“With art, I’ve raised 43,000$ for leukemia treatment and research in rural China through the Phoenix Media annual charity art auction. I’ve lost many family members to cancer, including my aunt who I’ve written many poems about (most notably how i became an atheist, which won the Button Poetry Short Form Contest in 2018). I’ve never been knowledgeable about science in the way I am about the arts, but I thought there still must be a way for me to contribute in the research and treatment of those affected. With poetry, I published my first poetry anthology as a teenager, and was able to donate 15,000$ to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY). CTY was a gifted students academic summer camp, and I attended their sites in both Lafayette College and Princeton University. My summers at Lafayette had a profound impact on my childhood, and I still feel a deep connection to the place itself. It was also at this summer camp that I wrote my first poem. With the proceeds I helped raise for CTY, I was able to help underprivileged students attend the program, which I hope can guide another young person to find their calling.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Wong, a poet, artist, philanthropist, social media influencer, and student at Hamilton College. Heidi started seriously pursuing art at six years old, and went on to win six national art championships in China. At only seventeen years old, Heidi raised 43,000 dollars for cancer research at Phoenix New Media China’s charity art auction, published her first poetry anthology, and already had her work in numerous international magazines. Now, at twenty, she has over 160,000 Instagram followers and her heart set on making a name for herself in the art, poetry, and social media world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I started posting my poems on Instagram under only the name (h.w.) when I was fifteen, and eventually started gaining a following. I thought that in being anonymous, I was able to speak my mind with no restrictions and no fear of judgment. Then, I gained enough confidence to share a little bit more of myself outside of my poetry with the world, including my art and parts of my personal life. I’ve still managed to keep the mentality that every piece of art I create, whether it’s poetry, painting, or drawing, should be an honest reflection of my experience in this world as a synesthetic young artist.
I was born with the condition synesthesia, which allows me to connect emotions and words with colors. Because of this, making art can be a sort of out of body experience where I’m literally transforming my most heightened emotions into something tangible. I went to art school at six years old, and always knew that art in all forms was more than a passion — it was an essential and fundamental part of who I am.
Although sometimes it can feel intimidating to reveal so much of myself online, I still stand by the same values I did when I was fifteen, sitting in my dorm room at summer camp writing in a notebook. My art, in all forms, exist because I must keep creating it — I need the cathartic process and will continue being pulled back into it almost involuntarily. And I will always write and paint what feels real, cathartic, and most of all, honest.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you in the course of your career?
This isn’t quite as funny as it’s interesting in an ironic, “poetic justice” kind of way. Without sharing too much, something early this year motivated me to use my voice to advocate for feminism, self love, and female empowerment. Since then I’ve created numerous poems and paintings under those themes, which inspired some of the most heartfelt responses received to date.
I wrote in a poem, “you have the spotlight now and still no one knows your name,” which summarizes the irony of the situation. The person at the root of this had an obsession with fame, yet never made a name for themselves except by putting others down. Even now when I think about how everything turned out — it makes it almost worth it. It’s karma. Their actions provoked me to build a platform of the exact values they aimed to demolish.
This story just comes to show, when something so inexplicably bad happens, you’re responsible for regaining that power — not through pointing fingers or resulting to extremes, but through doing what you believe is right.
However, I do want to remind young creatives that what your work is “about” never really is “about” that subject. It’s an analysis, from your personal perspective, of how the subject impacted you. Which is to say, despite the initial motivation, I eventually learned to give myself credit for turning a negative into a positive. I created art that spoke my truth for me, and that’s one of the most satisfying and proud moments of my career as an artist.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
With art, I’ve raised 43,000$ for leukemia treatment and research in rural China through the Phoenix Media annual charity art auction. I’ve lost many family members to cancer, including my aunt who I’ve written many poems about (most notably how i became an atheist, which won the Button Poetry Short Form Contest in 2018). I’ve never been knowledgeable about science in the way I am about the arts, but I thought there still must be a way for me to contribute in the research and treatment of those affected.
With poetry, I published my first poetry anthology as a teenager, and was able to donate 15,000$ to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY). CTY was a gifted students academic summer camp, and I attended their sites in both Lafayette College and Princeton University. My summers at Lafayette had a profound impact on my childhood, and I still feel a deep connection to the place itself. It was also at this summer camp that I wrote my first poem. With the proceeds I helped raise for CTY, I was able to help underprivileged students attend the program, which I hope can guide another young person to find their calling.
If someone would want to emulate your career, what would you suggest are the most important things to do?
I don’t think anyone should aim to emulate anyone’s career, though I would suggest for a young artist intensely passionate about their work, to always create for themselves. It’s easy to get caught up in what your audience, or following, want to see from you. But years from now when you’re living the dream you set for yourself, you want to be able to know exactly how you got yourself there. And it should be because you were fearlessly emulating your individualized vision. The amount of opportunities I’ve turned down because they didn’t fit my moral grounding is endless, and though it’s heartbreaking in the moment, in the long run you’ll be happy that you bet on yourself.
Also, something else I’ve noticed about the genre of “insta-poetry,” is the overwhelming desire for someone to inspire others. Inspiring others and “being relatable” should be the byproduct, not the goal. Poetry isn’t a lesson, but sometimes it can end up as one. The only goal I have when writing, is to put my raw, uncensored truth into the world, and have my readers interpret it through their own experiences. No one will ever have the same experience as you did, but they can feel the emotions you put on a page or canvas — that’s the key. As an artist, the goal should be to have others feel what you feel despite never having gone through what you did.
Is there a particular person that made a profound difference in your life to whom you are grateful? Can you share a story?
I took IB English Literature in high school, and at that time my teacher was one of the first people in my real life who read my poems. I sent him a draft of two poems — one extremely personal and controversial, and the other vague and watered down. He, without hesitation, said it was “obvious” which one to choose.
At the end of his response, I think his exact words were “if you’re new at poetry, it certainly doesn’t show.” I had been writing for almost three years then, but was terrified of letting anyone who wasn’t a stranger on Instagram read my work. Whether he knows it or not, he was the first person who taught me to write fearlessly.
The general consensus of the class was that he was a strict teacher and harsh grader, but I’m convinced that if I were an English teacher, I’d be the exact same way. We both believed in literature so much that we wanted everyone else to see the power it had.
He also introduced me to many books that would shape a huge part of my writing philosophy. Especially the distinction between “happening truth” and “story truth” in The Things They Carried. When I’m writing poems now I still think about that, how sometimes we lie in order to tell the truth, how sometimes certain details may not have happened, but can still be the truth if the emotion is real.
So what are the most exciting projects you are working on now?
I have a few sponsorships coming up on social media, and I plan to publish another collection of poetry within the coming years. I have many ideas for the new collection and have so many poems I want to be published, so I’m still looking for new publishers to work with. I want to take social media as far as I can, and I’m still learning every day but I’m excited to see what I can come up with. I’ve also been nominated and made the top 50 shortlist for the Influencer Awards Monaco 2018.
What are your “Top Five Ideas About How Influencers Can Monetize Their Brand”. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Have your social media presence focus on a field that can generate marketable products, or eventually expand from social media into these fields.
For me this was pretty straightforward since I’m a poet and artist who happens to have an Instagram focused on poetry and art. For others who’ve built their brand based on personality, this may need more creativity. A trend I’ve noticed in Youtubers particularly is publishing books about themselves. That’s proven to be a creative and commercially successful way to both expand outside of social media and monetize off their personal brand. Personally, I’ve also published a poetry anthology when my social media was just taking off, and plan to do so again in the near future.
Social media is such a dynamic platform, but I’d like to see it as a way to gain opportunities for my poetry and art instead of as the endgame itself.
2. Create products based on your own style or brand.
About a year ago I opened an online shop on Society6 (www.society6.com/heidiwongofficial) and started regularly uploading my art on there as phone cases, prints, mugs, and other products.
I don’t receive full commission from my merch sales, but for me this strategy gave my following a more accessible way to have my art with them. I also have ideas to eventually make clothing items and merch featuring excerpts of poems.
3. Work with brands through third party apps, agencies, or reaching out directly.
There are brands I really wanted to work with who I’ve connected with through taking a leap of faith and just emailing them with no agency backing me. Most companies that use influencers, especially fashion brands, more often than not will have their contact somewhere on their website. This is how I started working with FashionNova. Even if it usually takes longer for the brand to reply, sometimes you can get the results you want.
If you either aren’t ready for representation or just don’t want to be represented by an agency, you can use third party apps and platforms to reach out to brands. This includes Revfluence, The Cirqle, and Obvious.ly, to name a few. This is how I started working with Ideal of Sweden and Phenomenal Woman.
4. Engage in paid promotions for smaller accounts.
This is something I feel like a lot of people on social media do but don’t talk about. Especially with the changing algorithm now, it’s getting progressively more difficult for accounts just starting to get noticed. That’s why more and more are investing in paid promotions. Influencers already with an established following can reach out through agencies, third party websites, or directly to smaller accounts about paid promotions. This works especially well if the influencer owns a large topic focused account specifically used to showcase others’ talents instead of primarily their own.
5. Keep creating content that you believe in and that you want to follow.
It’s easy to forget that sometimes we represent the exact group we’re hoping to reach most. It’s easier said than done, but you’ve got to stop comparing yourself to others (by yourself I really mean your social media presence to others’ social media presences) and just focus on content. Social media can be a noisy place, and only in focusing on your work and content can you find some kind of peace in the midst of trying to be heard.
On a similar thought, I’ve had so many “professional” people in social media tell me how to run my account. Their suggestions included adopting a posting pattern (ex: 3 poems, 3 paintings, 3 personal photos in a row), depersonalizing my account through only posting poems and artwork, and changing my poetry style entirely to be shorter, more generalized, less controversial, and less emotionally intense. I consciously chose to not follow their advice, knowing if I did it’d increase my engagement immensely. Create content you believe in. For me, it was that I would keep my style and create whenever the inspiration came to me instead of when my feed “required” it. For others it might simply be not letting the social media world take over their love of what they do. We’re all grateful for our following and all that social media has given us, but it’s important to create the same way we would if no one was watching.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂
My all time writing idol is Sylvia Plath, but when it comes to living writers I truly admire, it has to be Joan Didion. Slouching Towards Bethlehem ends with an essay called “Goodbye To All That,” and I first read it right before I moved to New York. One of my favorite lines I’ve read to date is, “quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”
However, the part that stays with me the most is that the whole essay about New York really wasn’t about New York at all, but to her it was. For someone else, it could just be the idea of being drawn to a place then all of a sudden having that illusion shatter. She so perfectly encapsulated the feeling of being young, feeling like you can do anything and having none of it “count.”
Joan Didion did in prose, what I wish I could do in poetry. She presented an experience completely unique to herself, yet made a stranger feel the emotion behind it. That’s how literature connects the human race.
Originally published at medium.com