Nov 4th, 2018, 11:18 AM

Inside the Weird and Wonderful World of Moldy Smith

By Jada Steuart
Sabrina Lee, aka Moldy Smith, brings one of her self portraits to life.
Sabrina Lee, aka Moldy Smith, brings one of her self portraits to life.
AUP student Sabrina Lee’s artistic take on identity, AUP and navigating conventionality

Sabrina Lee’s apartment is hidden in a beautiful Paris courtyard. When she opens the door to greet me, the typical Parisian exterior disappears as I step inside to discover a veritable art gallery of self-portraits of the alter ego she calls Moldy Smith.

The apartment is cherry red, her work table is covered in fabric, makeup and glitter. The wall facing the entrance is lined with shelves filled with books and hats. Her self-portraits run along the bottom, all different versions of Moldy Smith, watching me as I step into the room and sit on the couch. The apartment's ambiance — with paintings displayed on the walls and an open closet brimming with glitter bodysuits and cheetah skirts — make you feel that you are not only in her home, but entering her head space.

Lee sits in front of her self-portraits on the floor across from me. “You have to paint what you know and these are all different versions of me, they all make up who I am and my personality,” she says.  

Her personality is more complex than cheetah print and glitter however. Moldy Smith, which she says is an alter ego born out of discomfort, is a persona and identity she created after moving to Paris.

“The origins of Moldy Smith, the look and brand started in Paris, and I’m convinced that if I wasn’t here, Moldy wouldn’t exist," she says. "It’s my alter ego and a way of expressing myself fully.”

It’s clear that Lee, an art and entrepreneurship student at the American University of Paris, has never fit into the typical mold of her environment. From high school in Friendswood, Texas to the lycée she attended near Lyon, and now in Paris at AUP, she has always been an outlier. But it’s never stopped her; in fact, it seems like it’s only made her more authentic to herself. “I don’t see myself as unique, I just see myself as myself,” she says.

Image Credit: Jada Steuart

Born and raised in Texas, Sabrina grew up in two suburbs outside of Houston. She describes her main home in Friendswood as a weird bubble. “It felt like me and my Mexican family were on a set of desperate housewives,” she says.

She describes the high school population as a “high concentration of really snobby white kids” and a place that made her realize what she hated and did not want to become. High school was not all bad however. She met her French teacher who she describes as a total outcast with amazing music taste that inspired her. This teacher introduced her to an exchange program with French high schools. Sabrina loved the idea and, with her mother's approval, left for France where she lived in what she describes as a "suburb of a suburb" outside Saint Etienne, the main suburb of Lyon.

Soon, Sabrina became a member of the French high school experience there. “The first six months were like an awkward game of charades, they thought I was weird. I just did not fit in,” she says.

She felt this not only at the French lycée, but also with her host family. “My host mom would say really mean things about the clothes I decided to wear," Lee says. "One time I wore a 90s grunge tie-dye dress and she said to me, ‘are you really wearing that to school’ and I’m like ‘sorry I don’t have a fucking parka.’”

Image Credit: Jada Steuart

Everything worked out in the end, however. “Like most things, I grew on them,” Lee says, crediting her personality and general willingness to take part in family and community activities. In retrospect, she now looks back at her year in Saint Etienne as one of the best years of her life.

After completing high school back in Texas, she was desperate to get back to France. But she felt that her French wasn’t strong enough for a French university. That’s how she discovered AUP. Attracted by AUP's international character, she enrolled in 2016.

AUP has been quite the ride for Lee, however. “I have had a lot of cool experiences at AUP, meeting people from all over the world and even though I can’t relate to some of them when it comes to their wealth, it has not been the worst,” Lee says. “ I think of it as my high school back in Texas, but on steroids. So in a way I am used to it. I am used to being the outcast and underdog.”

She also found that Paris isn’t always inclusive, especially in her first years in the city. The 17th arrondissement, where she first lived — and the 7th where AUP is located — didn’t always make her feel comfortable.  She recounts moments of constant stares on the Métro and people telling her things about the way she dressed on the street. It was from this discomfort, she says, that Moldy Smith was born.

“I started doing Moldy Smith as an escape I guess. In America I would just dress weird and I wouldn’t document it, but here if I have a crazy outfit or a crazy makeup look I would have a hard time going out into the world with it and so I would document it,” she says. “I would not go to clubs on the weekend, I would just paint my face blue and take weird photos.”   

Her friend Nicholas Crouse, a former AUP student, was there when Lee named the persona of Moldy Smith. Crouse says it came from a long night of wine and cigarettes at Lee's apartment when they heard the name listening to music and both of them felt it the instant they heard, "Moldy Smith was always something inside of Sabrina," he says. "Like a secret or an unexplored passion, even before she had a name for it."

Image Credit: Jada Steuart

One drawback was that in Paris, unlike in Texas, Lee did not have a sewing machine. This forced her to find new ways of self-expression through art, which she credits to her classes at AUP where she learned new techniques and developed her own artistic style in drawing and painting.  

Lee has now painted multiple self portraits and jackets that she has picked up from thrift stores around the city. Her paintings are heavily inspired by Frida Kahlo’s self portraits. Lee calls Kahlo her number one girl.

“I took that and mixed it with my own style, and created all these different characters of who I am,”Lee says.  

She also credits Chloe Wise, saying that the artist inspired her through her realistic portraits and cartoony backgrounds. Lee felt at the beginning of painting, that she was just copying Wise and soon started, “incorporating other things [she] was into like psychedelics and BDSM memorabilia,” she says.

Now in her junior year at AUP,  Lee is focusing on fashion and clothing designs. Currently living in Pigalle, she recently purchased a second-hand sewing machine that allows her to continue her love of upcycling. Now designing and sewing more clothes than ever, her clothing designs are heavily inspired by films she watches, especially movies from the 90s. She tries to recreate anything she sees and wants saying, “I have always had this motto, if you can't afford it, make it”.    

For now though Moldy Smith is a process, Lee’s main priority is school and building inventory.  She continues to add more pieces and hopes to sell them at local street sales and brocantes.

"I am patient, whatever happens happens," she says. "I am going with the flow for now, working on the inventory, the pieces and designs, and then selling it on the street and if people respond well to it I would love for it to grow from there."

As Moldy Smith continues to grow, Lee grows with her alter ego. She seems to have finally found a home in Pigalle, where she and her art thrive. Sitting in her apartment, it feels like Lee is exactly where she needs to be at the current moment. And looking at her vibrant portraits and her sparkly designs, it seems that they have also found their place in the world too.  

Check out the weird and wonderful world of Moldy Smith on: Instagram and Youtube.