Hardly Elementary: Spring 2015 Cover Story Featuring Lucy Liu

 

Google “Lucy Liu,” and Liu herself will tell you that most of the information about her on the Internet is incorrect. She’s not Taiwanese, like many websites claim (her parents are from Beijing and Shanghai; they came to the U.S. separately for school and met in New York); she’s misquoted so often in interviews that she stopped reading her own profiles a long time ago; and maybe she’s not even born in 1968. She certainly doesn’t look it.

What is true about Liu is her extensive film and television résumé — from her breakout role in Ally McBeal, to the blockbuster films Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill, to her current starring role on the CBS Sherlock Holmes reboot Elementary, where she plays Dr. Joan Watson. However, despite her high-profile successes, she takes special pride in her lesser-known creative projects, whether it be theater (her 2010 Broadway debut in God of Carnage, where she held her own alongside stage veterans Jeff Daniels, Janet McTeer and Dylan Baker), directing (her short film Meena tackles child trafficking in India), or visual art (since the mid-’90s, she had exhibited her work in galleries all around the world under an alias, until a few years ago, when her true identity was revealed).

For Liu, not only is working in all these different mediums a natural extension of the same creative impulse, she also believes that as an artist there is no separation between what you make and who you are. “I don’t leave my work at the door when I go home,” she says. “The way you progress in your life is how you progress artistically — especially as an actor, where you bring such complicated and personal experiences into what you do every day.”

Growing up in Queens, New York, Liu was a curious kid, and she points to that as one of her best attributes. (“To continue being curious as an adult is not easy,” she says, “but it’s such a great way to live your life.”) She grew up in what she calls a typical Chinese American immigrant household — Mandarin at home, Chinese school on Saturdays and parents who prioritized education above all. But as the youngest child of three, she was able to do more exploring than her older siblings, who were raised in a stricter environment. She quickly found a passion for acting. “I can’t think of anything I wanted to do before I started acting,” remembers Liu. “I dreamt about that more than anything.”

She did class plays in high school for fun, but they were never lead roles, and she was happy to be in the chorus. Her parents worked multiple jobs and not only didn’t understand the value of art but wouldn’t have had the time to attend her performances even if they did. “Most parents, especially Asian parents, aren’t going to completely grasp something that is intangible,” says Liu.

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In her last year of college, she went to a general audition for the play Alice in Wonderland. She went up to the announcement board to see whether she got cast and was surprised she was chosen to be Alice. “It was a new concept for me,” she says. “I didn’t see myself in the lead because I was so used to not seeing Asians in the lead role.”

After college, she pursued acting full force and began doing a lot of regional theater, as well as bit parts in film and television. Her big break came in 1998, when she was cast as Ling Woo in the second season of Ally McBeal, an hour dramedy that would win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series soon after she joined the cast. Ling, an unapologetically coldhearted client-turned-lawyer-turned-judge, was a character created specifically for her, and she became known for the most comically inappropriate zingers, like “My therapist told me to pay no mind to those who don’t matter” and “Are you sure he didn’t leave you just for being unattractive?”

An aspect of being one of very few Asian American women in mainstream media at the time was that everyone had an opinion about her character: Was Ling the ultimate dragon lady stereotype, was she hypersexualized, seen as “threatening” or “the other?” But Ally McBeal fans will take the nitpicking with a grain of salt. This was a show that featured characters with neck fetishes, dancing baby hallucinations, verbal ticks and gymnastic dismounts in the stalls of the unisex bathroom. Everyone was weird. Within the Ally McBeal world, Ling was funny, honest, clever, confident, unfazed by what others thought of her and perhaps, most important of all, respected.

Though she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role, Liu’s star only got brighter when she was cast as the third Charlie’s Angel, alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. At the time, she was a rare Asian American actress who was able to participate in cultural touchstones of American pop culture, whether it be hosting Saturday Night Live or voicing a character on The Simpsons, when Homer visits China. She even played herself in a Futurama episode called “I Dated a Robot,” where Fry downloads the personality of Lucy Liu onto a blank robot to make a “Lucy Liubot.”

Though Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, an action film starring Liu and Antonio Banderas, was a critical and box office failure, it was notable because she was cast in a leading role that was originally written as male. She made headlines again when she was selected to play the lead, a media mogul named Mia Mason, in the highly anticipated, albeit short-lived, ABC dramedy Cashmere Mafia, a series produced by Darren Star and hyped to take up the mantle of his mega-hit, Sex and the City. Years later, she’d break the mold once more as Watson in Elementary, the first time the classic Sherlock Holmes sidekick has been played by a woman — an Asian American woman, no less. Currently in its third season, Elementary, which co-stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock, has been well received by critics and viewers who find it to be a novel twist on a familiar story. For her role, Liu won the Teen Choice Award for Choice TV Actress: Action, was honored with a New York Women in Film & Television Muse Award (which gave a nod to her decade of work with UNICEF) and even received the Seoul International Drama Award for Best Actress.

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Despite her two-decade career in Hollywood — which also includes the films Chicago, Shanghai Noon, Lucky Number Slevin and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, as well as television shows like Southland, Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money — Liu knows that her roles in film and television could never display a complete and well-rounded representation of her interests and passions. So visual art was always something she did on the side for herself. She has had art shows since the early ’90s, but for a long time, especially once she became famous, she exhibited under her Chinese name, Yu Ling. Part of it was that she wasn’t ready to be public with her art, and part of it was that she didn’t want people to come to her exhibits looking for the ass-kicking girl from those Quentin Tarantino action films.

She says it’s possible she would have continued leading her secret life, but one day, a book publisher visited her studio, thought her work would be great as an art book, and offered to publish it. It was the first time she was confronted with the suggestion to go with her celebrity moniker.

“At first, I thought it was really important and helpful for people to come in [to see my work] with a clean slate,” she says. “But in the end, it didn’t really matter. The editor said, ‘I think you should just own it,’ and I realized he was right.”

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Lucy Liu’s Seventy Two series (No. 34) Forget Thyself (2009), ink on paper, 8 x 10.5 in. Photo courtesy of the artist © Lucy Liu.

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Lucy Liu’s Seventy Two series (No. 53) No Agenda (2009), ink on paper, 8.5 x 11.75 in. Photo courtesy of the artist © Lucy Liu.

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Lucy Liu’s Seventy Two series (No. 56) Dispelling Anger (2009), ink on paper, 8.1 x 10.5 in. Photo courtesy the artist © Lucy Liu.

Her book, Lucy Liu: Seventy Two, consists of 72 abstract ink and acrylic paintings that are inspired by the Jewish mythical concept of the “72 Names of God.” However, instead of the three-letter Hebrew words, Liu creates images inspired by Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. “I liked how the [72 Names of God] chart looks similar to how Chinese characters are presented in boxes,” she says.

“I also love the idea of ink and its permanence,” she continues, contrasting the medium with paint on a canvas. “You can see the image’s history because when you make a mark, it stays. It’s like people and how the choices you make and the scars you have shape you as a person.”

This was a departure from Liu’s previous artwork, which included photographs, collages and larger-scale paintings. But unfamiliarity with a particular type of art doesn’t deter Liu from experimenting with it; if anything, she’s drawn to trying new things. She’s currently working with silk screens, another medium she’s discovering for the first time.

“Part of what I enjoy is just learning the art and its history,” she says. “I didn’t study it professionally, so I like working with someone I know who can teach me. And then I use my imagination to take it to another place. It keeps it fresh, naïve and different.”

Lately, she’s also been throwing herself into the world of directing. Her first directorial effort, the 2011 PBS short film Meena, was based on a child sex-trafficking story in Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was an extension of the work she had been doing with UNICEF, addressing children’s issues, including education and nutrition. (Coincidentally, the latest film project she’s been attached to is Evan Jackson Leong’s Snakehead, also about human smuggling, but a story that takes place closer to home, in New York’s Chinatown.)

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Last year, she upped her game, taking over the director’s chair for the first time on Elementary, for a second season episode called “Paint it Black,” featuring Sherlock and his estranged brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans). At the time of this interview earlier this year, Liu had spent her holidays working, planning and creating a shot list for the second episode she was asked to direct — this time, a season three story that will be more challenging to helm because she also has more scenes in it as an actor. “It’ll be a lot more running around,” she says. “I will get my exercise in for sure.”

Liu believes that in directing, she may have finally found an outlet that combines all her artistic passions. “I’m really going on all pistons when I’m directing,” she says. “There’s something so magical about it. You’re in that time-space warp where you’re not even sure how you got there, and you’re so present at every minute that it feels like a maximum heightened state.” She laughs. “It’s like an exam. You cram in as much as you possibly can, everyone’s asking you a ton of questions, and you have a very short time to complete it.”

Though Liu loves to organize and feels comfortable leading the crew, who are all rooting for her to succeed, she admits she’s not the best planner when it comes to future career goals. “I try to be as in-the-moment as possible, which can be good and bad,” she says. “But I’ve been working with the same team of managers for 20 years. I couldn’t do this by myself. You might have an idea or inspiration, but you allow your team to create this world for you.”

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That’s not to say that working in entertainment is always easy — even if you are successful at it. At the end of the day, Hollywood often still doesn’t know what to do with a Chinese American actress, and unfortunately actors can’t always control the types of roles that they’re offered — or if they’re even offered any.

“You live in a limbo-ish world,” says Liu, of the actor’s lifestyle. “It’s an amazing place to grow, and it also can be very frustrating. But isn’t everything?

“It’s not just about being invited to the [Hollywood] community,” she continues. “It’s about living and breathing in it and finding your own space. You have to believe that you have something to offer, before anyone else even sees it. That’s kind of what this business is about. No matter what anyone says to you, whether it’s encouraging or discouraging, you have to listen to your inner voice. Especially if you’re doing art. No one else can do it for you. It’s important to stand behind yourself, because the only thing you can guarantee is yourself.”

To that end, she’s currently working on creating her own official website, which she hopes to launch later this year. She envisions it as a place where she can display all of her art, with proper descriptions she’s writing herself, so she can give her fans insights into her true self — not just the persona we see on film and television. Soon, we won’t have to depend on Google to learn all we want to know about Lucy Liu.

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Story Ada Tseng 
Photos Jeff Vespa
Stylist Ashley Avignone, The Wall Group
Makeup Rebecca Restrepo 
Hair Danielle Priano

This story was originally published in our Spring 2015 issue. Get your copy here

 

 

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Sneak Peek: Introducing Our Spring 2015 Cover Girl LUCY LIU

 

That’s right! Our Spring 2015 cover girl is none other than the incredible Lucy Liu. Throughout the years that Lucy Liu has been in the entertainment industry, she has broken the mold for Asian Americans in countless ways. Be on the look out for our exclusive cover story which proves this actor, director, UNICEF ambassador and fine artist is so much more than meets the eye.

Can’t wait to get your hands on the issue? Click here to purchase it or to subscribe to Audrey Magazine. For now, check out what Audrey’s editor-in-chief Anna M. Park has to say about seeing Lucy Liu for the very first time:

When Ally McBeal first aired in 1997, I watched with interest. After all, back then, I too was a young lawyer in a downtown law firm. Of course, we didn’t get to wear skirts that short, and cases never went to trial that often nor that fast, but it didn’t matter. It was a nice 45-minute escape every Monday, the worst day of the week when you’re in a career you hate.

A year later, I got hooked on the show, and it definitely had nothing to do with those ridiculous dancing baby delusions. Ling Woo, played by then-newcomer Lucy Liu, was introduced to the firm. Who is this woman, I thought, and … why do I find myself loving her? Not everyone liked her, of course. Cries of “Dragon lady!” and “Exoticized geisha!” abounded. But I think that simplified the character. From her quicksilver tongue to her curtain of perfect hair, she was different from any other woman of Asian descent I had seen on TV or film. Someone I wished I could be at times — strong, assertive, not afraid to say it like it is.

Over the years, Lucy Liu has become a bona fide star, the first actor you’d name under the category of Asian American actors. And yet I’d forgotten how much of an influence she’s really had in entertainment, her star big enough to host Saturday Night Live, present at numerous Emmy and Academy Awards, even play herself in an episode of Sex and the City. She’s broken the color and gender barrier so many times, most recently in her role on Elementary as Dr. Joan Watson, the first time the Sherlock sidekick has been played by a woman, and an Asian woman, no less.

And yet for all that, it’s her artwork that really impresses me. Seemingly simple at first glance, but look close up and there is so much depth, so many layers. I’m hardly an art critic, but Lucy’s work gives me more of an insight into who she is than a wealth of IMDB entries.

 

Story by Ada Tseng 
Photos by Jeff Vespa
Stylist: Ashley Avignone, The Wall Group
Makeup: Rebecca Restrepo
Hair: Danielle Priano

 

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Michelle Phan, YouTube’s “Beauty Bestie,” Empowers Women From the Outside In

 

Know this face? This is the face of a CEO, media exec, lifestyle guru, music producer, entrepreneur, author, multimedia artist, beauty expert and YouTube mega-star. And according to Michelle Phan — the head of a multifaceted empire, a digital pioneer who reaches 11 million people on a daily basis,a woman who epitomizes multi-hyphenate — she could be you or me.

 

Story by Michelle Woo

 

Inside a Dillard’s department store in Tampa, Florida, Michelle Phan walked to the beauty section crammed with gleaming displays of eyeshadows and cream concealers, approached the woman working behind the counter, and said she’d like to apply for a job. Home from college in the summer of 2007, she needed to earn some money to help her single mother who had been working 15-hour shifts at the family’s nail salon. Plus, she loved beauty products and thought she’d be good at teaching customers how to use them.

The woman looked at Phan’s application and told her she needed retail experience.

Phan pleaded for a chance. Trust me, I can sell makeup, she said.

The woman said they’d call if there was an opportunity for her. Phan waited. Two weeks went by, and she still hadn’t heard back.

Undeterred, she grabbed her makeup bag, perched her laptop on a table in her patio, and turned on the webcam. Then, she looked in the camera and filmed her first beauty tutorial.

 

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PHAN HAS JUST RETURNED FROM
VidCon, a mega-gathering of online video stars held in Southern California, where she spoke on a panel, signed autographs and posed for selfies in a sea of 18,000 mostly millennial-aged attendees.

“I call it YouTube petting zoo,” she says of the annual event. Wearing a simple striped shirtdress and ballet flats, she sits on an Ikea counter stool and types on her phone while her hairstylist, Octavio, fluffs her cascade of smooth, dark curls. “You’re mobbed and you’re chased. But it’s cute.”

The 27-year-old YouTube star is getting ready for a photo shoot in her Los Angeles studio, a Pinterest-perfect space sprinkled with chic décor items — a Tiffany-blue globe, speakers shaped like hot pink gems, lip gloss tubes in a glass vase and a ceramic mug adorned with the letter “M.” On a wall, mounted inside a glass frame is a gold-plated “play” button, a gift sent to her from YouTube execs when she hit 1 million subscribers. (She was the first to do so, but that was a couple years ago. She now has 7 million “subbies” and counting.)

Since uploading that first video tutorial in 2007, Phan has become a beauty and lifestyle power brand. She’s one of the first vloggers to achieve offline fame — her videos have played on a gigantic screen in New York City’s Times Square — and her success shows no signs of fading in the way of other one-viral-hit wonders. (“I feel like the Mother Goose of YouTube,” she says, while texting advice to a friend on hiring employees.) She has her own media company (FAWN: For All Women Network), makeup line (em michelle phan, backed by L’Oréal), and subscription beauty box company (ipsy). And she’s just released her first book, Make Up: Your Life Guide To Beauty, Style and Success—Online and Off.

While she started with straightforward videos on how to apply makeup — which have ranged from the practical (“Brow Basics” and “5 Ways To Plump Your Lips”) to must-hit-the-share-button-now shocking (she’s transformed herself into icons such as Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen and even Barbie, a clip that has logged more than 57 million views) — Phan has evolved over the years into a self-proclaimed “life guide.” Like a modern-day Emily Post, she tackles topics spanning from hostess gifts to “textiquette” to starting over after a breakup, sharing bits of wisdom on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her blog with her legions of fans who eagerly seek guidance on how to be all things Michelle.

It’s a life where every digital move is strategized, calculated and deliberated. At her kitchen counter, Phan’s team hovers around laptops and reviews the font on a promo flier for an upcoming live Twitter Q&A. During a conference call, they finalize the social media hashtags for her new book. Watching Phan in real life is sort of like being sucked into an infomercial. (I decided I needed to buy the teeth whitening device and detox vitamins she uses after she gushed about them. And no, neither company has paid her.) Yet she never comes across as mechanical. Instead, Phan is charming and exudes an everywoman realness, like an in-the-know friend. Naturally, her YouTube nickname is “Beauty Bestie.”

To Phan, branding is not about manufacturing fame, but about always presenting your best self, which she believes all young women should aim to do, Internet sensation or not. It’s also about embracing a DIY attitude at a time when financial certainty is scarce. “I was reading that we may not have Social Security money,” Phan says as a makeup artist brushes her eyelids with color. “It’s going to run out, so there’s not going to be any retirement money for you and me. So I told myself, I don’t want to depend on the system; I want to depend on myself. People my age paid so much money for college, and they’re in debt right now and can’t get a job because they have no job experience. How does that system even make sense?”

Phan wants to help lead a new movement, one that urges young men and women to build their own businesses, whether it’s making web videos or opening a food truck. “The Internet is changing the marketplace,” she says. “It’s no longer about conglomerates, but about sharing. It’s about asking, ‘What can I contribute to society? How can I make society better?’ People think, oh, well, you make makeup tutorials. It’s like, no, no, no. You don’t realize it’s not just makeup tutorials. It’s videos empowering women. When you have women feeling good about themselves, that can change the entire world.”

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PHAN WASN’T LIKE THE OTHER girls at school. She had little interest in hanging out at the mall or playing Truth or Dare at sleepovers. Instead, she often spent her days sitting in her bedroom with an encyclopedia set that her family picked up from a yard sale, reading it from A to Z. “I was obsessed with Egypt,” she says, her eyes widening. “I learned how to write my name in hieroglyphics and made my own mummy and sarcophagus using papier-mâché. I kept it in my closet. My mom would always tell me to throw that thing away.”

She reflects a lot on history and the concept of time. It’s something that shapes her, fuels her. “I’m not interested in Hollywood scandals,” says Phan. “They’re so trivial. All these people that you see in this town think they’re ‘it.’ It’s like, no, you’re not. You’re very temporary, and so am I. When you think about it, the invention of the car was about 100 years ago. Such significant changes can happen [in a short time]. Imagine if everyone came together to work for a common goal rather than just going off and becoming the king of the world on their own.”

Her own history, as she tells it, begins in Vietnam. Both of Phan’s parents fled the terror of war in the late 1970s. During his escape, her father spent three months on a boat carrying refugees to Hong Kong. Many passengers died, and he watched as bodies were tossed overboard. “The cold,” says Phan. “He’ll never forget how it felt. It went straight through his bones.” Years later, Phan was born in Boston. Her father gave her the Vietnamese name Tuyet Bang, the word for avalanche, to capture that “unstoppable force.”

When Phan and her brother were babies, her parents stuck a crib in the back of a $600 van and drove for four days from Boston to San Francisco. There, her father developed a gambling addiction and would often lose the money they needed for rent. In one year, the family was evicted 10 times. “My mother would hide money inside my teddy bears and jacket pockets,” Phan recalls. “She’d say, ‘Don’t tell Father.’ I had to learn these mind games growing up. It sucked.”

They eventually moved to Tampa, and after a short time there, Phan’s father, who had been struggling in the flooring business, announced he was going back to Boston to look for work. He never returned. Phan says she always had it in her head that she’d find him again, and when she finally did as an adult, he told her that the moment he walked out, he knew she would be OK in life. She still loves him, she says. “He was a risk taker, kind of like me. He was just very lost.” When asked what her father’s best attribute as a parent was, she says, “He left us alone.”

High school started out miserably. As one of the few Asian Americans in her Florida town, she was taunted by kids who’d yell “ching-chong” and “do Jackie Chan moves” when she walked through the halls. “I was an emotional punching bag,” she recalls. She tried to cope the way many other young girls do — by changing the way she looked. To fit in with the Latina girls, she would lie in the sun until her skin was golden bronze, slather her hair with baby oil and wear “giant earrings with my name on them.” When she decided to try out the “hood look,” she asked her black friends to braid cornrows in her hair. “Part of it was insecurity,” Phan says of her experimental makeovers. “I didn’t think being me was good enough. But part of me liked it. I was this very emo kid. Wearing these masks empowered me to show different sides of myself. I could change my book cover.”

 


 

AS MALCOLM GLADWELL HERALDS in Outliers, his best-selling book on success, timing is critical. (His prime example is that several tech revolutionaries were born around 1955 and were about 20 years old at the dawn of the Computer Age — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Paul Allen, among others.) For viral YouTube videos, it was 2007 that heralded a new era. It was the year the world was introduced to the hit clips “Charlie Bit My Finger,” “Chocolate Rain,” “Leave Britney Alone!” and the bait-and-switch meme known as “Rickrolling.”

Two thousand seven was also the year that a 20-year-old Phan uploaded her first makeup tutorial video. She had grown up with computers, selling candy with her brother at school to scrape together enough money to buy a bubble-shaped Apple iMac G3. At 15, she would read blogs and share her drawings of anime characters on the social network Asian Avenue, where she was known as “Asian Goddess.” She then joined the popular blogging platform Xanga, chose the username RiceBunny and wrote entries on topics ranging from how to make a ninja mask to how to curl your hair. Thousands of people read and commented on her page daily. “My ambition was to be popular online because I wasn’t popular in real life,” Phan writes in her book.

Using money that her uncle gave her family after visiting once and seeing that they had been living out of boxes in a single bedroom, Phan enrolled at the Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota, Florida. That year, the college announced it would give each freshman student a MacBook Pro.

It was with that MacBook Pro, just seven years ago, that Phan decided to make a video titled “Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial,” filming it in the patio of the home where she was renting a room. In the clip, edited with iMovie, Phan applies makeup for seven minutes, dabbing concealer under her eyes with her ring finger, filling in her eyebrows with eyeshadow and lining her eyelids with liquid eyeliner. She chose not to speak on camera, a stylistic decision that would become one of her trademarks. “I figured if someone is watching this, she’s probably not going to want someone who’s, like, ‘Alright, guys, now take your eyeliner and line your eyes!” she says, imitating a perky Valley Girl. “I wanted something softer, something very therapeutic and spa-like.”

Instead of talking into the camera, she records a separate vocal track, her lulling voice narrating each step over soft music. The result is so hypnotic that even those with zero interest in mascara can’t help but hit replay. She wanted to channel the late Bob Ross, star of the oddly captivating PBS show The Joy of Painting. “You know,” Phan says, “the one with the ’fro who was always like ‘happy clouds’ and ‘happy grass’ and was probably, like, baked out of his mind.” As for the tutorial, she says, “No one did it the way I did.”

Almost instantly, people started watching and then telling their friends. They would comment that she was beautiful and her voice was so calming and, hey, can you teach us how to do a smoky eye next? By the end of the week, the video had received more than 40,000 views.

Phan started posting more tutorials, and during breaks between classes, while the other students would wander outside to have a cigarette and gossip, she would open her YouTube page and hit “refresh,” watching the number of pageviews rise. Her teachers would tell her to stop getting distracted by this little hobby, but she knew it was becoming something more.

Before the days of savvy job seekers stamping their Klout scores on their résumés, when the term “followers” would more likely bring to mind images of a religious flock, Phan says she was already thinking about ways to build an online audience. She felt that it would help her somehow, even if it wasn’t quite clear how. “I saw what was happening,” she says. “I saw people graduating and not getting jobs. I just wanted to have my own little safety net that I built myself. I wanted to have some sort of advantage. I knew about the power of networking and the power of getting on people’s radar.”

Hank Green, co-creator of VidCon and the Vlogbrothers (a wildly popular YouTube show that he hosts with his brother, John Green, author of The Fault In Our Stars), explains, “Michelle wasn’t just one of the first beauty creators on YouTube — she was one of the first creators on YouTube. By mixing useful tutorials and tips with a positive and affirming outlook on life, she helped to define an entire genre of video that has become hugely influential.”

The little “hobby” also started bringing her a little money. Through her YouTube channel, Phan started earning 20 cents a day, and then $20 a day, and then $200 a week. Soon, she quit her part-time job as a waitress at a sushi joint. The restaurant owner shook his head and told her she could come back once she woke up to reality. But she insisted that he give her job to someone else. “If you give yourself a safety net, you give yourself that doubt,” Phan says. “But if you remove that safety net, you don’t even have an ounce of failure in your head. Because you can’t. It’s all-out or nothing. Success or bust.”

Phan was entering her final year of college and was supposed to choose a topic for her thesis. She had narrowed it down to either a project inspired by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, or a makeup line. Then one day, she got a message from Kerry Diamond, then the head of public relations at French cosmetics powerhouse Lancôme. Execs wanted to fly her to New York for a meeting. When she got there, they told her their deal. The company had been making big-budget beauty videos with supermodels and professional makeup artists, and no one was watching them. “It was like crickets,” Diamond says. “We would get maybe five views a day, and that was from me and my team.” Curious as to what people were watching, Diamond started clicking on the “related videos” on YouTube and kept noticing Phan. “There was something very different and very special about her that I don’t think anyone could put their finger on,” Diamond says. “She had a certain je ne sais quoi. It was kind of magic.”

In a bold move, the company made Phan their official video makeup artist and online spokesperson. The gig involved flying all over the world — Paris, Hong Kong and Beijing — for magazine photo shoots and other events. At that point, Phan had to make a decision. “I said, you know what? I’m gonna do this Lancôme thing for a year, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back and finish my final year of school.”

She’s never been back.

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“NO ONE IS PERFECT AT EVERYTHING,” Phan says, speaking into the camera and holding an amethyst stone in her hand. “We’re all made to be perfectly imperfect, kind of like this crystal. See, it’s not perfectly cut like a flawless diamond, but it’s beautiful in its own unique way. There won’t be another crystal like this one, and just like you, it has many, many facets.”

The video, “How To Build Self Confidence,” released this past summer, is filled with Phan’s personal tips on how to find your best qualities and pass on your gifts to others. Like the many other videos on her YouTube channel, Michelle Phan, it oozes with G-rated, Disney Channel-esque charm. Over the years, the production values of her videos have gotten snazzier (she now has a camera guy, a lighting person and a production manager), but the basic formula remains the same — at their heart, it’s simply Phan talking to her viewers, sharing stories and wisdom. She shakes her head when new vloggers become obsessed with buying the latest video gear and software. “When I was little, my mom couldn’t afford a Halloween costume, so she drew an upside down triangle on my nose with lipstick and whiskers on my face with black eyeliner and we found a homemade lion costume at a thrift store, and I was a beast. That’s my philosophy in life. You already have everything. You have your hands and your mind, the most powerful tools that you’ll ever need.”

Phan, who calls herself a “multi-media artist,” holds on to that do-it-yourself mentality, and says she’s involved with every aspect of her brand. Living in a sort of online fishbowl, she’s also hyper-aware of her every move and how it might be viewed, and she shields her persona with fervor. “Because I’m a public figure, I have be mindful of what I say,” she says. “So I can’t just post a picture of me super drunk and being like, ‘YOLO!’ [‘you only live once’— the ‘carpe diem’ for the Twitter generation]. Branding-wise, that doesn’t work with my image.” Nudity, she says, is also “off-limits” and “something I only want my lover to see.”

She advises young girls to think of themselves as their own brand, and before they post anything online, they should ask themselves if they’d want their grandmother, future kids or future boss to see it. When she looks at her old Xanga posts, she cringes. “I think, oh my god, I was so annoying. I was this 19-year-old girl writing in all caps. Super obnoxious.

“I’m at a point in my life where I’m no longer a girl,” Phan adds. “I’m a woman. And because I’m a woman, I have more freedom. And because I have freedom, I have to be careful about the decisions I make. When you’re young, you think you’re invincible, but then things happen in your life, and you’re like, actually, I’m not invincible. I’m actually very fragile as a person. So you become more careful with what you do.” As for online attackers (and she has her share of them — multiple Michelle Phan hate-sites exist in cyberspace), Phan sees them as “terrible potholes.” The best way to handle them, she believes, is to ignore them or send them love. “I’ll say things like, ‘Hey, I’m praying for you.’ If they have to punch my online persona so that they can feel better, well, at least I helped them feel better. You just have to think of it that way.”

Phan’s rise to mega-fame has placed her in vulnerable territory. This summer, she was sued by electronic dance music company Ultra Records, which accused her of illegally using songs of its artists in her videos, including a track by Grammy-nominated DJ Kaskade. (Kaskade actually supported Phan, tweeting, “Copyright law is a dinosaur, ill-suited for the landscape of today’s media.”) Phan has countersued, claiming she did receive permission to use the songs. Her team declined comment on the lawsuit and instead directed me to the news of Phan’s latest venture — she’s launching a new music label with Cutting Edge Group called Shift Music Group.

The online artist never envisioned herself as a business founder and CEO, but now that she’s in that position, she’s urging others to get out of the corporate system, too, if that’s what they really want. This year, Phan inked a development deal with Endemol Beyond USA, the digital arm of global TV production firm Endemol. Her role is to build a female-focused lifestyle network, mentoring new talent and developing programming ideas with them. She believes that today’s digital revolution is shaking the structure of society in a fundamental way — and that’s a progressive step. “Things are getting worse right now, politically speaking, all over the world,” she says. “When you look at how just 1 percent of America’s population makes this amount of money while the rest is suffering, that shows you there needs to be a change. People complain about millennials being lazy because of computers. OK, then remove computers from school and just have dictionaries and encyclopedias, but is that really gonna better them? Yeah, they may not have to physically open things or do the manual work, but that gives them more room and time, and I think that with the right environment, you can really inspire them to become super programmers and brilliant people for the future.”

They can start by simply sharing what they know, whether it’s makeup or home décor or funny jokes, says Phan. Chances are, they’ll connect with someone. Once, at a meet-and-greet, a young man came up to Phan and told her that he started watching her tutorials after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She had lost her hair from chemotherapy and was so weak that she couldn’t even lift her hands. Knowing that she always loved putting on makeup, the son decided to raid her cosmetics bag and do it for her, to connect with her and make her feel beautiful up until her final days.

“It’s not a superficial thing,” Phan says of makeup. “Beauty is your face. It’s what people look at when they’re speaking to you — your eyes, your mouth. It’s your persona. I have this bond with my viewers because I’m showing them how to find their own beauty, on the outside and within.”

After the photo shoot, Phan slips back into her shirtdress and flats, a breezy, no-frills ensemble that she says she would “wear every day if I could.” For a woman who made a reported $5 million in 2013 (her team declined to confirm her financials), she lives with extraordinary simplicity. When not working, she’s hanging out with her boyfriend, model Dominique Capraro, or watching documentaries like Sirius Disclosure. She sleeps on a futon sofa and uses the same bag from years ago. “I don’t have attachments to things,” she says. “I don’t want to own things because ultimately what happens is that the things start owning you.” She adds that having the philosophy that life is not a ladder but “a circle” has given her great peace. “I’m no longer chasing this idea of being successful and having money. Now it’s like, what can I do with this money? This money doesn’t buy me happiness. It buys me the freedom to build something even bigger that can help the whole world.”

At the end of the interview, I ask Phan if we can take a selfie together. After all, she’s the reigning queen of the art — her video “How To Take The Perfect Selfie” has been viewed 2.8 million times.

She gleefully agrees, holding my phone while extending her arm out in front of us.

“Always hold the camera up and look up,” she says. She elongates her neck and turns her face toward the natural light. Then she looks into the camera with confidence and smiles.

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Story Michelle Woo
Photos Jack Blizzard
Stylist Reichelle Palo
Makeup Jayme Kavanaugh
Hair Octavio Molina

This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here

 


AUDREY MAGAZINE FALL 2014 COVER GIRL REVEALED: EVA CHEN!

 

We are more than a little excited to reveal our Fall 2014 cover girl, Eva Chen!

She’s the chicer, cooler older sister you wish you had — one with all the ins on the best stuff, one you want to have a glass of wine with. Sure, Eva Chen’s the first Asian American editor-in-chief in the Condé Nast publishing empire and the youngest EIC at a major American fashion publication, but don’t let her trailblazing, history-making ways intimidate you. The Lucky magazine #girlboss is redefining what it means to be an editor in the 21st century and leading the charge for print to thrive in an increasingly digital world, one hashtag at a time…

Story by Ko Im
Photos by Conan Thai, conanthai.com
Makeup by Brian Duprey
Hair by Chris Lospalluto
Photo assistant Brian Schutza 

 

This inspiring cover story will be coming soon! If you can’t wait ’til then, get your hands on the latest issue of Audrey Magazine!

 

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Sandra Oh for Audrey Magazine Summer 2014 (Cover Story + Photos)

Story by Michelle Woo.
Photos by Lever Rukhin.

After nearly a decade of breathing life, love and humanity into Grey’s Anatomy’s beloved Dr. Cristina Yang, Sandra Oh is looking in a new direction. The woman whose eyes — and every emotion behind them — changed the way we look at Asian women on the screen, is now turning her attention to the next generation.

It’s nearly impossible to sit at a table with Sandra Oh inside a Korean café in Los Angeles and not study her face. That face. The one that, throughout her 10-season run as hyper-driven surgeon Cristina Yang on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, has said so much with every subtle movement — a crinkle in her forehead, the flutter of her eyelids, the quiver of her chin. The face that made fans gasp for air when she was abandoned at the altar, grin in satisfaction every time she fired off one of her sassy one-liners (“I am laughing, just not externally”), and loyally watch her navigate years of twists and turns, from an icicle stabbing to a plane crash to PTSD.

Just where does that expressiveness come from?

“That’s a really good question because I have no idea,” Oh tells me, touching her cup of latte with the foam shaped into a heart. “You’re not conscious of it, like you’re not conscious of how you’re looking at me: your head is slightly tilted, your eyebrows are slightly up, your eyes are open and your mouth is soft. You’re not conscious of any of that.” She does say that people, particularly men she’s dated and her mother, have often pointed out her inability to mask her emotions. “If I’m angry inside of me at a three, it comes across as a 10.”

We end up talking a lot about faces, a topic the actress has passionate feelings about. Wearing a fitted navy blazer, her hair a plump array of ringlets (she has naturally wavy hair), Oh says she once read a magazine article about the rise of plastic surgery in Korea influenced by K-pop stars, and it still upsets her. “I was taking a shower and just thinking about that,” she says, leaning in intently as she speaks. “It’s a very dysfunctional thing. Korean women don’t even know what they look like. Before even finding their own identity, they change it. I find that so … antihuman.”

At 42, Oh wants to help empower young men and women, particularly those discouraged by the lack of faces like theirs in movies and on television. Having just hung up her white coat for the final time on Grey’s, a show she’s dedicated nearly a quarter of her life to, winning a Golden Globe and five Emmy nominations for her role, she ponders where to go from here. She’s going to act, no doubt — she’s in the upcoming comedy Tammy with Melissa McCarthy, which hits theaters on July 2, and she’s starring in a play in Chicago this summer called Death and the Maiden.

But she’s also looking to do more. “You get to a point in your life when you realize you can do things in a more concrete way,” says Oh, who comes across as soulful and introspective. She wants to be part of a shift that moves society forward in its representation of people of color, which involves seeing more Asian American actors propelled from clichéd sidekicks to rich and meaningful characters. Pausing for a moment, she tries to think back to when Asian American women first started taking on television parts that historically weren’t available to them.

“If you go back to, I dunno, 10 years ago, Lucy Liu was on, ummm, what’s that show?” Oh asks.

Ally McBeal,” I reply.

“Yeah, she was on Ally McBeal, and … who else was there?”

“There was … Margaret Cho.”

“Yeah, well, Margaret had her show, like, 20 years ago,” Oh says. “So we’re tapped into this industry and those are the only two people we can think of? That’s really, really sad. I know that we have more than a handful that we can point to now, and it’s really about bumping up those numbers, you know?”

The issue is one that hits her deeply. Oh has an email that she saved from her producer, who wrote to tell Oh something her daughter had randomly said at dinnertime. The producer’s daughter is 10 and adopted from China.

She pulls out her iPhone and looks for the message. “Here, I’ll read it,” she begins. “She said, ‘I used to think I was kind of ugly because I had squinty eyes, and then I met Sandra and she has squinty eyes and is beautiful, and now I don’t think I’m ugly.’” Oh puts down her phone and takes a slow breath. “When I read that, I burst into tears because I felt like that when I was 10, and if someone as beautiful and as full of life as she is can feel that way, then how many other 10-year-old girls feel that way?”

She shakes her head. “I just keep thinking, how can I transform this?”

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THE LACK OF DIVERSITY in the Hollywood landscape is part of the reason that Oh feels “so lucky, sooooo lucky” to have been able to play the nuanced, emotionally complex role of Cristina Yang. Part of the original crop of surgical interns at Seattle Grace Hospital when the show premiered in 2005, Cristina became what Slate television critic Willa Paskin proclaimed “one of TV’s most original and influential characters.” She was quick-witted, sarcastic, competitive, brutally honest and unyieldingly loyal — her friendship with main character Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) was a pillar of the show.

Prior to filming the season finale (which aired after press time), Oh felt like she was getting off a “fast-moving train,” and the fact that she would never scrub in again hadn’t fully hit her. She did, however, find a moment to plot out which items she would steal from the set. “I took a rug from Cristina and Owen’s [Kevin McKidd] apartment that we stood on for I dunno how many years,” she confesses. “And you know, I’ll probably take my stethoscope.” McKidd, who plays Cristina’s on-again-off-again love, says he’s going to miss the marathon workdays he spends with Oh, who introduced him to the practice of meditation and would play with his kids whenever they visited the set. “With most actors, when you talk to them, they’ll nod while looking on,” says McKidd. “When you talk to Sandra, she’s engaged and really listens and there’s no bullsh-t. She’s a deep-thinking, compassionate human being.”

As for why she’s leaving Grey’s, Oh says, “I feel like I’ve completed my job. Working with the writers, we’ve unearthed every stone.” While she says it’s too early to really see the ripple effects from a primetime television show where almost half the cast are men and women of color, Oh believes she was part of something monumental. “I just haven’t felt that there’s been another show that has brought so much light to a different type of casting as ours did,” she says. “It’s the magic of time. It was the right time in society, in the culture. It was the right grouping of people.”

Beyond race, the series was also gutsy in other ways. A couple seasons back, Cristina had an abortion. A child simply would have shattered her career, the one by which she defined herself. “There was no fanfare about it,” says Oh. “That’s how far we have come as women. My character was making that decision based on what was right for her as opposed to a medical emergency or her being attacked or reasons that would otherwise have been more palatable.” She points to the fact that Cristina had also gotten pregnant early on in the show, in 2005, but before she could have an abortion, she lost the baby. Over the past decade, she says, there’s been “a shift.”

“I really tried to create a character who followed herself,” Oh says. “[Grey’s creator] Shonda Rhimes, the writers and I were very interested in creating the kind of character who is not bound by a husband, not bound by a family, and is only really committed to herself and who she is in the world.”

How she became that character — and how she becomes any character she plays — is a calculated process in itself. “You can see Sandra’s dedication in the look of her scripts,” says costar Chandra Wilson, who plays no-nonsense surgeon Miranda Bailey. “They are completely marked up with highlights and colored tabs and notes that are full of intention. It doesn’t matter the size of a scene — she wants to be honest every single moment.”

Oh’s supreme focus revealed itself early on in her career. Her big break came when, at age 19, she beat out more than 1,000 young women for the title role in The Diary of Evelyn Lau, Canada’s made-for-television film about a tortured poet who flees her disapproving parents for a life on the streets. At her audition, she asked the producer and director for a moment to focus. Then she laid on the floor for five minutes. “I love that girl,” Oh says with a laugh, reflecting on her younger self. “She didn’t know you’re not supposed to do breathing exercises in the middle of a f-cking audition. She only knew to follow her own instinct.”

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The actress says she gets her audacity from her mom and dad — a former research scientist and businessman, respectively — two people who, as she describes it, “freakin’ left Korea in the mid-’60s and just changed their lives.” Oh adds, “The insanity and challenge of my parents’ generation going through occupation, living through occupation, living through the second World War, living through the Korean War, then coming out of the Korean War and then in their mid-20s, coming to America — that to me is fearlessness. It’s like, hey, I’m gonna go to some American school and not know the language and then get a job. I mean, who does that? Immigrants do that.”

Oh gets philosophical as she ponders what drives success. “There are so many articles and books and studies about this generation not being challenged, and my belief is that if you’re challenged, you find out who you are much quicker,” she says. “Privilege is such a trapping because it’s a longer road to ever finding out who you really are. You have to be able to say no to a safe place.”

For Oh, who grew up in a suburb of Ontario, Canada, that meant pursuing acting in spite of her parents’ objections, trusting that they would still love her and ultimately understand her. A self-described “extremely hyperactive, hyper-sensitive kid,” Oh began performing when she was 10, playing the Wizard of Woe in a musical operetta called The Canada Goose. She trained in ballet, then studied drama at the National Theatre School in Montreal and went on to star in a London, Ontario, stage production of David Mamet’s Oleanna. “I just lucked out,” Oh says of her path. “I lucked out with the family I had. I lucked out with where I grew up. I lucked out in a lot of ways where, in my early years, I didn’t encounter anything that crushed me.”

More than luck, though, Oh’s evolution is the result of careful decision-making, beginning with the characters she chooses to play. Those have ranged from the dual-life-living artist Jade in the film Double Happiness to the inscrutable personal assistant Rita Wu on the HBO comedy Arli$$ to the asskicking wine seller Stephanie in the Academy Award winning indie megahit Sideways. Oh says she made a commitment to herself early on that she wouldn’t take on stereotypical, throwaway roles. “There are certain bars that you strive for, that you set for yourself, and then hopefully you’ll achieve that bar and then you’ll get another bar,” she says. “So at one point, that was a bar. I said, no more ‘prostitute to the left.’”

Then she chuckles and adds, “But one of the prostitutes that I’ve played — I haven’t played that many — was in this wonderful film called Waking the Dead that Keith Gordon directed. I played the Korean prostitute, and I didn’t want to go in on it, but then I decided, well, someone’s going to take this part and it should be me. It turned out to be a really, really positive experience. Keith was a wonderful director, and it became much more than a cursory part. I think I had no dialogue, but my goal was that if the camera was ever on my face, people would think, ‘What’s going on with that character?’ It
was about her inner life.”

When asked if it frustrates her when other Asian American actors take on token roles, she says with zero hesitation: “Never. Never ever, ever. Ever.

“It is hard out there,” she explains. “Doing what we do as actors is crushing every day. If anything, I search for the magic that they are bringing. Because they better bring it. Every actor has a choice, an opportunity to transform something. If you enter into a situation where there’s no room for transformation and you feel comfortable playing something that’s demeaning, then that’s on you. But there’s a whole range of what is right for you as an artist. Let’s say this character is a completely demeaning character and that demeaning character is essential to the story — I’d wanna play that.”

Oh believes the issue of responsibility as an actor of color is “very complex.” She says, “I don’t think you can rule out responsibility. If you so choose to take it, it’s there. But I also feel as much, if not more, responsibility to who I am as an artist. The next step for me is to try to figure out that balance. Having said that, one serves the other. If you are true to yourself as an artist, you will do good work. If you do good work, if you do truthful work, you will represent a culture well because you will be seen, hopefully, as an artist that’s worthwhile and someone who we want to see telling our stories.”

One of the stories Oh will be telling post-Grey’s is that of Paulina, a former political prisoner who encounters the man she believes raped and tortured her 15 years earlier, in the award-winning play Death and the Maiden at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater starting June 13. Director Chay Yew, one of the first people Oh met when she moved to Los Angeles, calls the actress “a shining bright light. She is able to fiercely love and embrace all the characters she embodies, despite their flaws, shortcomings or darkness. In turn, we find ourselves in every character she portrays.”

To center herself, Oh meditates every day in her Los Angeles home — she’s on the board of a nonprofit meditation group called InsightLA. Her best days, she says, always involve “family and friends and some sort of creative work.” She keeps her personal life private and doesn’t consider herself a celebrity (“I detest that word,” she says). And now with Grey’s behind her, she’s looking to do something — something more.

When Barack Obama was elected president, Oh says it was a “game-changer,” explaining, “I could feel the rumbling inside of myself because I somehow felt I was part of that change.” Now, more than ever, she wants to encourage Asian Americans to be bold. She’s involved in community outreach and says she’s open to starting a dialogue on race, in Hollywood and beyond. “I’m trying to teach Asian American girls that they are perfect the way they are and all they need to do is discover themselves,” she says.

If they ever need some inspiration, they can simply look at her face.

 

This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here. 

 

 

Stylist: Anita Patrickson for The Wall Group
Makeup: Georgie Eisdell for The Wall Group
Hair: Christine Symonds for The Wall Group
Location The Legendary Park Plaza Hotel

Sneak Peak: Sandra Oh on the Cover of Audrey Magazine Summer 2014!

This upcoming summer issue of Audrey Magazine will feature none other than Sandra Oh! In our exclusive cover story, we find out why Oh left Grey’s Anatomy and what’s in store for the actress next. READ IT HERE and be on the look out for our Summer 2014 issue which is packed with even more stunning photos of Sandra Oh!

 

KEEP UPDATED WITH THE SHOP AUDREY PAGE TO GET YOUR HANDS ON THE SUMMER ISSUE COMING SOON!

 

Story: Michelle Woo
Photos: Lever Rukhin
Stylist: Anita Patrickson for The Wall Group
Makeup: Georgie Eisdell for The Wall Group
Hair: Christine Symonds for The Wall Group
Location: The Legendary Park Plaza Hotel

 

Yuna Kim Sings (Yes, Sings) Popular ‘Frozen’ Song

Story by Julie Ha. 

Anyone still bitter about South Korean skater Yuna Kim not winning gold at the Sochi Olympics under a cloud of controversy?

Then, it might be worth viewing a neat new video of Kim singing and skating to a popular song from the hit film Frozen. The video is from a newly released commercial for Samsung Consumer Electronics’ new Smart Air Conditioner Q9000.

Can you guess which song from the movie? Hint: “The cold never bothered me, anyway…”

As Kim is heard singing “Let It Go,” the famous anthem from Frozen, Kim is seen performing on the ice and then later recording the popular song with a children’s choir. The video has already attracted 786,000 views on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEJ4OEf39iU

This isn’t the first time the 23-year-old skater has dabbled in singing. She is well-known in Korea for her singing talent and has even performed on Korean TV music programs. In this 2010 performance, she sang the Brown-Eyed Girls’ “I’m in Love” in front of an appreciative audience.

Kim was the first from her country to win an Olympic gold medal in the 2010 Winter Games and controversially won silver in the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this past February, infamously losing to Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova. Kim is also a two-time World champion and three-time Grand Prix Final champion. She retired from competitive skating after the Sochi Olympics.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, take a look back at KoreAm‘s 2013 story about Kim, as she was making her comeback to competitive skating in the run-up to the 2014 Olympics.

 This story was originally published on iamkoream.com.

(image source)

Korean Parody of “Let it Go” Will Be The Funniest Thing You See All Day

The obsession with Disney’s Frozen continues! In particular, the song “Let it Go” is one for the books. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 86th Academy Awards. This was a historic moment for the Asian American community because this meant that Robert Lopez, co-creator of “Let it Go,” became the first Filipino American to win an Oscar and the first Fil-Am to join a prestigious group called “Egot” —  individuals who have won the four top entertainment awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.

Aside from the Oscar, a simple scroll through YouTube makes the success of this song clear. There have been a number of YouTube covers of the song, many of which are from the Asian community, and even instrumental covers.

And that doesn’t even begin to describe the movie’s worldwide success. For instance, the film is now the highest-grossing animated feature ever in South Korea. This means even beloved Kpop stars can be found covering “Let it Go.”

Recently, we came across something else from Korea that caught our attention. During what appears to be a Korean game show, we found the most hilarious Frozen parody ever. It’s filled with fake snow, perfect lip-syncing and hilarious theatrics.

Check it out below. We promise it will be one of the funniest and most entertaining things you watch today.

Spring 2014 Cover Story featuring Singer-Songwriter YUNA

Story by Ada Tseng. 

Singer-songwriter Yuna Zarai (known as Yuna) has a quick and easy remedy for writer’s block: “I just call up my best friends and ask, ‘Hey, do you have any drama that I can write about?’ Usually, they’re like, ‘Sure!’ And then I’ll show them [the resulting song] as a gift.” She laughs. “My friends are so easy.”

Many of her self-penned songs are about relationships — from happy-in-love songs (“Lullabies,” “Favourite Thing”) to heartbreak (“Mountains,” “I Want You Back”) to a perfectly satisfactory fling you know won’t last (“Lovely Intermission”). “Decorate,” a song from her first international EP in 2010, about missing a recently departed lover so much that you keep your home decorated with objects that the person likes just in case he or she comes back, is another example of a track inspired by one of her male friends. “It’s such a sad song, and a lot of people think I went through that,” she says. “[But] I’m really close to my best friends, so if they feel sad, I feel sad, too. It’s emotionally draining, but I get affected immediately.”

The 27-year-old grew up in Malaysia, making a name for herself in her home country before relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago. Her self-titled international album Yuna, released in 2012, had a famous supporter in Pharrell Williams, who produced her hit single “Live Your Life” and often mentioned her name when interviewers would ask him about new artists to follow. In addition to her music, Yuna is a fashion trendsetter as well. She runs her own online store November Culture, and earlier this year, she launched her own clothing line 14NOV, which features more conservative clothing such as headscarves, turtleneck maxi-dresses and oversized cardigans. “There are a lot of girls, especially in Los Angeles, that want to dress up sexy and fabulous,” she says, “but there are also a bunch of girls like me that would rather cover up!”

The Malaysian singer has gotten a lot of questions about her Muslim heritage since her debut in the United States, a country not accustomed to seeing a pretty girl in a turban singing and strumming her guitar onstage, but Yuna tends to downplay any potential politics in favor of talking about her music. In some ways, despite her uniqueness (the eye-poppingly beautiful fashion plate would stand out in a crowd even if she weren’t the star of the show), she comes across as your typical girl-crush. Dressed in a shimmery black-gold headscarf with gold statement necklaces and a long, black pleated skirt (“I’m really into black and gold right now,” she says), she was charismatic performing at a sold-out Bootleg Theater show in Los Angeles last December, for an audience that happened to include her own parents who had flown out from Malaysia to see her.

Yuna started creating music on the piano when she was 14, but songwriting remained a mystery to her until she picked up the guitar at 19. As soon as she learned how to play three chords, she started making up songs for her friends, teasing them about liking boys or not being over their exes.

Yuna essentially learned English through music. “At first, it was just me re-creating songs I already knew,” she says. (Her English is now fluent, with only a hint of Malay accent.) Inspired by many American female singer-songwriters, including Fiona Apple and Lauryn Hill, as well as Malaysian artists like Ning Baizura and Sheila Majid, Yuna says she feels more comfortable writing lyrics in English, where you can be more conversational. “Malay is such a beautiful language that when you write songs in Malay, it has to be poetic.” She’s only written seven Malay songs — one per year she’s been in the business, she jokes.

“Deeper Conversation” was the first song she wrote that garnered public attention. In her last term studying law at university, she started a MySpace page for her music. Soon enough, she started getting requests to perform at jazz bars in Kuala Lumpur, the radio began playing her songs, and she was making a name for herself in the Malaysian independent music scene.

Her father, who worked in law but loved playing the guitar, was especially supportive, as he was the one who used to take his daughter to record stores when she was younger. “He said, ‘Only once in a while is there someone like you who can write music, so you have to pursue it,’” Yuna remembers.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Carlo Fox and Ben Willis from the indie record label and management company Indie-Pop Music had stumbled upon Yuna online. At the time, MySpace had an independent music chart, and Yuna’s Malay music was in the Top 10. If only she sang in English, they thought. When they found she did, they became obsessed with finding her.

Yuna admits she was a little suspicious of these American strangers who wanted to meet her. When she didn’t respond, Willis went on Facebook and started friend-requesting as many of her followers as he could (at the time, she had about 300,000; now, she has almost 2 million).

“She probably thought I was an Internet stalker,” says Willis. “But literally, the first person to hit me back happened to be her mom, who told her, ‘Just get on the phone with this guy. He sounds really nice!’”

“I probably didn’t respond until six months later,” says Yuna. “I was busy, and I didn’t have the courage to think about going to America. But in the end, because I had all this English music that never made it in Malaysia, I knew that I couldn’t discover my own true strength until I gave it a try.”

“I had never been to Malaysia,” says Willis, who ended up flying over by himself to meet Yuna. “But when I got there, she and her cousin picked me up, and she gave me the key to my hotel. She said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you when you’re out here.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what? I’m the one who’s trying to sign you.’ But I hung out with her, her bandmates and her family members for three days. We really clicked. I said, ‘Look, I want to help bring your music to rest of world,’ and the rest is history.”

Last October, Yuna released her second album, Nocturnal, on the Verve Records label. This work allowed her to experiment further in creating her signature sound — pop with hints of traditional Malay music. “Falling” uses an African thumb piano called the kalimba to make a gamelan sound, heard in a lot of Southeast Asian music. “Mountains” was inspired by what Yuna calls “a Borneo vibe,” whereas “I Wanna Go” makes use of the kompang, a Malay tambourine.

But her hit single “Rescue,” inspired by the Malay music form dikir barat, might be the one song that you can’t get out of your head. A women empowerment ballad inspired by her girlfriends, as well as influential women she had just met at a United Nations event, the chorus is about how even when things in life get a little difficult, the girl’s got light in her face / She don’t need no rescuing, she’s OK.

In 2012, Yuna was recognized with a National Youth Icon Award, awarded by the prime minister of Malaysia for her exceptional achievements in arts. But nowadays, it’s not just Malaysian fans that gush about her influence anymore.

“Once the rest of the world feels the way we feel about her, she’s going to be a game-changer,” says Willis. “And not just from the musical perspective. Whenever she’s ready, I think she’s a massive cultural figure who’s been put here to do important things.”

Want more Yuna? CLICK HERE to hear her alluring, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head music. 

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This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

Audrey’s Spring 2014 Cover Revealed!

Audrey’s Spring 2014 covergirl is none other than singer-songwriter Yuna!

“[At first] I didn’t have the courage to think about going to America. But in the end, because I had all this English music that never made it in Malaysia, I knew that I couldn’t discover my own true strength until I gave it a try.” 

Get your copy of Audrey Magazine‘s Spring 2014 issue here.