Chelsea Yamase, best known on Instagram as Chelsea Kauai, didn’t set out to be a travel blogger sensation. As Instagram was taking off, Chelsea started as most amateurs did—creating an unscripted, highly filtered, and minimally followed feed snapshotting her food. But with a little bit of luck, grit, and a solid network, Chelsea Kauai’s once little-known feed has scratched its way to the surface of more than half a million Instagram users’ screens. Her followers are entranced by Chelsea’s world of adventure curated with an expert’s eye for design, mind for creativity, and heart for authenticity.
In an attempt to quench her own thirst for adventure and her followers’ desire for artsy, travel-filled depictions and lifestyle inspiration, Chelsea has built an empire that champions all that’s natural in life. Partnering with brands like Canon, KEEN, and an assortment of National Parks services, she sets out to lead a more purposeful and less stagnant life by documenting her purest intentions.
We caught up with Chelsea to find out more about her journey behind her popular travel account and to see what’s in store for 2019 in an exclusive interview.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your story, and how you developed an interest in traveling?
I grew up on a small island in Hawaii called Kaua’i (hence the second half of my handle). I’ve always loved to travel and lived abroad in Europe for a year when I was 18. It’s weird because growing up, I was really shy, but the idea of being by myself on the other side of the world never scared me.
Why did you decide to launch a travel-focused Instagram account?
I wouldn’t say I decided as much as I expanded into it. For the first few years, my account was mainly of hikes and diving around O’ahu and Kaua’i (the two islands I was living on) that I did in my free time. Once I graduated college I saved up and took a few trips, but the bulk of my traveling has come in the last two to three years. One of my first (and to this day, favorite) jobs I’ve ever done was spending five weeks all across Indonesia with a few friends doing videos and photos for the tourism board. I made very little money and barely slept but I loved it. And I like to think when you love something and put that work out there it attracts more opportunities your way.
When did you get started on Instagram? When did your account really take off?
I got an account during college maybe five years ago? I was only following one friend for the first two months and had no idea how the whole thing worked. I posted a lot of pictures of food [laughter]. It started taking off as I began learning to freedive with a photographer friend who was learning to shoot underwater. He had a bigger audience than me at the time (meaning maybe 10,000 and that seemed like so much!) so that helped more people find me. I was doing some activewear modeling so brands in Hawaii would tag me and somehow the whole thing picked up some momentum.
Your Instagram account @chelseakauai is followed by over half a million. What factors do you attribute to your main account’s growth and popularity?
Like a lot of successes—I think mine was a mix of luck, putting in the work, and meeting the right people at the right time (that is a massive one). I’ve had so many great mentors along the way (@Travisburkephotography and @kmi_swimmy were probably the biggest). I’m kind of a perfectionist to a fault and overthink most things I put out into the world, but hopefully that process has helped me share more meaningful [and] better quality things over the years. A background in photography, design, and a degree in journalism also gave me an advantage with the visual side of things.
I hope people feel empowered to change their lives, even in small ways, both to do challenging things and things that bring them joy. I love the feeling of progressing and always learning, always being a little better, so for me, they are often intertwined.
I believe so strongly that fulfillment is not some faraway place or a thing you can buy, but comes from refining down what you truly value, connecting with others, and walking through this world with exceeding appreciation.
With social media giving us (or is it just me?) global FOMO of the most idealized version of someone’s life, I try to share that just as much as I share pretty pictures. The best compliment is when people tell me that they walk away from my account feeling more in touch with their own gratitude or having made changes to do better for our planet.
Your Instagram account @chelseakauaibookclub is followed by fewer than 10,000. What made you decide to start this account, and how important is it to grow a community there?
Growth has never been the goal. Not for my main account or the book club. I started it spontaneously because reading has been one of the main sources of personal enrichment over the years. I wanted to create a little community where we could all nerd out together. I thought maybe a few hundred people would join—it was actually more difficult to coordinate because so many more people joined than I expected.
Do you plan to keep up with your smaller book club account?
I want to so, so much. It was honestly the thing I was most excited about in 2018 and I think about it at least once a day with a weird sense of anxiety and sadness. I think I was overly ambitious when I started because I was so happy about it. I’m the type of person that is either doing something 110% and or not at all. A month got away from me and then two and now I’m oddly embarrassed to go on there and explain. But I should. It really bothers me and it is something I want to continue with.
Impossible question 🙂 For me it’s the intellectual equivalent of “what was my favorite moment outside?” It’s always changing and different things resonate more at different times.
When and how did you realize you could make a living on Instagram?
I remember when my account hit 100,000 [followers] and it sort of freaked me out. I wasn’t using it for work at all and I felt like “Oh geez, people are going to see I have 100,000 and have all kinds of high expectations!” I doubt myself a lot so it was a slow transition for me to leave my other jobs. In January of 2015, I realized I could keep working my jobs on Kaua’i or I had been offered about two months of travel work through social media projects. I decided to try to do it full time. My job was super nice and said I could always come back so it made the transition easy for me.
How has your main account changed since you started? Any specific turning points?
There are a lot more photos of me in dresses [laughter]!! No, but my account used to be very, exclusively outdoor adventure so a lot more technically apparel and small person, big landscape thing. I think I’ve become a much bigger focus in the photos and now it’s this mix of adventure, lifestyle and the smallest sprinkle of artsy fashion. I also decided to be way more open and vulnerable with what I write. That shift happened about a year ago when I was feeling rather apathetic about social media and it helped me enjoy it so much again. I hope my account is always evolving. It’s a reflection of who I am and I don’t ever want to be stagnant.
When choosing whether or not to work with a brand, how do you decide? How do you ensure that sponsored content fits in seamlessly with your feed?
A lot of it is an intuition thing for me.
Is it relevant to my life and to my audience? Is it something I actually believe in and would I recommend it to my friends? I think that helps keep things more natural. Some of my favorite clients are Canon, DJI, KEEN, and the National Parks—all are things I truly love and am proud to represent. I also try to maintain an exceptionally high level of creative control—it probably makes me annoying to work with, but I feel my greatest obligation is to my audience. If that means walking away from an opportunity, that’s okay with me. Don’t get me wrong, the money can definitely be a temptation, but I think I was lucky to make that mistake a few times early on, and yea, I don’t like that icky feeling of not being proud of something.
What advice would you give to brands and marketers looking to work with influencers for sponsorships?
Do your research and be really honest with yourself if what you’re asking for or expecting is something that makes sense for that influencer. I love when brands show me specific examples of content I have done or other’s in my field have done to get a concrete idea of expectations. Don’t think of it as paying for magazine ad—think of it as paying for someone’s creativity, time, and influence. As a brand you have to be willing to relinquish some of that creative control, so make sure you’re on the same page as the person you are hiring. And finally, be clear and upfront about the things that matter most to you as a brand. I recently had an instance where I was asked to make a series of travel videos and the brand said “We love what you do just do your thing” and gave no strict guidelines as to how much the product had to be in the video (I specifically asked). Upon turning them in, the client asked to triple the amount of time it’s shown. I think this is where it gets tricky and frustrating for both parties. 99% of this job is managing expectations on both ends.
In what single way has social media most changed your life?
There are very, very few ways in which it hasn’t impacted my life. It has given me the opportunity and freedom to make nearly anything I can think of a reality (Do I want to start a youth hiking club? Publish a book? Ride a horse across Mongolia? Do charity work? Change the way people think about consumption? All of the above?).
I feel an immense responsibility to make that count for something—both personally and in a more global sense.
You’ve recently launched a YouTube channel. How do you see your account and how you share your story evolving?
I have so many ideas for YouTube!! I’ve thought of a few on this flight alone. But time is the crucial factor here. I’m basically at maximum productivity at all times and can barely keep up with the work I do now. So it’s a matter of expanding and getting a team that can help produce some of that. Serious applications welcome [laughter].
Your top two travel tips of all time?
Carry-on only. You can cancel any ticket within 24 hours of booking (I use this one a lot when flying on one-ways since many countries require you to have a ticket leaving the country.)
Favorite city you’ve ever visited?
Most thrilling adventure to date?
Learning to highline.
Places you’d most like to visit?
Norway, Oman, China.
Instagram or Snapchat Stories?
I deleted Snapchat long ago [laughter]. I love Instagram stories.
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Any exciting projects or plans in store for 2019 that your followers should get excited for?
I want to travel more purposefully next year. It’s been evolving in that direction but I really want to make that a priority. Doing things or telling stories and creating with intention. I’m talking with a production company that is interested in doing a 30-episode travel series about something like that. It would be a big commitment so we’ll see where that goes. I also want to plan more trips to underrated or lesser visited countries. I feel like social media has contributed to loving some places to death, I’m starting to really like going to places where people go “Where? What are you doing there?”