LatinoLA.com not only tells stories of established artists; we also have an eye for up-and-coming talent and love to hear about their struggles and advancement toward someday making the 'A' list.
Actress, model and musician Cindy Vela is one of those artists we feel is destined for major stardom.
Two days ago Cindy told me that, "I've just landed the role of a detention teacher in a film called, 'Endgame' which is inspired by true events in Brownsville, Texas. It is an inspirational coming of age story that follows a young boy who stumbles into the school chess program and finds himself in the spotlight for the first time in his life.. It is a story that focus's on all that is positive about a great educational program. As a former educator, I'm very proud to be a part of this project. We start filming in April"
Cindy was born in Brownsville, Texas. At the age of ten, when she took an interest in music her father handed her a family owned saxophone. Throughout her high school years she was very involved academically and won numerous awards in music competitions.
Vela attended the University of Texas. While in school, she became lead saxophonist in both the top jazz band and concert band. She participated at national and international concerts and competitions giving her the opportunity to open shows for legends Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Jose Feliciano.
In college, Cindy caught the eye of photographers; she started modeling and appearing in commercials. Upon receiving a Bachelor of Arts in music education, she went on to become a Texas middle school band director.
Vela moved to Los Angeles as a print model. She can be seen on covers and spreads for magazines including Motorola, Wells Fargo, O.P.I. and Kellogg's. She continued to work on her music and acting as well. While in Los Angeles, Vela met fashion designer, Ximena Valero and the two began a designer/model collaboration. Cindy is a fit model and a runway model for Valero's fashion shows and was recently named the "Face of Ximena Valero Fashion."
Cindy has appeared on stage, television and film. Stage work include Father of the Bride, Let the Eagle Fly and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, which was written and produced by award-winning author Ray Bradbury. Cindy worked on a pilot with directors Robert Ben Garant and Tomas Lennon of Reno 911 and she later played the title role of Desdemona in the award-winning film Desdemona: A Love Story.
Cindy created controversy around the world with an internet video called "Exhibit B-5" AKA Girl Dies which had millions searching for answers to her life and identity. The virtual world thought she was killed on camera. To help answer questions, Vela had a sit down interview for MSNBC's Caught on Camera that aired in January of 2012.
She recently teamed up with the Exhibit B-5 director again for two other films: Nuclear Family and Polterguy. Cindy still plays the alto saxophone but recently collaborated with Jelly Whale Entertainment as a singer; she plans to release her first single Higher later this year.
LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor Al Carlos Hernandez was introduced to Cindy at the ALMA awards this year. It was good to chat with her once again.
Al Carlos: Tell us about growing up in Texas. I understand you are from a relatively rural area and that you are very close to your dad.
Cindy Vela: I grew up in a rural area of south Texas outside the city of Brownsville. Instead of taxis, subways or large buildings I grew up surrounded by farmland and ranches that included horses, cattle, chickens and dogs. Our extended family is large in number and very close, literally living within walking distance from each other. My closest friends are my family members. I miss them tremendously.
Al Carlos: Did your ethnicity color your view of life as you were growing up?
Cindy Vela: About 80% of the population in my area is Hispanic and as such the culture, language and ideals were a direct representation. My parents stressed that my education was a priority and I was not to deviate from it. They would also emphasize an important work ethic.
Al Carlos: I'm told you were given a saxophone belonging to your family and that you took a liking to it. Didn't they consider a sax nontraditional for a little girl?
Cindy Vela: It was the end of my 5th grade year and I'd thought about joining the middle school band program. I wanted to play the flute or clarinet but my father handed me an alto saxophone that had once belonged to my cousin. I didn't care what instrument it was at that point, as long as I could be in band! I loved it and played as much as I could.
Al Carlos: What kind of music did your folks play around the house? How has the music you listened to influenced your musical palate as a performer?
Cindy Vela: We listened to Tejano and country music in my home. I remember my father would play music loudly very early on Saturday mornings. It was as if I was waking up to a party. Although it annoyed me at the time, now I look back with fondness and laughter. When I was in school we would play selections from composers Purcell, Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Paganini, Rossini, Berlioz, Liszt, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Elgar, Puccini, Debussy. . . and those are just the ones I remember as I'm answering. Not to mention all the selections we would play in our jazz program. The variety of music I would listen to and perform was staggering. I'm grateful to have had such a colorful sounding world.
Al Carlos: What was the first tune you learned on the sax? Tell us about the moment when you realized that you wanted to be a performer.
Cindy Vela: I don't remember what my first song was. It was probably Mary Had a Little Lamb or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star since I learned how to play while in the school band. Through the schools band program I was able to travel around the country performing in concerts and competitions. I wasn't sure that I wanted to play music as a profession but I knew that I absolutely LOVED playing and I wouldn't stop.
Al Carlos: I understand you were an A student and won some music competitions. Did you have go-to songs that you knew were winning numbers?
Cindy Vela: The songs I would compete with were in the classical or jazz genres. In our schooling, we had to keep top grades in order to keep playing and performing. I was very involved academically as well in clubs and organizations. It was fun to keep busy and I believe that it kept me and many other students out of trouble.
Al Carlos: Tell us about your days at University of Texas. You must have had major chops to become the lead sax player in the jazz and concert bands.
Cindy Vela: I wasn't sure that I wanted to major in music but I wanted to play while in university. I met the school's jazz professor and asked if I could play in the band. He then persuaded me to take a few music classes. Once I did, the music got a hold of me and I couldn't think about majoring in anything else. It was the best decision I made and I thank my professor, Terry Tomlin, for it.
Al Carlos: Which genre do you prefer: jazz or traditional?
Cindy Vela: I absolutely love them both. They have stunningly beautiful qualities within each and the subcategories in them; whether it is Latin jazz and swing or a piano concerto and a large orchestral piece, they cannot be compared to one another.
Al Carlos: Tell us about some of the gigs where you opened for Jose Feliciano, Celia Cruz and Tito Puente.
Cindy Vela: These were amazing experiences. I would still get nervous but was used to performing in front of crowds. It was AFTER the performance when I would see and hear these Latin jazz greats performing that I would become speechless. I knew that what I was seeing was special and could never be duplicated. I could only hope that one day I would touch as many people with my art as they did.
Al Carlos: Do you think because of your stunning looks that perhaps people didn't/don't take you seriously as a musician? Whom would you like to perform/collaborate with?
Cindy Vela: People are skeptical and it isn't about a person's looks. I think it is because there are so many artists trying their hand in this industry. When people do learn about my musicianship they are often surprised - especially when they find out which instrument I play. The feedback has been positive and I was recently asked to be a part of a Latin jazz orchestra. I want to see what other avenues I can use my skills in whether it be performing with artists like Mumford & Sons, Ray LaMontagne, Harry Connick Jr, Michael Buble, Wynton Marsalis or Marc Anthony. The list is diverse but a lady can dream, can't she?
Al Carlos: Tell us about working at a middle school after graduation. How was it working with kids?
Cindy Vela: I'm a large goofball myself so being able to identify with them was easy for me. Providing over 200 students a year who were between the ages of 11-14 with education, having them trust you to make them the best they can be on their instrument, giving them goals, having them abide by the rules of my classroom/school and keeping them focused while having it be fun and expressive was a task for me and I loved it. Those years of teaching came with some difficulties but I learned from them. It's helped me become the person I am.
Al Carlos: Have your looks been a help or a hindrance? I'll ask you the same question in regard to your Latina heritage.
Cindy Vela: My looks can vary. Some days I look like I am 18 years of age and others days I look 30. My look has definitely been a help as I like being able to play different roles whether it be on film or modeling projects. The Latin market has exploded in recent years and the work being offered to Latinos has increased. Thankfully I have been able to reap the benefits of such growth with the work I have landed.
Al Carlos: Is there still such a thing as a 'casting couch' which entices young women to sleep their way to the top?
Cindy Vela: Interesting. Other than the public making jokes of 'casting couches,' I haven't heard actually stories about it. There have been a few times where I've encountered a person who uses their status or projects as a way to get me interested in them. It is unfortunate. I walk away and don't speak to them again.
Al Carlos: How do you avoid be treated differently because of your movie star looks?
Cindy Vela: I don't consider myself as having movie star looks. I should post a photo of what I look like in the morning! (laughing) I look just like anyone else and I don't think I'm treated any differently. It takes time and effort for me to get 'ready.'
Al Carlos: How did the whole modeling thing get started? What were your first print ad and first TV shoot?
Cindy Vela: When I was a student at the university I decided to join a pageant. I was told I needed a photo for the program book. Eventually I found a local photographer who would give me photos in exchange for practicing his photography skills using me. I used these photos to enter a modeling competition which I won. The prize was to fly to another state for a photo shoot and be in a print campaign for a clothing company. Other photographers took notice of my work and asked to shoot with me. My work became better and better as I learned about the process and what it was that I wanted to convey.
Al Carlos: What prompted you to move to LA? How did your family feel about this?
Cindy Vela: I was on a one week vacation in Los Angeles. During my stay I was approached by an agency who wanted to rep me - I took a meeting with them and decided to give it a try. I had already accomplished my goal of receiving a degree and teaching students. This opportunity to do something different was one I had to try. I didn't want any regrets when looking back on my life. I told my father and he initially told me I was crazy, but after some time he knew I was ready to be on my own.
Al Carlos: How was it when you first came to LA?
Cindy Vela: I moved to LA on a bright day in August around six years ago. It was my first time moving away from home and I felt nervous, excited and passionate. I am thankful for every moment since moving - both the good and the not-so-good.
Al Carlos: Describe the working relationship you have with designer Ximena Valero.
Cindy Vela: Designer Ximena Valero and I met on a shoot in which she was providing her designs and I was modeling. I was asked to be a fit model for her and later became the 'Face of Ximena Valero fashion.' I inspired some of her designs and she has inspired me with her creativity and ideas. It has been a great collaboration and we will keep working together. Now I see her as a sister - I support her as much as much as she supports me.
Al Carlos: Describe your first acting gig. Which platform do you prefer the most: stage, TV, or film? Why?
Cindy Vela: I remember performing on stage for Father of the Bride and the feelings were exhilarating. Would I forget my lines? Would I fall? Would I hit my mark on stage? Would I give the best performance I could? At the end of the day it didn't matter as long as I did the best I could. Every performance was slightly different in the way I delivered the material and it helped me understand acting. In film the process is much longer. The performance has to be carried throughout weeks or months. It can be exhausting but the outcome to move and entertain people is just as extraordinary. Both platforms are wonderful in their prospective ways and it would be difficult to choose a favorite.
Al Carlos: You are probably most famous for the internet video "Exhibit B- 5" (AKA Girl Dies). Tell us about that.
Cindy Vela: Director Kyle Rankin was looking for an actress to play the small role of Rachel. A mutual friend mentioned my name and connected the two of us. I read the script and even though the role had little to no lines, I really wanted to work with this particular cast and crew. We shot the whole thing in one day and my portion of the project only took about two hours. When I saw the finished product I was stunned at how realistic it was. I didn't know it would become as popular as it did. It is surreal to overhear strangers talking about it in public. Just a few days ago someone said, "YOU'RE THAT GIRL RACHEL!"
Al Carlos: How did it feel to be interviewed by MSNBC?
Cindy Vela: Being interviewed by MSNBC gave me a good indication of how large 'Exhibit B-5' was becoming in the U.S. The public had become aware of the project and was seeking out the truth. I truly realized the magnitude of the short film when media outlets from other countries were asking me for interviews. I still get nervous on interviews but am happy to share how we created the film.
Al Carlos: Is it difficult to break into the whole Hollywood scene? Do you think being a Latina is a help or a hindrance?
Cindy Vela: It's a tough industry no matter what ethnicity you are. There are thousands of people here, you just have to do your job, do it well and eventually you will get noticed. It may take some time but it will happen if you don't give up.
Al Carlos: Whom do you wish to model your career after? Who is your favorite musician, actor, educator?
Cindy Vela: I have a list of actors and/or musicians that I believe are truly great at what they do. I think Harry Connick Jr has done a wonderful job as both an actor and musician. I'm not sure if he's a model or educator though. (smiling) I don't know if there have been many musician, actor, model, educator people - and if not, I hope to be the first.
AC: I understand you just came back to LA after four months away in Texas due to a family emergency. How has that experience changed you?
Cindy Vela: Three of my family members were in a car accident. Two of them were my uncles (one of which passed away) and the third person was my father. I immediately flew back to Texas to help him recover. I debated whether or not I would return to Los Angeles but my father - who once said I was crazy for wanting to move out there - said, "This is what you do, now go and do it." You always hear people talk about how short life is and how you need to enjoy it but it wasn't until that moment that I realized I wanted to - needed to - experience life and make the most of it. I know I will be guided and taken care of.
Al Carlos: What kinds of film and TV projects do you have lined up?
Cindy Vela: I have three films lined up: a drama, a comedy and a horror film. I'm extremely excited about what this year has to offer. I know it will be the best yet.
Al Carlos: What are your plans musically?
Cindy Vela: Play as much as I can and get better at my instrument. I intend to learn how to play the guitar and I want to collaborate with amazing musicians to create outstanding works of music that others will enjoy.
Al Carlos: What are the most important things you hope to achieve in life?
Cindy Vela: Happiness with myself and my work (whatever work I chose to create), to keep creating, to inspire others and to love and support my family.
Al Carlos: Where do you think you will be in ten years?
Cindy Vela: (as per the prior question above) I know I will be happy with myself and the work I have created. I will still be creating. I will be an inspiration to others and my family will be happy and healthy.
Al Carlos: The people in Europe don't know you yet. What they can expect from you?
Cindy Vela: I am an artist who lives to love, laugh and create. Expect to hear from me whether it is through film, music or images - I hope to touch you in some way.
Al Carlos: How can people contact you, see some of your modeling pictures and listen to your music?
Cindy Vela: You can contact me through my agency or find some of my work on my website: www.CindyVela.com as well as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@CindyVela).
Al Carlos: Any secrets?
Cindy Vela: Other things you may not know about me? I love sweets. I love getting excited about the little things in life. I love fantasy and science fiction films/books. Really! And to prove it, I have Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as the wallpaper on my phone.