Talking ‘Steampunk’d’ With Jeannie Mai

Jeannie Mai hosts GSN's Steampunk'd, a ten-episode long experience into the world and culture of steampunk.

After I mused in an Iconographies what might be new in steampunk, ‘Lantern City’ and its Steampunk Futures‘, GSN reached out to me. They’re doing a show called Steampunk’d, a ten-episode long experience into the world and culture of steampunk.

As we speak, it’s when Jeannie Mai pauses that the enormity of what’s happening really sinks in. Mai is an A-list television personality, who’s hosting a show about something small, something fringe.

Imagine the Victorian Era in style and design, but with speculative history technology and a cyberpunk sensibility. It’s one of the last great creative and artistic edges in society, and GSN is publicizing it in a format that’s familiar to the mainstream. Jeannie Mai, host for the show, is talking up a storm.

She’s got an energy like Meryl Streep in The Manchurian Candidate from the 2004 remake. It’s all fire, and focus and describing that Thing On the Horizon that we can reach for but can’t grasp just yet. I’ve seen the series premiere and it blasted away my inherent cynicism. Whoever’s designed Steampunk’d just gets it. they’ve got the aesthetic, they’ve got the culture. They’ve got the right contestants and they get out of their way to allow those contestants’ impulses to work. They’ve got the right judges. And they’ve got the right host.

They’ve got the right format. Think of Steampunk’d as Chopped but more involved and just that little bit cooler. Makers come on, they compete against each other while working on a single project. But here’s the difference. They’re not cooking three courses in a single day. The maker teams (and the makers are divided into two teams at the head of each episode), they’re building a room in a steampunk manor. They have three days to complete each episode’s challenge. And that means designing and building a room, building functioning steampunk tech, and designing and sewing steampunk attire that complements the room.

Mai is talking up a storm. She’s completely steampunk. How’d she get involved in this, I wonder. But not out loud, not yet. That’s a question for later. For now, we focus our conversation on the show itself.

Jeannie Mai from Episode One of Steampunk’d.

“I believe Steampunk’d is a culmination of media from movies, from films, from amazing projects like the Matt King project, The World of Steam,” Mai says. “It’s in art, it’s in celebrities. Lady Gaga rocks the steampunk energy. So it’s definitely pop culture in many different ways.”

She continues to talk about the readily-accessible format of reality TV. “What I love is that GSN really worked so well to produce a show that is very organic to what steampunk is about,” Mai continues. “There really was nothing else but to put a challenge to making a manor and then a prize of $100,000. That’s really pretty much the base of what GSN did and everything else is down to the makers. There’s nothing fabricated about it, there’s nothing prepped, there’s nothing produced. The energy of the steampunk community, the design aesthetics, that’s all the makers themselves. So I think that the best thing you’re going to learn is that these people are very talented and they’re passionate and there’s really nothing else beside that.”

It’s when we get into this story that I begin to connect the rumblings in the steampunk community with shifts in the comics community. This kind of thing has happened before, and it’s happened in comics.

Remember Daredevil? The movie from way back in 2002? It was maybe the last comicbook superhero movie that was big-budgeted and targeted towards comics fans as an audience demo. The shift between that kind of superhero movie and the kind we’ve seen since, Iron Man and The Dark Knight released in the same summer, original Avengers back in 2012, and Captain America: Winter Soldier last year, has been a shift in conceptualization. Rather than design a high-budget lowbrow superhero movie for comics fans, build a summer blockbuster around the idea that you can show mainstream audiences what comics fans see when they look at superheroes. Steampunk’d is offering exactly this level of highbrow thinking for the steampunk community.

But Mai recognizes an even more immediate crossover between comics culture and steampunk culture—the significance of cosplay.

“One hundred percent,” Mai says when I ask her to qualify what she sees as the overlap. She continues “I think the best way to see that energy at work in steampunk is to check out the show, on Wednesday at ten. You’re going to see Steampunk’d air and it’s one of the most electrifying shows ever. We have have ten steampunk makers who we found who are the best makers from around the US, put them together in a competition and they are all full of personality, full of life.”

Jeannie Mai with the full starting line-up of Steampunk’d contestants.

“You’ve got every type of characteristic and every type of skill set within these ten makers,” she continues “Now, the challenging part is you’re putting all this personality and all this creativity onto teams. So they have to work together in order to win each week. But each week somebody gets eliminated until there’s only one standing maker to wind $10,000. And these makers need to create a room, build a manor in less than three days. And no skill is left safe. They’ve got to design, they’ve got to fashion design, they’ve got to work with wood, they’ve got to work with heavy machinery. They’ve got to show. It’s a lot. So I think through the show Steampunk’d you’ll get to see exactly what the world of steampunk is like.”

It seems that by now we’ve built enough of a connection. I push Mai about her interest in steampunk as a, to use a charmingly ’90s word, “subculture”. I’m curious about her interest in this aspect of popculture and particularly the bridge from a Style Network “wearapist” to her role as host on Steampunk’d. Mai’s done incredible work in unlocking the psychology of power and confidence for women in her show How Do I Look?. As co-host on The Real, she’s brought very much the same kind of energy.

How does she see her new role as host on Steampunk’d connecting with or expanding on this? I imagine the answer she’ll give me. It’s something like Steampunk’d is about empowering people in the same way that How Do I Look? was about fashion psychology. But it’s not that, not that at all. Or at least, not yet.

Instead, it’s all of our stories. The same story you lived through when you read comics as a kid, only to discover that there was an energy and a frisson when you stepped into your local comics shop for the very first time.

Jeannie Mai and judges (l to r) Matt King, Kato and Thomas Willeford

“I was introduced to the world of steampunk when I was sixteen,” Mai confesses, “I come from the Bay Area and I will never forget walking into a club in San Francisco and just seeing a very specific way that everyone was dressed. It was mysterious, it was sexy, it was powerful and I’m like, ‘Who are you guys? Where’re you from? What is this’? And I learned about the steampunk movement. I learned that it is an aesthetic, it’s a culture, it’s an art, it’s a lifestyle and it’s a mix between the Victorian Era and science fiction. And so as soon as I perked my ears to this, I immediately wanted to jump in and get my hands in there.”

Mai extrapolates on this, “Now, that is exactly why I respect steampunk so much. It’s something you make and create. You can’t walk into any store and buy these things. You can’t go to Nordstrom and buy steampunk. Steampunk is something you design, you manufacture, you up-cycle, you recycle to create a look and a feel. Not just in fashion, but everything around you. So just having that respect for people called makers.”

“Makers are people who live the steampunk world and they make everything that they live. That alone led me to obviously having this memory and this respect for steampunk the culture. So when GSN decided to come together and create the show to put a light on this community I was in all the way. I wanted to not only host it, but I wanted to put the right light on the designers, these creative human beings that are so interesting and so individual and strong. And I knew that I was the person for the job.”

Not that it’s ever flagged during this interview, but Mai’s energy and enthusiasm is back in full force. I push and ask about what she sees as the capacity for steampunk to spread and catch a fire. And how much it’s influenced by the locus of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

“I do think steampunk is not just from the Bay Area but I think that cutting edge energy is from everywhere,” she offers quickly. “Steampunk is all over the world. You’ll find it in every part of your community. You’ll find it in your coffeeshops, your restaurants, your neighborhoods, your clubs. I think the growing community of steampunk has influence and is influenced by everywhere. I think that the power of the internet today adds to this. Steampunk is big on Facebook. The fact that you can facebook people and see how somebody in Oregon is dressing in steampunk and somebody in Australia is dressing in steampunk is really cool. We didn’t have that before, and I think that’s probably the most powerful part of it.”

Then after a pause, she adds in, “There’s something steampunk going on everywhere.”

We skirt back to around to Mai herself. More than just a steampunker eager to share the idea of steampunk with the mainstream, how does she knit together her two great loves, steampunk and fashion psychology?

“Ah, that’s a great question,” she begins, maybe as a little deflection. But then that unshakeable confidence prevails. “Well, the fact that the only reason why I’m doing I’m doing is because of a passionate understanding of confidence that my mom put into me when I was a young girl. That just carries me, humbly, through this journey from beginning to end”

“My mom immigrated here from Vietnam two years before I was born and, without having the ability to speak English, without having a lot of money, she learned that in order to get people to respect you, you have to look a certain way. Growing up underneath that impression was everything that set the tone of what fashion can do for women. So today, which you mention, which I appreciate, starting from How Do I Look? and moving on to talk shows doing inspirational shows like Steampunk’d it’s all just part of that bigger picture of telling women that you can be, do, look anyway that you want.”

“The second you start doing that, that is when you’re living your life. That’s the message I will always live to celebrate. For the rest of my life.”


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