The first time I laid eyes on the real live Sook-Yin Lee was at Woodstock '99 in upstate New York. The venue was the blistering tarmac of an abandoned military base and good manners were as scarce as bottled water in the baking media tent.
Into this hellish scene wandered a scrawny Asian-Canadian girl in a hippie dress and giant conical straw hat. When the camera switched on and Lee began her MuchMusic VJ intro, her whole body began to move, long braids swinging, as awkwardly unself-conscious as a bit of Martha Graham choreography.
For one long moment, every cranky journalist in the tent stopped to watch the girl with the whirling braids. "There," I thought, "goes a girl who can make anything look cool."
Seven years on, the thirtysomething Lee is the country's new It girl, with a starring role in one of the hottest films at the Toronto International Film Festival that's brought her a newly minted international fame.
Sitting cross-legged in Toronto's Rice Bar, a restaurant near her Kensington Market home, she wolfs down a bowl of basmati and greens and reflects on her journey from indie musician to on-air personality to cinematic cause célèbre.
A self-described "yellow trash" kid from the suburbs of Vancouver, Lee is one of those truly original people our culture spits out once every generation or so. A successful working artist in a variety of mediums, including performance art and a successful stint as front woman of Vancouver band Bob's Your Uncle, she insists she never had a plan to become a famous. It just sort of happened.
"I was drawn to the movie because I was so inspired by John and the environment he creates," she says of her new film, Shortbus, a sexually explicit exploration of modern manners directed by U.S indie darling John Cameron Mitchell, which will have its North American premiere tomorrow night.
"Half the people around him are just, like, kids he met at the video store or on the street, but they happen to be these brilliant costume designers and artists."
While Lee had a small role in Cameron's earlier work, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in Shortbus she takes the lead, playing Sophia, a fretful sex therapist who goes in search of an orgasm of her own.
"She's very pent-up," Lee says. "And she has dubious fashion taste."
Neither could be said of Lee herself. Even on this blah afternoon, Lee is looking winsome in a floral vintage sundress and long blue scarf. As for her bashful nature ("I was brutally shy before I had to be on TV"), her recent adventure has surely all but cured her of it.
Lee was not only required to do extensive nudity for the role in Shortbus, but she also performs various non-simulated sex acts, including masturbation and intercourse. Today, she is relaxed and open on the subject of the scenes that nearly cost her an on-air job as host of CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera and prompted protests from such arts luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola and Yoko Ono.
"There were a lot of trust-building exercises with the cast in the months before," she says. "I didn't have sex during the rehearsals because I wanted to save it up for the day. It's kind of weird to have practice sex. Luckily Raphael, who played my husband, we're dear friends, and my boyfriend at the time was very supportive. We went to great lengths to have safe sex. I wore a female condom."
But what was it like, I press, to actually do it on camera, in a roomful of people? Did she feel scared? Exploited? Empowered?
None of the above, Lee shrugs. "There was one day when I just couldn't take my clothes off, so I asked everyone on set to take their clothes off and we all danced around a bit until I felt comfortable. It was weird, but only in the sense of revealing the self -- like if everyone in this restaurant was to take off all their clothes right now."
But Lee is no stranger to the potent symbolism of being clothed or unclothed, and has had an abiding interest in the social power of costume. For instance, the first time she travelled alone in Europe, she found herself worried about being harassed by strange men on the streets of Paris. During a tour of the Louvre, she was inspired by the Renaissance-era paintings of saints and angels.
"So I put together a saint's outfit," she says, describing a dramatic white robe, head dress, rosaries and icons. "It made me feel really elevated. People were really nice to me."
Her fascination with role-playing and uniforms (or "kits," as she calls them) extends back to childhood, when she found herself unable to communicate except through invented characters.
"There was a lot of crazy shit that happened in our family," she says, darkening. "Even though we all look normal on the surface."
Lee's mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she and her sisters were young. After Lee's father left home, she "basically became a mute" for a few years, before leaving home at 15 and becoming a ward of the province.
"I went from having to get straight As to being like, 'I'm signing up for drama class!' " she says.
The penchant for dressing up -- both on stage and in real life -- has continued into adulthood. Ask her about her current wardrobe and Lee's eyes light up.
"I was recently in Thailand and I bought this Thai Red Cross uniform. Then there's this designer I know, Lydia Klanck, who does these utilitarian turn-of-the-century dresses. So I was dressing like a charwoman for a while."
Lee is also a huge fan of Toronto designer Dean Horn, whose Nassau Street boutique is conveniently located around the corner from her house. Like Lee, the L.A.-born designer has a background both in visual arts and theatre. "She's very visual in the way she speaks," Horn says. "She's also well-travelled, and that comes across in her clothes."
Indeed, on a trip last month to Bosnia for the Sarajevo Film Festival, Lee became enchanted by Lejla Hodzic's line Mrak.
"I went to their studio and I was wearing one of Dean's outfits and she freaked out. They both do similar stuff -- it's like sculpture as much as clothing."
She goes on to mention her vintage connection -- Cece Scriver at Courage My Love, just around the corner from her house in Kensington Market. "She calls me up and says, 'This'll look awesome on you,' and nine out of 10 times she's right."
In clothes or out, Lee has proved herself an original style icon. And while the premiere of Shortbus on her home turf might have her biting her nails, her artistic integrity has never been more intact. "I just want to make things and communicate with people," she says.
Shortbus premieres at the Phoenix Theatre in Toronto tomorrow at 10 p.m. For tickets, visit http://www.ticketmaster.ca.