We are curled up on my striped couch in the Vv office, tucked away from the snow, wrapped in the faint aroma of a lightly-scented candle. She cups her hands around a mug of hot echinacea tea and reaches for a handful of indulgent trail mix on the ottoman. Her frame is small, but her eyes are large and searching. We've not yet begun the interview, but I can already tell she's thinking hard about something and taking in every detail of the scene before her.
A: Should I just introduce myself?
E: Go right ahead!
A: My name is Abby and I'm from North Jersey. I have a lot of hobbies, more than I have time for, and they're all very art related. My hobbies include various forms of drawing. I do mainly digital paintings, mostly portraits! And I do regular sketching in my sketchbooks. I also do my own form of Zentangle type of art (a form of doodling), oh and I also do design for t-shirts, too! And I'm a dancer! Dancing is probably what I'm most passionate about.
E: What kind of dance?
A: I've taken classes since I was about thirteen. I took ballet for a long time until I graduated, but my main style and what I seem to be best at is hip hop. I guess it's kind of unexpected, like not what you would think, just seeing me as kind of timid. But I think that's kind of why I like hip hop, because it gives me an outlet to show people that there is more. I also sing and I used to take voice lessons when I was a lot younger, but I haven't taken any classes recently just due to time and money and scheduling. It's really weird trying to figure out a schedule at this point, but I do have my YouTube channel which I've had since I was about thirteen, when I made my first dance video. That was before I'd taken any classes! I look back at it now and it's just so embarrassing, just the dancing. My brother actually went all out with it because he does film work and he's an editor and stuff like that. So, he and his friend got together and made this super high quality video for this little thirteen-year-old awkwardly flailing around.
She laughs, slightly embarrassed, tickled at the thought of her thirteen year old self.
A: But, it's also nice to look back and realize I've been able to sort of channel that energy now...um...
E: Less flail-y?
A: A little less! My main outlet for singing and dancing is my YouTube channel. Oh, and another one of my hobbies is studying Korean! I have a YouTube where I do Kpop dance covers and singing covers. Oh, and another one of my hobbies is makeup, too. I love makeup and doing crazy, fancy, colorful things! I started learning Korean when I got into Kpop. One day my sisters were all excited and like, "Abby, you have to come here! This is incredible!" And it was just like a whole new world. It was a music video of these thirteen guys. The group was called Super Junior, and it was so different because they were this boy band signing really well and also dancing really well! The song was so catchy, the cinematography in the video was also really good and we just kind of went from there. We started listening to more and more and just exploring. If I like something I'll go all-in. I started wanting to learn the Korean language. I also have a Korean Aunt, so we did get a little exposure to the culture through having the food and having her in the family. But I started a YouTube channel and started learning Korean and all of that when I was about thirteen. Fast forward a couple years and by that time I'd had my YouTube for a little while, I'd entered into some dance contests, and then I entered into this one contest and finally got an email back! They're like, "We want you to come to the regional contest and compete in our semi finals!"
She puts on a deep, masculine voice and furrows her brow: very important and official. This girl is adorable! A spunky personality is starting to peak through her timid quietness as she describes her passions and hobbies.
A: So, I ended up flying to California with my sisters and my mom. I performed a dance there and it ended up being really exciting because these four Korean celebrities came out to judge this competition. I should also probably mention that the competition was a TV show.
E: What was the TV show?
A: It was called Kpop Roadshow 40120. They just went to different countries to show how big Kpop had become all around the world. I went there and it was just a crazy experience. I practiced my dance for two weeks before I went there. And with Kpop they have a specific dance that goes with every song, so like "Gangam style," it's like that. They all have a specific dance for each song. Dance covers are very popular on YouTube, there's like a whole community. So, you learn the dance and perform it just like they do. I performed for them and then three judges took a break and came back stage, where I was, and they're just walking past. It was so surreal. That was the first time I've ever seen a celebrity, you know, in person. I'm used to seeing these people in my computer and now here they are in front of me! It was really weird.
E: How old were you when you flew out to California?
A: I had just turned sixteen.
E: And how old are you now?
A: I am twenty. Honestly, out of the whole competition I wasn't expecting anything, I was just amazed that I was experiencing it! It was really cool, too, because it brought so many people from around the country and we all had something in common, we liked Kpop and were really passionate about this hobby of ours. I made a lot of friends through that. So, after all that was done, we went out to the stage and they were going to announce the finalists. They were going to pick four people. So, they picked one person, then another person, then a dance group, and I was sitting there all conflicted in my head like, "It's okay, they're not going to pick you and that's okay." Then on the other side of my brain I was like, "Abby, just say Abby!" Then the last judge says, "Abby!" It took me a minute to process that and they brought me forward and I just started crying! Because as a finalist they were going to send you to Korea for a week for free! My dream was going to Korea, so more than anything that's what I was just so excited about! So, I was crying for like the rest of the night and there's a video of me on Korean TV crying!
She laughs, completely transported back to the moment she heard her name.
E: What was it like to be in Korea for that week?
A: It was crazy. It was really cool because we had managers, basically, we didn't have to figure out anything ourselves. They gave us bus tours and took us where we needed to go, to and from places, and we went to popular tourist spots. We ate so much good food! And my mom got to come with me because I was sixteen and I didn't want to go to another country alone. It was really busy and the schedule was just jam packed.
E: And you were just being filmed for the whole week?
A: Yeah, pretty much. A lot of that didn't make the final cut of the show. Then there was the competition at the end and at that point I didn't really care whether I won, I was just excited to be there. I'd reached my goal, basically. It was also really fun interacting with all the finalists from different countries! There were people from Japan, from Russia, from Nigeria, and again we all just had the same thing in common! The really cool thing about the final competition was we had this huge panel of K-pop groups, all these celebrities right behind us watching us dance! It was really cool! So, I got to meet all these celebrities and be on TV. Yeah, it was definitely one of the most exciting experiences of my life.
E: Has that experience influenced where you are now?
A: I think it's kind of more of a memory at this point. It inspires me to keep going with things. It's cool because sometimes a friend will show my clips to their Korean friends and they'll be like, "Oh my gosh! I saw that person on TV!" Then they'd relay that back to me and I'm like, "Oh my goodness!" I haven't done much with my YouTube channel, but I want to be getting back into that, especially working on my Korean language skills and posting videos about that. I do really enjoy that.
E: So, you are pursuing all kinds of artistic opportunities. You're dancing, singing, you have a YouTube channel; you had this huge opportunity to be on Korean television at 16. Now, fast-forward, you're 20. What's a normal day in the life?
A: Every day is different! Right now I'm not working, so I'm home with my sisters. I prefer to start my day off really slow and kind of ease into it. Sometimes it's really nice because my mom and sisters will get into a routine every once in a while where we all wake up and watch a show or a movie together. We'll do chores around the house, if I have work to do I'll work on a portrait or some kind of artistic endeavor, and I'll help cook meals. That's basically a general day.
E: Are you planning to go to school?
A: Not right now, I'm actually just looking for a job. I was working at a frozen yogurt place and that was a good start for kind of...easing my way into adulthood?
She giggles and rolls her eyes.
A: I mean, I'm the baby of the family. I have an older brother and an age gap of 9 years. My sisters and I are really, really, really close. But I think being the youngest and being the baby especially has definitely affected me as far as like growing up. It's hard to grow up when you're used to being the baby!
She laughs and glances down. Her self-awareness is surprising in a last child, and so, so charming.
A: My sisters and I are super close, though, even with the big age gap.
E: What's your family like?
A: Usually when I tell people about my family and describe what each person does they always respond with, "So, you're definitely an artistic family!" My dad does video editing in New York City, and my mom is a stay-at-home mom. She went to a national gourmet culinary school about eight years ago. One of my sisters has a makeup blog, my other sister is an artist. I basically learned how to draw from following in her footsteps. My brother is kind of a jack of all trades in the media. He actually works at the same place as my dad. He does video editing, setting up shoots, he'll do camera work, and he fixes computers, too!
Her family is clearly a dear subject to her. She radiates a calm tenderness as she describes her family's passions and gifts.
E: Do you hope to have an artistic career, as well?
A: I'm actually not very career-oriented. I want to be a stay-at-home mom basically. Obviously, I love family. My family is all really close even though things aren't perfect. Through everything we're close. I'd be very content to just have a family and have that life. Ideally, I would love to keep working on artistic things. I do portrait commissions, which I really enjoy. I want to do more with my t-shirt designs, too. I love fashion and art. Actually, sometimes when I was looking for something to use as a dance outfit, if it was hard to find exactly what I wanted I would make my own shirt.
E: Who are the most important people to you and why?
A: Definitely my sisters.
After all the affection she has expressed, this comes as no surprise.
A: Like anyone else, we fight a lot. But, at the end of the day we can have a huge fight and be mad at each other, but we'll still go in each other's rooms and be like, "So, what movie do you want to watch tonight?" You know, we'll just move on. They've definitely been very important to me in just growing up and...I feel like I should have more to say about them! It's hard to describe your family because they're your family! It's hard to come up with words to describe that bond that you have. I can definitely be one hundred percent myself when I'm with them! There's definitely a personality I have around them that I don't have with anyone else!
E: What's that personality like?
She shrugs her shoulders and covers her mouth, laughing.
A: Really goofy! I'll just, like, dance around the house and creep into their rooms and just stare at them, or tell really random jokes. And I mean, they're used to my jokes by now, but I'll crack up because I think it's hilarious. Yeah, there's definitely a side of me that I show all the time with them and not really with anyone else. I have a couple close friends. To me, there are two categories of friends. There are the people you can go and have a good time with and enjoy each other's company, and there are the people you can, like, really talk to. I love deep conversations about life and finding out about other people, heart to hearts. I've always really liked that type of thing. Obviously, Annelisa is a friend like that. We're twins basically.
A: You know the Myers Briggs personality test? She and I are actually the same type, ISFJ. So, once we found that out after we'd been friends for a while we were like, "Oh, that explains it! No wonder we're twins!" Yeah, we can just talk and talk and talk. That's really hard because we're both introverted, so it wears us out so much, but we don't want to stop because we could basically just talk forever and never run out of things to talk about.
E: That's awesome to be so understood by someone.
A: Yeah, it really is! We'll just be talking and I'll say something and she'll be like, "No way! Me, too!" I mean, there are a lot of other people that I know from this summer camp, French Creek. I feel like I have to mention them all. I've been going there since I was nine years old, so I've built a lot of relationships there.
E: What are the highlights of your day?
A: Mmm, eating.
We both burst into laughter.
E: You're tiny!
A: Actually, I don't gain weight. Like, my weight doesn't fluctuate at all. It doesn't really matter how much, or how little I eat, I'm just always the same weight. At least, that's how my body is for now!
She laughs, punctuating her comment with a handful of trail mix.
E: What are your favorite types of food?
A: Number one favorite food is sushi. I am obsessed with sushi! We have a sushi buffet that we've been going to for a long time and every time we go I just fill up my plate! I'm pretty adventurous when it comes to food. I love exotic foods like Indian, Korean, I like spicy food as long as it's not so spicy that you can't taste it. I'm definitely more of a full meal, real food type of person rather than dessert. I usually go for more salty and savory, but I do get in the mood for sweet.
E: What do you have when you're in a sweets mood?
A: I think I tend to be a cookie person. I really like chocolate chip cookies. I'm definitely a chocolate person over fruity. Chocolate is my main thing. Whenever we have candy in the house I'll squirrel some away like in my dresser drawer. I like doing that because then when my sisters are like, "Oh, I wish we had chocolate," then I can just whip it out and be, "Here!"
Every time Abby talks about her sisters her demeanor softens, her eyes widen, and her entire posture becomes more relaxed, more casual. Her connection to them is tangible and beautiful.
E: What are some other highlights of your day?
A: I really like watching a movie with my sisters. I'm definitely a movie person. I really like movies and my sisters do, too. So, that's usually part of our semi-routine at the end of the day, we'll watch a movie together. It feels bad saying it, but I do like movies more than books usually and I think part of it is because I like to multi task. With all of my hobbies I like to put on a movie and start drawing. It's crazy when I'm working on a project I'll go through like three movies and I won't even realize.
E: What types of movies do you like to watch?
A: I'm not too picky about movies. I like a very broad range. I like romantic period dramas, thrillers. As long as it's not severely inappropriate then I'll usually like it. I'll watch Lord of the Rings, cartoon Disney movies, zombie movies.
E: Do you have any long-term goals?
A: When I think about the future and goals and stuff I think I'm kind of simple. I'm really okay with just getting married, having a family, continuing with art. I mean if any opportunities came my way while doing that, like any opportunities to use my gifts, then I'd be okay with that. But, I'm really okay with simplicity. I mean, love. I'm definitely a romantic!
E: What are some of the values you'd like to cultivate in your own family?
A: It's kind of hard because I think I contradict myself a lot. Like I have social anxiety and I worry about a lot of things, but I think I have a gift of trusting God when it comes to certain things. Even though it might not be easy and I might not know what's going on, God does and He has a better plan for me. That comes pretty naturally to me. I like joy. I like just making people smile. I like giving people gifts. When I was young I was always just giving my best friend whatever, like a drawing or something. Gift giving is really important to me. I like finding the perfect gift for somebody, thinking about what they really want, or really need. If they say something like months ahead of Christmas I'm like, "I know what I'm getting you!" Sometimes it's just acting overly silly, or like gushing cuteness just to try to cheer someone up! Yeah, I think those are some of my strengths that will be carried on in the future.
E: Do you have any big dreams?
A: I do hope I get the chance to travel a lot, go to different countries. Ideally, in a perfect world, I'd like to be like YouTube famous. Like, not famous enough that you get paparazzi or anything, but just famous enough that people know who you are and someone could recognize you. On my YouTube I usually post dancing, singing, Korean speaking videos, some art videos. It would be really cool to do more with Korean entertainment and media if I got the chance to.
The ease with which she talks about her dreams and passions communicates a profound contentment. She's ambitious enough to continue, but satisfied with the joy she draws from every activity. It reminds me of the quiet, unambitious joys of watering the garden, or making tea. I'm challenged and humbled to see someone so gifted and so content, simply sharing her gifts with close family and friends. "Fame" is a novelty, not a goal. Her joy is in the doing, in the dancing, in the speaking, in the singing, in the making.
A: When I was younger and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I was older I'd always answer, "A star!" I think that's come down a little!
E: What was the inspiration behind your styled portion of the Reveal?
A: Like I said, I'm a romantic and very "princess" at heart! If I have a chance to dress up and go all out then I will, just to feel like that Disney princess! I think the best compliment I ever got was I was cleaning at camp and singing a song from Enchanted then one of the campers was like, "You should be a Disney princess!" And I was like, "Thank you!" That touched my heart.
Her hands come to her chest–like a Disney princess–and she bats her eyelashes, playing the part. She's adorable.
E: So, just that feeling of whimsical, fairy princess?
A: Yes! Like playing dress up for big kids!
E: What drew you to tell your story with us? What about the message of Verity Vareé made you want to do a Reveal?
A: Hmmm. Well, I feel like I'm kind of unassuming. Like, without really talking to me it's hard to get to know me. I'm really introverted, especially with groups of people. I guess I'm not the sort of person to demand people's attention although I do like attention!
She stutters over the last phrase, as if a little embarrassed.
E: That's a perfectly reasonable thing to say!
We laugh together at her bashful honesty.
A: I mean, I was the youngest! I was the baby, so I'm used to having a certain amount of attention! It sounds kind of strange, but I like talking about myself because I like people being able to understand me.
She makes a valid point. Why else do we talk about ourselves, other than to be understood? To be known is a powerful, beautiful thing.
A: There are those things you can't see about me and getting to share those things through Verity Vareé was just attractive to me. I feel like I can be really easily overlooked since I'm not one of those really loud, extroverted people. I'm very firm in my belief that "You can't judge a book by its cover," because that's me! And I like pretty things. I like looking at and making pretty rings, and just that element of being able to dress up was really cool to me.
E: How have you seen yourself and those around you affected by beauty as portrayed in the media?
A: I think, as a Christian, it's easy to kind of hear, "You're God's child, you're beautiful, He loves you," but it's not always so easy to really know it and feel that about yourself. I think some elements about the media can be encouraging. I mean, it is an art to be able to produce beautiful things, but I think there are sides of it that can be harmful. I think if you go into the media knowing that you're beautiful then you can be inspired by other art forms and people, rather than intimidated, or discouraged. Having that knowledge and discernment can be so important.
E: Is there anything else we should know about you?
A: Well, I'm a thinker so I've been mentally preparing for this for a long time! I know I'm going to leave here today thinking, "Oh, I should have said this!" I'm more sensitive than I thought. I've come to a lot of new realizations about myself in the last year or two. I think a lot. I overthink and in the past year, or two I've spent a lot of time thinking about myself and analyzing, over-analyzing why I do certain things, why I react in certain ways. It can be a good thing sometimes and it can also be a bad thing because sometimes I get trapped inside my own head and my own thoughts can drive me crazy! I have the long-term memory of an elephant. I remember very specific things about certain situations, just memories about different people. I collect that information and store it. My short-term memory is awful. But, I like that about myself, that I can meet a person and bring up something from a long time ago and they're like, "How do you even remember that?" It was significant enough for me to store it away in my memory.
E: What other personality quirks do you have?
A: I am extremely sentimental. I save a lot of things if they have any sentimental value whatsoever. I love taking pictures. I'm not a photographer, but I just love saving memories. That's a reason that I like Instagram a lot because it's a digital scrapbook where you can save the things that are important to you to look back on. I tend to think about the past a lot. I love long letters. I'm definitely a words person, so that's something, too. I think my love language is definitely words. I like to express my love through long, carefully thought-out letters to other people.
E: How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
A: I think...um...indecisive! That's so hard because I never want to just pick one thing. I want to say everything and eat all the food! I'm all about creating and loving and joy just really being able to make other people happy any way I can.
E: We can never get the fullness of a person. I know that can be frustrating, but it is, to me, one of the most illuminating parts of it all. We could sit here for three weeks and I still wouldn't know you like I could. We could do seventy photoshoots and still only capture a piece of who you are. But, this gives us a couple pieces to the puzzle that we can put together to see just a glimpse of who you are. Thank you.
She smiles and begins to unwind from her blanket and pillows on the couch. Her sweet demeanor and surprising insight speak volumes for her years. Her honesty desire to be known shows me that she must also long to know others. Her warmth, friendliness, and imagination leave me feeling younger, brighter, and even a little happier. She's captured joy without even knowing it, and what a worthy accomplishment it is, to spread joy to other people.
Introducing the real-life Disney princess, Abby Penn.