As seen in SAWeekend Magazine, 2015
TANIA Debono will never forget the moment she crashed her boss’s new Audi into a boulder. It was like a scene from Hollywood flick The Devil Wears Prada; Debono was the new kid on the block at top Sydney PR agency NAC. Her boss, Nikki Andrews, was attending an event with then Vogue editor Kirstie Clements and the young director’s assistant was en route to pick them up. “I have never been so stressed,” says the wide-eyed blonde. “I went around the block to make sure I picked her up on the passenger side because the driver’s side was where the damage was.”
Debono was mortified. “I thought ‘What have I done? I’m going to go home… I’m going to get shipped off back to Adelaide. How am I going to pay for this? This car is worth more than I’ll make in a whole entire year’.” She stops for breath. “To have the editor of Vogue in the car… I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or just jump out and run!” Instead, she stood as tall as her pint-sized stature would allow and confessed.
To her surprise her boss was unperturbed and told her to have an early minute and enjoy a glass of champagne.
It is a tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve that made the now 28-year-old pocket rocket a social media hit. Her Instagram feed “TheWriting” has a global following of more than 84,000 people (and rising). Fans include celebrities P. Diddy, Lara Bingle, Miranda Kerr and media and fashion heavyweights Vogue,marie claire, Harper’s Bazaar US and Australia, The New York Times, MTV, The Coveteur and London Liberty Store.
What is it about this Instagram feed that makes people click “like”? Quotes. Simple, heartfelt, handwritten catchphrases inspired by life.
Words like “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”, “rise and shine”, “You’re weird, I like you” and “in trust we trust” hit a nerve with strangers across the globe. Not bad for a former Adelaide law student.
Debono was born in Seaton, South Australia, studied Law and Media at the University of Adelaide and aspired to be a family lawyer. “One day I woke up and thought ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life’,” she says.
Her parents weren’t thrilled.
“I had it ingrained in me that I start things and never finish them. I don’t think that’s the case… I think I just keep starting the wrong things,” Debono says.
At the time she was dating an Adelaide United soccer player and while accompanying him to radio station FIVEaa for sport-related interviews, fell head over high heels for the medium. Before long she was helping out at DMG Radio, then Channel 7 where she was “thrown into the thick of it” researching and presenting. At 23 she found herself camped out at Adelaide Airport in hope of an encounter with Princess Mary. “No one knew when her flight was coming in and I remember jumping in a car with the cameraman hanging out of the window – chasing Princess Mary down Anzac Highway.” She laughs. “I remember when the bikie riots happened I had to go interview them… I was in a pub on Gouger St with all these bikies and was like ‘So… I love your rings’.”
During her early 20s Debono also started a blog. “Back when blogging wasn’t big,” she says. “I needed a creative outlet.”
When her boyfriend moved to NSW to play football she went too. “I was flying there every week and was starting to get a taste of the Sydney lifestyle,” she says. “I was meeting a lot of bloggers through social media and would go to their events. I started making a lot of connections and decided to make the jump.”
The relationship failed but Debono stayed and accepted a PR job at NAC for which she had no experience. “They looked after Tiffany and Louis Vuitton. I had to be part of it but all I had on my side was the fact that I was a nice person and was willing to do anything and work anywhere,” she says. “She (boss Nikki Andrews) only ever hired girls from this prestigious school in Sydney so I was the outsider. They were all very well off – dripping in Hermes. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
What she did have on her side was digital skills. “They made a role for me assisting them during fashion week… I was there morning, noon and night.”
It wasn’t all catwalks and glamour. Debono was out of her depth, lived in a shoebox and was desperately homesick.
“If you love something that much, you learn it. I didn’t know any of the streets in Sydney so I used to walk them constantly just so I knew where I was going. I needed to know the place like the back of my hand, to be immersed in this world and nothing was going to stop me.”
After NAC (and the car crash) she was poached by Sydney PR agency Tailor Made where she worked with clients such as Sportsgirl, Sydney Fashion Week, model and television personality Lara Bingle, and American television personality, fashion designer and author Whitney Port.
“I’ve never worked harder in my life,” she says. “A lot of responsibility was thrown in my lap. I was working with Lara on her social media for her TV show (Being Lara Bingle). She and I became quite close because we were working together so tightly in this stressful environment – she was going through break-ups and things like that.”
Meanwhile, Debono was having issues of her own. “I felt like I was working ridiculous hours. It was intense,” she says. “I needed an outlet and I just didn’t have the time to blog anymore. That’s when I started TheWriting.”
As a means of self-motivation, Debono began writing little quips inspired by her emotions and observations.
“As selfish as it sounds, the only reason I was doing it was to give faith to myself.”
Using a Sharpie (permanent marker) she filled notebooks with scribbles and uploaded them to Instagram account @TheWriting. There was, and continues to be, no Photoshopping – just pen to paper and a simple photograph uploaded wherever she happens to be at the time.
“I’d write them everywhere – on the back of bits of cardboard… people liked it.”
Bingle liked it too and re-grammed a few of her favourite quotes. “I had about 1000 (followers) in a week,” Debono says.
Looking back now, that figure is small-fry but the more black and white words she uploaded, the more traction her humble social media account gained.
“TheWriting started getting attention from overseas,” she says. “The Coveteur started re-posting my stuff. They’re huge.”
The Coveteur is a pair of American bloggers who go into celebrities’ abodes and take pictures of their designer threads in peculiar places. They have more than 487,000 followers for their efforts.
“They’ll go into Kim Kardashian or Victoria Beckham’s house and get all their Chanel and Yves St Laurent handbags and put shoes on the stove top or a bag in the oven,” Debono explains.
When Debono posted the quote “I think I’ll be happy today” American rapper P. Diddy took note.
“I was sitting in the back yard when P. Diddy re-grammed me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I went and celebrated with dumplings!” she says.
This down-to-earth nature is the key to Debono’s success. These days she runs brand and public relations, communications and social media strategy business CAKE. Despite the pressures of running her own business, she makes time to answer every comment on TheWriting’s Instagram feed. “The reason they’re engaging is because I engage back with them. I connect with every single person,” she says.
She also sells prints and has a backlog of requests for commissions. “What you don’t see on Instagram is the emails from people saying things like ‘I was about to kill myself and then I read one of your quotes and changed my mind’.” She pauses and shakes her head. “It brings me to tears.”
The art world is taking note, too. In March this year, Debono was invited to produce a large-scale installation as part of The Cool Hunter’s The Art Hunter exhibition in Sydney. “I used to follow The Cool Hunter (blog) which is probably why I’m not in law school anymore,” she laughs.
The exhibition was a dream come true. “They gave me a 3m x 3m space and I could do whatever I wanted,” she says. “I had a bright pink floor and sat there for 55 hours painting my heart out.
“It was my chance to do something amazing, tangible and not just on Instagram. That was the biggest thing that has ever happened to me – to see my name on a plaque: Tania Debono, artist.”
Plaques aside, the term “artist” is one she struggles with. “It’s not typography, I’m not a sign-writer,” she says. “I’m doing something that people like. I feel like there’s amazing people out there and I just got lucky. I don’t know what to call myself, I just call myself a creative.”
This month, Debono returned from her temporary New York base for her solo exhibition based on a true story at Lane Four at The Galeries in Sydney.
“It spans over 10m wide and brings typography to the next level,” she says.
Debono also applied her handiwork to the latest issue of marie claire UK and unveiled her first release of stationery with Adelaide-based stationery specialists AHD Paper Co. She also is working with Lululemon Athletica on its window displays, is talking to MTV US about collaborative projects and was chosen as one of four creative influencers to front the new Bespecd Eyewear campaign. She is also a brand ambassador for MTN (Montana Colors) and Krink NYC (inks and markers).
“It’s weird – TheWriting has become a brand,” she says. “Everything on that page is from the heart; I feel like there’s too much negativity in this world so I guess it was just a way to put out some good vibes.”
The future is as bright as it is black and white for this modest homegrown artist. “When I’m passionate about something nothing can stop me… I don’t care what anyone thinks, what anyone says or what I look like. I just go for it.”