By Aideen O'Flaherty
From working as a stage manager in theatres throughout Ireland to securing lucrative modelling contracts and being the frontwoman of her eponymous band, Kojii Helnwein has always been passionate about working in the creative industries.
Growing up in Kingswood in Tallaght, Kojii was always surrounded by music as a result of her father Enda Wyatt songwriting and playing bass in the rock band An Emotional Fish, but now Kojii indulges in a variety of creative pursuits: acting, modelling, making music and photography are just some of her talents.
Married to the artist Cyril Helnwein, Kojii lives in a castle in Tipperary with their three children and divides her time between Los Angeles and Ireland.
Your dad is a musician, so music has always been around you from a young age. Was there a particular moment when you realised you wanted to be a musician too?
I don't recall any one moment, music was like language in our house when I was a kid. In primary school I’d come home to find my Dad in his home studio recording music. He'd stand me up in front of the microphone and let me sing whatever came into my mind.
There are countless tapes of 4-year-old me rambling on about clouds and dragons. I do recall being incredibly impressed by the work that went into being a musician.
The constant practice, the writing, rehearsals, the recording, it all fascinated me. I loved shadowing my Dad when he worked, I would hang out at the Factory Studios back in the day and listen to U2 jam in one rehearsal room and my dad in another.
I was hooked the first time I saw the band on stage and saw thousands of people singing along to songs that I saw the band write. The energy from that crowd was electrifying and I was hooked!
You worked as a stage manager in theatres and also a Parisian circus before you started modelling, what was that experience like?
I enjoyed working in theatre. I studied technical stage training in Tallaght and fell straight into working freelance. I was very lucky and worked non-stop for years in some great venues around Ireland.
I had the pleasure of working on opera festivals in the Gaiety, I toured with Des Bishop on a rap musical, worked the Cat Laughs Comedy festival and so much more.
It was a wild and creative ride but the hours were long, the pay was low and the work was hard. I worked 18-20 hour days and I was on the road a lot.
When I discovered modelling paid more than a week’s wage in just one day I was happy to leave the stage management behind.
How did your work as a stage manager lead into your career in modelling?
Through my work at the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival one year I met the best friend of a famous American comedian and we started dating.
I moved to LA with him and everyone we met assumed I was a model, they were shocked to learn that I wore a tool belt and combats to work instead.
When I returned to Ireland after a few months, I discovered someone had mailed my photos to a top modelling agency in Dublin. I still have no clue who sent them in.
I was home from LA for only a few hours when the agency called to set up a meeting. The next day I was on the runway for John Rocha and was booked solid for the following year thanks to everyone I met at that show.
You've starred in loads of TV commercials and even appeared on Project Runway, what is it like to see yourself on TV?
I don't enjoy seeing myself on TV. I am super critical of my work and see nothing but the points I need to work on.
However, there have been those rare moments where I see a character in a film and realise “Oh wait! That's me! Completely immersed in character.”
Those are the moments I live for. Commercials are fun and easy to shoot though. Just yesterday my daughter jumped up in the cinema during the previews and announced “Mom!!That's you!,” I sank into my seat in mortification but I was also elated to see how proud my little girl is of me.
As for Project Runway, I have yet to see a single episode. I had never seen the show before I took the job and quickly realised that it's not my cup of tea.
More recently you've been doing some acting work, how does this compare to being on stage as a musician?
It's a totally different rush. There's an immediate connection with the audience when I'm on stage with my band so I know if we’re doing a good job or not.
I’ve also been making music a lot longer than I’ve been acting so I’m more comfortable with winging it when the crowd want something different.
With film, I have to trust myself and work hard to nail it. It's more challenging to be someone else and delve into their world.
You recently displayed some of your photography at an exhibition for photographers in Tipperary, are there any plans to have a full solo exhibition of your work?
That was a fun show, it was a group exhibit that showcased work from artists based in Tipperary. Photography is more of a hobby for me.
I love film photography and old cameras so when I have some of that rare free time I’ll sneak away with one of my cameras.
The work I recently showed was from a series called ‘Ophelia’ that I photographed while I was working on the role of Ophelia in a feature film of Hamlet.
I used the series to help me capture what the character was going through and to process the role. I never expected to exhibit these photos but the support from my family was the push I needed.
There's talk of a solo show in Dublin next year but no date set in stone yet.
You divide your time between Ireland and LA, what do you think are the biggest differences in pursuing creative work in the US and here?
There are many differences between the work here and in LA, namely the volume and scale of work plus the money. There is so much work out there.
In LA a company might spend millions of dollars shooting a commercial only to shelve the end product and never air it. The work in Ireland may be of a much smaller scale but the quality and creativity in here is stellar.
We have amazing filmmakers here who are pushing some serious boundaries.
You're married to the artist Cyril Helnwein, do you get to collaborate with each other much when working or do you prefer to work separately?
Cyril and I met through our work when I modelled for his ‘Ethereal’ series and I've posed for him a few times since then, but these days we work separately. In saying that, we’re very supportive of each other and always help out as much as possible.
If you had to pick one career out of acting, modelling, writing music and photography, which one would you pick and why?
Acting. It's the one job I have that will eventually allow me to partake in all my interests. In one role I might be a musician, another a photographer, another role I might be a homely mother.
It’s also the most challenging, it forces you to really study people and what drives us.
The process of developing a character is incredible and can open you up to ways of thinking that you may never consider when you're living everyday life as yourself.
I’ve always been pretty empathic and have the ability to see life from the perspective of others, to be able to channel that for work is phenomenal.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in the creative industries?
Be prepared for the business side of art, it’s not all creative. There are taxes, contracts and all sorts of administrative issues that you need to be prepared to handle yourself.
Hire someone you trust to do it, but always be sure you understand what they do for you. I see too many artists scraping the poverty line because they let the business swallow them whole.
Lastly, what is it really like to live in a castle?
It's a magical life. Our kids are living the dream - they have gardens, forest, animals, culture, history and art in their daily lives.
They climb trees, run free with their dogs and imagine amazing adventures with dragons and fairies.
I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful to have this life, it's a far cry from where I came from. As magical as it is though, I'm a city girl.
It took a long time for me to get used to life in the countryside and the slower pace. A castle is a lot of work though, an old building like that requires a lot of upkeep and you can't just run to IKEA for a quick fix.
Sometimes random tourists wander into the garden as they think it's a public place. I often joke that we should charge them €20 and hand them a sweeping brush, a mop and some furniture polish so they can take the ‘Real Life in a Castle’ tour!