This is our first Conversation wholly-produced during quarantine. Since we obviously couldn't send over a photographer, we asked Ajani to shoot some self-portraits.
I didn’t expect to start modeling or acting when I was younger.
I was actually really shy and wanted to stay out of the spotlight. I got into modeling because of art.
I hated being in pictures as a child; I always wanted to be behind the camera. In middle school, I had a teacher, Ms. Bennett, who was an amazing artist. You could see her passion in how she taught the class—she took it seriously. She had high standards and high expectations for me as well as my art. She showed me all the techniques. Well, maybe not all of them. But she showed me that art could be a profession.
I was also taking extracurricular art classes in a program called Rush Arts. It’s no longer around, but it was run out of a gallery very close to where I grew up in Brooklyn called Corridor Gallery. The director of that program was an artist named Meridith McNeal, and she and Ms. Bennett helped me realize that I should take art seriously. So it was in middle school that I knew that I wanted to make things that made people excited—things that people talk about and remember as an experience.
In high school, I was friends with a few photographers, and one in particular—a girl in the year above me—wanted to take pictures of me for a project she was doing. Even though I was shy, it was something new, and I was like, “Okay, it’s for your art.” She made me feel really comfortable.
I really liked working with her, and I loved being able to support her art and help her manifest the vision that she had. She kept calling me for projects, like, “Ajani, I just need somebody for this job I’m doing real quick,” and I’d be like, “Yeah, whatever.”
Through her, I met this photographer named Petra Collins. I worked with Petra on one of her early solo shows—this crying girl series.
Petra would call me for jobs and then I would meet people there and some of them would be like, “Oh my gosh. You would be perfect for this other thing.” It just snowballed, and that’s how I found myself modeling, believe it or not.
My main passion is art—I’ll never stop doing it. Modeling and acting are both jobs, whereas skateboarding is a hobby that sometimes works its way into my job.
Modeling and acting are both jobs, whereas skateboarding is a hobby that sometimes works its way into my job.
I started skating about a year before we formed Skate Kitchen, an all-female skate crew—a collective. It started when two other members, Nina and Rachelle, met Crystal Moselle, who directed Skate Kitchen and Betty, on the D train. Rachelle was living on Long Island at the time and came into the city to skate with Nina. Crystal saw them on the train and was like, “I never see girl skateboarders. It’s so cool that you guys skateboard. I would love to come see you guys skate one day.” She ended up coming to the skate park and hanging out. She was like, “Are there more of you?”
So Nina called all her female skater friends, me being one of them, and we were like, “It’s so cool that there are so many of us gathered right now.” So we kept hanging out, all of us.
We thought we should make an Instagram to post skate clips and maybe give tips. That’s what it started as. The name came from Rachelle. She always said that if she had a skate shop, she wanted to call it the Skate Kitchen because when she was younger, she would see comments on YouTube videos of female skateboarders like, “Get back to the kitchen. Make me a sandwich.” She wanted to reclaim that stereotype. So we became Skate Kitchen.
After we met Crystal, we started hanging out with her. Not just as her subjects or muses or what have you, but as friends. I actually lived with her for a period of time. It became very natural and comfortable. She also made us feel very comfortable on set. With it being our story, and her being a documentary filmmaker, she was very collaborative to work with. If she wrote something in the script and we were like, “Crystal. We would never say that,” she’d be very open. Like, “Well, what would you say? What would you do?” And I think that’s why it ended up being so authentic and feeling so genuine.
I struggled at first because I started skating later than anybody else in the group. I had to learn fast to keep up. There was pressure to film stuff and meet people and talk about skateboarding. It was becoming a job. But I was just struggling with the idea that I had to live up to the expectations of skateboarders because skateboarding culture is so deep, and the history is very, very involved. Nina has always pushed us to believe in ourselves and to not let other people tell us what we can and can’t do. Like, “You’re a girl, you can’t skate.” That is invalid. It doesn’t make any sense. And I so decided to take a stance: I’m not going to let skateboarding define me. I’m a skateboarder because I love to skateboard. It’s something I do, and I don’t like to think of it as a signifier. It’s a part of me.
We were actually all consultants for Betty. I was living in California, so I spent a lot of time in the writer’s room. If I was bored, I’d be like, “I’m gonna go hang out with Crystal at the office.” If there was something we felt very passionate about including—a topic we felt needed to be discussed or a perspective that hasn’t been seen on TV—we would share our stories with them.
The show is very heavily drawn from our lives specifically–not just New York teen life and the skateboarding life.
A lot of the stuff that happens in the movie and on the TV show were actually our real-life experiences. Maybe the context or the person it happened to was switched around, but the show is very heavily drawn from our lives specifically–not just New York teen life and the skateboarding life.
There’s one episode where my character, Indigo, has to do a photo shoot that’s based on an experience that I had in L.A. It was horrible. The brief was that the shoot was supposed to be “girl gangs” or whatever, and I was like, “Okay. Yeah, that’s cool.” But when I showed up on set, there were Russian models with cornrows and this Caucasian makeup artist being like, “Make it more ghetto. Make her lips bigger. Do her eyebrows.” They put fake scars and a face tattoo on one of these girls. It was so bad.
I talked to the other models and a lot of them were very uncomfortable that they were put in such a compromising position. They were like, “My agent will drop me if I don’t do this.” It was traumatizing, and I left. That was in the show.
My character on Betty sells weed pens. She’s definitely a stoner. She’s rich, so she doesn’t sell drugs because she needs money—I mean, she kind of needs money but she doesn’t really need money. And she doesn’t understand the consequences.
As a person of color, it’s really interesting having a relationship with cannabis. Especially now that it’s legalized in some places, and how many people are still in jail for marijuana and possession charges. I’m very privileged to be able to just go to the store and purchase weed. It’s just hard in this capitalist system where it’s been decriminalized and yet people are still being penalized for it. I like cannabis. I enjoy smoking, I really do, but it’s always important to keep that in the forefront of my mind.
With the TV show coming out, I have lots of press stuff to do. I’m just grateful that I’m still able to participate from home, and that I’m fortunate enough to be in a situation where I’m comfortable and able to be worried about finishing the school semester. I would love to be celebrating with my friends, but also I feel like that could be overwhelming.
I’m not really sure what I plan on doing in the world, but I know that in quarantine I’m going to be working on my art.
I’m a Visual Arts major at CalArts, and I’m graduating in December. We’re approaching finals, so I also have lots of homework. I took some time off to finish filming Betty and then I had the rest of the semester, so I was modeling heavily. But now the modeling industry has halted completely.
I’m not really sure what I plan on doing in the world, but I know that in quarantine I’m going to be working on my art. I’ve been revisiting projects that I didn’t have time to finish when I was in school, and just taking the time to finish the things that I started a long time ago. A big problem for me has been not following through with my ideas because I don’t have enough time or resources to finish them. Now I have the time, so I’m trying to get it all done.
I try to stay active. I skateboard at night in front of my house, but I don’t go very far. My roommate and I workout. She’s a dancer, so sometimes we’ll do dance classes together, or make videos together. We’ve actually been making pillows. I learned how to sew two months ago for a show I had at my school. I made these giant plush tentacles, so now we started making flower pillows and sewing lots of things. We’ve been doing all these fashion projects and clothing modifications—you know, fixing all the clothes you wanted to fix yourself but didn’t have time to do. We’ve been making up characters for this book I’m planning on making, so we’ve just been experimenting with art and stuff.
I’ve been producing music for longer than I’ve been making art. My dad used to work at a record label. He had a MPC and he taught me how to make beats when I was three or four. That’s how we connected. We would just spend lots of quality time making beats together. When I went to college, I got one of my music tech friends to help me get Ableton, and since then I’ve been making music on my own. I also work with my friends, but I don’t share any of it publicly—and I don’t want to. It’s just a hobby. I do it for fun. I do it when I’m inspired.
When I first met Nina, I was like, “Oh yeah, skateboarding’s cool but, yeah, I don’t really think I can do it.” And now I’m like, Why would I ever say that I didn’t think I could do something that I had never even tried to do? Adapting that mindset to everything that I do has helped me to stop hesitating and to start taking more control—to not let life or other people pull me along, but to give myself goals and intentions. It’s not about setting expectations, but about doing things intentionally and with a purpose.
My bucket list is miles long. There are so many perspectives that don’t reach the audiences that they need to reach, and that’s one of the things that was really important for me with Betty: having our messages, experiences, and perspectives as young women of color growing up in New York be shared. Before I left New York to come back to school in January, I curated two art shows and they were actually really successful.
I want to keep doing that—bringing people together through art and conversation about anything they’re passionate about. Because finally giving people of color the space and the chance to talk, and women the space that they deserve to speak, makes a difference. So just more of that. Lots more of that.
Ajani Russell at home in Los Angeles. You can follow her on Instagram here. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.