Daniel Pillai is the type of person who will fly across the country for a Bollywood awards show, interview a few A-list actors, and then make time to cook you and your friends a gourmet, Italian dinner.
He’s opinionated, witty, has his own signature style, and did we mention those dimples?
I first met Daniel Pillai in September 2008. It was the first day of grad school, and he was a smiling face amongst forty or so students who were busy quoting their favourite philosophers. We bonded over our mutual love of Indian cinema, and in between seminars on gender, sexuality and race, we discussed our favourite Bollywood actors at length (he was/is a die hard Madhuri Dixit and Priyanka Chopra fan; I was all about Shah Rukh Khan).
Since then, Daniel has emerged as one of Toronto’s brightest media personalities, and he ascended to national recognition with Veronica Chail on Citytv and OMNI Television’s Bollywood Blvd. Every week, Daniel shared his unique take on pop culture with cheeky observations, laughter, and gossip. When CityTV & OMNI cut their South Asian programming, Daniel shifted his focus to in-house production, and in 2016, he launched two successful YouTube channels: Date With Daniel and F’D With Daniel. The online shows give us a glimpse into the minds of notable guests like Lisa Ray, Priyanka Chopra and Tracy Moore, as well as fun, curated lifestyle stories hosted by Daniel.
An openly gay man, Daniel came out to his family and friends in 2010. It’s been a public journey, and Daniel has not shied away from being vocal about issues and experiences facing the LGBTQ community. In 2016, Daniel released The He/She Project, which highlights his experiences with bullying, and chronicles his empowering journey of self-acceptance through androgynous representations of masculinity and femininity.
I was thrilled to chat with Daniel about the He/She Project, self acceptance, and making yourself vulnerable in the age of Snapchat and Instagram Stories.
What sparked the idea for He/She Project?
My entire identity has always been a work in progress and it has only been in the last 6 years that I think that identity has come to fruition. In those years I have sought forgiveness, forgiven others, found myself, shared myself and let go of the past – it’s been quite hectic but very rewarding.
The He/She Project really came from all of this and it was a gift to myself too, an outlet for me to express my journey of self pertaining to my sexuality and how confident I am with that. It was also a way for me to cope with the various traumas I faced being gay and South Asian and put it into a beautiful project that I think showcases what has come out of that journey.
You’ve talked about being bullied as a child and being called he/she. What has your family’s reaction been to the project?
Initially I wasn’t fearful of how my family would react, but I knew it would be an uncomfortable conversation. I’m very open about who I am and quite unapologetic about it and I am that way with my family too, they are no exception. However, I shot and completed the project just a few days before the Orlando shooting and with that I completely walked away from the idea of sharing the project altogether.
For a few days I thought, maybe this was an exercise for me to experience and nothing I needed to share. I really just went into a dark place, doubted myself, doubted who I was and all the nasty memories of being bullied and feeling less than came to the surface all over again. Facing all of this made me very fearful to share the project with my family because I did not want them to worry about my safety and I just did not know what to expect once it was out there in the open. This only lasted a few days, I felt what I needed to and I shared the project with my mother, which I intended to do from the start. We sat down together and went through each image, I told her its significance to my life and what it was that I was trying to capture and she understood. I did the same with my sister as well, and I am sure extended family have seen the images all over my social feeds.
What other reactions has the editorial spread received?
There’s been an overwhelming amount of love received since I launched the project – it’s been so beautiful. I think everyone resonates with the idea and journey of finding yourself, its something we all go through in our own way and I simply shared my version of it. There’s been hateful comments of course, and I expected this, but you have to take the good with the bad. Overall, it’s been lovely!
It seems like people try to pigeon hole you into an idea of who they think you should be. I remember you messaged me saying that some people were confused by the project, wondering if you were transitioning. How did you respond to these friends?
Yes, I was surprised by these reactions because I did not expect them. Many understand the term “He/She” to be a cultural short-form to insult or distastefully refer to a transgender person and so they thought I was announcing my transition. I identify as a gay man, but I accept my feminine side as well and that is what I was expressing in the project. I did not address my friends head on, rather I let them come to me with questions and I was open and honest about my experience, and then they were able to understand what the project was about.
As a media personality, you really put yourself out there in a very open and vulnerable way on social media, which I think can be scary but also very inspiring. Are you ever hesitant about posting an opinion, or a photo of you in a mask, or a story about your childhood?
You know, my social feeds really are an extension of who I am. If I post a picture of myself with a face mask on Facebook, chances are if you came over for a cup of tea, I would be walking around the house with a mask on too. For me, it’s not a matter of being shy or vulnerable, its simply who I am. I get nasty comments on my social feeds, and people give me rude looks when I am walking down the street or yell obscenities at me, its all the same. I choose to be myself and I won’t ever stop that. I trust that those who don’t like me won’t like or follow me on social media or they will choose to keep their distance.
I’ve also made it a promise to myself to always be myself – at home, with friends, with family and on social media – I think that is what resonates with people and I love the comments, conversations and reactions that come from that.
This project is about self-acceptance and creativity and beauty. Tell me how you came up with the creative vision for the editorial spread.
When I was planning this project and putting it together, it was an exercise of self-discovery. The artistic director and photographer, Agnes Kiesz of Pure Studios, who is also a dear friend of mine, was the one who put the entire project into perspective for me. I initially approached the project from a selfish point of view because I knew this was a cathartic, artistic piece for myself. I was going to release everything into this and I knew I was going to grow, come into myself even more than before and that I would feel very empowered. Agnes was the one who told me what this could do for others because she was moved by the project and expressed this to me. It was only then that the project fully formed into what you see now. The quotes were carefully selected by myself because they are quotes that I have come across throughout my life that have meant something to me, words that have helped me become who I am.
You’ll notice that at the end of the project I re-define the term “He/She”. That re-definition came to me naturally after we shot the entire project. As I worked on the photos with Agnes and as we stitched together the pages and decided which photos we would use and why – that’s when the new definition came to me and the power of it. This is just a testament to the natural evolution of the project and how it went from being an exercise of self to something in which others can find themselves.
How did you decide or come to terms with sharing so much of yourself and your personal story on social media and in this editorial spread?
After I finished the project I was pretty detached from it. I did what I needed to, I expressed what I needed to and felt what I needed to. The project had a purpose and it fulfilled that purpose for me personally. So the next step was to put it out in the open and share it with everyone. The project really was a beautiful exercise of self-discovery for me, and with Agnes’s support I was able to put it out there for everyone to see, hear and experience. Sharing it was my way of showing people that we all go through this journey in life in some way shape or form. None of us are exempt of this process of finding out who you are, coming to terms with that, accepting it, and deciding to execute it day in and day out. I meet people who struggle with this daily, so if they hear my story, maybe it can spark a little journey of their own, leading them down a path that would eventually lead them to a higher and more loving sense of self. If at least one person has achieved that, then I have done my job with this project.
I love the “100% me” t-shirt in the spread! Tell us about the clothing you featured in the project.
The project wasn’t meant to showcase clothing per se, it was meant to feature “looks”. I curated the looks along with Agnes to illustrate various facets of my personality, then and now, to capture my full journey of self-discovery thus far. We put together the colors and styled the outfits together keeping in mind the essence and energy we wanted to capture.
The “100% me” t-shirt again was such a natural part of the artistic process. I came up with the “100% me” in a conversation with Agnes and had the t-shirt custom made for the shoot. It really is my favorite look from the entire project. The other photos carry so much meaning, but I think this photo captures the energy of celebration about who I am so well.
Anyone who follows you on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat knows you love Madhuri Dixit. Who else inspires you?
I am inspired by everyone and anyone with a story! I never grew up with a role model, but instead I grew up with so many wonderful women around me each with their own set of fears, struggles, liberations and celebrations. I have really learned from those female figures and I continue to meet more strong women throughout my life. I am inspired by them all!
You’re one of the hardest working people in Toronto media. You launched two new YouTube series in Fall 2016. Tell us about them.
Oh my, thank you so much for that! Broadcast television is facing a hard time right now and I was affected by the cutbacks. During a weak moment, not knowing where to take my career next, my best friend, Veronica Chail gave me a good ass whooping. She’s been working in media for over 10 years, and she really put things into perspective for me. Within a 20 minute conversation we came up with idea for two shows, fleshed out their mandates, and determined how we would execute them. Those two shows are Date With Daniel, a candid chat show that focuses on telling inspirational and motivational stories, and F’D With Daniel (every pun intended) is a lifestyle show that focuses on fashion, food, film, and what I call fabulosity. Veronica is the Executive Producer on both – something that happened naturally as both shows were being developed.
The launch of the shows was a way for me to create an outlet to continue sharing stories that inspire me with others, and create a space for some fun. The great thing about the shows is that I am in the drivers seat and as a result have direct control over the content. It’s very liberating because it gives me the chance to tell the stories I want, the way I want.