As part of our Auckland Pride 2024 offerings, bad apple is publishing a series of profiles on local queer business owners with the goal of introducing our audience to new faces, and places, to shop with.
In our first interview for the series, Sarah Kreig (SK) speaks with Cam Yates (CY).
Cam Yates is the person behind sybs – hot gay handmade candles. Despite living in Tāmaki Makaurau, he has carved out a sanctuary for himself next to the lush greenery of Grey Lynn Park. His home is quiet. There is a large backyard with overgrowth and a cat. He tells me he isn’t really a big city boy.
CY: I don’t like things that are too busy. It feels very [hands shaking either side of his head].
SK: Sounds like anxiety.
CY: Yeah, I think that’s what they call it. I do find it quite overwhelming sometimes. I like staying at home. Or creating a space where I don’t feel that anxiety. This house definitely feels like that for me—very sanctuary vibes.
SK: Did you feel that you had that growing up in Lower Hutt?
CY: No. But there were pockets of it. You collect these little spaces for yourself; especially, as a queer person. Like queer people hiding in the library, or in the drama room, or hanging out with your English teacher during lunchtime.
SK: I can see how those spaces would create sanctuary because you are there in order to see the world in a different way.
CY: I used to go to the Hutt library every single weekend and I would get out a stack of books and devour them across the week. I’m definitely not the only queer person who had a Wicca phase. I remember checking those books out just feeling self-conscious about the fact that I was getting these weird books out. But it did feel like there’s a correlation between that and queerness. That was a first step that felt accessible at that time.
But it was also the connection to nature for me. I would make little potions. Just with random leaves and flowers and maybe some lemon juice and then mixing it all up. I’d put it on my windowsill overnight during a full moon.I think it was a way of expressing creativity that was relatively safe and didn’t draw attention. Because I was very hidden away. My queerness was not out there.
SK: And now what you do is you make potions for people in a very ‘out there’ way.
CY: I can’t believe I’ve never had a warning from Instagram before, but I just got my first one. It’s a photo of me standing in the pool, and there is a star and a candle over my butt. It’s definitely not the most risque photo I’ve put on Instagram. I’m just out here trying to make cool shit. The whole social media thing? I hate it. Even though it appears that I love it. I find it very pressureful. When something that’s so restrictive is your way of connecting with people and getting them to pay your bills? That’s so frustrating. There’s so many rules that they change and they don’t tell you.
SK: The vibe I’m getting from you is that the life you’re trying to create for yourself is one where you have time to think and contemplate things.
CY: Really, I just hate working. Doing tasks that I’m not invested in, I feel, is quite hard. Which sounds really bratty. Maybe that’s my inner critic.
I worked at Outline Aotearoa prior to going full-time with my candles. I worked there for nearly three years. It was really good at first. You see it with everyone that comes into that space. You have this drive and this passion because you’re queer and you want to change the world and make it better for everyone. But then slowly it destroys you a little bit.
SK: Especially if you’re not being given adequate tools to look after yourself as well. You need a lot of looking after in a role like that.
CY: It’s funny because I think organisations like that are like a formalised version of what queer people have been doing for each other forever. Which is very cool, but it’s not organic. It’s a clashing of capitalism and care and I don’t think we have figured out how to navigate supporting people working in these roles.
I was the person that was getting the money as well, and having the ideas that I have, it caused me a lot of discomfort. I went from being this really, really angry younger queer person, being like, ‘fuck the police‘’—I still hold true to that, obviously—to having to work with big companies. Because we needed their money. And it’s this yucky thing. Because the reality is that they have the money. So if I had to flirt with some rich person in this company that had access to that wealth, then maybe the payoff is okay. But I was looking at it as though there were only two sides to it, and I was the between. It did end up having a negative impact on me, and I had to stop.
I also think it doesn’t have to be figured out. Over the past, maybe, eight to ten years of social shifts and awareness there’s this real want to be right and certain and nail it. And I think, actually, maybe with some things it doesn’t need to be that. Maybe it’s just a conversation that we have about how we struggle to reconcile these things, rather than that constant pressure we have, especially as queer people, to problem-solve everything. Which kind of does feel more interesting, in a way. I feel like that’s community building.
SK: So were you already making candles while you were working at Outline?
CY: My mum used to make them. She would send me up boxes of just the most beautiful candles. They were always in Agee jars. Just gorge. I had so many of them, and friends would always comment on them and be like, “Oh, can your mum make one for me?” And I’d gatekeep them. Because, no, these are my special candles from mum. I’m not giving them to anyone. And then I thought, maybe I could try making them. So she taught me how to do it. The first ones I made were . . . well, they worked. But they were shit. I was using cheap cotton-type wicks and I was using jam jars. I was like, “I’m such an eco-warrior. I’m gonna recycle these jars.”
SK: You were actually also solving climate change.
“Originally, I just wanted to be really witchy. I really love Practical Magic. It’s a great movie. I really wanted Sandra Bullock’s shop where she does all the hand creams and shampoos and stuff.”
CY: This is going to make me sound like such an edgelord, but I didn’t want to do it like other people. You can go to any market and there are all of these different types of candle companies who have got these big labels all over them. They’re all single-use. So I moved on to Agee jars. They were prettier and at that point I could get them for relatively cheap.
I was originally called Branch Supplies. I thought it sounded witchy but it’s also the first letter of all of my siblings’ names put together. When I started, my candles were very cheap. I was selling a 200ml candle for $20. I was just selling them to make them. Even though I was losing money it was a really good way for me to experiment and test things.
The price has always irked me and made me feel uncomfortable. I feel guilty when people buy my candles because there’s this discomfort I have with people giving me money for this thing that I’ve said is good and worthwhile of their money. So I think when people buy it, there’s this guilt plus being really stoked. It’s a very complicated feeling.
For the past 10 years, I’ve been unemployed a lot. There was a point in 2019 when I was living with my parents in Greytown in the Wairarapa and I wasn’t working. I was like, “Well, I need to do something so maybe I should take this more seriously and try to create a brand out of it.”
I went to Arthur Holmes, which is a bottle and jar distribution company in Lower Hutt and I found these jars, and they’re cosmetic grade, so the thickness is perfect for heating. It can be used multiple times. I think I’d already moved to wooden wicks by that point. I’ve done that same look since 2019. And then I changed the name to sybs. It’s an abbreviation of siblings, but I dropped the Y in there to reference queer siblings.
SK: I like that. That’s very good. Do you have a favourite scent?
CY: It always alternates between The Woods and Salted Peach. The Woods is the first one I ever did. Um, and it, I’ve got three of them in my room. So I think that’s a pretty good indicator. Salted Peach was the first one that I ever blended myself. So that’s a special one. And it’s the gayest one.
Originally, I just wanted to be really witchy. I really love Practical Magic. It’s a great movie. I really wanted Sandra Bullock’s shop where she does all the hand creams and shampoos and stuff.
SK: So good. As someone who worked at Lush for a while, I can understand.
“Jacob Elrodi’s bath water is something people want to possess. Which I find boring, But drain juice?! Nobody wants to drink from the drain, but when you’re obsessed with someone, you do some crazy shit.”
CY: Oh my god, me too. So that was the starting thing, and then I started getting really annoyed at that as an influence. I feel like there was this really sharp rise in white-witch-girl-boss vibes. Suddenly everyone was into tarot cards, astrology, crystals, and spells, thinking they were connected to the earth, but I think there’s a lot of lack of awareness there that made me uncomfortable. So I was like, I’m gonna drop this. Queerness felt much more interesting to me, but I just wanted to have fun and not take myself seriously. And it is still a bit magic. I mean you’re creating this fire container. That’s pretty fucking cool.
I wanted to do what I wanted to do and reference some queer shit. ‘Hot gay handmade candles’ on my signage was a split-second decision that has turned into the official tagline. I get some really interesting reactions. especially at the Central Flea where it’s a really diverse range of the attendees. I think straight middle-aged guys respond the best. They love it. It’s this little, playful joke. It tickles something in them that hasn’t been tickled. Interestingly, gay men are my lowest demographic, so many of them just want nudes or ‘special’ candles. And I’ve got things like Salted Peach, which was created in reference to, obviously, Call Me by Your Name. I think that’s maybe the overarching thing of sybs; if you know, you know. And if you don’t . . . well, fuck around and find out.
You know, Saltburn? I was watching that movie with my flatmate, and we were both like, “Oh my god, I should make a candle based on the scene where he is drinking from the bath!” And then all of these candles come out. But I’m still going to do it. But it is gonna be called Drain Juice. Because it’s not aspirational. Jacob Elrodi’s bath water is something people want to possess. Which I find boring, But drain juice?! Nobody wants to drink from the drain, but when you’re obsessed with someone, you do some crazy shit.
SK: I feel like Drain Juice is the working-class name for that.
CY: A hundred percent. Yeah. And I think that’s embracing silliness and cringeness, not being afraid to be bit of a goof is something I’m trying to cultivate more. Not being so self-conscious or worrying what the fashion gays think.
SK: It’s an expression of queer joy. We’ve grown up with laughter being something that’s weaponised against us. So to be able to laugh at ourselves is just so empowering.
CY: It’s so delightful. And it’s giving us this moment of joy and not having to think about serious things. I always talk about how I just want to be a slug. I just want to have no thoughts and roll around on the concrete. I think that having a bit of a lol is the next best thing.
SK: That’s anti-capitalist work, actually.
CY: Thank you. One of, best things is that people are always telling me the craziest personal stories. Someone messaged me while they had just got to a hookup’s house, and they were like, “Oh my god, there’s a sybs candle next to my hookup’s bed, Now I know this was the right decision coming home with them!”
SK: That is incredible. I love that. Speaking of hookups, you’ve got a collab coming up.
CY: I do, I do! HUD app reached out, which is crazy. They are creating 50 gift boxes and sending them all over the world. I assume to influencers, that’s what people do, right? So I’ve created three samples for them that I think they are going to be obsessed with.
I did the same for Atomic Coffee last year for their Christmas gift. People get so excited about it. I was sitting around a table with a whole bunch of their team and they were all passing them around and it was very validating. They were like, “Oh my God, they’re all so good!”
It was the same with kiosk as well. I did a collab with them and also Neat Cakes. I think the collab thing has been the coolest thing that has come out of doing this full-time and having the time to indulge the creativity of scent as opposed to just the creativity of the brand.
A lot of the time everything I do is pretty chaotic. Scent choices often are made very chaotically and last minute. Sometimes I’ll create a new scent in five minutes. Not to say that I’m a scent genius, but sometimes I’m not getting to pay that much attention to it because I have to make 300 candles and get all these orders out. Being busy is obviously a good problem to have. But this morning I just sat down at my desk and just got everything out and was just like, “Okay, what are we doing here?” With a hundred bottles just ready to be mixed together.
SK: Just out of nowhere it just hits you and yeah and you are just compelled. It requires a certain level of space to allow that to happen. If you don’t have contemplative time or the emotional and spiritual space to do that, it won’t happen.
CY: I actually saw a video about creative people and it was talking about how being an artist and doing creative things has become a really upper class thing. Because when you’re working class or when you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have the luxury of having that time and space. And so even though I’m white-knuckling it week to week, I feel there is a sense of satisfaction having made that decision and carved out that space. That sanctuary.
All photos courtesy of Cam Yates.