By Kianna Hendricks
Los Angeles: the orphanage of runaways trying to make it in the big city. Native Angeleno’s become the outsiders as dream-chasers remake the city into their own. A collection of individuals from all over the world escape their hometowns for a dream.
It’s their drive that points them West.
For 45 minutes Alexa Anderson sits in her cream Volkswagen Beetle driving through the valley on the 101 Freeway during rush hour. Norah Jones instrumentals play on the commute to her next acting gig. In the scene to come, she will stand in front of an iPhone 8, red hair tucked behind her ears, to give a eulogy for her sister who died in a car accident. This is the reality of Anderson’s Hollywood dream - tears flowing in front of a cell phone.
Anderson spent 23 years of her life in Pittsburgh, under overcast skies and cool temperatures. “A practical city filled with a lot of practical people,” Anderson says. Her father works in finance, her mother in education and her boyfriend of four years, Shane Rings, is an engineer.
Anderson and Rings met during their senior year of high school and decided they were the ones for each other. Her parents loved him. They, too, were high school sweethearts and felt a sense of nostalgia looking at their daughter’s relationship. Anderson and Rings survived being apart from each other for two years during college, only seeing each other on weekends and so thought, ‘What couldn’t we survive?’
Anderson got an early start in theater and fell in love with performing. Singing, dancing, acting... Anderson had a passion for it all. For college she attended Point Park University, a performing arts college, and took the train to and from New York for auditions. Upon graduating in 2016, she had to decide if she wanted to stay home and build a life with Rings or move to Los Angeles.
Anderson left her family, boyfriend and practical hometown for the West Coast.
“If I didn’t love acting more [than Rings] I’d be home,” Anderson says, eyebrows furrowed and nodding intently. “I want to do this way more than I want any relationship.”
Within the first six months of living in LA, Anderson got two part-time jobs - one working front desk at a spin studio and the other, selling wedding dresses to prospective brides. She created a video reel, booked a number of acting gigs and was picked up by two agents. Anderson came at her career with full force and so far, life in the city has been better than even she expected.
She shares a North Hollywood apartment with her roommate, another actor, also from Pittsburgh. They created their home away from home in LA, with a refrigerator stocked of Iron City beer. Even though some days Anderson has to “physically remind herself to be happy,” having a roommate who is on the same career path keeps her on track.
“If I didn’t have acting I would be nobody, it’s who I am,” Anderson says, bright-eyed and full of energy. “Singing, dancing, acting, is everything I am as a person, it’s what I do. I wouldn’t know myself without it.”
Five years ago the then 25-year-old flew 6,000 miles from Belgium, where she was a dance teacher, to the Mecca of entertainment. Los Angeles was never on Kayla Janssen’s list of places to live. She had lived in Brussels, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong by herself, but it was LA that intimidated her.
In 2012 Adidas held a “Dancers Wanted” competition. The winners won an all-inclusive week in LA to attend workshops held by Katy Perry’s dancers and choreographers. Janssen won. She met dance duo RJ Durrell and Nick Florez of Goldenboyz and they told her she was good enough to dance in LA. That’s all it took. The next year, Janssen moved and began teaching dance here.
“If I would move anywhere else it would be too easy,” Janssen said. “If I can make it here I’m set for life.”
Visiting LA was a lot different than trying to make a career here. Janssen moved at a time when dancing was making a transition to being social media based. Going to auditions wasn’t enough. Her social media presence was just as, if not more, important than the connections she makes. Janssen’s social media presence is her business card - her worth is defined by followers.
She varies between 8,000 and 9,000 Instagram followers but it’s the “K” after the number (10,000 followers and above) that matters. The number of followers is how she lands jobs, increases attendance for her classes and gets her name out in the industry. The virtual living doesn’t stop for her.
“The industry is about the three F’s,” Janssen says, laughing at her coined phrase. “Followers, filters and fucks to give.”
Janssen catches herself in a rabbit hole of staring at others and asking why she isn’t there, questioning what she is doing wrong and being filled with self-doubt as she scrolls down her timeline. It’s exhausting, she says.
“I constantly have to sell myself and prove my worth here,” Janssen said. “I have to get off of social media and unfollow people I get frustrated by or jealous of - it’s self deprecating.”
The last two years Janssen has spent revamping herself, her mindset and her motivations. She’s taken time to be alone, re-define her focus and have a clear vision of the artist she wants to be.
“I can see myself,” Janssen said smiling confidently. “Any moment it can pop off, I can feel it.”
Its midday at Matador Beach in Malibu. Jeremy Lee looks up to the sun, positions his model and angles the reflector in front of her to soften shadows and bring out the details of her face. He snaps over a thousand photos, but leaves with only a handful that captured the perfect moment. “You aren’t just a photographer, anyone can take a picture,” Lee said. “You’re capturing moments in time.”
Lee was studying film at California State University Los Angeles , working at a Best Buy in West Hollywood and freelancing in his spare time. He knew he wanted to be a photographer and couldn’t convince himself that sitting in a classroom was benefitting him more than being out on the field. After three semesters, the San Jose native dropped out of college without telling his parents, who were paying for his tuition.
With more time to spare Lee focused on freelancing, picked up more hours at Best Buy and was promoted to the camera department. At Best Buy, Lee began meeting social media influencers who lived in the West Hollywood area, assisting them with camera sales and promoting himself as a photographer.
“Whenever I look back I'm really happy I did everything I did,” Lee said. “I look back and I'm so glad I put myself out there and took the risks. The pay off is later.”
Lee received more opportunities to work with people with a large following on social media. They would tag him as the photographer in pictures they posted and their followers reach out to him to take their photos as well.
“She has 500,000 followers and I'm tagged in her pictures,” Lee said as he shakes his head. “I say it out loud and it's really cool.”
Working a sales job at Best Buy presented Lee with opportunities he believes would have been harder to access in his hometown of San Jose. His Northern California home is tech-driven and the arts aren’t valued as highly as they are in Los Angeles, Lee says.
“Everyone here has a higher aspiration, the barista you just got your coffee from wants to be so much more,” Lee said. “Most people are here for a reason, they want to be something better, I love that.”