Behind closed doors, Chela is thriving creatively

Stylist – Kirsty Barros
Hair and makeup – Cherry Cheung
Words by Anita Lester

The singer-songwriter has found new ways to distribute her energy.

There is a school of thought that believes that when two opposing ideas come together, that is where revolution is born.

We saw this with Madonna, the first pop star to take religion and sex into technicolour, we saw it with Bjork fusing nursery rhyme with dystopian pop, and with Amy Winehouse using a 1950s sound and aesthetic merged with contemporary soul.

It’s also the opinion of all who know Chela that she is one of these trailblazers. A female David Bowie of sorts, holding cyberpunk in one hand and art-pop in the other.

Chela’s energy is infectious, both on and off-screen. She is clearly beautiful, but it’s obvious that she isn’t using it as her main creative currency – she’s out-dancing, out-dressing and out-songwriting many in the game.

When speaking to her, it’s also clear that she isn’t interested in running the race or competing. She prioritises being true to the art and her process. She is a tortoise rather than a hare, but what a beguiling tortoise she is.

In Chela’s teens, like many of the millennial generation, her family was torn in half by a divorce and she moved from quiet Perth to bustling Melbourne.

She attended a well-known school for misfits, and it is here where her journey of expression began. Though always a fan of pop performance and with a deep flowing love for artists like Janet Jackson and Gwen Stefani, she felt as though it didn’t fit her recent location shakeup – nor did her binary presentation.

Quickly forming two enduring friendships with school friends Etta and Nellie, they introduced her to subcultures she had never experienced before. Etta, a lover of fashion, at 15 dressed like New York icon Iris Apfel, draped in beads and layers of colour.

Alongside studying textiles, every day they would ritualistically watch Fashion TV at Nellie’s house, poring over the details. Nellie and Chela attended a music class together, where she learned how to shoot fire through her bass guitar and immersed herself in angsty music that reflected her emotional state.

It was also around this time that she became friends with Grant and Jeremy, the owners of the legendary vintage store Shag.

“My older sister Nicole is a true classic beauty. Being younger, all I wanted was to seem different, not just female sibling number two. When I had all of these experiences and with the ability to hide in Shag – whose owners are my fucking heroes to this day – my mind was truly blown. It’s been an evolution since then.”

In the early 2000s, Chela, Nellie and Etta started the pop-punk band The Gingers, a group of rebellious girls that would make any alternative tween weak at the knees.

When I ask her where she saw her music career evolving to at 16, she earnestly responds, “I had a vision of myself at the ARIAs, holding on to an award like Missy Higgins. That was what I saw success to be, kind of within a box, the pinnacle being winning one of those accolades.”

But it was clear even then that her need for expression and love of fashion would extend beyond this somewhat rigid plan. Now Chela explains that she cares less about the outcome and more about integrity – the time she has spent developing as an artist hasn’t been a burden.

Our conversation takes a thrilling turn when we begin to speak about fashion. “Fashion is sacred and allows you control in an otherwise mundane existence,” she tells me, before listing her greatest loves and influences: Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren, Grace Jones, and Yohji Yamamoto.

But then she unexpectedly cites Pippy Longstockings and Mowgli from the The Junglebook. When I mention that Mowgli wore only a slip of fabric, she comments that his style “exists beneath his skin”.

This observation is apt, and it reminds me of what I experience when watching Chela perform. It’s a similar presence to BDE (big dick energy), but it’s more like LBE (little boy energy). She is a sprite, like Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream – innately stylish no matter what she wears, beautiful, but not reliant on her sexuality. I query this too.

“My sexuality plays a major but underlying role in my aesthetic and songwriting. I find great beauty in mystery and have always found intimacy as something to be held sacred, so perhaps my sexuality comes off subtly or subliminally and I like that. It is a very natural and unforced part of myself that I keep much of for myself and the ones that I share it with”.

It will be interesting to see how this informs her upcoming work, a collaboration with bedroom superstar Gus Dapperton, ahead of her anticipated album release early next year.

Wondering how isolation has impacted artists, especially those whose worlds are so enhanced by participation and performance, I ask what her creative process is like right now.

“I have found that I have been stripped of my ability to dance in a club or take a class, so my pattern has changed… I’m finding different ways to distribute my energy.” Chela’s routine for expression had been quite reliant on a connection to the outside world, but rather than being disenfranchised by these new limitations, she felt invigorated.

“Because I am so socially active, it’s left me more time to make. I’m thankful – my creativity is thriving and my world is wide open from all the doors being closed.”

We’re at the dawn of a new era, and we’re more in need of multiple pioneers than ever before. We are many tribes, with many voices, and we need trailblazers to light the way. It’s clear to everyone that experiences Chela, that she has the potential to be a leader – like the Pied Piper, only slightly more camp, better-dressed, and a better dancer with a better song.


Styling credits

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