How Leslie Kee went from living in rental flat to earning $40k daily as top photographer
Leslie Kee cuts an arresting figure: a short man with a pencil moustache, beady eyes and thin lank hair combed back to reveal a high forehead. He emanates an intense urgent energy, often darting about, talking nineteen to the dozen.
The Singaporean may not be a familiar face here, but he is a big name in Japan where he regularly makes headlines in newspapers and appearances on TV. One of the country's top photographers, he is as famous as the celebrities he shoots, commanding daily fees of between $20,000 and $40,000.
He is influential Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto's go-to photographer for his collections and catalogues. Over the last two decades, he has shot thousands of fashion spreads and covers for magazines ranging from Vogue to Elle, campaigns for brand names such as Uniqlo and Anteprima, as well as countless celebrities including Lady Gaga, Beyonce, One Direction, Ayumi Hamasaki, Aaron Kwok and Faye Wong.
NHK, Japan's largest broadcaster, has appointed him as its official photographer and film director to chronicle, over four years, the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.
The world he operates in is one of glitz and glamour, a complete antithesis to the one he grew up in.
His late mother, he lets on, was a bar hostess who had two children out of wedlock with two different men. "My younger sister and I have never seen our fathers. We were raised by our grandmother," says the 46-year-old, adding that their home was a dingy one-room rental flat in Tiong Bahru.
The former student of Bukit Ho Swee East Primary School and Victoria School was a taciturn and lonely child, often bullied and ostracised by other children.
When he was 13, his mother - whom he did not see much - asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He asked for a camera.
"I said I wanted to take photos so that my sister could remember her childhood. I have only one photograph of myself as a child," he says.
Four months after his mother gave him a Minolta X-700, she died of cancer.
"It was her first, and last, birthday present to me," he says.
To help with the household expenses, he started working part- time - four hours on weekdays, and eight hours on weekends - at a Japanese cassette factory after his mother's death.
It changed his life.
At the factory, he was exposed to Japanese pop music for the first time. It was the start of a grand love affair with Japan and its people and culture.
"There was a room in the factory with fashion and music magazines. I was also very fascinated by the Japanese people who worked in the factory. They were so punctual, so disciplined, so different," says Kee, who would head to Liang Court and bookstores such as Kinokuniya to get his fill of Japanese publications and music.
When he was 17, his grandmother died. He and his sister went to live with one of his aunts. By then, he was putting his Minolta to good use, doing shoots for weddings. The camera gave him a voice.
"It gave me an opportunity to open my mouth and tell people that I wanted to take their photos. I probably shot about 50 or 60 couples and their weddings. They told me that I made them look good and made me believe I might have some talent," says Kee, who also scored gigs shooting concerts for a Philippine publication.
He enrolled in an engineering course at Ngee Ann Polytechnic after his O levels, but dropped out after a few months to work full-time at the Japanese tape factory before entering the army.
After his national service, he dug into his savings and went on a 20-month shoestring backpacking trip across India, Nepal, Tibet and other places.
"It made me realise that if you have a strong will, you can survive anything," says Kee, who took more than 5,000 photos of people, especially children, during his sojourn.
The call of Japan had, in the meantime, intensified. Upon his return in 1992, he worked at another Japanese factory for five months, saved up $3,200 and then left for Tokyo.
He had a plan all mapped out: Enrol in a three-month course to study Japanese and then look for part-time work so that he could afford to stay in Japan for at least a year.
"I just wanted to be there to watch concerts, buy CDs and learn the language."
Before his first month was up, he found part-time work as a dishwasher. The money allowed him to continue his studies at the language school for another nine months.
As his grasp of Japanese got better, he took on more part-time jobs, including a stint as a tout for a snack bar in the entertainment district of Shinjuku.
"I touted from 5pm until 5am. I could earn 1,000 yen an hour, and also got 10 per cent from the food bills of the patrons I took to the bar," he says, adding that he made about $200 a night from the gig.
By then, he had reinvented himself: He was no longer shy and reticent. "As a tout, I had to be interesting, smiley, chatty and funny," he says.
With his earnings, he bought himself a new set of cameras and enrolled in Tokyo's Visual Art School to get a diploma in photography.
To hone his skills, he would approach strangers on the streets and cajole them to pose for him.
After graduating in 1997, he spent more than a year knocking on the doors of photographers and studios, to no avail. It took a while before some small magazines started commissioning him to do small shoots for their features.
Because he acquitted himself well, better assignments came his way. An agent signed him on and made life a lot easier.
His big break came when Hong Kong magazine City got him to shoot Japanese-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro.
The photos, used across 10 pages in the publication, caught the attention of other magazines including Vogue Taiwan, which contacted his manager.
"One month later, I shot a four- page Issey Miyake fashion spread for them. The next one was eight pages. Since then, I've been shooting 10 pages of fashion for Vogue Taiwan every month," he says.
His star also ascended in Japan. In just two years, he landed gigs to shoot big campaigns for the likes of Uniqlo and Shiseido. He was then barely 30.
Not long after, Jed Root - then a leading global creative agency for the fashion industry - wanted him in its stable and asked him to move to New York. By then, he had married a Japanese office administrator whom he had been courting for two years.
He mulled over Root's offer for nearly a year before biting the bullet. He could not persuade his wife to move to the United States, and the couple parted ways in 2001, barely two years after they got married.
His career thrived in the Big Apple. He was the rare Asian photographer whose works appeared in major American publications such as Elle, Marie Claire and Harper's Bazaar. He did campaigns for L'Oreal and Esprit and shot the who's who in fashion and entertainment, including Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Beyonce.
"I shot Beyonce for nearly six years - her campaigns, pamphlets, family portraits," says Kee, who in 2003 started publishing his Super magazine series. Ranging in themes from music to art to fashion, these magazines are collaborative coffee- table books with famous art directors. Almost 100 issues have been published to date.
Like the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks which took place three months after his arrival in New York, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami affected him deeply.
Inspired by the 1985 single We Are The World, recorded by some of the world's most famous artists to raise funds for famine relief in Africa, he decided to do a special Super Stars coffee-table book to raise funds for victims of the tsunami.
For more than two years, he travelled around Asia and shot 300 of its biggest stars - from Tony Leung Chiu Wai to Ayumi Hamasaki to Lee Byung Hun - for the self-funded charity book project, which left him in debt.
"People called me ridiculous and said that I should have just donated the money. The amount (about $20,000) raised was not important. No matter how much money I could come up with, there would be tonnes of people who could raise more. What was important was that there were all these artists who shared the same thoughts and wanted to contribute in spirit the way I did," he says.
"Can you imagine a film director getting all these artists to give their time and appear in one movie? That would not be possible. These artists did it because of their faith in me," says Kee, who has since published other coffee-table books to raise funds for several causes, including for mothers in need.
Despite the great strides he made in New York, his heart remained in Asia, especially Japan. In 2007, he returned to Tokyo. His career continued flourishing; he started exploring other subjects, including male nudity.
In 2013, it got him into trouble with the Japanese authorities, who arrested and put him in jail for two days for publishing nude images and exhibiting them in public.
His foray into male nudity, he says, is part of his growth as an artist. "A lot of people said and wrote nasty things about me, but I was just shooting cool-looking guys with beautiful bodies. Do you know how difficult it is to get people to trust me and agree to do this?" says the photographer, whose nude models include famous Japanese mixed martial arts fighter Yoshihiro Akiyama.
The episode, he admits, shook him up. "I thought I had ruined my career because of my belief in my art," says Kee, who has been in a relationship for the past 15 years.
But many celebrities stood up for him and tweeted their disapproval of his arrest. Nobuyoshi Araki, internationally famous for his erotic photography, told him: "This is the path you have to go through. This is the beginning of the journey that says you're an artist."
For six months, clients gave him a wide berth. But Yohji Yamamoto started the ball rolling and got him to shoot a new collection in Paris. Others followed suit and today his career is even stronger than before.
Kee, who worked with fashion label Gap on an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) awareness campaign in Japan, was in Singapore recently for three big projects: to be the stills photographer for Eric Khoo's new movie helmed by Japanese stars Takumi Saitoh and Seiko Matsuda; to shoot a new Singapore Tourism Board campaign for the Japanese market; and to direct a fashion film for Yamamoto's new collection.
Kee, who hopes to direct his first feature film before he turns 50, says he is in a good place.
"I have no car, no house, no children but I'm happy. I came from nothing and I'm not scared of losing anything. I've achieved quite a lot of what I wanted to achieve. I've made statements and I've inspired people."
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