Everyday Heroes: Meet Janell Smith
Martial Artist, Producer, and CEO
“When I get involved with film projects, I want to make sure that I’m producing something with a message. The Slaves film is about human trafficking, so I started doing some research and was floored. It happens right under our noses right here in the United States. You truly don’t know about it unless you’re made aware.”
-Janell Smith, CEO Iron Dragon Productions
Janell Smith is a local Austin powerhouse: martial arts expert, stunt coordinator, producer, and CEO of Iron Dragon Productions. Still, Janell has found a way to use the art of Tukong to empower people of all ages with awareness and defense training.
Q: So you have multiple black belts and are a renowned martial arts instructor and stunt trainer. How did you get involved with martial arts?
A: I was raised by my grandparents in a strict Catholic household where little girls had to be little girls in a traditional sense, but I was a daddy’s girl. My father loved boxing and combative sports and would take me to events like wrestling matches. I’d tag along with dad wherever he went, so I think that the seed was planted as a little girl. As I got older, I became fascinated with martial arts. I was already involved in dance, drill team, cheerleading, basically anything with movement. I’m not a violent person. It is the the artistry of the forms that I love.To me, they looked like dance moves. Early in my career, I was teaching kick boxing and doing personal training at a gym part-time. I then met and started training with a coach in Taekwondo. I walked into a dojo and said teach me how to kick properly. I fell in love with the art and threw myself into training 4-5 hours a day on top of teaching classes. I got my Taekwondo black belt quickly, and ended up training with the Olympic Taekwondo team, becoming the 2002 National Taekwondo Champion. Shortly after, I changed my style to Tukong Moosul, which is what I do now. When I met my first Tukong master Jay Davis, he was actually a student at my kickboxing class. He showed me the form and it was beautiful. I had to learn it. There was so much artistry. Tukong is a truly self-defense focused martial arts. It teaches you that you do not have to hurt people to get out of situations. Years later I was introduced to the creator of the style, Grandmaster Wonik Yi, who actually taught at UT back in the 1980s. Here I am a few blackbelts later. I’m still training today because I am forever a student.
Q: You host amazing awareness and self-defense classes for people of all ages. How did you start to get into hosting these types of trainings?
A: I am passionate about sharing my knowledge and the fact that it can help people. I had a situation happen to me when I first had my blackbelt in Taekwondo which pushed me into learning a good self defense art, which is Tukong. A dear friend of mine was being a gentleman and walking me to my car. We had parked next to someone who for some reason started a fight with my friend. You know when you have that little feeling in your stomach that something is wrong? Listen to that feeling. Don’t ignore it. Sure enough, within 30 seconds he had approached my friend and got in his face. I went to stand in between them, trying to break it up. The assailant used me to block his punch and knocked my friend out. Luckily some police officers came into the area and broke up the situation, but my friend suffered a broken nose and fractured cheek bone. It happened so fast. You can be minding your own business, but there are times you are just pulled into something. It’s always good to be ready. To me, the self-defense art form Tukong is like insurance.
Q: What is your advice for young people today, especially women and girls navigating a world where they are often viewed and portrayed as sex objects?
A: I always tell women to be your true, genuine self. Don’t feel like you have to be anything other than you are and don’t let society tell you otherwise. This is a touchy subject for a lot of females. A friend of mine had lost weight and was anxious about the fact that her blouses were now loose and more revealing. She felt like men would think that she’s trying to show off, but you know what? I told her, you wear what you want to wear. Too many times women are afraid because clothing can be perceived as “giving the wrong message”, but it’s not what we wear that is the problem. It is the way some men react to our clothing and sexualize us that is the issue. I spent many years as a producer and martial artist worrying about being covered up and not sending the wrong message, but now if I want to wear this dress, then this is who I am. It’s not for you, it’s for me because I feel good in this.
Q: How did you hear about the issue of human trafficking and child exploitation?
A: I first heard about it through friend of mine that I’ve known through my production company, Susana Garza. I ended up producing a short film called Slaves with Larry Coulter, who is also a pilot for American Airlines. When I get involved with film projects, I want to make sure that I’m producing something with a message. The film is about human trafficking, so I started doing some research and was floored. I had no idea it was going on and how prevalent it is. It happens right under our noses in the United States. You truly don’t know about it unless you’re made aware. This film can help raise awareness for the issue. Tim Kennedy, a retired UFC and Green Beret is one of the main actors. Right now it is a short film and has won several awards. We are still raising funds for the feature film, but we are getting close! In the film world, you usually have to shoot a proof of concept, so this was it. The message of the film is that human trafficking is everywhere and the men who purchase sex keep traffickers in business. Traffickers and those who support them through the demand side are often people that you would never expect, people that defy the stereotype and truly seem “normal”. I’m ready for the film to get to the next level to help raise awareness.