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Monday, March 30, 2015

Being compared to Kathy Uyen.

Like most college students, I didn't know what the hell I wanted to do...you know, for life.  I kind of did.  But really, I didn't.  I just knew that I had to be creative and somewhere in the entertainment industry.  I didn't know where exactly, but I knew.  The only thing that would cause me more uncertainty of it were my parents.   But that's a whole 'nother story all together.

So I applied for every internship I could think of. 
Including ones that weren't even looking for interns. 

VAX TV was one of them.  Vietnamese American Xposure was an MTV styled program on SaigonTV just trying to live up to its name.  It seemed promising and I wanted to be a part of it.

I got a quick reply back from a guy (whose name I wish I could remember) who told me that I should come down to the studio, check out an episode taping and we would take it from there.  I was thrilled.  This is 2004, mind you.  I wouldn't start modeling for another 2 years.  So the closest thing I had been to any sort of shoot was as an audience member for the Friends' spinoff Joey.  I still have a t-shirt from that taping by the way.  I'm also trying to ebay it, ha.

I drove myself down to Little Saigon, and it was a small studio now that I think about it.  But at the time, it was a large intimidating space, filled with a bunch of people I didn't know.  I remembered stepping in and no one even took notice of me.  No one even realized that the door had opened.  I seriously could've been a real life villain of some sort and still, no one would have turned around to see who just came through.  But at the same time, I didn't expect them to either.  I was so awkward and shy and had no idea what to do, especially in that moment.  I barely knew what the word "networking" entailed but I wanted to so badly, try.

I secretly hoped that guy (whose name I wish I could remember) would emerge out from the corner with wide open arms and exclaim, "You must be Isabelle!  So glad you could make it!" followed by him enthusiastically introducing me to people, "This is Isabelle, she might be interning with us soon."  And I would be all smiles, completely energized by the idea with working all of these movers and shakers.

But no, that didn't really happen.  Instead, everyone was completely zoned in on one person.  Because I was standing from a distance, she wasn't immediately stunning.  But there was definitely a beautiful charisma about her.  They weren't shooting.  It looked like they just finished actually.  Damn, I missed it.  She was now in the middle of a conversation with someone while everyone watched.  She had these patient, receptive nods accompanied by pretty smiles and animated hand gestures.  She was set against the backdrop with all of the lights shining on her.  By default, it made the rest of the place dark, making me feel even smaller than I should've felt.

And her name?  Kathy Uyen.

I didn't officially get to meet her that night.  But that was the moment I officially knew of her.  I had to ask around to find the guy (whose name I wish I could remember).  And when I did, he seemed to have forgotten that he had invited me to come that day.  I believe his response was something along the lines of, "Ohhhhhh, yessssss, that's right.  Isabelle.  You wanted to intern right?  Sorry, we're so swamped, but feel free to check out what we're all about and you can go when you need to."  He introduced me to a few people, who all seemed preoccupied with something.  One guy barely even looked up at me from his papers.  And then finally he casually introduced Kathy to me from a distance.  "Do you know Kathy Uyen?  She's one of our hosts."
I shook my head.

(The other host was Joey Nguyen.  I didn't see him that night but funnily enough, I would later cross paths with him and work with him even)

Then the guy (whose name I wish I could remember) kind of just left me be and I remember just standing in the midst of it all.  I'm cringing at the thought of how awkward I felt. Everyone would breeze by me with something to do while I stood there for what felt like honestly, half an hour.  Looking back, it easily could have been 5 minutes though.  I didn't know how to start a conversation with these people that I wanted to work with.  I also didn't want to interrupt or intrude and was afraid to just step into a conversation and act like I was part of the group.

I didn't feel like I was a part of the group.  But if I could go back to that 2004 Isabelle, I would tell her that you let yourself feel that way -- so, don't.

But until time travel is fully understood and invented, that can't happen.  So I left.  Quietly.  Just as quietly as I had came in.  Just as no one had noticed me come in, no one noticed me go out.  I felt so embarrassed that I didn't make a bigger impression on...anyone, including myself.

Very shortly after though, I wouldn't be able to intern with VAX anyways because the show got cancelled.  They had done a story about a guy who refused to take down a photo of Ho Chi Minh at his workplace and pretty much the older folks of Little Saigon protested how communist images were broadcasted.  VAX kept their neutral stance on the story, but in my opinion, the public was being unreasonable and accused them of being communist for even doing such a thing.  They were too ahead of their time.

But Kathy's name continued to pop up in my life.  She was well known in the Vietnamese community for her acting and hosting work and I had to google her.  Turns out she was also from San Jose and also came down to Orange County for college.

I ended up getting internships with some pretty amazing places.  From Paws for Style (a fashion show for celebrities and their pets) to 13 Minutes Magazine (which later on, I ended up modeling for even) to well-known entertainment conglomerates like Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and E!
Overtime, I broke out of my networking shell and learned how to work the room, meet new people and take matters into my own hands.  I also learned that I wanted to do it all and how to admit that I wanted to be in front of the camera more so than behind it.  I wanted to write.  And won a magazine cover contest because of that want along with a lot of love and supportive friends who voted for me.  That's when I got a taste of being a model.  Sure, it was creative but it wasn't exactly entertainment.  However, it was a start.  I remembered thinking to myself that this could be my foot in the door.  That I could work my way up to it.

My modeling took me places.  Like, physically took me places.  I was getting rejected all over in LA but then I got a contract in Thailand.  And from there, I worked all over Asia as a model and decided to make a move to Vietnam where I stayed for 3 years.

Kathy Uyen had moved to Vietnam too.  She had piqued Vietnamese audiences' interest with her supporting lead role in Chuyện Tình Xa Xứ (Passport to Love) and so it must've been a career choice to go there.

I remember talking to one of my friends who was working on the movie Để Mai Tính (Fool for Love) and how they initially wanted another actress for the lead role.  For some reason it didn't work out, and they gave the part to Kathy instead.  From what I heard, they rewrote the script to accommodate her Việt Kiều accent. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term "Việt Kiều" (sometimes abbreviated as VK or VQ), it refers to Vietnamese people who are born outside of Vietnam or have lived abroad for a long period of time.  The majority of VK have imperfect Vietnamese because of cultural assimilation.

Because Vietnamese was my first language, my English was pretty fobby.  I had kids call me retarded because of it.  I had to take intense ESL classes when I was 6 and soon enough I had a perfect American accent in my English, and my Vietnamese became diluted.  The Việt Kiều are forgiving when it comes to our generation's Americanized accent within our mother tongue, but the local Vietnamese can be so cruel.

I have had my fair share of insults from my own people when it came to how broken my Vietnamese sounded.  It was pretty elementary because the only people I conversed with were my parents.  And of course they would speak to me as a child because, well, I was their child.  It wasn't until I was completely immersed in Vietnam where I started to pick up more vocabulary because I had local friends that were my age.

I slowly improved but I also came to accept that my Americanized Việt Kiều accent was very much part of me.  When I first moved to Vietnam, everyone I met would always tell me, "You sound just like Kathy Uyen!"  And then later on, when her Vietnamese had improved, "You sound just like Kathy Uyen when she first moved here!"  If I didn't get the "you sound like her", it was a "you look like her!"  And it was easy to why people made the comparisons.  Both her and I were Việt Kiều girls born and raised from California, who then moved to Vietnam, and had the same accented Vietnamese while working in showbiz. 

Generally, people didn't know what to do with us.  There were a few people who would love my accent and thought it was "so cute", but there were more who made me feel bad about it.  Being VK was exotic but at the same time, you had these expectations to still be very much so Vietnamese to the roots.  In fact, there would be other Vietnamese celebs who claimed they were VK from other countries, but really, they had spent maybe a few years abroad and came back to Vietnam and were just re-branding themselves as such.  They still had perfect Vietnamese.  No one ever insulted them for it. 

But Kathy and I...well, the way people spoke about us made it seem like we were wannabes.  I've gotten spiels to the effect of how I couldn't make it in the States, so I'm trying to make it out in Vietnam where it's easier.  Which by the way, couldn't have been more untrue.

Later, as time would have it, a few other Việt Kiều girls would come along and try the same but Kathy really was the pioneer for us.  She made it seem easy.  I'll confess, a part of me did envy her at times because she seemed like she was always ahead of the game.  I think Kathy and I could have been even better friends.  But that awkward 2004 Isabelle from that VAX studio always stepped in.  And maybe, subconsciously, I kept a distance because I didn't want to be compared to her.  I wanted to be known for...well...just being me.

The biggest difference between us though was that she was a legitimate actress while I was known as a model who kind of just fell into acting.  It was bound to happen though, I think.  It was my third year in Vietnam and my good friend Nathan Lee got me a casting for an upcoming soap opera action series.  (Yes, there is such a thing apparently).  I barely knew what it was about, who was involved, and what I was about to get myself into.  All I knew was I'll take pretty much anything and everything when it came to modeling, hosting and acting.  I was hungry for it.  Figuratively and literally speaking.  Much like it would have been in LA, there were days I just wasn't sure when the next gig or paycheck was.  Thank goodness for 25 cent bánh mì sandwiches. 

I went in at 4 pm for the casting and by 6 pm, they called me and told me that I got the part.  It was for the lead role for Nữ Vệ Sĩ (Female Bodyguard) and I would be...tah dah, the female bodyguard.  The 40 episodes were slated for 2 months of filming (it actually ended up being 6 months) and we started production the very next day.  I couldn't believe it, I just snagged a huge role -- just like that.  Never mind that they had two other girls for the same role before me and were fired-- I was just beyond excited because finally I had a big project to look forward to.  Finally, whenever someone asked me what I was up to lately, I could spit out this and people would be satisfied with that answer.
At one point, Kathy got to be one of these people who asked what I was up to.  I can't remember whether she was the one who told me or perhaps, I heard it through the grapevine, but I had found out that they had considered Kathy for the role as well.  To the point where I think they may have even offered it to her, but she passed up on it instead.

My heart fell.  I couldn't comprehend why at the time.  But writing all this out, I can explain it now.  A lot of it had to do with my pride.  I felt like I was always going to be second in line after Kathy.  And although I ended up with the role, I did feel a tinge of jealousy that Kathy was a big enough star to be able to turn down projects.  I didn't earn that luxury yet.  Để Mai Tính had become a blockbuster hit in 2010 and I would always hear the name Kathy Uyen with it.  (They even had a sequel, but she wasn't in it because it was more of a spinoff).  It was around 2011 though, and press-wise, it was quiet for Kathy.  I asked her what she was up to lately and she tells me that she's writing a script.  And that she would be the lead role.

I was absolutely impressed.  But I was also upset with myself.  Writing is my first love before everything and here I was, with nothing to show for it while Kathy took action.  Kathy revealing her script was just one sign among many others that pushed me to write again.  So I applied for the Stegner Fellowship at the end of 2011, Stanford's exclusive creative writing program.  Just to reiterate how exclusive their program is, only 10 people are accepted - no matter how many people apply.  They get about 2000+ applications every year.  I might as well have tried for their undergraduate program.  But I wanted to write.  And I wanted to be validated by the greats.  Only five people knew about my application.  I never told any more than that, in case I failed.  If I could go back in time, I would bop past Isabelle on the head because it was an oxymoron kind of mindset.

After I turned in my application, I flew to Singapore for a month to film the competition reality show Supermodel Me.  I didn't win.  When I returned to Vietnam, I felt more lost than ever in my life for a lot of reasons, including financially.  It was January 2012 and I literally just woke up with, "Fuck it.  I'm moving back to LA."  Booked my ticket and left Vietnam in 7 days.  I left so prematurely that my show Nữ Vệ Sĩ didn't even finished airing.  I didn't even really announce my leaving after living there for 3 years.  I was so fed up with myself, Vietnam, who I had become, what little I had and just had to get out of there.  I was so selfishly preoccupied with my failures and losses that I didn't even really see that people were starting to recognize me from the show.  Even the Lunch Lady, famed from Anthony Bourdain's show, asked to take a photo with me.  Yeah.  That was a high moment for me because let's face it, her food is pretty legit.

You'll hear me call 2012 a dark year for me for a multitude of reasons.  A few of them included having over $20,000 in debt (student loans and credit card).   I had to go back to doing non-union extra work in LA.  I had no car.  I stayed with my friend's family because I had no idea where else to live, let alone what to do in life now.  I wasn't in Vietnam to reap all the publicity and everything I had worked so hard for Nữ Vệ Sĩ. My best friend, and longtime roommate, Brittany had moved to Australia.  I had received my rejection letter from the Stegner Fellowship.  And I had to start all over again.  I'm used to starting over but this was the mother of them all.  Some of the models I had modeled with BEFORE I left for Asia were now far into their acting careers while I was away.  One of them even starred opposite of Justin Timberlake.  I couldn't help but wonder, where would I be now if I never left for Asia.  But then I also wondered, where would I be, if I never moved back to LA.  It took me awhile, but I realized that I was just beating myself up so damn hard.

But it all worked itself out, as it always does and always will in life.  I'm now down to $4,800 in debt (just student loans), with my goal of paying it completely off by this June.  I still do extra work here and there but only for really good rates -- otherwise, I've been booking pretty well, including principal roles, for commercials and various projects.  Thanks to a recent mishap, I have a Prius now.  Brittany now also lives in California.  I live happily with Dennis, who I've been with for 3 years now and who I recently embarked on an incredible adventure with for CBS The Amazing Race.  And I plan on reapplying for the Stegner Fellowship again; but better yet, I just plan on writing more.
Kathy's script ended up becoming the film How to Fight In Six Inch Heels (Âm Mưu Giày Gót Nhọn) and received commercial success and awards.

It recently made its way here in the US and I went to go see the premiere in Orange County with Brittany and her boyfriend Allen.  Kathy was pulled in different directions throughout the event.  There was no shortage of people wanting to get a photo with the woman of the hour.  She's immediately stunning.  She wore a high low crimson red trench dress that went finely well with her high low bobbed hair and ruby red lips.  If you weren't taking a photo with her, you were watching her.  She still had glowing charisma about her and she stood out so beautifully.  I felt like I was in that VAX studio all over again.  Not in the insecure, awkward 2004 Isabelle way, but more like I got to be a part of the crew that admired her so.  Her script came to fruition and she's more than deserving to soak up all of its success.

While waiting at the event, I stood with Suboi.  A famed Vietnamese rapper who I used to manage for some time while I lived in Vietnam.  She's always been successful from her own right.  As of late though, she's had her own major breakthrough success, including a performance at SXSW, and she had her share of fans asking to take photos with her at the premiere.  I felt...happy for everyone.  More than happy.  I felt proud.  Proud to even know such ambitious and talented people.

Kathy spotted me from the step and repeat and waved at me while mouthing a "Hi!" It's a funny thing to think, but I thought, "Oh wow, she remembers me?" Sure, we're Facebook friends and we've talked here and there while we were in Vietnam.  But we've never hung out one-on-one and it had been 3 years since I last saw her.  When she finally had a nanosecond of a chance, Kathy came up to me with a big hug and asked how I was doing and how The Amazing Race was.  I felt flattered that she even knew what I was up to.  We could only catch up for a few before she was rushed off into the theaters for her premiere.

The movie itself was, hands down, amazingly entertaining.  Not just as a Vietnamese film, but just as a movie it was good.  I was thoroughly impressed.  And I'm really not just saying this.  I'll be honest, with Vietnamese movies, I will always find something cringeworthy.  Even with my own soap opera.  Usually it'll be the blatant product placement, unfinished story lines, poor character development, cheesy lines, cheesy plot and/or cheesy acting.  How to Fight in Six Inch Heels had none of that.  NONE.  Sure, they had product placement, but they were placed appropriately and subtly.  I still see mainstream American movies do a sham job of this.  Kathy's acting was even better than I remembered and her Vietnamese was perfect.  She may have the accent still, but that doesn't mean it was any less perfect. 

And the craziest part?  I felt like I could relate to a lot of it.  From Kathy's character Anne who thinks she has her whole life planned out to a Vietnamese girl proclaiming her love of Anne's Việt Kiều accent to one of the models confessing that she feels like modeling has its expiration date.  Kathy did an amazing job of putting everything together.  Brittany, who sat next to me, did plenty of film production in Vietnam.  She and I gushed on about how blown away we were by it.  And to think, I still remember the day she told me that she was writing the script.

The after party took place at R3 and there were plenty of old run-ins there.  I wasn't planning on staying for long from the get go.  Heck, I wasn't even planning on going to the after party.  The only reason why I went was because Suboi was going to perform and I wanted to watch.  She has grown so much as an artist and it was really awesome to see how far she's come.  After she finishes, I say my goodbyes to everyone, including Kathy.

The music is loud and it's hard to hear anything, but she pulls me in for a close hug and tells me some strong parting words closely into my ear before I leave.

Keep doing what you're doing.  You and I are the same and it's going to be harder for us.  I read your financial blog and it was so relatable.  Don't give up.  Keep doing it and don't be afraid to do it.  You can do it.

I wanted to break down in tears but it wouldn't be right to ruin her moment.  All I could muster instead was a "Thank you so much, that means so much to me."  Because it really did.  Her parting words couldn't have been more perfect and couldn't have come at a better time in my life. You'll hear "don't give up" and "you can do it" all the time from Disney shows, Nike ads and Thought Catalog blogs. To actually have these very words come from someone who has done it, and someone who has been at it much longer than you have, and someone people make comparisons with, is something even more powerful than one can imagine.

I'm in awe right now of how much I've written already.  The epiphany took over though.  Ever since moving back to LA, I don't get the comparisons anymore.  But I now understand that I shouldn't have been afraid to be compared to Kathy Uyen, it's an honor to be compared to her. 

Kathy Uyen and her creative success is such an inspiration.  No longer did I feel insecure with my own accomplishments.  Seeing her and her work makes me feel like everything is possible and that I can do it too.  Maybe she's kind of like that future Isabelle I keep wanting to be, and has come back through time to give me a few needed words and a bop on the head.  If I could go back, I would tell myself that it's better to support each other than to be alone and afraid.

I wish I could post a photo of both Kathy and myself, together, from back then and today to finish off this piece.  But I can't.  I don't have one.  Or at least I can't seem to find one.  I've been too afraid to be next to just her and I've been too shy to even ask.  So the only ones that I do have of us are where we're in group photos together. 

2009 Clash Premiere
2015 How to Fight in Six Inch Heels afterparty L to R:  Myself, Kathy, Brittany, Suboi




But the next time I see her, I'll make sure to ask for a photo of just me and Kathy Uyen.

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