Matarai Aya is now a reality TV star, a model, founder of a fashion label, and a creative director. She is 21 years old.
This multi-hyphenated career seems to be the fate of Netflix’s reality show, Terrace House’s cast members. Amongst them, Arisa Ohata from the 2015 instalment of the show came up with her own hat and clothing brands; Seina Shimabukuro from the 2018 batch is in the midst of launching her own fashion line named WDOT, while her fellow, Matarai Aya, launched an online clothing line, Stella Viana, after she graduated from the show — and into a whole new chapter of her life.
The tanned, chirpy and extroverted Aya starred in Netflix’s 2018 instalment of Terrace House, a long-running Japanese reality show which has been airing on Japanese terrestrial television channel, Fuji Television, since 2012. It has a simple yet addictive plot — six strangers (three males and three females) move into a sprawling house, complete with squabbles and friction, most often in seek of romance and fame.
It was already a well-received reality show in Japan. Yet, when Netflix started producing and airing it around the globe, the show propelled to new heights. Little wonder why Matarai Aya applied to be casted for the show. “Terrace House was a programme that I’ve loved and admired since the early days,” says Aya over an email correspondence with ELLE Singapore.
Really, Aya wasn’t just signing herself up for romance. She wanted to find a footing in life. “Since I hadn’t lived alone apart from my parents before, I wanted to live independently and apart from them,” she says.
Aya moved into the shared house located in Karuizawa, Japan, mid-way through the show, in May 2018. Her first episode launched globally on Netflix four months later in September.
“Hello, I’m moving in today,” Aya said in her first appearance. “I’m Matarai Aya!” As she walked into the house with a beaming smile, her fellow housemate, Takayuki Nakamura, couldn’t help but note, “You’re very cheerful — bursting with energy.” Within the first few minutes, she confessed that she has been watching Takayuki on television and took interest in him. “I think you’re very attractive,” she said candidly. She, too, took the initiative to ask Takayuki out on their first date in the very next episode.
Whether Aya was aware of it or not, her words shocked her fellow cast members, the show’s commentators, and the audiences alike. With her unassuming frankness, Aya upturned some unspoken social boundaries that have, for a long time, bound women to silence and passivity in romantic relationships and society. It was refreshing and it declared a new state of womanhood to the world.
GQ Taiwan quickly zeroed in on Aya with a headline describing her as an “adorable sunshine girl”. The Hong Kong-based A Day Magazine ran an entire feature in praise of Aya’s unapologetic pursuit of her romantic interests.
Yet, beneath it all, Aya was a 20-year-old. Behind cameras, she was worried about how she was going to now make her own lunches, do her own chores and laundry. She was, too, shocked by how alien it felt to move into a life of her own. “Initially, I felt uncomfortable about living in an unfamiliar house with unfamiliar people,” says Aya. “I became homesick. I wanted to see my family.”
Her optimism tided her through the stay. “My personality is always positive. I’m always smiling. I want to be the kind of girl who is able to make the people around her be in a good mood,” she says.
Yet, on camera, she almost seemed too good to be true.
“Dignity and character became important to me,” Aya explains herself. To her, the world was watching and the last thing she wanted was to let down fellow Japanese women with yet another bad representation.
So she tried to treat everyone with kindness. “I learnt the importance of being caring toward others,” recounts Aya. That wasn’t Aya’s only takeaway. “And of living a life in which I do the things I want — and have no regrets.”
Her fellow cast members were all pursuing their dreams — be it in the modelling industry, the local music scene, professional snowboarding, professional makeup, or in university. It made her want to do the same.
At this juncture, Aya was already getting paid to endorse products and brands on her personal Instagram feed. But she wanted to be more than an influencer. On the show, she set up a meeting with the founder of this public relations agency which has been feeding her with products, asking for a full-time internship instead. When that came round, she announced her departure from the show. “You know, I’m starting the internship in September,” she told her roommate, Yui Tanaka.
In mid-August 2018, three and a half months after she moved in, Aya left the house in pursuit of her career.
“I returned to my real home and talked a lot about the things I’ve learnt in Terrace House with my family,” says Aya. “In order to find out what I really wanted to do, I went to ask and listen to a lot of stories from people who were involved in the things I was interested in.” Those things were beauty, fashion and modelling.
“The modelling dream came true,” says Aya. “I realised the fun in expressing myself through fashion, so I wanted to start a fashion brand and I launched Stella Viana.”
Aya personally designs the clothes, accessories, and costume jewellery which are manufactured “in China and Japan”. To her, the label is for “active and happy” women in their teens and 20s, vibrant modern women who “are interested in things that sparkle” (“kira-kira”, as Aya literally says).
She’s basically describing herself. Through fashion, “I can show my personality. It’s an important element that makes my life fun,” she says.
It is, too, a way for her to interact with her fans. “I can now connect with more people all over the world through Stella Viana and its social media accounts,” Aya continues.
Now that she has fully redirected her attention to her fans and fashion label, what about her personal life?
“All of the Karuizawa members still hang out together,” she chirps.
When she realised I was asking about her romantic status, she sheepishly replied, “I was able to meet a wonderful man.”
Translation by Sinead Tan