Writer and musician Michelle Zauner, also known as indie rock sensation Japanese Breakfast, is a force. Even over the phone in Brooklyn, her energy is palpable, and her new memoir, Crying in H Mart, is just as mesmerizing. (I devoured it in one weekend.) Here, she shares her favorite YouTube workouts, an endearing self-care ritual, and what it felt like to write such a deeply personal book…
So much of your beautiful memoir is about your relationship with your mother, who died from cancer when you were 25. I have to start by asking: What did your mom teach you about beauty?
Beauty is one thing in my life, similar to food, that always reminds me of her. She was very into beauty — she ate well and took great care of her clothes, her skin, her hair. My mom tried to instill a skincare regimen in me at a very young age, but I wanted nothing to do with that. As a burgeoning young feminist, my way of rebelling was to dismiss beauty. It felt like beauty practices stood in the way of being taken seriously. Now, the conversations around both beauty and feminism are more nuanced. It’s not only possible, but important, to have a balance.
How did growing up between two cultures influence your approach to beauty?
I grew up in Eugene, Oregon and spent every other summer with family in Korea. Skincare is such a huge part of Korean culture, but despite my exposure to it, I didn’t have a skincare routine until recently! I’ve done photoshoots in both places, and it really illustrates how Korean and American beauty are so different. If you get your makeup done in Korea, 75% of what they do is skincare. Most of the time is spent putting layers of skincare products on, before applying subtle makeup. In the U.S., it’s more focused on actual makeup — color and highlighting and contouring. But recently, I’ve noticed a lot more Americans starting to borrow from the Korean way of doing things.
Now that you have one, what’s your daily skincare routine?
I have very dry, sensitive skin. My friend Jason Kim, a writer and a Korean man with incredible skin, sent me to his dermatologist, Dr. Dan Belkin. Now I cleanse with Cetaphil, followed by SkinBetter Science Alto Defense Serum, followed by a moisturizer. The last, and most important, part of my daytime routine is MDSolarSciences Mineral Cream, which has SPF 50. I wear it all the time, even if I’m indoors near the window. I love it; I feel so sophisticated every time I put it on.
How about at nighttime?
At night, I remove my makeup with BioDerma Micellar Water, then wash my face with Cetaphil. Next I use SkinBetter Science Alpharet Overnight Cream, which has retinoids in it, because my dermatologist said I should be using actives. My mom would be so stoked about that. My skin definitely feels better!
Are there any body care rituals you’re into?
Before the pandemic, I would regularly go to a Korean spa, where a bath lady will scrub you down and remove all the dead skin from your body. There’s a place called Chung Dam Spa, in Cheltenham, outside Philly, that I used to frequent. Once it’s safe, I’ll go there and have my skin removed. It’s intense, but I grew up going to Korean spas, so I’m used to it. I love when they wash your hair — it’s like a holy experience.
I’m in awe of your tattoos. What was your first one?
My first tattoo was a very bad stick and poke of a girl and a spoon, on the back of my leg. A friend gave it to me, and it was not a good experience — there may have been three safety pins sterilized with a Bic lighter, and it was very painful.
But you kept going! How many do you have now?
After I got my first real one, it was definitely easier. I have no idea how many I have, because my arm is one continuous thing. At least 10? Maybe 20. All of them have a story behind them. One favorite is the Kewpie Mayonnaise guy on my arm. I love him because my mom always used to make this scallop sashimi with mayonnaise and fish roe, and I think of her whenever I see him. Also, I just really love Kewpie Mayonnaise! I always have it at home.
When you’re not performing, do you typically wear makeup?
When it comes to everyday makeup, my number one thing is doing my brows. I have Asian brows, where my hairs are very long, but spread apart, not dense. So, I always fill them in with Anastasia Brow Wiz in dark brown. It’s very precise, which I love. The second thing I always wear is mascara. Right now, it’s L’Oreal Miss Manga.
How does your makeup change when you’re on stage?
For a show, I’m very into loud eyeshadow palettes. It’s a more is more situation. When I put eyeshadow on, I feel like I’ve done a lot, in a good way. I feel safe. I like this Urban Decay palette, and Pat McGrath palettes are also amazing. I look like a teenager at Hot Topic, but it’s all I know.
Do you have any self-care rituals that help you feel your best?
Every morning, my husband and I make French press coffee — we like ReAnimator, out of Philly — then drink it in bed and have a slow rise. My other ritual is to take a shower and then lie in the nude, in bed, for 10 minutes. I feel like a little casserole; it’s such a comforting thing. I had a bad attitude about self care for a long time, until one day when I watched an episode of Queer Eye where Jonathan said that even brushing your teeth is self-care. That was a real moment for me — I finally got that you don’t have to run a full bath with a bath bomb to indulge yourself; it can be present in small things.
I know you like to exercise. How do you incorporate movement into your life?
During the pandemic, fitness kept me grounded. I like the Chloe Ting program; Move with Nicole, which is Pilates; and MadFit, who I think looks so much like Anna Konkle’s character in Pen15 if she grew up and had a fitness show. Over the past year, I became obsessed with trying to get a six-pack, which did not happen. It’s so hard! But more than anything, working out improves my mental health.
Your book is so beautiful. What was it like to write something so personal and heartbreaking and honest?
It was both excruciating and joyful. I wanted to start with what was good, to relive my childhood and recall all those special moments. I also felt a sense of urgency to share what I had endured, to bare all my wounds. I went into my mother’s cancer and death ill-prepared, and I felt a lot of anger that I wasn’t somehow warned. I felt a sense of importance around wanting to express that. There was a lot of crying at my computer, and taking breaks and coming back to it. It was a four-year process — I started casually writing in 2016, did the most concentrated writing from 2018 to 2020 and handed in the final revision in July 2020.
What is your personal beauty philosophy?
Everyone should do whatever they want! That’s my philosophy. Also, even if it’s only three to five minutes a day, every time I use a nice product, or just take a moment for myself, I think of my mom.
Thank you so much, Michelle.