The daughter of Michael Wong, Kayla Wong is an LGBTQ activist and the founder of slow fashion brand Basics for Basics. She pulls back the curtain on growing up under the limelight.
Oftentimes, the media views second-generation celebrities through a bifocal lens; one steeped in envy, the other in jealousy, both imbibed by the casual consumer with little reservation. Given the circumstances, it’s no wonder some of them prefer to shed their parents’ shadow, choosing to lead lives as unmarked by their families as possible.
Kayla Wong, however, exists on the opposite of the spectrum. For the daughter of Hong Kong supermodel Janet Ma and acclaimed actor Michael Wong, Kayla’s family name is a badge of honour – and she’s worked hard to prove it’s possible for a second-generation celebrity to forge her own path without abandoning the legacy.
Now, she’s looking to make a big impact on both social and ethical spheres. As an LGBTQ activist, she’s the person behind photography project Casa of Love, which aims to bring queer representation online. Kayla is also the founder of Basics for Basics, a slow fashion brand that strives to minimise consumer carbon footprints by supporting ethical and sustainable supply chains.
Here, she traces her parents’ fingerprints along this path, talks through her coming of age, and tells us how she learnt to embrace the legacy of her parents while finding her own individuality.
The Celebrity Lifestyle: A Childhood in the Limelight
The child of two Hong Kong celebrities, Kayla’s life has been closely followed for the world to see. Brought along to photoshoots and public functions, she learned to “smize” and pose in front of flashing cameras before she knew what it all meant. “When people asked for photos, we just went along with it. I don’t think it even registered. I remember my sister was more shy and she would hide, but mostly we just sat there.”
Her mother, Janet Ma, was one of the most successful models in Hong Kong during the ’90s – practically the Cindy Crawford of Hong Kong. Having been so immersed in the fashion industry, Ma’s world folded naturally into Kayla’s, who later decided to leave home and pursue fashion school in Los Angeles.
As a figure in the limelight, Kayla‘s life attracts scrutiny from mainstream media and social media alike. But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Asked about the intrusive, negative media attention, and the spun tales and hearsay that she’s faced, Kayla admits it took her some time to overcome. “It was a very weird feeling because when I was younger, I didn’t think there would be any reason for people to notice me and yet they seem to be really interested in my life. But later on, I realised that if I lived in Hong Kong and continued on this path, this was the kind of life that I would have.”
This acceptance did not come without a struggle. Like any other girl who has a social media presence, which was further compounded by her fame, Kayla had to learn to compose her self-worth separate from people’s perception. “Even to this day, I still struggle with my image or how people see me, but I think I have a strong character,” she shares honestly.
“I very much believe in myself. Sometimes when you see negative comments and, in that moment, it might really hit you. But then you stop caring because these are people who don’t even know you. I think my parents really helped too. Even though they are celebrities, they’re still very much grounded. My mother always reminds us to look at the bigger picture. When I complain about the media or especially the paparazzi, she would always say they’re just doing their job; that’s what they have to do. So I thought, if I can treat them as human beings who are just doing their job, they will do the same for me, and they will be kinder in the way they treat me and how they present my work.”
The Family Legacy: A Push-Pull Relationship
Not unlike others from her walk of life, Kayla, too, was at one point ambivalent about her family’s legacy. “When I was younger, I did go through a phase where I wanted to shy away from my parents to prove that I could do it on my own.”
However, as she grew older, she realised she wanted to make a difference – especially in light of the looming climate crisis – and she wasn’t afraid to leverage her last name to that end. “Something clicked in my head and I thought, ‘This is stupid,'” she relates. “You have all these connections and resources. Why aren’t you using them to make what you’re doing even better?”
Having done internships at high-street fashion labels, including Lane Crawford and Dior, from the age of 16, not to mention a marketing stint at corporate companies, she sought to find a niche that she belonged in. “I guess because of my parents, I was able to take a lot of opportunities on. I never really said no. Plus, I’ve always been open to trying new things. I think I got this spirit from my dad and from being the older sister,” she explains.
Self-Exploration: Finding Her Voice
If Kayla’s parents had any preordained plans for her, they weren’t adamant about them. Her father used to drop hints about envisioning her as a pro-golfer. However, Kayla wanted to fuse fashion with her philanthropic instinct – to do something in her wheelhouse that helped the environment; and uplifted the queer community around her.
She went on to found ethical fashion brand Basics for Basics in 2015, which produces second-to-skin apparel. The brand uses surplus fabric to create limited quantity pieces, as part of a wider push to promote slow fashion, produce quality clothes that stand the test of time, and grow the sustainable fashion movement.
A staunch LGBTQ activist, she also runs Face to Face Sundays, an Instagram Live video session that she hosts weekly to help people who are wrestling with their sexuality. She relates frankly, “I think the main issue with the LGBTQ community in Hong Kong is that people are not used to being open and vulnerable, so they have a really tough time being honest with themselves and their loved ones. My voice in the scenario is to hopefully break down that stigma and to show people that same-sex relationships are no different from any other, and we just want to be respected. Since I came out, my role is to really help normalise this kind of relationship.”
A Long Future Ahead
Above all, Kayla hopes to make a lasting, positive impact on the world – and hopefully start a family of her own one day. “I’m a very simple person,” she says. “I know it sounds very cliche and traditional to say that my goal is to have a family, but as a lesbian, it will be a hard journey. It will take a lot of effort and I don’t even know if it will be feasible. But I’ve always wanted to raise my own children, have my own family and I think everything I’m doing right now is for that. I want my children to live in a better environment, and live in a better earth.
Her goal to have a family has led her to advocate for LGBTQ rights to be integrated into local legislation. “I want same-sex marriage to be legalised so that maybe my kids and the future generation will be able to live in a society where they don’t have to hide, where they don’t have to feel like an outcast. What we get to leave behind for the next generation is what’s important. And so I think all of these things I’m doing now are to ensure that, hopefully, one day, all these things will happen.”