Holly Grabarek

We catch up with Holly Wolverton (née Grabarek) who was a staple in the MTV Asia scene, repping as a VJ before moving on to other things, on the subjects of lost celebrity; the company of one; freedom of will and fashion.

BY Wayne Cheong | May 11, 2016 | Women We Love

Photography by Lika Brutyan

It feels like a séance; but instead of a planchette on an Ouija board, I have a laptop hooked onto the office Wi-Fi. There’s the invocation of her phone number through the medium of Skype. The line is cast. A few rings and the line pulls taut, and through the blur of pixels coalescing, she appears.

On screen, the woman does not look like she has aged since her days as an MTV Asia VJ. Her hair is different, sure—a curtain covers her forehead—but the impishness still hides in her eyes beneath her fringe.

We exchange pleasantries, and then she says that she hasn’t seen me in a dog’s age, since she left for LA.

“Well, it’s nice to see you too, Holly Grabarek,” I reply.

Only her last name isn’t Grabarek anymore. It’s Wolverton. She adopted it after her birth mother remarried. “He [Holly’s stepdad] asked if I wanted to be his daughter, and I was like, Yes!” Despite the low light, you can see the exuberance cross her face.

Given the distance, we are only able to communicate via the Internet; I, cloistered within the air-conditioned server room of my Singapore office, and she in her car, parked outside her friend’s house by a busy Los Angeles street. Earlier in the day, she had driven all over town looking for a piece of fabric, before heading to her aforementioned friend’s place to do some work. When it was time for the interview, she rushed out to her car, which is just close enough to tap onto the house’s Wi-Fi. Where she is, it is night.

Skyping with a finicky connection is tricky. Every statement made requires you to wait in that deep gulf of silence before the other party answers. Conversational rhythm is shot, speech halts become mainstays, but we make do with what we’re given.

After winning the MTV VJ Hunt in 2010, Wolverton became the era’s latest “It” girl, the poster child of the millennial generation. But you don’t stay an MTV VJ forever. Near the tail-end of 2012, she left MTV, and by 2014, she had left Singapore completely.

“I felt that I had such a good time there [Singapore],” Wolverton says, “I love—lovelovelovelove—the people. Sometimes, I’d be on the train and I didn’t know any of the passengers, but I felt that I was among my people, y’know? These are my people,” she repeats with emphasis. “I did everything that I needed to do. I hung with them, and I think I left on a good note when I was done.”

It was a slow start when she moved to LA. The rest of her family were there, true, but she was still alone. But with that solitude came the luxury of time. In an introspective look back on her life, she has come to realise how carefree her past was. She partied most of the time, sometimes waking up at three in the afternoon before heading over to MTV studios. She had minders to keep her on schedule, to adhere to a certain image.

“If there’s anything that I could have done differently back in my MTV days,” Wolverton says, “I’d have liked to be more positive. Sometimes, I thought, Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to interview this person? I could have adopted a better attitude and tried to see what I could have learned from that person. But I wanted to play all the time.

“I was ‘guided’ [into a certain image],” she continues. “I’m really good at taking directions. For example, people would tell me what to wear, but since moving to LA, I’ve developed my own style, embracing what I love to dress in, as opposed to what people want me to wear.

“I don’t regret my time with MTV, but I don’t even know why I was wearing a dress every single day on the show. I hate dresses.”

As her style took on the slow evolution from the intensely hued to the monochromic, she started finding her own autonomy. This discovery opened up new worlds for her, one of which she fell in love with surprisingly given her demeanour: punk culture. The rebellious hearts worn on their DIY sleeves ran contrary to what she knew. I like how they dictate what direction they should move in, as opposed to what they are being told, she later remarks. It’s hard not to see a parallel with her past life.

Living in the City of Angels seems to agree with Wolverton. The weather holds an even tempered state; it never rains, it drizzles. The city’s denizens afford her noteworthy encounters. “I love meeting people—the weirder the better—and listening to the things that they reveal about themselves. They’ll tell me brave things and that, in turn, inspires me to do brave things as well,” she says.

"I don't regret my time with MTV, but I don't even know why I was wearing a dress every single day on the show. I hate dresses."

One of these “weirdoes” is a woman named Laverne Delgado-Small. She’s the Executive Director of Freedom & Fashion, an organisation that helps empower female victims of sexual abuse through fashion and beauty. In a chance meeting, Delgado-Small told Wolverton about working with people to change their lives. The concept isn’t foreign to Wolverton, but she would have rather finished everything else on her bucket list before embarking on social work later in life. To her, the good works would have been a postscript, an afterthought.

“[The original plan was for me] to go to fashion school, graduate and make lots of money,” Wolverton admits. She didn’t think she would be volunteering her time and services at Freedom & Fashion for a week. And then, the next week. And then, another, and before she knew it, she became a mentor of the philanthropic organisation.

This need to help was never verbalised; this focus on other things greater than herself was never fully expressed, but like a flower growing through concrete, a confluence of events sort of nudged her in that direction. “I never, ever thought I would spend my days working with a non-profit,” Wolverton says. “My goals have shifted, and it’s kinda weird to me still. I don’t know what’s happening.”

Quite simply, Wolverton is growing up. In the past, her wants were immediate. That Balenciaga bag or that next holiday was always within her reach, but her focus has shifted now; she’s after more emotionally-driven gratification. Stuff that can impact the world and others in it. 

“Over at Freedom & Fashion,” Wolverton explains, “we facilitate a workshop, where we teach women, who are victims of sexual abuse, to create their own clothing line. It’s an entire process of garment creation, and the ability to create something is a great experience for them.”

The victim mentality engenders in these women negative emotional states. They do not think of themselves as creative. They do not even know they possess the ability to be creative. “We’re offering them a potential to create something, to give them back the self-confidence that they’ve lost. We want to empower them,” Wolverton adds.

She finds the process helpful personally as well. Seeing their enthusiasm for rebuilding their self-esteem and life, for learning new things made her reflect on her own. It has made her understand what it means to be without a lifeline.

“A year ago,” Wolverton says, after a beat of thought, “I wanted to go to school in New York. I wanted to go so badly, but it fell through. From finding an apartment to getting my school information processed in Singapore, nothing went through. I felt so powerless.”

Working with these women, taking autonomy, right now, her life is so much more beautiful than it was.

I ask if she is reading anything. Wolverton’s eyes widen, excitement stumbles into her words. “Yes. A Massive Swelling by Cintra Wilson, and it’s about… hold on, I have it right here.” She reaches for something off-screen and holds up a book, with the shocked face of a blow-up doll on the cover. The front reads, “Celebrity re-examined as a grotesque, crippling disease and other cultural revelations.”

While Wolverton finds the content interesting, she doesn’t see herself as a celebrity. That doesn’t stop others from thinking of her as such, though. Her face screws up. “I found it weird back when I was a VJ and people came up to me for an autograph. I just appear on MTV, y’know? I get to meet celebrities, but I’m not a celebrity,” she insists.

Will she return to Singapore?

Wolverton finds that question hard to answer, but it’d seem that she has already made up her mind. LA might have claimed her heart, yes, but her eyes are set towards Berlin.

“I’ve never felt the same way about any city like I do with Berlin,” she shares. “The vibe [there] is so awesome. I love the fashion scene. Everyone wears black and people are supportive of their local designers. During dinner, no one is on their phone; everyone is having a real-life conversation, no one is in their own world. I love that.”

But she will return to Singapore, one day, in the future. Albeit, only for a short spell of a couple of weeks before, as she claims, her “entire savings are depleted from staying here”.

While the living situation in Singapore leaves something to be desired, LA allows Wolverton more options. Instead of living alone, she currently shares a house with her sister, Chloe. She jokes about “tricking” her into moving in with her. In several of her photos, you can see the sisters hanging out, hamming it up for the camera, but eight months of living together does not equate to time spent together. They have different schedules, lives even. Like passing comets, they operate on different flight paths, and every so often catching each other, when they stray into one another’s ambit.

“I feel like my sister is also going through the same journey as me,” Wolverton says. “The crazy thing is: we get along better than before. Before, both of our lives were centred on ourselves. Now it’s not so much about us, so in a way, we’re talking about other issues, instead of something superficial.”

Wolverton does point out that there are the usual prickly moments when it comes to living with kin. “I don’t like it when I return home, and her clothes and bags are on the chair,” Wolverton says, “because that’s not what the chair is for.”

She has tattoos, many of which are inspired from religiosity: a cross on her inner forearm, the word, “surrender” in calligraphy on the other, and so on. A French phrase, protège-moi de mes désirs, cribbed from the Placebo song, “Protège-Moi”, is found near her right elbow. It means “protect me from what I want.” It is a reminder. A protection spell.

Her latest ink was done in Berlin. It is an inverse of her French tattoo. It reads: “Let the right one in”. “It’s about meeting so many people in life,” Wolverton says, “but deciding whom you want to allow into your inner circle.”

When it comes to meeting new people, Wolverton keeps an open mind but she’s discerning with whom she’ll keep in her life. She still remains guarded about certain aspects of her past like her stint with MTV; it’s not something that she bandies about like a flag. It’s just a small piece in the whole, still-mending tapestry of Holly Wolverton.

And Sarte holds true that “hell is other people” and Wolverton might have enough of that. She has no space, no time for other people’s opinion of her.  No sense trying to invite negativity into the soul; life is too precious for that.

Taking a page from Marcel Proust, I ask Wolverton to share her biggest fear. She muses for a while, before saying measuredly, “That one day, I will have to get married.” She makes a face before elaborating, “I mean, I don’t even know if I’ll get married but… y’know, I love living life on my own. So a part of me is afraid that I’ll run out of time to either get married or do my own thing.”

Currently unattached, Wolverton doesn’t miss being in a relationship. She can meet a guy, go out for coffee, but after a while, just dismiss the entire affair altogether. “I could be having a great time, but I don’t want to have dinner with the person because it’ll take too long. I’ll tell him, maybe I’ll see you in the future, and I hope he won’t call me after that, because I hate talking on the phone.”

When it comes to meeting new people, Wolverton keeps an open mind but she's discerning with whom she'll keep in her life.

It sounds like a commitment issue. After all, she also mentions not liking animals (“They look cute in the window display, but I don’t wanna take them home. Kinda like my friend’s baby, y’know.”). But maybe, the underlying reason is that she loves her newfound freedom. 

“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to go on an adventure anytime I like. Or I could just meet someone who’ll go on adventures with me. The adventures don’t have to end,” she asserts.

And why should she settle? She has taken the reins of the horse that’s her life. It may gallop wildly into an uncertain sunset, but it is by her own hand. She has undergone a chrysalis, like before and after images. “The future is bright,” Wolverton says. “I’m optimistic. I’m also emotional, but I tell myself that things always get better.”

And then the connection falters. A rope bridge on the verge of snapping. We quickly exchange farewells. I return with a hollow-sounding sentiment: I guess I’ll see you around. Her reply is a warble; a mess of tea leaves that is open for interpretation. Her image freezes. And it blinkers off, returning us to our regular programmes. 

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2016 issue.