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“KMEL is a Bay Area radio station. I had met Aaliyah backstage [at Summer Jam]. I was a big fan of hers, and I thought she was the coolest person ever. Her dad was backstage, and I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I would love to work with her’. I had a business card actually made because I knew she was going to be performing at that KMEL Summer Jam, but it felt weird to give her the business card. So I ended up just schmoozing with her dad, who was managing her.”

Isabella Tan

“She was busy signing autographs, and I walked up to her dad. I said, ‘Hey, I'm a designer, artist, and illustrator. Here's my business card. If you ever check out my work, if you ever feel like working with me, just hit me up.’ He ended up checking out my work and liking it, and asked me to do a few mock ups for a movie she was doing with Jet Li called Romeo Must Die. And I ended up doing a bunch of pro bono work just to impress them. They liked it. The Warner Brothers marketing department had their own team, so they didn't use any of my stuff. But it was enough to impress Aaliyah and their team, so they asked me to art direct her self-titled album.”

Isabella Tan

“And so I was the art director on [Aaliyah’s self-titled album], and I got to do all the layout design, her logos, and work with our photographers to pick the photos. I ended up choosing the album cover from photographer Albert Watson and tinted the photo red. There was something that felt subconscious [about that color] - red is a powerful color in Asian cultures. It felt like a celebration in a way - she had hidden behind sunglasses in her previous album [covers] - and this was like her announcement of her stepping into womanhood. This photo just felt so confident. Her hair was flowing, and it was just a very confident pose. It was shot on a white background originally, and something about tinting it red just felt like such an impactful statement.”

“Now it's the 20th anniversary of that album. It’s kind of strange looking back at that now, and seeing that album cover everywhere these days. It's just a weird thing. It's like, you kind of do these things based off of instinct, and 20 years later you're seeing it again.”

Isabella Tan

“Aaliyah’s cousin, who was part of her management team, was a big fan of anime. [He asked me if I could] draw Aaliyah in the Japanese anime style, and I was like ‘Yeah, sure, of course’. I did this mock up. He loved it, and flew me down to where Aaliyah was shooting ‘We Need a Resolution’ with Paul Hunter. Her uncle, her cousin, and I went to her trailer during her break, and we showed her the drawing. And she was completely blown away by it. She wanted to use it as an alternate cover for the special edition. And then they asked, ‘Do you know anybody that could direct a commercial? It’d be really hot if we did a commercial in this cartoon style.’ And that was me working my way in. I said, ‘I’ll direct it!’, even though I had no idea how to direct anything. It was a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of thing. So they gave me the opportunity to direct my first commercial.”

Blackground Records

“All my friends from college came over to my apartment during the MTV awards that year, and the commercial came on, and everyone was cheering. And I got this high; that was so cool. I got to direct and have full control over something. It wasn't one of these big blockbusters like Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean and all the films I was working on, but I got this rush of having more creative control over something. So that was [when I got the] directing bug, this Aaliyah commercial, and it was a great, big first opportunity. And so I thank Aaliyah for that.”