Note: Following the positive feedback I got for my Ami Mills story, I pondered whether or not I should challenge myself and continue the fantasy music world I created. My intention was never to write a continuation and that my created story of Ami would stand alone by itself. But I had struggled to write tremendously during that time period before and after I wrote the fake magazine article. I scrapped two separate stories I was trying to write and I couldn’t find myself overcoming my writer’s block. It was on a whim on New Year’s Eve that I decided to just brainstorm and see if there was a possibility that I could make a sequel.
I enjoy doing these things because it challenges me creatively. In my line of work I have to watch events and regurgitate it — that’s what I write for a living. Very rarely do I get a chance to take something out of my own imagination and build something so exciting. With my passion for music and the various happenings I see in the music industry, I am always intrigued about the lifestyles of these famous artists. Rolling Stone magazine has helped me see a different side of many of my favorite artists and I wanted to be a part of that. Once again, I’ve taken something that doesn’t exist and with the influence of writing, I’ve completed another chapter to this story.
My writing remains a work in progress and I want to continue to write to improve my skills. But in order to grow as a writer, I have to write every day and challenge my mind to go to places and universes that I never knew existed. This is the universe I have created and I am living in it. This is Part 2.
For more details on the inspiration and creative process of this story, I’ve posted more information at a link at the end of this story. Thank you for reading and I welcome any kind of feedback. Enjoy!
– Samuel Lam (12/31/14 – 1/13/15)
RYSTALINE STANDS BAREFOOT WITH HER FRIENDS, holding an empty bottle of Sam Adams in one hand and her pumps in the other. It’s a cold December evening in Los Angeles and the 25-year-old singer has situated herself right next to a gas heater. She looks over at my direction and yells from about 30 feet away but is barely audible. She walks closer. “Hey, you should use my friend’s photos for the magazine!” She motions me to walk with her to the other end of the rooftop towards the bar. We’re at the W Hotel in Hollywood and Nicki Minaj’s “Bang Bang” fills the air of the lounge space. The party is covered with bright pink and aqua strobe lights and every partygoer in attendance has a drink in hand. There is about an hour left before 2014 descends into the history books and the new hopes of 2015 arrive. Instead of trying to yell over the music, she guides me to the bar area where a photographer stands capturing photos of the evening’s happenings.
She introduces me to her friend Ketie Lukas, who looks like she’s just old enough to be out this late at a party like this. Lukas is a photographer, wearing lensless black wayfarer glasses, a red plaid shirt with her blonde hair tied into a ponytail. We shake hands. She arrived at the party with Krystaline in hopes of expanding her portfolio of capturing Hollywood’s famous faces. “I met Ketie a while back after a show,” Krystaline says leaning towards my ear. “We shot some photos about a week ago but have no place to display them. How about for the article you use her work? I’ll let you two chat about it.”
She winks at her friend and grabs a new bottle of Sam Adams from the bartender and walks by the pool to the dance floor. There are about 100 people who have come through the party during the evening; most of them have stuck around for the drinks and music. Krystaline, R&B’s most talked about diva, is in a strapless cream white dress with a sequined bodice. Her ensemble for the evening is pristine with matching white earrings – an accessory she says she bought just to complement the dress. She’s particular and precise, almost to the point of strategic, when it comes to her own image. Anything that involves her perception to the public, she demands that it must run by her for approval. From merchandising to even photos used for this magazine, she wants to be involved in every final decision. There have been times when recording and video submissions have almost missed deadline because she wanted a minor detail fixed. “It’s not being picky, it’s just being in control,” she would later tell me. “There is no price in getting it right. That’s what you pay for perfection.”
For most of the night, she’s been mingling with her small inner circle of friends while scrolling through her phone. When she hears a song she recognizes, she excuses herself from her friends momentarily to join the dance floor. Earlier in the evening, when Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It” became the DJ’s next song of choice, she recited every word to it, snapping selfies with whomever was with her on the floor. She says that she wants to capture “these rare moments of blissful ecstasy.”
It is a rare sight for her to be completely free and uninhibited. At one point during the party, she walked towards the glass barrier of the roof to look down onto the street. It’s filled with people walking through the sidewalk and taxi cabs waiting to pick up one more fare before the new year. “I’M THE QUEEN OF THE WORLD!” she echoed out at the top of her lungs, hands raised towards the illuminated Hollywood skies. Several onlookers responded with a small round of applause before returning to their trek down Hollywood Boulevard.
“Let me show you what I shot last week,” Lukas says to me, pulling up some photos in her camera. Before I look down at the screen, I catch a glimpse of the queen one last time. She takes a sip of her beer and disappears into the crowded dance floor.
RYSTALINE IS R&B MUSIC’S NEWEST OBSESSION AS Showtime, her highly-anticipated second album, is set for release in May. After releasing a well-received solo debut under Pineapple Productions in 2012 (which proceeded a short stint with her childhood friend Ami Mills as part of the guitar-playing duo Champaign), she toured throughout the country. Impressed by Krystaline’s voice, singer Michelle Edwards attended one of the shows in New York and the two exchanged contact information after the set. A month later after the tour, the two met again. Edwards opined that Krystaline should join her at Atlantic Records to work with friend and producer Indigo John. At the time, Krystaline was still under contractual obligations with Pineapple and still had to promote a second single as well as work on other projects for the label. She promised that once after all that had been honored, she would opt out of her contract and jump to Atlantic Records. Fortunately for Krystaline, the first single “Don’t Give Me Up” from her debut album became the summer’s smash radio hit and her popularity only made the acquisition by Atlantic even bigger news. That single landed Krystaline a Grammy for best R&B song that year.
The singer-songwriter never envisioned a skyrocketing career like this in the music industry. Born Adrianna Kowalski, she grew up in Champaign, Illinois to Polish immigrant parents; her father Jim is the co-owner of a very popular restaurant in town and her mother Helena works as an agent for a car insurance company. She describes her parents as hardworking individuals who would “stop at nothing” for her success. “I can’t tell you how much they have supported me throughout all this,” Krystaline says of her parents. “I had dropped out of college to come here to California and they never once made me feel like I was making a mistake. They have supported me from day one and I am so grateful. I had doubts on how far I could go and they still continued to support me.”
During her childhood, both Jim and Helena gave her the freedom to choose her own activities outside of school. As an eight-year-old, she begged her parents to let her join the girls’ basketball team just so she had a reason to play with her friends after school. She would play every year following until high school. In between school years during the summer, young Adrianna was given the option to choose her own summer camp to attend. Every year, Jim would gather brochures from different local camps and ask his daughter which one she wanted to attend. “I chose a different camp every summer,” she recalls. “Even though I knew some of my friends would be going to the same one each year, I chose a different one because I wanted to try new things and meet new kids. I used to be able to tie knots and set up tents all by myself. I don’t remember how to do those things anymore.”
When fall came around, her parents challenged her to get involved in after school activities to help her learn valuable skills that weren’t necessarily taught in the classroom. Basketball was an idea that never gained traction but music became an interest that caught her attention early on. It started with guitar lessons every Monday night after school with a private teacher. Her mother had played guitar when she was a teenager and still retained most of the basics to help out during daily practices. Krystaline would enroll into her church’s music group and was quickly elevated to lead worship band during Sunday services alongside Mills on guitar. With an average of 300 attendees every Sunday, Krystaline grew accustomed to performing in front of people. “That was my first taste of stardom,” she says. “I wanted to wow them every Sunday. I got bored with all the same slow songs we would perform over and over again, so I felt that I had to learn how to compose and write my own music so I can give them a good show.” She estimates that she wrote and performed at least half a dozen original songs during her time on the worship team.
Despite her busy schedule these days, Krystaline doesn’t go a day without talking or texting her parents. “They keep me sane and leveled during all this craziness that surrounds me,” she says. “I need them in my life.” She has flown her parents out to Los Angeles and New York on several occasions for events; they sat with her when she received her Grammy award. “We are real close. They would even text me in the middle of the night links to articles with gossip and rumors. ‘Is this true?’ they would always ask me. It’s like they are my own P.R. firm.”
She is very protective of her public image. Aside from her parents, there are only a handful of people whom she says she trusts. Getting into her inner circle is no easy task. The nearly obsessive will to control her public persona began when she started her solo career following her split with Mills. After agreeing with the label to repackage her music style to a soul and R&B type, she struggled to come with a new stage name to coincide with the change. After coming up with very few ideas, she reluctantly took the label-suggested name Krystaline. She keeps that name today to remind herself that she would never want to let anyone make decisions for her. “I’ll be honest, I don’t even like that name. But my birth name Anna Kowalski wasn’t very marketable and I guess I was just fine with accepting whatever I was given.” The name is now associated with one of music’s most talked about artists.
Krystaline transitioned away from her Indie style into R&B with the influence of Alicia Keys. “I bought that first CD [‘Songs in A Minor’] and listened to it every day as a kid,” she proclaims. Her love for Keys convinced the young teenager at the time to take up piano lessons. While attending Centennial High School in Champaign, she signed up for band class and fine-tuned her piano and guitar skills under her teacher Nicholas Houser. She called that period of her life “experimental” as she tried to pick up as many different skills with music instruments. Even though a career in music was never a consideration to her at the time, she always felt that “music would always be a part of me.”
In 2010, after spending weekends at talent shows and open mic nights with Mills, the two dropped their studies during her second year at the University of Illinois and traveled to California for an audition. The two friends co-wrote their first album for Pineapple Productions shortly after and went on tour with Blue Ports to promote their newest record. Tension and differences in music direction caused a rift between the two towards the end of the tour, leading to an abrupt split of the duo. (Mills is currently on tour after releasing her first solo LP in November.) Krystaline doesn’t like to go into detail about how the conflict had severed her relationship with Mills. “Just differences,” she explains in a stoic tone. “We grew up together, played in the same band and we had fun. But I wanted one thing and she wanted another. That’s it. No hard feelings.”
The two recently started exchanging text messages after not speaking since the split. Krystaline says it was a heavy burden that needed to be lifted. “Everything happens for a reason. Sure, it’s very cliché but it’s true. Without leaving Ami to experience the ups and downs and my transition to a solo artist, I wouldn’t be here today. Who knows where I’d be? I might be back home working for my dad and eating pickles all day.”
The breakup immediately took a toll on Krystaline’s emotional state and she started to become unreliable in the studio. There were days when she would stop a recording session mid-song, call it a night and head home. “She was very difficult to work with during that time period,” her manager Dana Goodman recounts. “After several arguments with the label, they decided to give her some space because they believed in her potential.” They were rewarded for their patience when her album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard charts. Krystaline would return to a more upbeat, positive state of mind during the tour but her attitude towards the label soured. “That entire time period was so messy,” she recalls. “I was never fully satisfied with what I put out on that record. It was all over the place and I wasn’t at my best.”
Krystaline says half the songs on her upcoming album were written within the past two years since she became a solo artist. She says songwriting isn’t her greatest skill as a music artist and it takes a long time for her to come up with the right words to express certain emotions and ideas. While tasked to write for the new album, she would spend up to three straight days at home solely focused on writing lyrics for only one or two songs. “That was the only way I can focus and get it done,” she recalls. “I would scribble as many words and ideas into my notebook. There’s a story I want to tell with each song but I have to pick out the words one by one to piece them all together. I have to think about how it could sound on the radio and if people want to listen to it. If I wanted the album to be just right, I had to do it at my own pace. I became a hermit for a while trying to write these songs but I was fortunate enough to have some of the sheet music and beats from Indigo so there was an idea of what direction these songs would sound like.”
Because of the moderate pace she has set for herself in writing and composing the songs, the release timeline for her new album was pushed back two months from the initial March date. In an attempt by Atlantic to help keep her momentum in the public eye, Krystaline collaborated with Edwards as her first project for the soundtrack to Robert Downey Jr. and Christopher Walken’s upcoming movie Forever Never. The upbeat dance track “Unstoppable” would be released right before Thanksgiving with an accompanying music video (Walken makes a cameo as a tyrannical office boss). “The track really made the record label take notice that I was worth their investment,” Krystaline says. “I know I may be hard to work with and my demands can stretch everyone thin, but it’s my career and I want to prove that I can do it.”
EXT MONTH, KRYSTALINE WILL TURN 26 AND SHE marked her birthday on Showtime’s cover art. Taking inspiration from her active Instagram lifestyle, she incorporated the popular Nashville filter border with the numbers of her birth date of February 17, 1989. The cover features the diva stepping out of a car onto the red carpet with two bodyguards by her side. “I grew up in the middle of America right in the Midwest,” she says. “Hollywood, the life of fame and fortune, was something I thought that would only be a distant possibility in my life. But as I have started to make a niche here in the music world, I’m living what I thought would never happen and I love it. Everything has been great.”
Back in November, she might have been singing a different tune. During a live interview on Gene Freidman’s Z100 “Power Hour” show on Sirius radio, she was asked about her rocky departure from Pineapple Productions and how she spurned the label’s plea to stay for the bigger contract offer from Atlantic Records. Defending her decision and public image, Krystaline responded by simply saying “No comment.” When Freidman repeated the question, she walked out of the studio without saying a word. Tabloids called her out for being unprofessional. New York Post’s “Page Six” labeled her as a “disrespectful diva.” “What really pissed me off was that I asked that we move on but he just kept coming at me with the same thing,” she says. “I just wanted to talk about my music but I felt that if you weren’t going to respect my wishes, then I have no time to waste with the interview. I don’t need people trying to bring me down.”
She admits that the interview could have been handled better and that storming out like that was not the best for her image. But she defends her decision, saying, “I did what was right for me.”
Krystaline has since been very selective with her interviews both on radio and television. Before interviews, she would meet with the host of the show and give a checklist of topics she deemed off-limits for the interview. On January 17, she is scheduled to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Part of her agreement to perform was that the show could never do any future skits where she is portrayed in any negative manner. “Just covering all my bases,” she says.
EFORE ATTENDING THE EVENING’S NEW YEAR’S EVE PARTY, Krystaline holds up her white dress up towards the ceiling light. The reflection from the sequins lights up her living room. She smiles wide. “Hey, I’m hungry,” she says. Her assistant Jamal, who stands at least a foot taller than the singer, approaches her with a notepad. “I want Tender Greens. I don’t want to eat too much but I do want a salad. Get me that one salad with the tuna and have whatever you want.” Jamal scribbles down the order and heads out the door.
The living room is scattered with shoeboxes over the hardwood floor and two scarves are draped over her Casio keyboard. Krystaline walks around a pile of boxes, takes a sip from her coffee mug and looks out the window. It’s approaching sunset in Beverly Hills and the singer heads over to her laptop. “I want to show you one of the tracks off the new album,” she says as she looks through her files on the screen. “This one is called ‘When the Game Ends.’ I’m thinking of making it the final track of the album. I got the Los Angeles String Quartet to play on this one for us.”
After finding the song on her laptop, she walks back over to her dress to look at it once again before an idea pops into her head. “I’m gonna text Ami and see if she wants to come to the party tonight.” Grabbing her phone, she composes her text in five seconds and sends it away. “You know, we actually have just been texting since November. We never even set up a day to just meet up again. I know she has a place out here in Hollywood but she’s probably touring and somewhere out there in the world.”
Prior to their split from Champaign, Mills and Krystaline (who then performed under her birth name) were nearly inseparable. They grew up in the same neighborhood, living only a half mile away from each other. They spent weekends playing at each other’s houses and shared their entire high school years together. “It was because of Ami that I gained some confidence in my music and she was the one who pushed for us to come to California. She’s only a couple of months older than I am, but I looked up to her. We were more like twins but she was like a big sister to me.”
She puts the dress back into her closet and slides the mirrored door shut. On the floor by the wall is a pair of white Steve Madden pumps with crystal rhinestone heels; she plans to wear them to the party. Walking towards the couch, she grabs a copy of Marie Claire and flips through the pages. She crosses her legs as she sits down, hunching over to look at the pages. “I like these kinds of events,” she says of the upcoming party. “I like dressing up and I’ve been dying to wear this outfit for some time. My producer got the invite and said I should go tonight. I debated a little bit but I think it’ll be more exciting than me just staying here tonight watching Netflix. Besides, it’s a New Year’s Eve party. Gotta end this year right!”
As she reaches for another magazine, her phone buzzes with a notification of a new text message.
HEN SHE’S NOT OCCUPIED WITH MAINTAINING HER image for the public eye, Krystaline reads fashion blogs. Most off days are spent alone in her Beverly Hills apartment catching up on all the fashion trends and latest styles. Last September while in New York, she spent her days recording music and bailing at night to attend fashion week. The following month, she made her way back home to Los Angeles for its fashion week. “Oh I love Garance Doré so much,” she says of the French fashion blogger. “I’m reading her blog every day. Maybe I should leave music behind and start up my own fashion blog.” The idea is farfetched if you’ve been around Krystaline long enough. She admits that she has a tendency to lose focus on her interests and different hobbies seem to peak every few weeks. One time last year, she nearly threatened (though never serious) to quit music because she was bored and wanted to go backpacking in Europe for a month instead. (“I want to revisit my camping roots.”) This past summer, she thought about putting her music career on hold and return back to school to finish her degree in sociology. (“I gotta finish what I started.”) None of these ideas came close to fruition and the urges were quickly abandoned.
“I do have moments when I just want to go and do something else,” she acknowledges. “It’s not that I am not happy with where I am, but I wonder if I’m good enough to last. Am I a phony? Maybe I’ve just bullshitted my way up to this point and nobody has noticed.” Her circle of friends is limited for that exact reason. Aside from her cousin (who helped her move out west in 2010) and former music partner Mills, she knew nobody else in California. Most days early on were spent in the studio with headphones on, writing song lyrics for the new album. Other nights she’d be at home in her apartment by herself eating Ramen Noodles and binging on House of Cards episodes on Netflix. (“One of the best shows ever!”) She doesn’t let people get too close because she knows her own complexity can be difficult for people. “I probably have maybe five people who I really am comfortable with in my life. If I like you, I’ll hold on to you. Everyone else out there is just another face I’ll never remember.”
Under the perceived brazen persona, Krystaline is very delightful. She says that her friendship with Lukas started when the photographer approached her after a show several months ago. Lukas had brought her camera to the concert and wanted to show the singer some of the shots she took. Impressed by the work, Krystaline asked the young photographer to meet her at the bar an hour later to talk about her photography. The two connected and Lukas is now part of Krystaline’s small circle of friends.
“I was surprised at how approachable she was,” Lukas says. “I knew that she had been rumored to be very reclusive but I gave it a shot and I was so glad that I was able to get that small chance to show her my work. Even though this relationship is strictly professional, it’s still nice to get to see her outside of music sometimes.”
Her attitude towards her music and whom she holds relationships with is complicated but it’s all done with reason: she wants to protect herself. “It’s not because I’m a jerk who can’t be friends with people,” she explains. “I just don’t have a reason to open to so many. Where I am in my life, I want to keep parts of my life, my career protected. The more I invite into my life, the more chances I risk them possibly turning their back on me or trying to squeeze me dry. I’ve been through it. This isn’t me claiming that the world is full of people who are evil and want to take advantage of me. But those people are out there and this is the best way for me to look out for me.”
She’s a modern day Jekyll and Hyde in a petite 5’4” frame. When on stage, she’s engaging with fans, often interacting with them during shows. During a fall concert in Norwich, Connecticut, she invited a few fans to join her on stage to sing with her during an encore. A fan’s video of that moment was uploaded onto YouTube that same night and it reached over 500,000 views in the few months it’s been online. During another night in Sacramento, California, she had an assistant handpick five random fans in the crowd to sit backstage with her before the show just for an informal chat. It’s not something she plans ahead of time, but there are nights where she’s just in a good mood to “do something nice for the fans.” Most music artists shy away from such casual fan interaction as their popularity grows, but Krystaline doesn’t feel that her rising fame should change how she treats her fans. “I honestly don’t care what others say I should or shouldn’t do,” she explains. “Sure, it may be tougher for me to interact with fans and I might have to scale it down a little…” She pauses. “To hell with what others say! The fans paid to see me. I’m going to continue doing what I enjoy doing.”
At any opportunity, Krystaline is likely to take the road less traveled. Her major transition from Indie pop star to R&B diva was not met with great enthusiasm initially. Even though the idea was proposed first by her record label, she had the authority to turn down the opportunity to change and stick with what she had already established in the Indie scene. Instead, she took the challenge of a fresh start by infusing both styles into her new career direction. She plays piano on her first single off Showtime, “My Life,” a soulful track with rapper Fletch. She refuses to let anyone label it a feminism song despite the underlying themes in the lyrics.
I got this fiery feeling brighter than the sun
Made it outta hell, now I’m the only one
You can never stop me, baby
This is my life
And I’m in full control
“I got the idea to write this song because I wanted to write something that had some meaning,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘What if I just wrote a kickass song about me being a powerful me?’ and I knew exactly what I wanted to go into the album. It’s the perfect song to reintroduce me to the world.”
HERE ARE 15 MINUTES REMAINING IN 2014 AND CHRIS Brown has just arrived to the party. Krystaline notices Brown from a distance and grabs Lukas by the arm. The diva sifts through the crowd to approach the singer whom she calls “one of the best acts today.” Brown is delighted to meet Krystaline and before they get a chance to start a conversation, she hands Lukas her iPhone. “Take a picture for me with Chris,” she says. “I want to put this on Instagram!” Star struck, she grabs hold onto his arm as they exchange laughs right before the camera flashes. This is Krystaline’s first time meeting Brown and the two share a brief conversation before going on their separate ways.
She retrieves her phone back from her friend and looks at the photo. Her face gleams as she takes a seat on an outdoor sofa to ponder for a moment on the filter for her next Instagram post. Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” overtakes the speakers and Krystaline nails every word to the song while she types away on her phone. “I love this song!” she exclaims. A minute later, her photo with Brown is shared on her Instagram with the caption “OMG just met the awesome Chris Breezy! #happynewyear2015 #awesomesauce”
“I think I’m good now,” she says as she looks up from her phone. “Coming to this party was a good idea. Great music, great drinks, just met Chris Brown – this is pretty good. I’m happy.” The DJ announces over the speakers that midnight was only minutes away. Krystaline’s eyes perk up as she surveys the entire rooftop. The crowd gathers toward a screen behind the DJ with a countdown clock to midnight. Krystaline tries to look over the shoulders of people in front of her, but can only manage a few more inches on her toes.
She calls for Lukas and places her iPhone in the photographer’s hand. She then whispers into her ear. Both stand up and Krystaline removes her earrings and hands them over to Lukas. The singer looks around one more time before looking down at her own dress. She shrugs.
The crowd gathers closer towards the stage. The DJ has already started the countdown and the crowd begins to follow on the screen as it approaches under 10 seconds.
5… 4… 3… 2… 1…
“HAPPY NEW YEAR!” she shouts with the crowd. She reaches down and lifts the tulle skirt of her dress up right to her knees. Looking ahead at her immediate pathway one last time, she runs towards the pool taking five long strides and splashes into the new year. ⊗