Literally Her: An Interview with Julie Houts
Written BY AMY ELLERMAN
Julie Houts, or @jooleeloren as her 182,000 Instagram followers know her, is a hilarious illustrator and writer with an upcoming book, Literally Me, coming out October 24th (Simon & Schuster). Her spot-on and refreshingly brutal illustrations detail the glorious bullshit surrounding the fashion industry that she knows so well from her time as a Fashion Designer at J. Crew. Julie recently left her job after 6 years to work on her book and freelance projects, a transition that is no doubt hectic, stressful and exciting. We chatted with Julie in the midst of it all to talk to her about the transition from a desk job to working from home, overcoming Imposter Syndrome and the unforgiving horror of Internet trolls.
Amy Ellerman: It seems like a pretty badass time for you right now, leaving your full-time J. Crew gig as a fashion designer to getting a book deal and going 100% freelance. How has the transition been?
Julie Houts: It’s been good but weird! I’ve been such a corporate worker bee for so long, and didn’t mind it. I really liked the structure of working, so I was a little bit worried, but it’s been really nice. But sometimes I will finish working around 6:00 and go meet people for drinks and realize I haven’t spoken all day and get really skittish like a weird little dog. Or you know, you’re just alone all day and you start to feel a little in your head. I used to not have enough time to overthink things, so I didn’t really sit there asking “is this actually what I think?” Now that I have endless time, I overthink things.
AE: I totally agree, I’m on the job hunt right now and have more than enough alone time, and my boyfriend will come home from work and I’ll ask “How was work?” and think “holy shit that’s what my voice sounds like…” because I haven’t spoken all day.
JH: And, like, little moths fly out.
AE: Yeah, like wait, did I brush my teeth? Have I been wearing these yoga pants for three days?
JH: Did I put on makeup? What day is it?
AE: Exactly! So was moving to freelance a move of necessity, like getting too much freelance work and that’s what you wanted to pursue?
JH: While at J. Crew, I had to turn down a lot of projects because of time or they weren’t paying enough that it just wasn't worth it, so the projects I did were pretty specific. And then I got the book deal and that was becoming a lot in terms of time management to juggle it, and just felt like I was done doing fashion design at that time. Also, J. Crew was going through a lot of changes, and it just felt like everything was just kind of sinking, and I’m a firm believer that you can always get another desk job. Figured I might as well go with it.
Ellie Brzezenski: In terms of the book deal and how it came about, do you ever feel like “why me?” A sort of Imposter Syndrome ?
JH: Sure! I always just assumed that it should be someone else because I’ve been interested in illustration for so long and know people that are way more talented than I am and much more skilled technically. Especially with the book deal, I have to check myself to not be like “you don’t deserve this, this should be for someone more deserving.”
EB: Recently I was given a press pass to take pictures at Tank & The Bangas and I was like “...wait... I am absolutely terrible at photography, they are going to kick me out, I am so not qualified.”
JH: Like “she isn’t holding her camera properly!”
EB: Yes! Then I had to say “oh my god, nobody fucking cares about you here. You’re just a blond chick in a denim dress. Stop worrying.”
JH: I am starting to believe that nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing, and if you’re willing to be the person to raise your hand and say “I’ll do it” then you’ll be the one with all the money and all the things. I always thought there was going to be a moment where you are like “Yes, I deserve this” and I honestly don’t believe that ever comes. Unless you’re a massive asshole.
AE: We’ve been talking about imposter syndrome a lot recently, and we feel that women suffer significantly more from this, or if we’re wrong, then men never speak about it.
JH: Oh yeah. They believe they’re allowed everything, that it’s deserved.
AE: For sure, and it’s like you get a promotion and immediately get scared and think “do I deserve this?” rather than “Fuck yeah I deserve this, I worked my ass off, stop doubting yourself.”
JH: There’s a certain level of that, to admit that you want something or you want to be successful or want to have more money. I was raised in a way where you kept your head down and took what was given to you with a big thank you, and it’s interesting to admit that I’m ambitious and ask for things, but I think that it’s good.
AE: Are there any moments where you look at your Instagram following and ask “how the hell did I end up here?”
JH: Of course! I don’t understand anything about it, it’s really weird, I still don’t. It makes no fucking sense to me.
AE: I’m sure when all these people starting commenting that you don’t know, it’s like “aaaaaahh what is going on?”
JH: Oh my god it’s crazy. I’m like “I didn't fucking ask for this!” It’s weird. People start to expect a lot from you, and think that they know you, and think that they should be allowed access to things. I’m like “why do you think that I owe you anything?” But at the same time, I owe them a lot in a strange little way, so it’s a weird dynamic that I don’t understand.
AE: Is there anything that you want to post on Instagram and then hold back because it might seem inappropriate?
JH: Oh my God, too many times I can think of. Most of what I think I figure “I’m going to get in trouble for this.” That’s another thing about having a lot of followers: people are so offended and outraged by everything! Like their representation, lack of representation, your language, I mean everything is someone’s trigger. So there are a lot of things that I really want to say that I often hold back on, because even when I do something that is the most non-offensive thing in the world, my DMs manage to blow up and it’s just not worth it.
AE: Is there one in particular that you can remember?
JH: The one that is coming to mind is “Fashion Week Guernica” (see illustration) and people were saying “you’re trivializing it!” but it’s a piece of artwork! I’m not trivializing the plight of humanity - people are trying to be outraged just to be outraged. And the internet is like their sacred space.
EB: Everything is just a hyperbole. And then the conversation becomes “I’m such a great person but you are the worst garbage-human-dumpster-fire!”
JH: I know! And to me, these are the most obvious things on the planet. I forever underestimate how disgusting men on the internet can be. Like that one illustration about the locker room talk (see illustration), that was so obvious and not really saying much about something specific. It was just, “Yeah, this is factual.” and I got so many scary DMs and all of these men’s rights groups coming after me, it was really scary! It’s one thing to not think that it's true, but it's another thing to loop in all of your scary men’s rights groups and attack me.
AE: If there is one you decide is too triggering to post, do you just send them to your friends or keep them somewhere?
JH: I just file them away, but I save a lot for my book so I can hide behind a publisher and not have to deal with comments for days straight. But sometimes I have to think “is this a momentary feeling?” If so, sometimes I will sit on it for a week and if I still feel like it’s valid then I’ll post it.
EB: How do you decide what goes in your book versus your social feed?
JH: That’s been hard, especially when I was working and didn’t have a lot of time to be like “here's one for a book, here's for Instagram.” And since I’m an extreme narcissist, the ones that gives me immediate positive feedback is the one that I pick [for Instagram]. The book is made of several essays, so a lot is illustrating those. My editor and I carved out the themes and she would be like “Okay, you have a lot of these themes, so we need more illustrations on this.” But I have definitely been posting less, it’s just hard to do both right now.
AE: So are you working with an essayist or are you writing the essays?
JH: No, I’m writing all the essays myself.
AE: Shit, you’re creative! How long will it be?
JH: Around 176 pages, give or take. The shortest essay is about 2 pages and the longest is like 30, so there’s a range.
AE: And is this your first time publishing essays? How do you feel about it?
JH: Yes, it’s scary! I never considered myself to be a writer so again it's like imposter syndrome, it’s like “I don't get to write essays, I’m not a writer.”
AE: Your illustrations are brutally honest, not only about the fashion industry, but also the human condition and its quirks, like being a Basic Bitch. Would you consider they stem from self-reflection or observation of others?
JH: Both. I think I notice a lot of behaviors in myself and in a lot of people, and it comes with this overarching feeling that we’re all behaving this way and it’s gross. It’s a way of pointing a finger at a system that is letting us behave in this way and try to break apart why I act like this, why are other people acting like this, and realizing behaviors around me and break apart why.
AE: Being so involved in the fashion world and surrounded by women, you’ve nailed down that demo so well. Have you ever thought about going into another industry, like Silicon Valley and illustrating these super-awkward bro-y culture?
JH: I can’t really speak to experience that I don’t have, but I just know fashion so I can be critical of it, that “girl world” that’s familiar to me. I’m working on developing some TV projects (including a pilot!) and I’m starting to meet with people that are in film and television and are very different, so I notice these certain things in those meetings.
What are they like?
JH: Well being in the fashion world, I took it for granted that I worked with so many women. At J. Crew it’s mostly women and most leadership is held by women, so I never really had to work with men and didn’t understand what my friends were talking about when working with a lot of male colleagues. I was like “that sounds awful I can’t believe that’s true!” but now a lot of people I’m working with I’m like “Oh my God, is this normal how you’re speaking to me? That’s so aggressive.” I mean it’s good to know, it’s my first experience working with men and it’s definitely been interesting. It's good, it makes you sort of galvanize and hold your own.
AE: There is this quote I loved from your Vogue interview: “I just think that everyone is basically an idiot… I have a hard time approaching someone who isn't willing to admit that about themselves. It’s confusing for me—how do you not think you’re an idiot?”. Is that kind of how you started your illustration, just getting that frustration on paper?
JH: When I just started illustrating I had 120 followers and knew all of them. It was before Instagram got so lifestyle-brandy, and I was just like: “this is the coffee I had today,” “I saw this guy wearing a hat,” so I drew it. There wasn’t a lot of premeditation involved. I don’t know what made them turn into some commentary, it was just that a lot of things annoy me, and it’s the easiest way to get it all out quickly. Since they were only going to people that I knew I just assumed everyone shared the same perspective.
AE: Not only are your illustrations spot on and have these really crazy details, but your quotes and commentary are perfect. Are these quotes usually things that you draw from specific conversations or do you take a lot of time to determine what word to be placed where?
JH: A lot of times I think of the words first and then draw something to accommodate that, and other times I’ll just be sketching all day about a specific pose and the words follow. I don’t usually get too tripped up in language because it should be easy and relatable and whatever I thought of first is the best version of it.
AE: I always get jealous of creative people because they have a constructive way to express themselves, rather than my way which is bitching to people who don't give a shit. Do you consider your illustrations as an outlet of expressing your frustrations?
JH: Absolutely. I’d be complaining all whole time if I couldn’t draw. I would not have any friends.
Thank you to Julie for being an awesome interviewee and generally creative genius! Pre-order her upcoming book, Literally Me, on Amazon and whatever other book place you purchase from.