How Bri Lee makes it matter
Bri Lee left a career in the law to follow her gut and become a writer. Now she’s building her own literary brand – and giving mouth to important ideas as she goes. This is one young woman to watch. Here, she talks to GIM about why breaking silence is so important.
GIM: How do you give it mouth?
BL: I get women to talk about themselves really honestly. And I’m a writer and editor so I basically just have conversations with inspirational women about how they resist being pigeonholed and how they fight misogyny and sexism in the workplace and in their lives. Then I present the interviews on the website I run called Hot Chicks With Big Brains (HCwBB), which is just this really awesome space to encourage conversation, to bring women together and make sure their voices are heard. We all need to come together and fight for equality.
GIM: Tell me some more about HCwBB.
BL: It’s an interview series that I started in late 2014. It was all online until we launched Issue #1 in hard copy on March 12. Basically it’s conversations with inspirational women discussing the intersection between the ‘hot chick’ part of them and the ‘big brain’ part of them. Our logo and everything we do is represented by the Venn diagram. We want to fight the way women are always pigeonholed into being either hot bimbos or ugly nerds. And also to expose the pressures women face in the workplace where they have to follow strange rules and strange beauty standards. It’s about using your brains to be conscious of that hot factor required of us.
Conversations about that intersection are the starting point. And then all of these incredible personal anecdotes come out of it through speaking to women about their work and their sense of self and their aesthetic and the choices they make about themselves and their employment. It’s recognising that all women represent both parts of that diagram.
GIM: I’m always interested in this idea of the conflict inherent in foregrounding the physicality of women while at the same time trying to assert that we have something to offer besides our bodies. Is that something you think about in regard to HCwBB, especially in terms of the title?
BL: I think human beings will always judge each other by appearance. And that is not gender specific and not something I can change. But what I can change is the way we think about others and the way we think about their experiences, the degree to which we do and the conversations that can be had to make sure people don’t internalise those judgements. One of the reasons I don’t see a conflict in the name is because anyone who takes it too seriously must be a fool because it’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek and I get a lot of good responses to it.
GIM: Yeah, it’s a great name.
BL: To put it clearly, one thing I really like is that in a lot of the interviews the women tell me how they take that absurd judgement of their physical appearance and use it to their advantage. How they can make choices for themselves that they feel empowered by. So that how they choose to represent themselves is a reflection of how they feel or perhaps even a very obvious visual statement that challenges other people’s presumptions.
GIM: Or the fact that they are actually choosing…
BL: Exactly. I can change the conversations we have around appearance.
GIM: Have you ever had a moment where someone’s read one of your interviews and told you that it really changed the way they think or do things?
BL: Yeah definitely. Actually we just had the launch party for issue one on Saturday last week and one of the very first interviews we ever did was with a woman called Camille and she’s in the legal profession and she described how frustrating it was for her to have to balance on this invisible line where women are held to such strict standards but you don’t really know what the rules are. It was over a year ago that we posted that interview but so many young women from the legal profession have told me that it really resonated for them. It was nice for them to hear that other women are stressed or anxious. I think it just helps to know you’re not the only one going through those feelings of inadequacy.
GIM: And is the woman’s experience something that’s not often spoken about within the legal profession?
BL: Yes. Definitely not talked about. Because if you talk about it, it means you’re into silly girly stuff like doing your hair and make-up and what you wear and all that. No, you can’t talk about it. You have to just amazingly and inherently know the rules.
That’s one of the reasons I started the whole interview series because I was just so frustrated by how ridiculous that is.
GIM: Why do you think it’s so important that women talk about those unspoken things and in what ways does that garner change?
BL: When women speak openly and honestly about a negative experience they had – that they might have thought was particular to them – and when other women come forward and they realise it’s a shared experience, it makes you realise that subconscious gender bias and misogyny are widespread, it’s not just a one-off random thing, it’s something all women are subjected to. When we know this we can all come together to fight against it.
GIM: Is this a little about consciousness too? Because so many women are so enculturated and they don’t even know that what they’re experiencing is in fact misogyny.
BL: Absolutely. And that’s beneficial both for the women I’m interviewing and for the people who read the interviews. Because sometimes by answering questions, there can be new understandings. And then also new understandings for the people who read others’ experiences.
GIM: Yes, it’s an important form of knowledge exchange, isn’t it? Tell me about your decision to become a freelance creative?
BL: I graduated from law school at the end of 2014 and started working as a Judge’s Associate which is a job with a standard 12-month contract. During that year, 2015, I was working this really demanding job while trying to build my freelancing portfolio and HCwBB, the Associateship just finished in January this year. And it got to the end of the year and I had a few green lights and I felt as though the time was right for me to do what I absolutely want to do with the rest of my life, which is to write. So there were enough green lights to know it wasn’t a totally nuts and stupid thing to do.
GIM: What were some of those green lights?
BL: Well I read at the National Young Writers Festival and got really good feedback from that, HCwBB was growing at a rate that I was happy with and I felt we could launch into hard copy at the beginning of 2016 and we just did that and it was successful, I had just signed on to do a fortnightly video series with Writer’s Bloc and I was getting paid for that. And I was also getting paid for some other freelancing jobs so it just felt like the right time.
GIM: What was the best reaction you had to the news when you told other people about your decision to leave law?
BL: I was very close to the judge I worked for – associates and judges have a wonderful professional relationship – and the judge I worked for became an important mentor figure in my life. So I chickened out by writing him a letter on my last day of work. And he responded in kind by writing me a letter in response, saying that he thought I had absolutely made the right decision, and I quote, “Anybody with a bit of brains can be a lawyer but there are few among us with the talent to write and I think you’ve made the right decision.” And just to hear that from my mentor, a man who I so admire in the legal profession, it made me cry.
GIM: I wish I’d asked you this first so we could have ended on a high note, but what was the worst reaction you got?
BL: Honestly there have been a few times when people in the profession would say, “Well what are you going to do next year, have you got a firm lined up? Are you going to the bar?” And when I answered no I’m putting law on hold for a year to be a writer, you just get this look of pity. There’s this presumption that you wouldn’t leave the profession unless you’ve failed. And it’s this shameful pity response. And it happened more than once.
GIM: Just for comparison, what did your average day at the attorney general’s department look like and what does it look like now?
BL: I worked in the District Court so that means I was in court nearly every day. So I’d get in at 8am, court started usually at around 9.30. So it’s getting all the materials from both parties and making sure they’re presented to His Honour. And then it’s making sure the court is set up and the tech is running smoothly – and anything that goes wrong, it’s on me. If you can picture the judge looking out and everyone’s looking at the judge. And I’m sitting in front of the judge looking in the same direction as this sort of ‘mini-me’. And I take minutes of everything that happens in court and I pass documents between counsel and His Honour. As well as being a legal assistant I’m also a personal assistant so I would manage his travel schedule, his calendars and his commitments and the judgements he had to write and all the admin. too. It’s a unique role because you become very close to your judge and it becomes a valuable professional relationship but also it’s full of a high level of discretion and responsibility.
GIM: And focus? I imagine there’d be big consequences sometimes for even small human errors?
BL: Huge. If a person is found guilty or pleads guilty, I’m the one who records the sentence that His Honour passes. And if I get it wrong, that’s someone’s liberty at stake. It’s a crazy job.
GIM: What does your day look like now?
BL: Well, I’ve just started the NEIS (New Enterprise Initiative Scheme) program. So I wake up and try to go for a run. Then if it’s one of my NEISE days, I go in and do my small business training, which is easy. And if it’s not a NEISE day, then I wake up, go for a run and read, write, do an interview or have a meeting for HCwBB. And I just spend all day through to the night working on content, strategy or my own writing. I do two articles a week for Zanita who is the fashion blogger I work for in New York City as well.
GIM: That’s quite a lot of output. How do you organise your productivity? Do you use a specific workflow app or spreadsheets to plan? What are your productivity tips?
BL: Between the three of us, the main HCwBB contributors, we did find Trello helpful. Then when it got closer to the launch of the hard copy, it was just these mammoth spreadsheets in Google Docs. So you’re talking about managing 20 different contributors and interviewees and that was all done on spreadsheets. The schedule looks different now because we’re in the process of recalibrating the articles we’ll put online compared with what we’ll put in the hardcopy. So we’re in this really big growth period where I’m chatting to publishers and trying to get more video content out and I’ll do a lot of work on local community radio programs we’re all just really at the moment scrambling about trying to find our feet with how to manage and roll out this new chapter.
GIM: Tell me about the decision to launch a hardcopy version. That’s a brave decision when magazines are folding every day. What was your impetus?
BL: There’s a huge amount of professional regard that comes with presenting something in hard copy as well as online. Not so much for people in their teens and early twenties, but especially for people gen-X or older. For them there will never be that perceived level of professionalism from purely online content. And we were getting better and better interviewees and contributors and I just wanted to do them justice by giving them something they could hold and touch. Then we applied for and received a grant to make the launch party part of Queensland Women’s Week. So we independently published the first issue, but then we were able to have a big party that we didn’t have to outlay for to celebrate the launch and get the numbers there and help hype it. That was a huge help.
GIM: How did you distribute?
BL: We sold copies on the launch night as well as some merchandise and that covered the costs for the first issue. And now we sell it on our Big Cartel site and through a few independent bookstores.
GIM: And so how are you getting it out to buyers? You doing it yourself?
BL: Yeah I just write a note, write on an envelope and stamp it (laughs).
GIM: What’s your best interview tip?
BL: Research. There’s no better way to be simultaneously well prepared so you feel calmer but also show respect to the interviewee. But also you get way better content because you can skip all the shitty preliminary questions and get straight to the good stuff.
GIM: Are you a bit of a sticky beak?
BL: Yeah, the research I do is just an excuse to stalk them. And get into their houses.
GIM: What’s your advice for people in their early twenties who are choosing between a ‘sensible’ job and a creative career?
BL: I don’t know if I’m really qualified to answer that because I wouldn’t be where I am now in my creative career if I hadn’t finished law and taken it as far as it needed to go. There was a huge part of me that did law just because I felt I need to prove myself. But then my work as an associate was the toughest and most educational year of my entire life and I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I’d gone straight from university into creative writing. I guess my advice would be to trust your gut. At the end of my year as an associate, I knew I had learnt enough for now and that I could make the leap. Most people know what they want to be doing, if they can just separate their own voices from the other voices inside their head.
GIM: And is it partly imagination too? I think sometimes people can’t follow their gut because they can’t imagine what life would look like. It sounds as though you were able to do that?
BL: Yes. And also I’m really grateful I had a support network. I have a supportive group of friends and a supportive partner who make it really easy for me to have my own back and picture that for myself.
GIM: Finally – what has more power to change the world…art or law?
BL: The legal system has more power but lawyers could never do it on their own because they don’t have the imagination or the vision required.
GIM: So a lawyer with an artist’s vision?
BL: Or an artist who understands the legal system.
Check out more about what Bri Lee’s up to at her blog.
Photographs: Zanita Whittington, Michael Murchie, Savannah van der Niet