Niki Byrne amazes with achievements before age of 30
What Niki Byrne has managed to accomplish before her 30th birthday next month is mind boggling.
While in high school at Laguna Blanca School in Hope Ranch, she was a serious soccer player and autocross racer. After graduation in 2009, she earned her bachelor’s degree in history and political science “with a sprinkling of astrophysics” at Boston University, started an employment agency in Geneva, learned to fly a helicopter in London, took acting classes in Santa Barbara, produced her first feature film in 2019, painted portraits of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and is currently writing screenplays and perfecting her photography skills.
Future plans include a trip around the globe in a tiny single-engine helicopter called a Robinson R22.
“It’s a totally absurd undertaking, and the last guy who tried it ended up fighting off polar bears in the North Atlantic, but it appeals to me because I’ve read too many books about Eddie Rickenbacker,” said the amazing Ms. Byrne during a phone interview from the home of her parents, John Byrne and Penny Kapousouz, in Montecito.
She visits frequently from her apartment in Koreatown in Los Angeles.
“Why Koreatown? I love the food. It’s close to everything, and it’s a great neighborhood, and it has good vibes.”
Racing cars began when she was ready for her first driver’s license at the age of 15½.
“My dad had worked for Porsche in Germany, and he insisted that I learn how to drive properly and in all kinds of conditions, so he sent me to the Skip Barber Racing School. I fell in love with auto racing. From the ages of 15 to 17, I drove in autocross events in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Laguna Seca in Salinas. I did pretty well,” said Ms. Byrne.
After graduating from Boston University, she stayed on the East Coast working in a variety of odd jobs — copywriter for an ad agency, chopping vegetables for a “Top Chef” winner and “interviewing for jobs I didn’t want.”
A year later, Ms. Byrne got an offer to work for FIA, the governing body of motorsports in Geneva.
“I was very excited to work closely with (and flirt) with so many of my racing heroes like Michele Mouton, the most accomplished female racing driver in history,” Ms. Byrne said. “She was just as wonderful in person as she was in my imagination.”
However, Ms. Byrne said she found herself in the “middle of a hierarchical French institution. It was a hilarious mismatch. I was a total bull in a china shop. They’re pretty serious about their pecking order over there, and I was a 22-year-old loud mouth from California. I was idealistic, overeager and brash, and I had no respect for the rules.
“When my boss needed to hire a secretary, I watched aghast as he flipped through resumes evaluating candidates by their appearance. In Switzerland, you have to attach a photo of yourself to the document. I was disgusted so I decided to start a company called BlindHire in 2015. It was a lot of fun.”
Ms. Byrne was also spending time in London with her boyfriend.
“He was a helicopter pilot, and I flew with him quite a bit. Someone said I should take a widow’s course in case something happened to him while we were in the air, and I needed to land the helicopter. Three weeks later, I had my helicopter license,” said Ms. Byrne, who now has her commercial license too.
In 2016, she decided to return to Santa Barbara to spend time with her family, which includes her older brother Julian, a helicopter instructor.
“I wrote a few films, took some acting classes and worked for Tiffany & Co. in La Cumbre Plaza,” said Ms. Byrne. “I also decided I wanted to be in the movie business as a director, which is why I took the acting classes with Peter Frisch. I saw a YouTube interview with the famous director Martin Scorcese, who said if you want to be a director, you need to take acting classes.”
She also helped her family cope with the destruction of their home in the Montecito foothills during the Thomas Fire in December 2017.
“Fortunately, we had evacuated and were staying at El Encanto Hotel, which took very good care of us. When the fire danger was over, we considered renting a house that was nearby our home that was lost. Then it was swept away in the debris flow. For two years, we rented a house in Toro Canyon, and now the four of us are living in the 800-square-foot guest house at our original home,” she said with a laugh.
In 2019, Ms. Byrne directed her first film, “Evan Wood,” which premiered this year at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
“The movie is about Rachel, a writing student in Los Angeles, who finds her life disrupted when she receives news of her grandmother’s passing. At the encouragement of a trusted professor, she goes home to process the family’s trauma through her writing,” said Ms. Byrne, whose current passion is photography.
“I was given a Leica camera, and it changed my life. I take a lot of portraits, some of which I use as references for oil paintings. The one I did of Anthony Bourdain hangs in my apartment in Koreatown. I will never ever sell it. I adored him. He was the coolest person. The portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg sold at Sullivan Goss Gallery,” said Ms. Byrne.
When asked how she has been able to achieve all that she has at such a young age, Ms. Byrne answered with wisdom beyond her years, “There are no smooth roads. Everything is a struggle. Writing is hard. Producing is exhausting. Racing is expensive, and flying is terrifying. The challenges are too numerous to count, but they are what make things interesting.
“Nobody goes into the film business because it’s going to be easy. Nobody flies because it’s inherently safe. Nobody goes racing because they are guaranteed a victory.
“We’re here because there’s an invisible, slippery, indefinable ladder somewhere , and it begs to be discovered and climbed.”