We chat to STAGE Creatives founder Aanchal Wadhwani about her experiences growing up as a minority in Hong Kong, why it’s important to her to represent diversity in the city and more…
Homegrown photographer, art director, entrepreneur and actress Aanchal Wadhwani is transforming the fashion landscape in Hong Kong with her inclusive model and talent agency, STAGE Management, which represents beauty in its many forms. With her endless creative talents (seriously, is there anything she can’t do?) and passion for art, she has become a force to be reckoned with in her field. Ahead, the versatile virtuoso shares her experiences growing up in Hong Kong as a minority, why she feels it is important to represent diversity in the city through her work and more…
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you lived in Hong Kong?
My name is Aanchal Wadhwani, but many people know me as Matryoshka. It became a moniker after I set up my first business under that name. I’m an Indian photographer, art director, actress and entrepreneur, born and raised here in Hong Kong.
You’re the co-founder of STAGE Management. Can you tell us a little more about the model and talent agency? What encouraged you to start it?
STAGE Management is actually a branch under my production company STAGE Creatives where we have a team for all sorts of visual content including photography, videography, animation, illustration, graphic, web design and development, and even Instagram filters!
My partner Nikola and I started STAGE Management for different reasons, but we believe that’s what gives us our edge despite being relatively new in the industry.
For me, growing up in Hong Kong as a minority (a term I wish I won’t have to use for much longer) had its challenges, and more so when I joined the acting and modelling industry. I got my first break at 16 years old and the more I got involved in the field, the more I realised how narrow our local beauty standards are. I’ve been asked at castings to lie about my ethnicity, to speak in an accent other than my own, and if I was to embrace my ethnicity, it was to be in the most stereotypical way possible – neither of which I appreciated.
I opted out of the field at 18 after a terrible experience and chose to concentrate on my photography business, but serendipity drove me back after an opportunity I could not resist arose. I have been very careful ever since not to take up any roles or projects that would reflect my ethnicity negatively.
My partner wanted to start the agency for an entirely different, but equally important, reason. She, being a veteran model, had experienced hardships with other agencies, casting directors, clients and photographers related to payment, unfair terms, conditions and renegotiations, safety at the workplace and more. She wanted to create an honest agency where the talents have a say in whether they want to take on a project and where they know the clients are trustworthy and don’t need to worry about payments afterwards.
With the connections we’ve made through our careers on both ends of the camera, we knew this was the right time for us to slowly introduce change.
There’s so much that goes into starting an agency. Can you share your most meaningful milestone?
In all honesty, my partner and I were not expecting to have big companies book our talents in the first year, let alone the first few months of starting our agency. But we are so proud to have earned the trust of brands like McDonalds, Fila, New Balance, One Plus and more in the span of six months!
What about your biggest milestone outside of work?
I have to admit, I’m quite the workaholic, so I don’t get much time off work. However, I spend my time off encouraging young minds to break the boundaries they’ve grown up with and pursue what brings them closer to their dreams. I’ve done a number of talks and sharings through platforms such as TEDx and high schools, both local and international. I’ve collaborated with NGOs such as EmpowerU and KELY to offer workshops, short courses, skill sharings and provide portfolio building opportunities for young students. In fact, I’m currently in the process of filming a summer course on entrepreneurship with EmpowerU.
You’re also juggling work as an actor and photographer. Can you tell us more about that side of your life?
Sometimes I like to think I have two personalities! On one side, I’m Aanchal, the actress, and on the other, I’m Matryoshka, the photographer. As a photographer, I have to be very logical and technical. It requires me to be a team player, have clarity under pressure and manage a large production to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Whereas with acting, I have to be empathetic, have a strong memory and connect with my co-stars in a short period of time – which forces me to break out of my introverted shell.
They’re so different but somehow they each contribute to one another. Being an actor teaches me how to be a better director and how to light my subjects more naturally – which I apply to my photography. Being a photographer allows me to understand the production process and in turn makes me a more patient and understanding actor on a long shoot day.
What does a typical week look like for you?
One of my favourite things about my job is working on something different everyday. Every week brings new challenges. I could be location scouting one day, meeting clients another, working with my team to build a set for a production, shooting, memorising lines, retouching, the list goes on!
What do you do in your downtime?
When I get the chance, I like to make art for my friends. I enjoy painting – watercolour, Chinese calligraphy and acrylic. I also enjoy pyrography!
What are three things you do to maintain work-life balance in your day-to-day?
I spend eight hours working, eight hours living and eight hours sleeping.
What are five personal goals you have for this year?
- Stay healthy! I’ve never been one to prioritise exercise, but I’ve started a regular yoga routine which I follow religiously.
- Drink more water and cut sugar. I know it sounds so basic, but it’s something I’m trying very hard to work on.
- Pick up a new skill. I’m learning augmented reality software and I hope to slowly learn 3D modelling!
- Learn a new language. I speak a lot of languages but I can’t read or write most of them – I’m working on my Hindi at the moment.
- Spend more time with my family.
What makes Hong Kong feel like home for you? What do you think makes someone a Hongkonger?
The language is something that ties me to the city, and so does the food. I cannot live without Hong Kong-style iced lemon tea!
Hongkongers live a very fast-paced life. A true Hongkonger would always be running, even if it’s their day off! It’s part of our DNA.
We are huge fans of STAGE and love that it aims to break boundaries and stereotypes through inclusivity. How do you want to see it grow?
We’d like more clients to know that our talents are not just pretty faces, but are unique personalities that have their own independent spark! We’d also like to discover more talented people and invite them to grow with us!
Why was it important for you to represent diversity in Hong Kong?
Diversity has always been important. In today’s Hong Kong, we still have a language barrier and some locals might only learn about different cultures through the local media. It is vital to have platforms that introduce different cultures and act as a bridge to make Hong Kong a truly international city.
I wished to create an agency that celebrated diversity and inclusivity in every sense of the word. I wanted to represent multi-talented individuals, talents of all ages, body types, hair textures, lengths and colours, body art, heights and more. Although the pandemic has been rough, it has given my partner and I the opportunity and time to work on building our own management in the hopes of improving the local model and acting industry.
Can you tell us about your experience growing up in Hong Kong with regards to race and diversity? Did you face any instances of racism for instance?
Growing up in Hong Kong has had its fair share of challenges, as it would growing up as a minority anywhere else in the world.
I’ve had questions about my culture, religion, appearance or even something as simple as my lunch! I realised most of these remarks didn’t come from a place of malice, but instead curiosity based on what they had seen in the media, so I kindly replied with an explanation and comparison to something they relate to – that usually does the trick.
What are some of your favourite platforms to follow?
I follow a lot of visual based platforms. I’m an avid user of Pinterest! It gives me new ideas and inspiration for my work. I also spend a lot of time on Instagram. I recently came across a wonderful artist/photographer named Suzanne Saroff. I love shooting flowers and her work breathes life into every flower she photographs. I also follow Retouching Academy who reposts work from different photographers! It’s amazing to see how others use their creativity.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone struggling with self-confidence, what would it be?
Take a few minutes to look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself five things you appreciate about yourself. Confidence comes with loving, not judging.