Michelle shares how creativity helped her understand her curls and identity.

Michelle Chang - Kiwi Asian Curly Hair

“I still haven’t met anyone in New Zealand, who has curly hair who’s Asian. I feel like I just had to kind of get it out there in some way. I guess that’s when writing really came in.

– Michelle, Architect and Creative

Based in Auckland, New Zealand, Michelle Chang is a Korean and Indonesian Chinese Architect and Illustrator at bespoke illustration studio, Studio Miche, and a fellow curl friend! 

In this edition of HEADLINER, Rosie Chuong interviews Michelle to talk about her career as an architect, learning how to care for her curly hair through the internet and how to broaden your beauty echo chamber to be more inclusive.⁠

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On her HAIR HISTORY and childhood relationship with curls…


“It’s been really confusing as you probably had for yourself as well. I grew up with wavy sort of hair and the rest of my family had straight black, beautiful, straight, slick hair. Over time, especially after puberty, I noticed that my hair became a lot more frizzier. It was undefined back then because I didn’t know what to do with it. We’d always brushed it out. It looked kind of like a bit of a halo. So I didn’t really know what was happening. My mom didn’t know what was happening. The initial first thing we did was to take me to a Korean salon and ask what was up, and they pretty much just said, straighten it. Because there was nothing else to really do back then. They didn’t really know how to treat it.”

“I grew up idolizing straight hair because that’s what I would do to my hair every like six months since the age of like, 12. I’ll definitely say growing up, like my hair journey, in terms of that, was kind of nonexistent until I went to university. And once I went to university I actually had to stop paying for my own hair and the maintenance behind it. That’s when I started to realize it’s kind of expensive to straighten your hair every six months.”

“I tried the whole, you know, like growing it out. That’s when I started to learn more about the curly girl method. I think that’s only when it started to be more popular on the internet and things or was more searchable. I remember when I actually had to borrow the curly girl method book from the library. I was definitely finding information like periodically throughout my journey. So definitely a bit confusing, but I think journey is a good one in itself. I’m still on it.”

On embracing her curly hair in the 2000s and her most challenging moment so far…


“I think in the last three years has been the most transformational for me, mainly because I went to Melbourne one year to get my hair cut by a curly hair specialist called Neel (@NeelLovesCurls). I specifically went over for the haircut, which is kind of crazy, because you know, traveling to another country for a haircut, but I just couldn’t find anyone in New Zealand at the time who could cut my hair in that method. I think that was really transformational for me three years ago. After that, he taught me how to use the products properly. Like wash day routines that would suit my hair texture and porosity and just the properties of my own hair. Coming back, my family were like, blown away. They thought I’d gotten a perm. It was so insane.”

“In terms of challenging moment, just growing out my hair from the chemical straightening that it had been through was really difficult. I think ideally, you’d kind of have the straight and then wavy, but it’s like so odd to have like, fluffy and then straight. It was a bit of a look for a few years just to try and grow that out and my hair was so damaged. It took a few years to even see what my natural hair curl pattern could be. That was a challenge just because I think hair does make a big difference in your overall look. You’re kind of going through the motions when you’re in university, like trying to find your own style and that sort of thing. I do feel like it was a challenge to work with something that’s constantly in flux. But it was also a really great challenge, I think, for me to embrace like what isn’t able to be controlled in some ways and I learned a lot through my hair it’s like forced me in a lot of ways to grow personally.”

On advice she’d give to someone who wants to embrace their natural hair texture…


“I wish I could talk to myself when I was younger, with this advice, but I guess just surrounding yourself with an online community of people who have curly hair, or like people who really inspire you in more ways than just aesthetics as well. I think it was a bit difficult when I was growing up just because the internet wasn’t as wasn’t really a thing. Nowadays it’s actually quite easy to find these online communities where you can join and be inspired by them.”

“Early on in my journey, I didn’t realize the beauty echo chamber that I was surrounding myself with. It was definitely certain Korean celebrities or like people that maybe didn’t align with what was attainable to me, but I would always use as an inspiration in other ways. Now I kind of edited who I follow on social media and kind of try and see them as a whole person that I’m getting influenced by. I think that who you surround yourself with, immediately in your physical sphere, but also in your social media sphere is really important.”

Curly Hair Journey as a Kiwi Asian - Michelle Chang

On where she goes online to feel seen, represented, heard and validated…


“Well, I’m going to plug in API Curls. Because honestly something like that did not exist a few years ago, even. I feel like I had my own personal sort of Pinterest account to save like random Asians that I’d find in a folder like Sandra Oh even though I don’t know if she’s actually naturally curly, like pictures of her on Grey’s Anatomy, and just putting that onto like Pinterest board and being like, Okay, this is my inspiration instead of being influenced by the other sorts of inspiration I had previously had.”

“API Curls is a great place now because it’s like every day people are embracing their curls or Asian of all sorts of different ethnicities, as well. It’s really broadened my eyes in terms of the community out there. Even though it’s not the most massive community, it’s still out there. And we still exist. I felt so heard and so validated in that regard. That’s really the sole one at the moment apart from, my sort of private folders on Pinterest. I remember when I was following you maybe three years ago and your personal blog. It was like such a shock to see like another Asian talking about curly hair in such eloquent ways as well. [API Curls] is the community that I find most validating at the moment for curly Asian hair.”

On how she’s documenting her journey to discover her identity…


“To be honest the blog kind of started off as a very selfish endeavor. When you’re going through something like you feel like you’re going through it alone, but you just have to kind of get it out there in some way, shape, or form, writing was one of them. I think once that started to get a few responses, I was like, oh, maybe this is something that people can relate to.”

“I actually started a YouTube channel. I haven’t even told my closest friends! I started a YouTube channel just to document my curly hair journey. It started off during quarantine when I was going to cut my hair by myself. I did a quick video of cutting my hair alone during quarantine. My YouTube channel is probably one of the ways that I express my journey now.”

“Through my blog, it’s been amazing as well. It’s almost like a journaling exercise to me, just because of my immediate sphere of people. I still haven’t met anyone in New Zealand, who has curly hair who’s Asian. I feel like I just had to kind of get it out there in some way. I guess that’s when writing really came in. Even with like YouTube, and even on Instagram, just being able to share your journey in some way just to feel seen or, represent yourself out in the internet sphere is quite a cool process. I think people like you and other curly hair bloggers, being able to see them do that has inspired me to do that as well, just to add to the library of pictures and content out there that represent us, you know.

Curly Hair Journey as a Kiwi Asian - Michelle Chang

On writing poetry inspired by curly hair…


“In the same line of the writing and all the other content that kind of gets inspired by my curly hair journey. It’s pretty much just a coping mechanism to later process I think just what I’ve been through. The poems especially. I’ve always written poetry for myself, but I think the form of poetry somehow also gets me in a humorous mindset too. Maybe it’s just because I take on like a Limerick form or just like a short, short kind of poetry structure that makes me kind of like, reframe the way I think about things or process things in a more humorous way.”

“You kind of detach yourself and then you read like five sentences of your experience and you’re just like, that was actually kind of a funny time. Not in the moment, but later on you reflect and you see that it was a moment in your life that did shape who you are now, but you can kind of look back at it in a more humorous tone, I guess.”

On her bespoke illustration studio…


“I feel like, because I work in architecture and design, I do feel like all of these side things like writing and illustrating is very much a hobby for me, and something that I do on the side to express myself or process experiences or do something kind of nice for people I know. You say art, but I think it’s definitely more like illustration. Since I was quite young, like most sort of Asian youngings growing up, we went to like art school, after actual school, and like taking painting in high school and stuff like that. Art has always been a big part of my life.”

“Once I started working at an architectural practice, as a junior, you’re working towards the vision of a director, which is great, you learn a lot, but I do feel like your own creativity is not exercised as much. I created the sort of side practice of illustration, mainly for people who I know, or word of mouth of, you know, portraits and little things that they will also want to tell a story about. I just get projects from word of mouth, or just whatever I think about in that month or whatever. Definitely like a sort of therapeutic practice for me.”

On sharing her curly journey with colleagues…


“I think I’ve been quite lucky. In design, we’re quite open people. You can have tattoos and they’ll be fine with it. I think it was more of a personal thing that I had to get over. I definitely remember my first job, I always wore my hair up because it seemed more professional, especially if you’re going to client meetings, you kind of just want to represent the company in a certain way.”

“Over time, I shared my journey with my colleagues. It was quite a small practice, the first one that I was at as well. Everyone was really supportive, surprisingly and even one of my colleague’s daughters had curly hair. She was getting it straightened a lot. She was also asking me for advice. It was quite an organic process of me just kind of finding ways to look after my hair first and, and then being a bit more confident a few days a week or one day a week when I come in. Even right now my hair’s wet and it’s going to probably expand in the next few hours, but that’s what I do at work. I wouldn’t care so much. I kind of come in in the morning with damp hair and then let it kind of dry out and just deal with it, you know, just bring a clip or whatever, to just let it be.”

“I think my overall style is quite minimal in what I wear anyway. I think I check the box in the professional side of that. My hair is just kind of my own. This is something that I can’t control. I feel like with the proper products and things it actually works okay. People have been pretty supportive in my field of things.”

On her biggest hair regret…


“I went through a moment, I was just like, I just want to do something different to my hair. I was quite stressed and I needed an outlet for change. I really regret it now. I got my hair cut and then I was in the process of growing out my chemical straightening. My hairdresser didn’t know that I had chemical straightening on my hair. I told him I want to go blonde and he bleached it and whatnot. But later on he told me if I had known that your hair was chemically straightened, then I would not have done that.”

“Anyway, that’s the hair that I was taking to Melbourne actually. They did amazing job in reviving that. I actually repeated the same mistake like a year or so ago. It wasn’t actually to go much lighter. It was just like a shade lighter because I thought it would look a bit heavy. It wasn’t a good time. The hairdresser didn’t really know about curly hair and I think they convinced me to bleach it slightly so that you could see the lighting. Thankfully by that time I found a curly hair salon in New Zealand, Auckland. She helped me go through that process and we recently dyed it a darker color to even it out.”

On finding her curly hair Godmother…


“Her name Shenara. You can find her on Instagram @helloshenara and she’s in the Auckland suburb. She’s amazing. She’s honestly like a hair godmother, I think I called her “Curly Godmother”. Every time I go to her it’s like a therapy session, but she’s amazing. She uses really great products. She does like a full curly girl tutorial with you the first time you get a haircut as well. She really tries to understand your hair and recommends products that’s really catered to you.”

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