Walking away from my three hour interview with Justin J Wee I felt dazed and entirely unsure of what I was going to make this story about. I had originally come to interview him about his fantastic Instagram account @djdumpling, through which he shares many of his personal life stories through thoughtful copy and out-of-this-world self portraits. But what had begun as a quick chat over his homemade polenta corn fritters with pesto eventually unravelled into a comprehensive mapping of Justin’s whole life to date.
After hearing the short version (although I’m sure there’s a lot more, and I’m definitely sure Justin could speak on it for longer), I started to get the picture that his experience in this world was a delicately constructed chain of interlinking events that had exposed him to great torment and cruelty at the hands of some, yet sweet accolades and affirmation from others.
This interested me more than his tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, so I listened as he talked about his trying past and how he overcame his demons to start fresh.
A RECIPE FOR DISASTER. AND NEW BEGINNINGS.
I’m surprised to hear that Justin and I attended the same high school. Amongst its suburban sandstone fences, knee-high socks and red brick buildings, I’d have thought a character as loud and eclectic as him would have stood out, that I would have recognised him or something. After all, as he cooked brunch for me and Cam, he was wearing a personalised apron that read ‘DJ DUMPLING’ whilst he manned the stove with his tattooed limbs and occasionally flicked his peroxide streaked fringe out of his face. His fashionable features were counterweighted by his aesthetic pièce de résistance – a pair of unwarrantedly thick framed specs which sat across his face.
There was simply nothing unremarkable about his appearance, and yet, I couldn’t ever remember seeing Justin in school.
It turns out this period, as we often hear it is for so many, was a complete nightmare for him. He used words like ‘toxic’, ‘bubble’ and ‘narrow-minded’ to describe the place that we grew up and confided that he was the butt of many jokes in the playground. “I would laugh along but with the understanding that everyone was laughing at me, as opposed to laughing with me,” he said.
I don’t want to go on about his tough time in school or tell you about the many stories he shared about being bullied or preyed upon, but I could only imagine what such an amount of ostracism would have done to a young guy.
Justin’s response to the trauma of high school was to do a complete one eighty after graduating from year 12. He attempted to “totally revamp” himself which involved ditching all of his school ‘friends’, losing weight and a head to toe make over.
It’s easy to think of him at this point as being slightly shallow about the whole thing, but it’s also difficult to feel morally justified in doing so. On one hand, the way that a person presents themselves shouldn’t really dictate their social acceptance and I don’t like condoning the idea that it should, but on the other hand, it seemed to work. So with the support of his close friends from neighbouring girls’ schools, Justin underwent his transformation. “When I left high school I thought, I owe it enough to these people to be something different and maybe be something that they can really be proud of as well,” he said.
That new Justin made love his mission and creativity his medium. And it started in the kitchen…
COOKING FOR LOVE
Even throughout talking to me about some deeply personal issues, Justin was undeniably relaxed and calm in the kitchen. There was none of the fluster or sweat that I myself exhibit when entertaining, and it was obvious to see that, despite all of his insecurities, in this space he felt rather confident.
For Justin, I really got the sense that cooking was an undertaking far more significant than it might be for you or I. I could tell that when he goes to the effort of preparing, cooking, serving and hosting a meal for someone it says more than ‘let’s catch up’. It’s a small offering of himself plated up, disguised as food.
“When I cook, I like to bring people onto my own terms,” he confides. “It’s a great thing to do because it’s a real way that I can demonstrate to people that I’ve taken time out for them.”
Because Justin works a lot, he often tries to eat his meals with friends when he can. “I just want to give back to the people that gave so much to me and give that back by paying it forward. I feel like that’s really important,” he said.
That cooking and food are such important mediums of communication for Justin doesn’t surprise me very much. Considering his school days, being able to express gratitude, appreciation and love in a non-verbal medium suits him well. Because instead of laughing, taunting or making you the subject of a nasty joke, all someone might do when offered a meal cooked with love…is accept it, and say thank you.
Outside of the kitchen, Justin is still racked by insecurities. In fact, he can talk openly and at length about things that make him insecure. General failure, being laughed at, being a bad writer and even falling off a hypothetical skateboard in front of an imaginary passerby are just some of the things that he cited.
If you look back at Justin’s Instagram account, you’ll notice that his first images are starkly different from his highly artistic shots of more recent times. The difference is vast, but so too are the two versions of Justin who took the photos. When I asked if the new Justin is anything like the old Justin he said he felt completely different.
“I carry very much the same insecurities that I carried around in high school. To an extent, I’ve become better at masking those things.
“I’m still a complete basket case and I’m still insanely racked by insecurities. I’m scared about failure and scared about other people having the capability to laugh at me.
“It’s never going to end. You’re always going to be changing and evolving and doing cool shit. Every year is going to be better than the last. I certainly feel that way. I feel like you’re only ever going to become more sure of yourself and more adept at handling things.
One of the last things that Justin said as we finished up our brunch was that having a following of over 30,000 people on Instagram makes everything feel far more “legit”. It’s possible that this offhand comment was made without much thought, but of all the things that he so openly talked about, I felt as if this was the one thing that he didn’t take ownership of.
Being social media legit or not doesn’t matter, and the sooner Justin understands this, the better. I believe that what matters is that you are kind to your family and friends, loved and okay. All things which he seems to be or have.
His Instagram account is clearly very creative and deserving of a following, and he’s worked hard for it, whilst his skills as a photographer and art director are worthy of trade for money. His endless introspection is a unique feature that should be mined for inspiration without feelings of shame or anxiety.
The new Justin is great, but if I were one of those close friends who he talks so highly of, who helped him get through all of his rough patches, I’d be more excited to meet future Justin, who I hope appreciates himself as much as he appreciates others.
Starting fresh can only begin when you understand that change, of any kind, should be first and foremost, for yourself.