Meet 'Japanese Beyonce' Naomi Watanabe: From TV Comedienne To Fashion Icon | CoolJapan

At the top of your head, how many modern-day Japanese fashion personalities can you name? Sure, there are pop-culture favourites Sailor Moon or Hello Kitty, there are also designers like Rei Kawakubo or the late Kansai Yamamoto. But if we’re really talking about a J-fashion influencer that’s known even outside of Japan, Naomi Watanabe is, without a doubt, worthy of a mention.

Aside from her recent campaigns and global ambassadorships for brands like SK-II, Kate Spade, and Shu Uemura, Naomi’s various features in Vogue in 2017 — as well as her undisputed ranking as Japan’s highest followed Instagram personality (9.8 million followers as of writing) — speaks about how much she’s made a name as one of the country’s most popular icons.

But what’s interesting about this is the fact is that Japan is known for having ideal ‘body type’ standards that lean more on petiteness often related to the concept of being kawaii (cute). This even covers women in their 30s to 50s who go to extreme lengths to achieve a certain level of thinness, as reported by Japan Association for Eating Disorders (JAED). So how and why is Naomi Watanabe making a difference?

Becoming the ‘Japanese Beyonce’

Raised by her Taiwanese mother in Ibaraki Prefecture, Naomi already had her eyes set on becoming a comedienne as early as 15 years old. And while she was pushed to the ‘normal track’ of entering university with the eventual prospect of getting married, she decided to pursue her passion for entertainment by formally training as a comedian when she reached 18.

In 2008, she was already doing a lot of celebrity impersonations on stage, her favourite being none other than music icon Beyonce. Footages from her performances re-enacting Queen Bey’s hits Crazy In Love and Dreamgirls went viral within and outside of Japan (though none of the actual footage can be traced now as of writing). This eventually landed her a stint in Fuji TV’s Variety show Waratte Iitomo! in 2010. Soon after, she's had a constant presence on Japanese television and film, as well as projects in voice acting and product endorsing. Her nickname Japanese Beyonce also stuck ever since.

Even so, Naomi continued to prove that she’s not just a one-trick pony through participating in other projects that highlighted more of her talents both in acting and performing. To date, she has six movies, five dramas, and two recreations of known stage plays under her belt, taking on notable roles such as Mabel from Fame and Tracy Turnblad from Hairspray.

Her idea of comedy is also not slapsticky or tacky, which abolishes the notion that women in comedy, especially for those in ‘non-standard body shapes’ are only limited to being the punchlines of the jokes themselves. Naomi’s latest ‘parody’ of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s Rain On Me is a great example; it showcases her in a beautiful skin-showing fuchsia latex bodysuit (resembling the one Gaga is wearing in the official music video), dancing in full glory to the referential beat.

The video has since garnered almost 17 million views since posting, with most of the comments questioning the tagging of the video as a parody considering how it’s beautifully styled, made, and choreographed.

Punyus fashion

“Cherish yourself. Love yourself. If you love yourself, you can try anything. You gain self-confidence,” Naomi said in a 2018 NHK World feature, encompassing what makes her an effective icon — she walks the talk.

Beyond just the entertainment and awe-inspiring showmanship Naomi continues to present to her growing fanbase, she also uses her influence to challenge the norm that defines a popular Japanese female fashion and pop-culture icon. She created and has been actively designing firsthand for her fashion brand Punyus, which roughly translates to ‘chubby’ in English. The brand covers a variety of pieces, from basics, jeans, graphic tees, and even dresses that explodes in Naomi’s signature vivid colour and graphic aesthetic.

If you think that’s all, the brand doesn’t cage itself in plus-size branding. Aside from offering pieces that go up to a 6X sizing, they also cater to more slender body types, which truly covers the meaning of what fashion inclusivity means.

“If I did a plus-size only brand, I think it would be discriminatory against smaller-sized people,” Naomi said. “For a lot of Japanese clothing brands, they don’t necessarily care about catering to the consumers. It’s more like, ‘We’re going to make a pair of jeans, and if you can’t fit into them, then it’s your fault.’”

The label also often features the same design showcased by models of different body types for styling suggestions, showing the friendliness, accessibility and universality the brand presents. Sure, Punyus’ presentation still doesn’t hold the variety we usually see now in Western fashion spreads, but given the still-ongoing stigma East Asian culture has over curvier body types, Naomi’s brand truly encourages a change in the narrative.

Naomi and her self-image's positive message

“Back in my teens I definitely used to cover up a lot of myself, mainly because I was scared of what people would say about me. They would tell me, ‘Don’t you know what your size is? What are you wearing?’” she recalled. “And so I didn’t wear what I wanted to because I didn’t want to get hurt by what people would tell me.”

Coming a long way from her then doubt-filled self, Naomi has since been the focus of features that zoom in on her success both as an entertainment personality and a body positive icon, from local Japanese news outlet NHK World to Western publications like The Cut and Vogue. In 2018, she was also listed by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet.

“My message is never to tell other people that they should get fat or put on weight, but I truly believe that I should be happy, and everybody should be happy in their own skin. You shouldn’t reject the way you are,” she said. 

Often using humour as a way to express her thoughts on the current workings of the fashion industry, she takes every opportunity to open up about struggles during shoots when brands can’t find a piece that would fit her size. And while it works out for her in the end because she’s a celebrity, she is unafraid to comment on how it would be like for a regular consumer sharing the same dilemma, thus leading to her every initiative as an entertainer and a brand owner.

Now, brimming with confidence as one of Japan’s global rising stars, it’s safe to say that Naomi’s legacy as a fashion and pop-culture personality hailing from the East is only starting. Be it an expansion in her fashion line, a new ‘parody’ music video or an acting project that’s underway, what she’ll bring to the table next is surely not to be missed.