Unapologetically Me: Jenny Kuller, the Queen of Vintage

(C) 2017, Miachelle D Photography, LLC

(C) 2017, Miachelle D Photography, LLC

Many people dress up in pinup or rockabilly style, but it’s usually on the weekends, or on a night out on the town. Not Jenny Kuller. As I’ve gotten to know her over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize this is who she is every day, whether at home or out somewhere in Phoenix, and she is very unapologetic about it. This story is more than just about Kuller’s love for a vintage lifestyle. It’s about her life journey, which has been filled with challenges. Thanks to perseverance, help from Fresh Start, and therapy, she finally has learned to embrace who she is.

Kuller is the owner of Redhead Sadie Vintage, a vintage clothing company specializing in clothing from the 1960s and prior. Her career in selling vintage clothing began in 1995 and transitioned to an eBay storefront on May 18, 1999. She still has her eBay store with over 6500 satisfied customers, and recently added an Etsy store. She travels to different trunk shows and specialty markets with her collection, both locally and in other states. She’s been featured in Vintage Style magazine for her vintage lifestyle, and her house will be featured in Flea Market Décor, due out May 30, 2017.

“My house is all vintage,” she says. “I live it. It looks right, feels right, it fits me.”

Born in Portland, Oregon, Kuller’s love for vintage fashion began as a young child. Her most valued vintage possession is an original Bakelite cherry necklace, estimated to be from the 1930s.

“I always loved the 40s and 50s,” she says. “I would dress up to watch Happy Days.”

In 1987, Kuller moved to Arizona due to her stepfather taking a job with KJZZ. Kuller’s teenage years were fraught with obstacles. She had undiagnosed ADHD, and learning was difficult in a day when educational resources weren’t as equipped to help children with ADHD. She also had a very difficult relationship with her stepfather; she describes the situation quite simply, which is more telling than if she went into detail.

“He was not kind to me.”

Mother of LeCresia, 29, and Zefram, 17, Kuller’s challenging journey began early when she gave birth to LeCresia as she was graduating from high school. From 1988-1994, Kuller worked a variety of minimum wage jobs to support her small family. One of those jobs was working at a record store.

“It was a great job, and the movie Empire Records has always rung true for me,” Kuller says. “Crazy cool people work at record stores!”

Other jobs included babysitting and call center jobs. In 1994, Kuller was formally diagnosed with ADHD and began treatment. Simultaneously, Kuller started her vintage retail career with a boyfriend in 1994 as they bought old furniture, upcycled it, and resold it locally. Ultimately they had an antique booth in Mesa, which she kept after they broke up.

In 1997, Kuller got married to her husband, Dan. Kuller opened her eBay store on May 18, 1999, back when eBay was still a novelty.

“I got really good at eBay because my marriage was really bad,” Kuller recalls.

When Zefram was born in 2000, Kuller suffered deeply from postpartum depression (PPD). She realized she couldn’t do both the eBay store and the antique booth, she closed down the booth. Kuller experienced difficulties in her marriage as a result of her depression, and they divorced in 2005. Kuller looks back and acknowledges she needed more than her husband could give her.

“I was way too needy in retrospect,” she recalls. “I wanted to be rescued. It wasn’t all bad, it was mostly that he ignored the fact that I needed his validation. After Zefram was born, I was a mess with PPD.”

In 2005, Kuller entered an intense relationship that eventually would become an extremely important pivotal point in her life. LeCresia had moved out by then, and Kuller was taking care of Zefram, who is diagnosed with ADHD and Asperberger’s. Meanwhile, Kuller still focused on her eBay store.

Kuller was hired in 2007 by Heidi Owens to run her vintage clothing store, the Hollywood Regency, which was located next to the Melrose Pharmacy in the Melrose District. She credits her time with Owens at the Hollywood Regency for giving her an education in brick and mortar retail, and considers Owens both a sister and mentor.

“Heidi essentially said ‘Here are the keys, run the shop’,” Kuller says. “I couldn’t ask for a better education, in many things.”

In 2010, Kuller’s life went through major upheavals. Kuller came home one day to find her boyfriend cheating on her. Additionally that year, Owens passed away from cancer, and Kuller’s time at the Hollywood Regency came to an end.

Realizing she was in an emotional downward spiral, Kuller began Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and credits this therapy with changing her life.

According to the Linehan Institute, DBT is a cognitive behavioral treatment developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). It’s also used to treat other disorders including substance dependence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders.

“Dialectical behavior therapy teaches you to take responsibility for your emotions, and self-acceptance,” she explains. “It teaches mindfulness, in honoring the sacredness within. That’s the hard part, being responsible for your own shit.”

In addition to beginning DBT, Kuller also entered the Fresh Start Women’s Foundation program in 2010, and credits Fresh Start with aiding her in her transformation and self-development.

“They offer so many good programs to help women figure out what they want to do,” Kuller says. “The self-esteem and personal development workshops are beneficial. They don’t hold your hand but they help you. There is a huge personal responsibility aspect. You will do your part.”

Seven years later, Kuller has fire within, and places priority on her personal growth and evolution.

“I’m keeping going,” Kuller says. “The quickest way through hell is to keep going.”

Crossroads, Pt. 1: Purpose and Principle

Doorway, Mission San Xavier del Bac, (C) 2016, Miachelle D Photography

Doorway, Mission San Xavier del Bac, (C) 2016, Miachelle D Photography

Today's post is rather personal. I'm at a crossroads in my photography business: I have a conflict in the principle of making money as a photography business, and my purpose in being a photographer.

I love photography. I love the stories in the images, and behind the images taken. I thrive on both. The two are distinctly different most of the time, and I find them both fascinating. I started my photography business for the same reason I started a jewelry business many years ago. I wanted to take something I love doing, and hopefully make money at it. In the jewelry business, I hit burnout, and I hit it at a time when the economy was tanking rapidly, and I shut it down. I haven't returned to jewelry since. And that's a shame, because I was damned good at it.

Five years into my photography business, and I see myself hitting the burnout stage. The thing is,  I've loved photography since I was a child, and I don't want to lose that love. This time, I recognize the signs, and know I must make a change that puts me more in alignment with my desired purpose.

People start businesses because they are good at something, and see a need or just love doing a particular thing so much, they want to make money at it. This is true with artists. Artists love to create and express themselves, and what better Utopia than to get paid to create and express yourself?

The problem is once The Man starts paying you, The Man dictates what you do. And the The Man is always right, even when he's not. This point is especially true in photography, and more so today with the advent of social media and personal branding.

Imagery has always been powerful, since cave people learned to use rocks, bark, and plant extracts tocreate drawings and record events in their lives. When photography was invented, that was a game changer in recording humanity's achievements, events, foibles and tragedies, and in cementing society's classes. The haves versus the have nots. Imagery became not just a means to record history, but a powerful tool to influence, titillate, validate, and even destroy.

With the advent and escalation of social media in our lives, photography is now a split-second consumable product. We scroll through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and a number of web sites daily, consuming images and just as rapidly forgetting them. Think about your day yesterday; did you scroll through a web site or social media app, look at dozens of images, and can you remember single one of them today? Can you remember who the photographer was? My guess is probably not. I can remember a couple of photos from yesterday's perusal, but not many.

Yet outside of cell phone photos, those images are created by photographers, who spend a lot of time learning their craft, spend time setting up for a shoot, spend time at the shoot, and spend time after the shoot editing the photos. This is all just so the hungry audience can digest images and move on from one to the next, in the hopes that perhaps the right person will notice their photograph and they'll get that magical phone call so many of us hear about.

I look at the last year, and specifically the last three months, and I can see why my burnout has been approaching. I shoot events, and those who know me by now and why I'm there will rush tome asking me to photograph them with this person or that person, so they can appear in publication or on-line and be seen with those perceived to be important. I shoot someone for a specific editorial and later get asked if they can have the photos for free to use elsewhere for their marketing purposes; yet they fail to understand that just as they expect to get paid for their work, I, too, expect to get paid for mine. I get asked to make people look far younger than their years, fix perceived physical flaws that will exist when someone meets them in person, and I watch people place filters on top of my work so they feel more secure in who they are as they post my work on social media. I've had an incredibly financially successful 12 months, but I'm incredibly dissatisfied with the aftermath.

It's a dog-eat-dog world, and I see myself getting sucked into it.

But I love photography, and I can't get sucked in. I want to be more than just a split-second glance.

Therefore, I have to make the change. I have to change my direction, I have to change my purpose to the one that satisfies my creative soul, and I have to be willing change principles to do so.

Next part: what will the change be?


My Love Affair with Personalities

BB King, 2013

BB King, 2013

My favorite page on my website is my Personalities page. The page encompasses a variety of performers and celebrities and artists. When I look through my catalog of photos on that page, I am astounded at who I’ve been blessed to shoot so far in my relatively young photography career. BB King, Willie Mays, my teen idol Marty Stuart…

Artists of all genres fascinate me. They thrive at sharing their passion, regardless of the medium in which they work. Their body language is alive, sometimes fraught with positive tension, and their facial expressions often show how lost in the moment they are. Most often, they seem completely unaware there is a camera lens focused on them. In these moments, the viewer is allowed to feel like they have been allowed to partake in a private moment.

My first concert shoot was Dave Koz and Friends at the Mesa Art Center, for his annual Christmas tour. I was on assignment for Go Gilbert! magazine, and rather intimidated at the prospect. Signing the release dealing with legalities many non-photographers would not think are a part of this genre, I was worried about getting a good set of images in a small time slot, and worried about the images after the shoot.

It was also the concert that got me hooked on photographing personalities. The concert was terrific, and my iconic shot of Dave Koz leaning backward with his saxophone made me break out in goose bumps when I saw it on my iMac that night. The meet and greet was fun. Dave Koz and his accompanying musicians (Candy Dulfer, Rick Braun, and Jonathan Butler) were incredibly personable and warm.

My next concert was Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis, at the Chandler Center for the Arts. I didn’t’ shoot the meet and greet, but it was another great concert for someone new to shooting music performers. And it was enough for me to keep seeking out small venue concerts to shoot.

It’s not all glitz and glamour, and there are always limitations. I shot the meet and greet for Joan Rivers, but wasn’t allowed to shoot the performance. She was a tiny little dynamo, and she had to be, given the demands on her schedule and her immense popularity. I’ve seen personalities who are tired and as overwhelmed with personal stresses as anyone else. I’ve seen performers who were overjoyed that people wanted to see them perform 30 years after the pinnacle of their careers. I’ve seen personalities display the most incredible amount of patience during meet and greets. I’ve seen gracious star-struck attendees at meet and greets, and I’ve seen people who could use a good education in manners and decorum. As a photographer shooting these events and performers, I’ve learned to read body language and facial expressions of everyone associated with a performance.

I love what I do. However, I think if I could express one sadness, that would be at how times have changed for photographers in this genre. Paparazzi, technology, the Internet, and social media have made it harder for photographers to have access and rights to images. Where once upon a time, personalities understood they needed photographers to keep them relevant, now the pendulum has swung the opposite way. Many of us in this genre have frustration at often being kept back by the sound board and limited to two or three songs, while those up front with the expensive tickets can use their cellphones to capture images we’ll never get. And don’t scoff…today’s cellphones are very powerful.

My bucket list has changed slightly over time. BB King was number 1 on my list, and what a gift of an opportunity that was. Now if anyone has connections to Condoleezza Rice, I’d be much obliged. Or Mickey Rourke or Tim Tebow. :-)

When I Dream

When I dream of being a photographer, I hope that one day my work is seen as something worthy of being called inspiration. Sure, in the grandiose perspective, I dream of being a sought-after, well-paid photographer, commissioned to photograph exclusive people, exclusive moments, exclusive places. But the reality is I’d be just as happy being my generation’s Vivian Meier as opposed to Annie Leibovitz, if it means I told a story no one knew before.

I’ve always dreamed of being a photographer. As a young girl, I drew, but my drawings were taken from photography. As a teenager, I poured over books of black and white photography, in particular fascinated with Hollywood stills and the works of Avedon. I saw glamour, I saw beauty, I saw grit, and I saw the stories unfolding within each image.

When I dream of being a photographer, I dream of viewers being enchanted by the image, wanting to experience it over and over again. I care not if it makes me money. I dream of moving people, whether to joy, tears, anger, or shock…the ultimate experience as an artist is knowing you moved your audience. When your audience is moved, you’ve connected with them.

When I dream of being a photographer, I dream of capturing a moment that will live on forever, for people to connect to. I’ve shot some amazing personalities in my short time period. I care not for selling the images and making money. I dream that my audience will look at the images, and be transported to a memory they themselves treasure, and can connect to.

When I dream of being a photographer, I dream I get to shoot every day of my life. I dream that every day I find a story worth telling, and that someone, somewhere, finds my story worth experiencing.