It’s not at all hard to see how the Australian-Korean musical twin sister duo captured the hearts of their 200,000 subscribers on YouTube. You could say it’s their on-screen charm, their dazzling smiles, their angelic voices or their silly sisterly banter. But what really charmed us about the these sisters were their down to earth personalities and infectious positive outlook on life.
IT STARTS WITH A SPARK
It’s a golden leaf and blue-sky kind of day in the city and sitting across from me in this sun-lit Carmana Plaza hotel suite are the twins. Despite their double-digit hour flight, Janice and Sonia Lee are still as cheery and friendly as they are in their videos. They look outside their window and admire Vancouver’s fluffy white clouds and mountainous backdrop, saying they never ever see this in Australia. I hardly hear what they say though. My mind is crippled by the fear of accidentally switching them up. But they’ve already eased my worries by setting themselves up in their usual placement: Sonia on the left, Janice on the right.
“We’re really into burgers,” Sonia says, gesturing invisible hamburgers with their hands. “We LOVE food.”
It has only been an afternoon and I’m already starting to love them. They’re just as bubbly and energetic in person as they are on camera. Their genuine happiness is infectious.
THEN A FLAME STARTS
It’s a cold night for the hundreds of people waiting in a line that snaked its way around the venue’s parking lot. As they file their way into their seats they are greeted by a stage warmly lit with yellow paper lanterns and Victorian street lamps. The stage designers outdid themselves creating that perfect romantic atmosphere for the “Fall In Love” concert.
“We love you Vancouver!” say Janice and Sonia in perfect unison.
Jayesslee steps out on stage, and you can feel the love through the cheers and rumbling floors. Their manager Andy stands between them recording the cheering audience as a keepsake to share with their YouTube subscribers later. They like to stay connected to their fans and that means keeping them updated on their activities in every city they hit.
They’re standing in front of me and a thousand others singing now at the “Fall in Love” concert put on by I AM MADE Entertainment. Their voices are angelic.
Back at the hotel I get to know them a bit more. Janice and Sonia have come a long way since they started recording music videos in their pajamas with a handycam. “We’ve always been singing [even] at a very young age,” says Janice, thinking back to their childhood days when their parents eagerly signed them up for church talent competitions.
Many years later Janice and Sonia organized their own church talent quest, which unexpectedly ignited their musical career.
“There weren’t enough participants [in the talent quest] and we decided ‘we should do this’ so we participated and won the contest as organizers,” says Janice, having a laugh at the irony of this. “People started coming to us after the event saying ‘your singing brought me to tears.'” The two then knew that singing was their calling and began sharing their talent online. The two uploaded their first video as Jayesslee in 2008.
What started out as a casual hobby quickly became an Internet sensation. Their popularity skyrocketed after the twins covered the highly requested “Officially Missing You,” which now sits with over 9 million views.
“We woke up one morning and it had gone viral!” Sonia said. “Now we’re traveling [and] doing music full time.”
Three years and 30 video uploads later, Jayesslee has fine tuned their look, sound and presentation. When I ask how they prepare for each video, they sigh.
“It gets more difficult as we do it ‘cause now we get more picky. In the beginning we really didn’t really care how we looked in our pajamas with drool coming out,” laughs Janice. But since their online fame became apparent, they upped their quality to reward their subscribers for being so faithful in watching their videos.
“So we dressed out of our pajamas, shampooed, brushed our hair, and showered!”
GETTING TO KNOW THAT SOMEONE
On stage and on video you can see them brimming with love for each other and for those who surround them. But how do the twins relate to each other in their day-to-day lives when the camera stops rolling and when no one is looking?
“We hate each other,” says Janice.
They both laugh but quickly assume a dead serious look. Contrary to popular belief, Janice and Sonia are not loving with each other 24 hours of the day.
“I think it’s so funny that people think we’re so close and we love each other all the time. I think that’s hilarious,” adds Sonia. “We’re very individual, very independent. We have 25 years of just living together. We have the same likes, we like the same food, we like the same clothes, same shoes, [so] we’re bound to fight, but at the same time I know I can’t live without her. I know she can’t live without me.”
Janice turns to face Sonia, arms stretched out. “Big hug!” Sonia responds with a grimace and crossed arms.
One can see how their sisterly dynamic carries through from their everyday lives into their videos. Their honesty is very apparent and perhaps the reason for their success. People all around the world have fallen in love with Janice and Sonia because of their on-camera authenticity. YouTube has been the perfect outlet to showcase this.
When it comes to being open about faith they’re not concerned about losing subscribers. While some aspiring artists conceal faith for fear that it could deter people from becoming fans, Janice and Sonia put it right out in the open. You could even say that they flaunt it. “That’s who we are. We can’t really put our faith on and off.”
There are those that speak up against their faith, saying that their talent is going to waste for the glory of God. Others have expressed displeasure towards Jayesslee’s cover of The Script’s “Break Even” where they changed the line “I’m praying to a God I don’t believe in” to “I’m praying to a God I believe in.”
“We don’t let it affect us too much,” says Sonia. “It’s inevitable. You know in the end it’s what we believe in and we’re confident about it.”
As they say, “haters gonna hate.”
WHEN THE FLAME STARTS TO BURN OUT
Their concert up until now has been a calming acoustic experience. The two have been sweetly entertaining the crowds with their music and witty quips in between numbers. But now things seem to be going in a more somber and serious direction. They indicate they will now be telling us something serious. “
The concert hall becomes quiet. The two of them, moments earlier laughing, singing, and joking, now share a very tender and intimate moment with their fans.
Janice and Sonia were only seven when the news of their mother diagnosed with breast cancer hit their family. Being so young they didn’t fully understand the physical and mental consequences of cancer but as time went on the cancer began to spread further into their mother’s body.
They questioned God. Asking questions like, “Why? How? Why them?” They had always been told in church that God was good all the time. But it was hard to believe that while watching their mother slowly wither away.
Suddenly at 15 Janice and Sonia found themselves having to come to terms with the fact that their mother only had two weeks to live.
“Sonia and I decided to be strong,” Janice tells us. She says the two of them made a choice and promised each other that, instead of breaking their parents’ hearts by being sad, they would cry one last time and pray for their mother. It was then when a certain peace washed over them. They finally understood that God had a plan for everyone and that they should make the most of their time with their mother while she was still with them.
Shortly after their mother died in hospital, but not without a memorable moment.
Just when it seemed like all her strength had left her, their mother raised her arms and sang a Korean worship song.
Everyone in the concert hall is now stifling sniffles. Janice and Sonia tell us they want to share the song. First they say in English, “Lord here I am, My heart, my body, I give it to you. Use me as I am, hallelujah.” Now they start singing in their usual two-part harmony, this time in Korean.
FLAMES NEVER DIE OUT
In the concert hall the show has long been over, but Janice and Sonia are lingering by the stage to talk with those still remaining. Fans squeeze past the crowd and eagerly come back to ask for photos. They pose, they smile, and they part with a hug. They repeat this process with virtually everyone who asks.
“At the end of the day it’s really not by your own efforts,” said Sonia, “it’s God who gives opportunities to open the doors so just [by] being faithful and knowing him daily, walking with him, He will get you to where you need to go.”
They say that God shines through his children and this could not be more true for these sisters. Their love for Him is truly the most beautiful part about them.
Janice and Sonia have turned a hobby into a full-time job they love. Most of their YouTube videos have well over a million hits. It has been a great tool for them. When I ask if they would still make singing a career if YouTube didn’t exist, their answer is clear.
“God would provide some other way. I’m pretty sure this is what we’re called to do. I mean, we’re not very good at anything else so I’m pretty sure God would have opened other doors. It just happened to be YouTube for us,” says one of them, I’m not too sure which, but it doesn’t really matter; I’m positive the other would wholeheartedly agree.
Taken from the November-December issue of Converge.
Photos by Agnon Wong and Grace Lau.