Kelsey Merritt + BJ Pascual Talk Instagram Anxiety, Coachella, And Making It Big
Like many women who were born in the 90s, Kelsey Merritt once dreamed of strutting the Victoria’s Secret runway. Unlike many of the women born in the 90s, Kelsey Merritt’s dream actually became a reality.
While the bi-coastal bombshell grew up in The Philippines totally unaware of the fashion industry, she fell into modeling with a friend and things started majorly taking off. Although she took a brief hiatus on modeling to finish her degree (which she paid for with her modeling earnings), you can now find her in the pages of Sports Illustrated or on billboards for brands like Aritzia.
We got Kelsey to chat with an old friend who helped launch her modeling career—fashion photographer BJ Pascual. Keep scrolling to read all about their travel (and Coachella) plans, how they manage social media when it’s so important for their careers (but so stress-inducing), and some bomb photos by BJ.
BJ: Hey, Kelsey! How are you? Are you in LA or New York?
Kelsey: I’m super good. I just got back to LA actually, but we’re flying out to Mexico for Conor’s birthday. After that, it’s LA again for a bit, then Tokyo for work, then New York. It’s getting crazy.
You’re literally everywhere, thank god for Instagram or I wouldn’t have any idea where you are. What are you guys doing for Conor’s birthday?
Literally just beach time in Cabo, it’s my only non-work trip this month. Can you imagine? So thankful though. Booked and busy!
Jealous! I miss Mexico too. Is that why you moved to LA from New York? Does it somehow feel closer to home?
I super miss the tropics. I’m obviously an island girl. I love the sun––but I also learned to love New York too. That fast-paced urban life really helped me grow, personally and professionally. When you’re a model, all you do is travel. It’s mostly great, but sometimes not.
If I’m not working, I’m at home chilling in LA. Otherwise I’m on a plane in-between shoots, so in that sense I never really lost touch with New York. I still have both.
What about you? How’s Manila? When are you visiting? Do you want to go to Coachella with me? So many questions!
So game! April right? Let’s shoot!
I’m great! Easing myself into the new year for work and stuff, as usual. Manila’s great, also, per usual. Oh, yeah, I’m renovating my studio in case I haven’t told you yet––pretty excited about that.
You were literally just here for the holidays, but I have to ask, do you miss the Philippines already?
Always. You know me, I could literally have just arrived at the gate and I’m already crying. I miss my family, my siblings, all my friends. The Philippines will always be home. Also, our beaches just can’t be compared to anything else. Do you remember when we first met? We were also at the beach for a shoot.
Yeah, in Bohol right? If I remember correctly, you were probably 16 or 17 and it was one of your first editorials. A million test shoots later, here we are.
Here we are. It feels just like yesterday, I literally wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that one test shoot we did, the one that got me scouted for my first agency in New York.
I love that. You’ve come so far. OK, I’m going to ask you a question: have you always wanted to model?
Growing up outside of Manila––I had no concept of what modeling was. I wasn’t exposed to fashion or the industry at all. I didn’t even know that world existed until a friend of mine from school started going to castings and she took me one time. From runway shows to magazine shoots, we did them all and I learned to love It along the way. You, same question, the people want to know.
I’ve always enjoyed photography but never considered it as a career option because I come from a family of doctors and lawyers, like real Asian professional jobs. But I kind of just fell into it, especially fashion photography. I ended up enjoying it and you know, 10 years later. I’m still here. Woah, that’s crazy––it’s really been a journey for both of us.
Speaking of journeys, one thing I’ll always admire about you is your drive and ambition. I’m not sure if people know this about you, but ever since we started shooting together, you’ve always described walking for Victoria’s Secret as your ultimate dream. From a small town in the Philippines to walking the biggest fashion show on Earth, did you just know you were going to make that happen for yourself?
It’s so weird to look back at it now, but I never gave myself a chance to doubt myself. Does that make sense? It was a lot of patience and teaching myself to be confident. Also, obviously, a million workouts and a lot of catwalk practice.
Exactly. You really took control of where you wanted your career to be, even back then when you were juggling university and flying back and forth between modeling jobs in New York.
Yeah, I’m really glad I decided to finish school, even if my agency wanted me to stay because I was booking good work. I’m a firm believer in things happening at it’s right time, and everything that I did led me to exactly where I am today.
I remember. I was the one telling you to quit school! So glad you didn’t listen to me, because everything worked out better than we imagined.
So Kelsey, I’m curious, how big of a part does Instagram play when you book jobs?
It’s everything. Oh my gosh, clients don’t even ask for your books anymore. I would say models these days have a huge part to play in growing their careers, more and more, all based on how you portray yourself and your personality online. Brands aren’t just looking for models anymore, they’re looking for a spokesperson who can make their brand stand out. It’s fun, and exhausting. Mostly exhausting. It’s 24/7! You get that, right? You’re 100% an influencer too. More than me!
It is what it is. Social media is totally what you make of it, I like to say. It’s fun, I get that, but it’s become this whole entire beast and such a significant part of my business. I’m just really happy I’ve built this community, this audience––and I get to use that platform to talk about our advocacies for the LGBTQIA+ community.
But mostly, I take a lot of breaks. It’s either I’m working and posting new shoots, or my socials are dead quiet and I’m just trying to live my life.
There’s the guilt though. Content anxiety is real, but that’s the game. I feel recently [that] I’ve cut back and I’ve learned to find a good balance between just being and living in the moment versus trying to capture “perfection” and post whatever it is online. What I do these days is I get to a place, shoot everything all in one go, and then put my phone down and that’s it. Done. Trust me, it works!
I’ll try that next time. Next question. Who’s your favorite photographer?
No, seriously! Apart from the stuff we’ve done, what’s another shoot that’s especially memorable for you?
My first Victoria’s Secret shoot. I still remember the date. It was just such a breakthrough moment for me, you know, after all those years of wanting it and working for it, I couldn’t believe I finally booked it.
Major moment for sure.
I miss you, BJ! When do you think we’ll shoot together again?
I don’t know! You’re the one who’s super busy.
I know…Definitely soon though! Coachella, right?
Game. OK, last question. If there’s one thing that’s changed since you started modeling versus now, what would that thing be?
Ever since the #MeToo phenomenon, I think there have been overall positive steps in making sets that are much more comfortable and safer for the working crew. More and more, I’ve been noticing that there’s an extra step where brands pay particular attention to the security that goes into it.
For anyone who could potentially be involved in this industry, I’m quite glad the conversation continues to be taken seriously. The simple fact that there is an awareness for safe spaces, especially on set, makes it easier for everyone to achieve.
100% agree. Thanks Kels. Love you from a long way away.
Love you too. Thank you and talk soon!