someone go first in traffic, or leave someone a bigger tip – pay it forward."
For a performer, the right wardrobe amounts to storytelling shorthand, either drawing kindred spirits or warding off those not likely to become fans.
Malani called upon local designers like Hino Tahiti’s Aja Makaena and Missing Polynesia’s Meilin Vitale Vae, and Tahiti designer Ida Teiti of Tiare Teite, to come up with dresses to play up Jenkins’ feminine side.
"Her clothes should always move, nothing stiff, because she’s always moving. And on stage, it looks good visually," Malani said.
"The style Ralph is helping me develop tells people what kind of music I play and where I’m from," Jenkins said. "I feel it’s my obligation to the people, fans, girls, everyone in Hawaii."
"It’s keeping that Hawaii connection in cloth," Malani said. "On the mainland, when people look at her, they see a pretty blond girl with light eyes. She sings contemporary music so they don’t know she’s from Hawaii, but it’s good to show people where she’s from.
"It’s a conversation starter. It makes people happy to find out she’s from Hawaii."
It’s the opposite of the look he came up with over the years of working with Raiatea Helm, who dresses in contemporary, Western apparel reflecting her youth. "Because she sings Hawaiian music, I’m not going to put her in Hawaiian wear. That would be the cliche," he said.
These days, when Jenkins walks around, she’s surprised by the amount of attention she gets and queries from other women as to where she got her dress or jewelry.
"I’m so surprised, but it’s fun and flattering. I wish I had started sooner but I thought I was holding my own."