Being multi-hyphenated is generally the exception rather than rule. Increasingly, being creative in today’s climate seems to demand multi-disciplinary approaches; I see this occurring particularly with Gen-Zs, as they navigate building their perspectives, careers and dreams in a highly competitive world. Then, there is multi-hyphenated in its OG form; that rare ability born within people for whom life is their masterpiece and each action or era is their developing brushstroke. Kelly Fulton is one such OG multi-hyphenate; for whom the past two decades has been at the forefront of the evolving ‘creative industry’; and behind some of the most critical ways in which creativity, marketing and media has evolved in its digitisation as a creative director with brands like Vice Media, and clients such as Apple and Beats by Dre. All the while, Kelly has been pursuing her own, personal manifestation as a performing artist in both acting and music – and if appearing alongside Gwyeth Paltrow in The Politician is anything to go by, acting is a current focus for someone whose talents have always been calling Kelly in. For a girl from the Vaal, Kelly Fulton’s life is a story of contrast and adaptability; and the essence of what it means to pursue creative nourishment in every possible way.
“I grew up on the Vaal river, and I spent the first seven years of my life barefoot, English speaking in a non-English speaking community. It was very remote. It was just me, my brother and sister – we didn’t have any other friends, and we didn’t speak Afrikaans and so we just played outside and made up things. I think those formative years are still where so much of my imagination comes from. In the mid-80s, American television was still sanctioned, so we didn’t have TV; we created a lot of fantasy stories and that’s how we played. The first thing I did creatively other than make-believe, was making my own cartoons; my first creative memory is boredom resulting in amazing ideas. I still to this day think that my best ideas come from a place of boredom; rather than any kind of pressure to be seen or successful. When nothing else is interesting to me, and I have the space and time to create, that’s where my best ideas come from.” Kelly reflects, touching on a sentiment of the kind of sensory freedom that growing up pre-internet in a bygone era once afforded to young kids. For Kelly, those years of being able to birth something almost entirely without out influence is perhaps key to the originality she carved later professionally. So much of Kelly’s early life guides her today, as she tells us one of the first films that she ever fell in love with was ‘The Neverending Story’ – I’d already noted in the lead up to conversation that the landing page of her website features Falkor The Luck Dragon soaring through two portals; how apt that for a creative for whom boredom is her alchemical substance, to have found her earliest visual experience in the story of a young warrior who sets out to combat ‘The Nothing’ from engulfing a fantastical world. Creativity as armour in a hard and strange world is a power that Kelly yields beautifully.
When Kelly’s family relocated to Johannesburg, the intensity of this contrast from her former, idyllic childhood proved a necessary initiation; the grit of Joburg, particularly at the precipice of great change in the ‘90s informed her incisive ability to derive a story out of the tension between beauty and hardship; as Kelly describes, “Joburg really defined my psyche in terms of a lot of fear and anxiety, but it also gave me a sixth sense as a woman that has really protected me. You don’t grow up in Joburg with doe-eyes, and you have to be savvy and awake, and be able to read people. It reminds me a lot of New York, and I think it has been the education I needed to move to a place like New York alone at 21 and work at places like Vice. I’m attracted to an energy that’s not predictable, and I do think that high-creativity comes out of incredibly difficult situations.” Moving to New York at that age expressed the pursuit of understanding who one is in the most profound ways. Parallel to Kelly’s creative development was the growing realisation of her sexuality; it is only within recent memory that being lesbian was still a cultural taboo in the conservative context of our country – particularly set against the backdrop of suburban South Africa and all its scripting around women and our constructed roles within the patriarchy. Now, Kelly’s queer identity is a beautifully central part of her expression; hard-won in a world that often invites us to hide in fear.
As Kelly explains, “funnily enough, Vice was where I came out. It was just so irreverent, and so masculine. I joined when there were eighty people in the Brooklyn office, and when I left there were over a thousand. It was just explosive. It was the wildest time in my life, and I cut my teeth in every form of creative directing, film-making, editing, colour, pitching, selling – across media, music videos, documentaries. We were so caught up in the excitement of it, even if we were being ground down to the bone. I got to Vice through Tom, who I worked with in my first agency job at Mother, and he had hired me to do copywriting. When he went to Vice, he took me with and I was able to help build the team with him. We started with launching multiple vertical content channels, and then eventually launching Viceland, the TV channel.” The mystique of Vice is one embedded into CEC’s founder Candice and myself. I remember coming from school, scrolling endlessly on Tumblr and playing Vice over and over again; the unabashed documentaries and profiles spoke to a true disenchantment with the industrial media machine fed to us through the mainstream.
While Vice has faced warranted controversy of the years (and part of why Kelly ended up leaving), the idea that a tiny, punk-style magazine could emerge from a corner of the world such as Toronto (basically, anywhere outside American hegemony) and literally revolutionise digitised media will always be a historical. Kelly contextualises just how intense the scaling of Vice was, “the team that we built created the work that birthed Virtue because we created so much work and money, that they had no choice but to start an agency parallel to the media company. Vice knew so well how to have a brand come to them, while retaining their sense of being Vice at the same time. Their handle on relevance and the cult-like attention for their audience was something Vice was able to leverage very quickly, and verily intensely.” Some of Kelly’s most memorable projects at Vice were launching ‘Airbnb’ experiences across four cities – including South Africa, “we took Vice articles that had done really well, and turned them into experiences for Airbnb. We did sex clubs in Paris, township-techno in Cape Town, the gay quarter Shinjuku in Tokyo and New York’s ballroom and voguing scene. It was just this beautiful synergy between Vice and Airbnb, and captured the best kind of collaboration between two different brands. Then, ‘A-Z of Hair’ was another really special project, exploring experimental attitudes to hair for i-D Magazine.”
When Kelly left Vice, as many of its earliest progenitors had, she sought out LA as a place to recuperate. Kelly’s then-fiancée encouraged her to act; something she had not done since the purest, unbridled plays of her childhood. As Kelly says, “it’s been one of the most terrifying and rewarding creative paths that I’ve ever attempted. I think everyone should be forced to do acting class in school, because it’s an unbelievable way to get to know yourself and your patterns, from physical to emotional and mental patterns. She had put me in her short film, ‘Hail Mary Country’, and an agent signed me after my one acting job. So, I was like – I guess I’m going to do this? I’m pursuing this right now, alongside my music under my artist name, Stronza.” Kelly’s life is so deeply textured, and holding so many talents and tastes is often relegated to what Kelly describes as a the path for most multi-disciplinarians, “people don’t really know what to do with you, and they really like that story of ‘finding a craft really young and dedicating your whole life to it’ and I’ve just never been able to do that because I’m interested in so many things, and I’ve wanted to try so many things. I think in today’s world, it’s such a blessing to do multiple things. This whole journey has gotten me to a point where I now do all of it – I creative-direct, I consult, I’m writing music, and I’ve written a lesbian rom-com feature script that I’m shopping out in LA, I’m also meeting with agents as an actress. I’ve never seen that I can’t do all those things, and do them well. I’ve had to learn how to focus on my energy in multiple ways, for many purposes at once; and I find that a beautiful challenge.”
Kelly had just landed her role in The Politician alongside Gwenyth Paltrow when industries shut down for the pandemic, and with no auditions to use the momentum of this role to further her acting pursuits, amongst other reasons, she decided to make her return to South Africa. Coming back, Kelly found herself falling in love with Cape Town. Living in The Mother City now, and travelling around the world, has allowed Kelly to revel in the saying that our country ‘is the root of the world’; and coming back to her roots, meant that she could focus on her music, under the moniker STRONZA (‘bitch’ in Italian). Kelly is putting out music she had made when she first arrived in New York at 21 – and if you haven’t already got the sense of her brilliance, it is pretty insane to have carved (and archived) a sound that is still relevant today, through her own skill sets like mastering and producing. One of many cherries on the cake that is Kelly’s resilience and intense creativity; the world is but a stage, and Kelly Fulton is a f*cking star.
Written by: Holly Beaton