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Cosmopolitan Estonian of the Week

Kristi Roosmaa: “Life is full of inspirations!” Interview with New York-based musical singer & actress

Kristi Roosmaa is an actress and singer of Estonian origin and is the first Estonian musical theatre singer to perform as a soloist at the world renowned Carnegie Hall in New York City. Kristi’s first performance, at the age of 4, paved the way for her career in the arts. Her first leading lady debut, at the age of 16, was in the musical “Wild Swan” performed at the Estonian National Opera House. At 17, she became the voice coach for the Elise Girls Choir and lead singer for the P.P. Dixieland band. After receiving her law degree from the University of Tartu in Estonia, she packed her bags and headed to New York City to pursue her dream. She graduated from the prestigious American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) and the Broadway Dance Center International Dance program. Her favourite credits: Off-Broadway shows “Silk Stockings” & “Roberta,” guest entertainer on Celebrity Cruise Line, Hope in “Anything Goes,” Maria in “The Sound of Music” and witch Louhi in “New York Revels.”

Kristi, you have had quite a rollercoaster ride so far – from finishing a law degree in Estonia to graduating from American Musical and Dramatic Academy and Broadway Dance Center in New York. Don’t you sometimes feel that it has been too much of an effort and hard work, but the rewards are not that easy to come by? How do you keep yourself motivated?

You know, one of the reasons why I’m still in New York is because it’s a challenge and I love being challenged.  New York is so fascinating and exciting that it not only makes me a stronger performer, but also helps me grow as a person. At this point in my life, I don’t feel anxious about the hardships of the business. They’re all part of the profession and something you simply have to accept as an artist sooner or later.  To be honest, the hard work is starting to pay off little by little and that is a rewarding feeling.  The little successes give me the energy to keep going after my dream.  Ultimately, it’s all about the passion and desire to be great that can keep true artists motivated.

I understand that when planning your musical studies, you also researched schools in Austria, Australia and UK, before finally settling for New York. Although you have said that you based your decision purely on potential teaching quality, was there also some kind of ambitious vision for future involved – i.e. first Estonian musical star on Broadway – even just a bit?

Of course it crossed my mind, but Broadway really wasn’t a deciding factor in my decision to study at AMDA (The American Musical and Dramatic Academy). I heavily considered London, but life has its own ways and it just worked out for me to be in The Big Apple.  My logic was that I wanted to be close to the highest quality of musical theatre so I could study with the most experienced people in the industry before I took my chances.

I noted that to be a musical star you also have to be good at dance. What was it like to study at Broadway Dance Center, where artists like Madonna, Britney Spears and Bette Midler have taken a class or rehearsed?

It was fantastic!  Studying at BDC was probably one of the best decisions, in addition to AMDA, I’ve made toward advancing in my profession.  I mean, you really need to be a true triple threat (singer, dancer, actor) or you really limit yourself with getting work.  Dance was my weakest link of the three, and I knew I had to do something about it.  I’m not going to deny that the first month was devastatingly hard even though I studied ballet for six years as a child.  Given the level of talent around me, the first classes felt like I had never stepped foot on a dance floor.  If you see another dancer lifting, not pulling, just simply lifting her leg against her head and you’re only half way there, it’s quite intimidating.  That very same girl may be your competition, so the bar is set extremely high.  I remember when I started the program and we would start with stretching exercises.  In every direction I looked, someone was doing a perfect split and I, through the tears and pain, just couldn’t get to the floor.  Six months later, I was almost down to the floor, and by the end of the program I could do a full split and was dancing with confidence.  Now I take dance classes at every possible chance, usually three times a week, because without practice, you lose it all!

Photography by Katrina Tang

 

You have now studied and lived in New York for many years. Are you satisfied with your life and career – if you can measure it?

I’m happier and more grounded than ever.  I’ve learned to balance my professional and personal life, which is necessary for surviving in New York.  Even though the arts are my passion, it’s not the only love of my life. There’s so much more to enjoy! Since I married my wonderful husband, it has been so much better sharing life’s ups and downs with him rather than taking them on all by myself!

I’ve noticed that you’re also doing some modelling work. Is this just for the purpose of additionally supporting yourself while getting more and more involved in the musical business? Is your ambition still the same – to become a musical star on Broadway? Also, I imagine that there’s quite a bit of drama involved in the musical business – are you becoming stronger as time goes by and your stakes get higher?

Doing print modeling, shoe modelling, commercials or anything along those lines isn’t something you just randomly do.  I have agents who represent me and send me out to the castings.  If I’m lucky enough to book a job then it’s a privilege, not an expectation.  Of course we all need money to manage our lives, but all of the things mentioned above also have a strong PR aspect.  Every newsstand carries New York Weddings Magazine, and if I go into a store and open one, I can see my print work for New York Cruise Line.  This has helped me get noticed for additional work as a print model.  Think of it this way – if you turn on TV and see a commercial with Oprah or if you open a magazine and see Taylor Swift in a Cover Girl ad, they are promoting themselves and getting paid to do it too!  The more my face is out there and the more people see it, the better it is for my career. This business isn’t just about talent – it’s also about networking and creating sound relationships.  Hopefully, one day, all this work will lead to an opportunity where I don’t have to wait in line with 500 hundred other girls in hopes of just being seen.

As for drama, acting and singing are very emotional fields and the theatre industry itself can be quite dramatic—starting with actually getting a job, which leads to the real drama performed on stage.  What most people never see is the drama that can stem from being selected for a role, devoting yourself, and then the production falls through due to lack of funding, etc.  I love drama on stage, but other than that it’s too exhausting and a waste of positive energy. Life is tough enough, why create more?!

Do I want to be on Broadway? Absolutely yes, and I’m working really hard toward that goal.  All of my rehearsing and practice give me more confidence, making me stronger by the day.  I think the fact that I’m still in New York should speak for itself.

You have just released a jazz track called Special from the musical called Avenue Q. Does that indicate that we will see you becoming more of a recording artist instead? Special also features respected Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, who has also worked with notable jazz artists. What was it like to work with him, and how did you two find each other?

Recording music as an artist is such an important way of introducing your talent to a larger audience and I love doing it.  I will be recording more this fall, but there’s no better place than a LIVE stage, which I will stay true to unless something crazy comes my way.

I have quite a story for you regarding meeting Tim…I’m boarding a flight from New York to Estonia and since I’ve been doing this for years, I have a good idea of the best seats to be in, etc.  I have my own little system: I try to get a window seat that’s not too close to the bathrooms (this tends to become an area where people “hang out” and stand during the flight), put my pillow against the window, lay my head on it, tuck my feet to the front seat pocket and fall asleep.

The day I met Tim was no different, except when I boarded the plane, I saw a middle-aged man in a leather jacket sitting in my seat.  I smiled and politely told him that he was in my seat.  He looked up and asked, “Would you mind switching seats with me?  I broke my toe and I’m afraid someone’s going to step on it.”  I mean, he looked healthy and I figured he just wanted my window seat for an EIGHT HOUR FLIGHT!!  Besides, he wasn’t so tall that his legs would be in someone else’s way!  But, even though his story sounded really bizarre, I didn’t have the heart to say no.  This gentleman totally messed up my “plane-boarding-system”, but I smiled and said “Of course we can swap seats. We don’t want to break your toe again.” Eventually, we started talking and he told me he’s a musician.  Next thing I knew, we’re recording songs in a legendary New York studio and he’s inviting me to Finland to perform with him.  He is very creative, skillful, professional and an unbelievable artist. Working with him was such a treat.

Photography by Katrina Tang

Tim Ries on Kristi: ”I met Kristi Roosmaa in the most unlikely of places and even the most unlikely of circumstances – as Kristi already shed some light into how, I’m not going to describe it again in detail. But obviously while on that flight and after Kristi kindly trusted me with my broken toe, we struck up a conversation and realised that we were both in the arts, in music and the 8 hour flight went by rather quickly. Neither of us slept, mostly because of the enlightened conversation. During the flight I discussed with Kristi my various music projects, played some of the music on my ipod and she also talked passionately about her love of singing and acting and dancing. I was heading to Helsinki to produce and record a CD of music by some incredible Finnish musicians – 2 sisters, Selina and Jemina Sillanpaa.     

When we were both back in NYC, we got together on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to discuss working together in the future. I still had not heard Kristi sing. Those of you who may not know her, she is a beautiful, petite blonde, with a charming smile and the charisma and energy of an eager adolescent but the wit and savvy nature of a lady who has been driven to be a successful performer. Still, I hadn’t heard a note from her charming, witty self. We then went to midtown Manhattan to a rehearsal space to go over some music. When she opened her mouth to begin, I had no idea that much volume and intensity, and in the best possible way, could come out of this delicate creature. Wow. Serious control of her vocal abilities. Obviously well trained and seriously talented. OK, it was clear that we would do something.     

I work with so many musicians all over the world, like my friends in Budapest and Finland, but also, India, Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, Japan, and many other locations –and now I had a wonderful partner in Estonia. A really great one. I knew already that there were great musicians from Estonia. I had worked the previous summer with the Absolute Ensemble under the direction of Kristjan Jarvi, and the wonderful Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu was performing with them as well. Both are incredible performers.     

During our time in the rehearsal room I asked her if she had any Estonian folk melodies with her and she did. I love folk music from around the world. I looked at a couple and immediately began arranging 2 of the songs right on the spot. She loved the idea and the direction I was taking. A week later we went in to a studio in NYC and recorded 2 of the folk songs, with my alterations with the chords and the rhythmic ideas and it went really well. Kristi sang beautifully. A few months later I was in Finland performing with the Sillanpaa sisters and I invited Kristi to join us for 2 concerts. 2 wonderful nights and the audience loved her.     

I then had the idea to take more of the folk melodies and perhaps involve the Absolute Ensemble with maestro Kristjan Jarvi. I contacted him and he seemed quite interested in the project. I hope soon this collaboration will take place and we can bring this music to Estonia. I think it would be an amazing musical exploration.”     

Kristi, how do you generally spend your pastime in New York, and do you have time to see musicals and theatre yourself?

Seeing musicals and cultural events is part of my job. I go to the shows – quite often alone, just to keep myself informed about what’s out there.  I get tickets in the orchestra, so I can really observe everything from the choreography to the most minuscule details.  Since weekdays are busy, this leaves my husband and me with time on the weekends to really let go and do whatever our hearts desire.  We live a very healthy and athletic lifestyle and both of us love sports.  Jonathan’s (Kristi’s husband) grandparents have family cabin on a lake in Vermont, so we enjoy driving up there and water skiing, tubing, kayaking, etc.  We love Central Park, the beach, dining out and grilling on our back porch.  Enjoying time with our family and friends is always such a treat because everyone’s lives are becoming more and more hectic.

What about idols in the musical and theatre world and generally in life – do you have mentors or someone who inspires you?

I don’t have one idol, but I admire dedicated performers for so many different reasons.  I am inspired by events that occur outside of the performing arts too. I mean, how inspiring was watching double amputee Oscar Pistorius of South Africa running in the Olympics?!  Family, friends, passion, fierceness, love, children, nature, success, hardship of life, a touching performance – I could keep going forever. Life is full of inspirations!

Yes, I do have mentors: my teachers. I participate regularly in voice and speech classes with Susan Cameron and vocal coaching classes with Stephen Purdy.  They coach and help me choose everything from the right song to which techniques are best to use in my upcoming castings.

Photography by Katrina Tang

 

How much has the multicultural atmosphere in New York influenced your thinking or approach generally?

One hundred percent.  From a business standpoint, I arrived here without realising what the performing arts are all about.  Now I have a much better understanding of how auditions, the casting process and productions work on a larger stage, such as New York.  From a personal aspect, I’ve learned to be so much more tolerant, open minded, positive and appreciative, because when you meet someone, “you never know” who they are or how they may be able to help you in the future.

What about your future plans?

I’m in the middle of two recording projects and lining up my next performance.  One of the studio projects will be with Tim Ries and I have a few modelling jobs I’ve been booked for in near future. Plus, auditioning season starts up again in the fall, so cross your fingers for me!

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Kristi’s single “Special” is out now: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/special-single/id548688506

www.kristiroosmaa.com

Lady who created “loungerie” and helps Saudi Arabian women to find their sensuality – meet lingerie designer Kriss Soonik

It’s a nice spring day when I meet Kriss at a stylish café in one of those architecturally inspiring Georgian townhouses in London. She arrives by bicycle, and you could excuse yourself by mistakenly thinking of her as just another beautiful girl dreaming her day away in a bohemian district of Soho. Only that she has just arrived from Berlin and is on her way to New York the very next day. To take part of a fashion show and promote her brand, not to chase butterflies.

From Che Guevara to Chanel

Born in Tallinn, fashion and art was not always her natural choice by default — in fact, she studied languages and business at the Estonian Business School. “I never felt 100% as an artist in a kind of bohemian sense, when I grew up. I always felt a bit entrepreneurial and knew that when the time is right, I would start my own,” says Kriss. Although Kriss rejects any claims for being a creative genius while she was a child, she admittedly always tried new things. ”At one point my mother even christened it a Che Guevara period, because the way I dressed”, laughs Kriss.

She was lucky in a sense that her mother decided to enroll her into one of the best English language schools in Estonia — this was still during a period of communist occupation, when Russian was seen as more important language of the two. This decision provided Kriss with a global language and understanding of Anglo-American culture from early on.

Kriss Soonik

It was during her high school years, when Soonik first started to flirt with a fashion — by chance, as one quite often does in life. Her friend was competing in a womenswear design competition and asked Kriss to help along as an assistant. If this experience didn’t quite yet produce a blossoming Chanel, she nevertheless felt aspired. As she carried on with her own experiments, designing a collection or two, she soon found her niche with a lingerie design.

Somehow it was clear to Kriss from the start that her home market would be too small to experiment with her products — especially as she wasn’t long established fashion designer. Thus, after her business studies Kriss Soonik moved to London — to do a master’s degree at the London College of Fashion. A job for the British lingerie brand Agent Provocateur followed, accumulating invaluable know-how. “There are some things you couldn’t possibly have in Estonia — like for example your tutor mingling with fashion designer Alexander McQueen on a casual basis,” says Kriss.

Loungerie is born

As her subconscious business mind slowly took over her thinking, by the end of 2008 Kriss decided that the time was ripe to connect her two sides — creative and business — and start her own lingerie brand. For her first collection she collaborated with a chic lingerie boutique Glamorous Amorous — and despite a beginning of the recession it sold out very quickly. Already with her first collection, she gave the “underwear as outerwear” concept a fresh and modern twist. When the traditional approach has been about corsets as evening wear, Kriss started a new wave — wearing velour gowns to a chic Sunday brunch, for example. In line with her styling, in 2009 the term “loungerie” was born — hence the brand name Kriss Soonik Loungerie. She has actually been credited by some fashion magazines, as one of the creators of the term — and indeed, Kriss belongs to the creative fashion designers group called The Lingerie Collective.

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Soonik describes “loungerie” as such: ”Loungerie is a luxurious loungewear at its freshest, blurring the boundaries with fashion. It’s not cute and sweet — rather, it’s sexy and powerful. It is loungewear with an edge. It has also got a bit of sexy cheekiness on it.”

Bringing sensuality to Saudi Arabia

Kriss Soonik Loungerie is now represented in 15 countries — from Italy to Holland and UK to US — and including, rather surprisingly, Saudi Arabia. “Well, Saudi Arabian women want to feel sensual too and I guess that the country is slowly becoming a bit modern now,” says Kriss with a smile.

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Over the years she’s taken inspiration from Manga comics, superheroines and cult film figures to challenge the traditional attitudes associated with lingerie and loungewear. All of her designs are finished with the trademark cat or beautifully plump bow in patent leather, satin, silk or perhaps chiffon.

Although Kriss Soonik admits that the fashion journalists can be “a bit bitchy sometimes”, she has again had her fair share of luck — her creations have been featured on both Vogue and Elle. And what about the celebrity fans? “Micha Barton is a confirmed one, but I’m not allowed to disclose you others,” smiles Kriss discreetly.

Kriss does not deny that occasional glamour and travelling aside, it has been a hard work in building up her  brand: “The 3 years I’ve been running the business, I’ve spent most of the time behind my computer. It makes sense with such an international brand but it’s also a bit sad. There are so many inspirational people, things to see and experience. So I decided to change that and introduce “Social Fridays”. Once a month we´ll be working from a cool and inspiring London location – a café, museum, maybe the park when we get extra dose of sun. I might even travel to a city near my clients for a cup of tea and hear their suggestions how to wear our items, what colours they´d like to see in the next collections, or just chat about all things pretty.”

Talents are talents everywhere

And what about Estonia? Now London-based, Kriss thinks that it doesn’t matter where one physically lives in today’s cosmopolitan world — she maintains that she would always be an Estonian, no matter where she chooses to live geographically. Kriss also points out that she stands by having all of her designs produced in her native country, although she sources the materials from across the globe.

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Photos by Kristel Raesaar.

Erply’s founder & CEO Kris Hiiemaa: “Estonian startups should take full advantage of the opportunities that they’ve been offered”

The energetic chap sitting opposite me is wearing an informal t-shirt and scans his eyes rather quickly through the pages of local weekly newspaper in front of him. By the look, age and dress code he’s fairly similar to Mark Zuckerberg. Like Zuckerberg, the young gent behind a coffee cup started his first technology ventures very young. Like Mr Facebook, he started his firm from basic facilities. But he’s not Mark – just not yet anyway.

His name is Kris Hiiemaa and he’s the founder and CEO of Erply, New York based enterprise software company focusing on retail and point-of-sale technology, helping companies deal with inventory control, bookkeeping, and other tasks, from their brick-and-mortar stores to online operations. And instead of basking under the Palo Alto sun, we are having a cup of coffee in a beautiful old café in Kadriorg, a leafy and picturesque part of Estonian capital Tallinn, stone throw away from residence of the tech savvy Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Humble beginning

Programmer Kris launched Erply in 2009, tapping away on laptops and answering customer calls at a first  Estonian Republic era private home in Tallinn, Estonia – slowly but determinedly building up a local customer base. The same year, when it became clear that more funds and advice were needed for the Erply to expand internationally, they decided to try their luck and take part in Seedcamp’s event in London. Seedcamp, which is a London based early-stage micro seed investment fund and mentoring programme, was founded in 2007 by Saul Klein (previously involved with Lovefilm and Skype) to help European entrepreneurs successfully build technology businesses.  Slightly unexpectedly for themselves, Erply team won the Seedcamp’s business ideas contest and secured their investment of 50,000 euros – the first Estonian, Baltics and Nordic start up to do so. It was not long after when a technology blog TechCrunch described Erply as “the Skype of business software.” Investment rounds followed in London and in the US, and in 2010 Erply secured a $2m investment from Silicon Valley based Redpoint Ventures and Swiss based Index Ventures. That allowed Erply to hire a team in London and Silicon Valley and market the service in Europe and the US.

Move to the US

In 2010 they decided to relocate their offices and operations to US completely and have been based in New  York since. “It wasn’t easy to start in the US. We had to change a lot on our product and the retail business we are offering our software for, is actually pretty conservative and slow moving when it comes to new technology. ”, says Kris. “It’s not possible to conquer the world immediately with what we are doing. To gain a market share in Germany for example, we would need to hire German marketing and support specialists. Although the internet has got a global reach, it’s important to know the local conditions. That’s why we have so far been concentrating on the US, as the biggest market.” “When we first set our foot in the US, we had to compete with the likes of Microsoft, SAP and Oracle from the start – we couldn’t apologise that we are still a start-up firm and some of the functions on our software wouldn’t work yet – or that they only work for retail chains with 20 shops, not for example the ones with 100 shops. Luckily we had had an experience with few large retail chains in Estonia, that certainly helped” says Kris wryly.

Initially, Erply launched as a retail payment solution for small to medium sized businesses but have since expanded to bigger retailers and offer point of sale technology, inventory control, billing, business reporting, and custom barcodes. Their app gives retailers a quick overview of sold stock, as well as swift feedback about their customers. Additonally, Erply is cloud based, meaning that the retailer does not need to possess their own servers. Today Erply employs 35 people and has over 50,000 subscribers – from the 200 in 2009. Their biggest client in the US is a 500-store retail chain and their plan for future is…well, to expand. Their mentors include ex-president of Google and Seedcamp’s founder Saul Klein.

Kris as a senior startuper

Although running a barely 3 years old company, Kris himself is already seen as a potential mentor for start-ups in Estonia. He’s perfectly aware of the (well-deserved) positive hype which has started to surround Estonian (technology) start-ups in recent years. But he also thinks that there’s a long way to go for many to actually become successful companies in their own right on the international stage. “I have seen too many Estonian start-ups, including those taking part of Seedcamp, to stall at some point and not closing an investment deal for various reasons. Some of them think that their idea is so great that they deserve more than 50,000 euros (Seedcamp’s seed money) to start with, some of them are not keen to give away equity, some of them get sucked into pointless arguments about petty legal paragraphs with investors, scaring the potential investments away.” Kris is now getting more heated up: “My advice for fellow bustling entrepreneurs is this: try to close the deal and win your first seed money. Even if it’s just 50,000 euros, you can still do a bit with the money – but more importantly, it opens new doors and brings invaluable connections and therefore advice and experience, and may well lead you to secure substantial second round of investment, like happened with Erply. Do not waste too much of your energy and time contemplating, when a potential investor taps on your idea – before you know it, it has become an old idea and you’ve lost your chance!”

Ivo Aulik leads another Estonian success story in London’s Canary Wharf

In less than five years, Ivo Aulik has built up one of the most successful minicab firms in London’s prosperous Canary Wharf business district, favourably rated by local corporations and hotels alike. His company is called Carrot Cars and although its cars are not sharing their colour with a vitamin rich vegetable, they offer sharp and highly sophisticated service otherwise.

Their call centre is using latest state-of-the-art technology to constantly track the movements of “carrot cabs”, and is therefore able to offer their clients precise timeline, from call out to driving from A to B.

Ivo Aulik is typical of a new breed of cosmopolitan Estonians, who left the country after the fall of Iron Curtain, and is making the best of it. After starting in the UK at the hospitality business, he quickly worked his way up, and first experiences in entrepreneurship soon followed. Using latest IT solutions and state-of-the–art technology is just another part of being a “typical Estonian” – birth country of Skype.

Ivo says that he was always confident that his taxi business would be a success. “It’s not a rocket science. Give a good service, control your business and make sure the drivers are not overcharging or doing anything improper. Working in the industry we saw the mini cab sector is failing in customer service and we thought that was something we could provide. I think we are now the biggest firm in both fleet and business in the area.”

Ivo has found that the most difficult area is hiring suitable staff. The average recruitment campaign sees him and his business partner speak to 50 applicants and inviting five for interview. Three make it through to the training programme and two would be taken on. “We have to be very selective. We need drivers with big smiles because they are the ones who earn the company its reputation.”

Ivo does not feel that his nationality plays any part when it comes to deal with business partners or employees: “London is a cosmopolitan city, there’s no sense here that you are a stranger.”

Chef Andrey Lesment runs the first Estonian-owned restaurant in London, UK

Andrey, who started his career in Sweden and Denmark, has been London based for the past 15 years. He has honed his skills at the Savoy Hotel, as well as working for Gordon Ramsay at Maze in the past. Having had a clear destination in mind, he worked towards his goal of opening up his own restaurant and managed this at the beginning of 2011. Verru, as his elegant 26-seat restaurant is called, is situated in the affluent area of Marylebone. Lesment’s menu reflects his background and influences from the Baltic and Scandinavian cuisine, yet he claims to have learned most of his cooking skills at the French influenced top restaurants of London. “The Estonian influence is in the nuances, mostly in the pure and organic ingredients”, says Andrey.

His cooking book of fusion Scandinavian-Estonian-French recipes is apparently also on the agenda.

 

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