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February 16, 2022
Words by Genevieve Phelan.
Be it meeting the parents, going to a rogue house party, getting to know new friends over dinner, or navigating a LinkedIn profile, the lofty question of “what do you do?” can be one of the biggest drags of a 20-something’s life.
Whether you’re still figuring it out, or just find yourself unable to succinctly describe what it means to be a ‘copywriter’ sans doing anything near legal ‘copyright’ work, defining yourself in a singular job title can become a dreaded talking point.
But with more and more people like today’s Moxie muse (the inimitable Sabina McKenna) out there, a little wave of acceptance and relief will come in knowing — and owning — that you can be more than just one thing. Sabina recognises humans aren’t always built for one fixed JD or passion for their entire adult existence. We are very multidimensional beings, after all.
As a model, curator, writer and movement-leader, Sabina is well-aware of having multiple callings, or vehicles for showing moxie. She’s recently launched a journalistic project dubbed ‘Where are you from?’, worked on a moving ABC doco about race, and knows the value of self-belief in pursuing a diverse career. Her purpose is clear — to create, to tell stories, to listen to other people’s stories, to connect, and to revel in life’s beauties. She also happens to have a rare relationship with her period, but we’ll let Sabina tell you about life as of late in her own wise words...
What does showing 'moxie' mean to you?
Showing moxie is definitely something that applies very strongly not only to how I approach my creative work, but also to my personality in general. I often describe the feeling of being determined to work on my projects; to write, to explore and even to simply seek out the things that are most enjoyable and interesting to me. It really is this burning feeling or drive that keeps me pushing forward.
Sounds kind of cheesy, but sometimes I even say to myself in my head ‘I will never stop trying’. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind, especially these days when it is a lot harder to go out there and chase after what you want — particularly for creatives trying to build something from the ground up. It’s important to be passionate, driven and determined to put in the work if you really want something. Of course, I have to acknowledge my privilege and the access I have had growing up in the city, with everything around me to inspire and foster my understanding of art and work ethic, among many other things.
At the same time, I think committing to believing in yourself and what you want (and I mean really letting go of that self-doubt and giving it a red hot go), will go such a long way. Because (in fear of sounding too much like a RuPaul quote) if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect other people to?
Can you tell us a bit about the origins of your platform, 'where are you from?' — an online photojournalistic project about cultural identities…
I started WAYF pretty much from my bedroom! For years, I’d been asked that question and it was honestly THE most frustrating thing to hear. It was always asked at the wrong time (at work or by someone passing by in the street) and it just severely displaced me for a lot of my earlier life.
As I got a bit older, I was learning more about my cultural identity, and also becoming more comfortable with who I am — as a mixed race and multicultural person who was born in so-called Australia — and I started to look at that encounter from a more critical perspective, and not as much something that would instantly disarm me.
I realised it carried a lot of assumptions about what it means to be ‘from here’ and why it appeared to be only black and brown people who were constantly being asked this.
Being surrounded by (and interested in) art practically at birth, I was thinking about addressing the question in some kind of online work from the age of about 21 or 22, but it took me a few years to actually start to make it happen.
When I finally approached a photographer (Jess Brohier) to see if she would be interested in working on it with me, her reaction and interest in the concept really confirmed that it would be worthwhile exploring. The rest is history, really (haha).
But I have to say, I feel like creating the project led me to two really important things: the understanding finally that I am a whole identity, even as a mixed race person. I’m not half this or half that. And also that WAYF is my life’s purpose (again, super cheesy, but I genuinely feel that way).
How can we all ask this question in a genuine, respectful and productive way off the Instagram grid?
I think if someone would like to share that information with you, they will volunteer at the right time, when they feel comfortable. If it is relevant to the conversation, you can ask ‘what is your cultural background?’, which is much better. But I think it is important (before asking anything at all) to question why the urge to ask that question arises in the first place. What assumptions are being made about this person because of the way they look? And why ask them over others?
How did your 'Just Between Us’ series on ABC come about, and what did the process of filming teach you?
ABC approached me! It was surreal and I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of the opportunity initially, but watching it on air was definitely a milestone moment. And extremely overwhelming. Filming was great, too. It was so interesting to see the project come full circle, with Ciara and Ari especially, who were part of the very first exhibition. Seeing them so evolved and re-telling their stories in adaptation was beautiful, and I felt really close to them while filming all together. Working with Adam was incredible as well, they featured in the second (Sydney) exhibition. It is just incredible to see how many stories have reached the platform and also the relationships and connections that have come from that.
It was wild to think that WAYF would have reached a whole new audience too, other than our target demographic. It was great. I’d love to do more TV!
You're a curator, model, arts and culture writer — how important is it to you to be multifaceted and adaptable in your interests and work?
I think it comes down to simply having a lot of interests. I am very passionate about a lot of things and (without tooting my own horn) I tend to be quite a fast learner and so can become good at new things really quickly. Except for driving — a dear friend once said to me “you’re great at most things, but driving isn’t one of them”. I laughed very hard, and it stuck with me because she’s right.
I also think that becoming good at something requires interest or a certain level of passion, otherwise, how will you find the energy to keep at it until you start to get the hang of it? So perhaps that is a factor, too: many interests = many opportunities to dive into things and master them.
I am very much a doer, which can sometimes get the better of me with overwork, and thinking I can do it all when I really just can’t. Well, sometimes I can, but it’s not very sustainable to do all the time.
It keeps things exciting. Continually learning and adapting is important, because everything is always in flux around me.
What's the greatest thing you've ever written or made, if you had to choose one?
Definitely ‘Where are you from?’ It is my baby and keeps taking me to the places and people of my dreams. I am so grateful that it is mine and for all the meaningful things to come (I have a long list of plans).
Have you ever encountered any judgement or prejudice around your modelling work? And how have you overcome it?
Of course! It is the nature of any image-based job. I think I have my own struggles with self image, but I try to keep things in perspective as much as I can, because it is easy to let that stuff get the better of you.
I do think if I had stayed living in New York or somewhere other than here, I would have had much more success with modelling in my earlier years. There is a lot of racism in the industry here, and also just generally within Australian beauty standards that I think the greater population believes we have (for the most part) moved past.
Having said that, even on days when I do feel inadequate or not myself, I remind myself of what a privilege it is to model to snap myself out of it a bit. Most people are lovely, and if they aren’t, I simply try to avoid them in future. I’m pretty adamant about doing that generally, not just with work. If someone doesn’t have your best interests at heart, run away! Find the people who do.
I’m excited for what’s next, as I recently got signed to new management. It will begreat to embark on the next chapter of that journey, not only as a model but as ‘talent', too.
With no natural segue... let's talk about your period. Are you two friends, or is it irregular/challenging/turbulent?
I love my period. I feel like we have always had a healthy relationship and I’ve been very lucky to have mostly consistent and uncomplicated periods, which I know isn’t always the same for my fellow period havers.
In recent years, I have thought of my period as a bit witchy or spiritual (like a cleansing or reset). I usually get really tired and bloated just before. So, when it arrives, I am revived and ready to get back on track with things and physically feel very energised.
Of course, I have had times, particularly in adolescence, when I was ‘grossed out’ or uncomfortable with bleeding. I realised recently how weird it is that we hide tampons, or cups in public... like, why do we do that? So many people bleed, it’s a fact. So now, I am very open about it. Also, moon cups are a game changer. I’m obsessed.
We've got a big fat crush on your dressing sensibilities. What are a few pieces of locally-made clothing you've got your eyes on?
Ugh, so many! I have shopping issues, haha. But I love the latest collection by Permanent Vacation and also Radical Yes have been making some fabulous shoes. My birthday is on Christmas, and I’m turning 30!! Which is crazy, so I’ve been thinking about what my ultimate gift would be. I usually buy a lot of special things for myself, so I can’t really think of much aside from a new piece or art or something like that. But I am very lucky to be having a fabulous party, so I think the company at that will be the best gift of all.
Hero image (top) by Michaela Barca Photography. Others reproduced with permission @art_workr Instagram.
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