Everything You Need to Know About 2018 Unforgettable Gala Honorees

For the past 17 years, we’ve been celebrating achievement in the Asian American community at the Unforgettable Gala, turning the Beverly Hilton into a huge holiday party with all of our closest friends and colleagues. This annual black-tie event has often been the first to recognize and acknowledge talent such as Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho, Randall Park, Awkwafina, Margaret Cho and Grace Park. Many of them got their very first press coverage in our pages and proudly held their first trophies on our stage.

In order to select these esteemed honorees, we consulted with our official selection committee, which is comprised of accomplished and diverse professionals from the film and television industries. We tallied their votes to determine the following individuals. As the breadth and scope of their achievements demonstrates, 2018 has certainly been one Unforgettable year for Asian Americans in entertainment.

Vanguard: Crazy Rich Asians

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The Vanguard Award recognizes achievements that shape the cultural landscape through creative excellence. “Crazy Rich Asians” was more than a successful box office film — it was a groundbreaking and historical movement that will resonate far beyond 2018, and set precedent for future Asian American works to flourish. Just as important, it showed Hollywood that it need not impose ceilings on actors of Asian descent.

Before “Crazy Rich Asians,” the last studio film with an all-Asian cast was “The Joy Luck Club,” in 1993. Before the film could be made, Kevin Kwan and the movie’s director, Jon M. Chu, had to decide how the movie should be distributed. Warner Bros. had outbid other studios a week before Netflix came in with an enormous offer, which included greenlighting all of Kwan’s trilogy of books, total artistic freedom and a minimum seven-figure payday for each shareholder. Instead, the two decided to roll the dice on the box office, knowing the significance of opening an Asian American film in a traditional cinematic space. The end result? A gorgeous romantic comedy that sealed the deal on Asian August.

“If those pyrotechnic bursts seem to be gilding the lily, it’s only because Warner Bros.’ spared-no-expense adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s status-obsessed best-seller already feels like a grand, two-hour fireworks show, one in which gorgeous Asian stars parade around in dazzling, brightly colored couture, driving luxury cars to and from locations that suggest a cross between Versailles and Donald Trump’s bathroom (no, really, those are the design influences).” -From Peter Debruge’s review in Variety.

Director: Jon M. Chu

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The Director Award recognizes outstanding achievement in filmmaking. The director marshalls an army of creatives to tell an enduring story that transports, inspires and titillates. Chu cinematically rendered “Crazy Rich Asians,” Kevin Kwan’s modern romance novel about an intraracial yet intercultural love affair, into Asian America’s fan-fared entrance into American mainstream entertainment. The film generated an unprecedented level of attention to a historically underrepresented niche of actors, earning more than $173 million dollars in the United States alone.   

Currently, Chu is directing and producing an untitled streaming series for Apple, inspired by 11-year-old investigative reporter Hilde Lysiak, and working alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda for a film adaptation of his Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights” for Warner Bros.

Chu’s storytelling has earned him a spot on this year’s Hollywood Reporter’s Power 100 list and Variety’s New Hollywood Leaders. After growing up in Palo Alto, California, with Taiwanese parents, he studied at the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts and directed “Step Up 2: The Streets,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.”

“I realized I wanted to do film when I was in fourth or third grade. When we went on vacation I was in charge of the camera. It was a giant VHS camera. I convinced my dad to get me this little mixer from Sharper Image, and it was $200 and could take all VHS players and sync them together with the stereo. So I made a video and showed it to them, and they cried while watching it. I knew then, ‘Oh, I want to do this.’” -From an interview with the Center for Asian American Media.

Actor In Television: Sandra Oh  

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The Actor In Television Award recognizes outstanding work in the ever-evolving storytelling medium that is television. Sandra Oh brings power, vulnerability and empathy to her critically acclaimed leading role in “Killing Eve,” in which she chases down a psychotic assassin. As Eve, Oh portrays the kind of complex heroine Asian Americans have long wished to depict on-screen. As one of the most recognizable faces in television, Oh is a champion of diversity; the versatility of her choices as an actor has helped broaden the range for Asian American talent everywhere.

Her Emmy nomination this year (her sixth overall) was historic — Oh became the first Asian actress to be nominated for Best Actress in a Drama. Oh grew up in Ottawa, Canada, and studied drama at the National Theatre School of Canada. After rising to prominence for her roles in films like “Double Happiness” and “Under the Tuscan Sun,” as well as HBO’s “Arliss,” she joined the main cast of the hit ABC medical series “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2005. For her role as Cristina Yang, she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in 2006.

“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.”  -From an interview in the Summer 2014 issue of Audrey.

Actor In Film: John Cho

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The Actor In Film Award celebrates standout work in cinema. In “Searching,” a tense and emotional thriller that uses social technology to frame a story about a broken family, John Cho delivers a raw and magnetic performance as David, a widower searching for his missing daughter. Through him, we see a father as real as any in our lives.

Already a household name within the Asian American community, Cho has refused to rest on his laurels, continuing to deliver inspired performances on TV and on the big screen. His most notable works include the “Harold and Kumar” and “Star Trek” franchises, leading the ABC comedy “Selfie” and, most recently, a critically acclaimed turn in the indie pic “Columbus.”

“I used to be—still am—reluctant to be a part of the narrative that my films were changing perspectives on Asian Americans. It feels noble. And I don’t feel noble. I’m trying to do things that tickle the artistic bone.”  -From an interview in the September 2018 issue of KORE.

Breakout In TV: Manny Jacinto

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The Breakout In TV Award celebrates a fresh new talent who has emerged seemingly out of nowhere. As is often the case, their overnight success is usually the result of years of hard work. Manny Jacinto, our favorite TV idiot via NBC’s “The Good Place,” is no exception.

In his comedy, which digs into the gray areas of the afterlife and the concepts of heaven and hell, Jacinto portrays Jason Mendoza, a failed DJ and ardent Blake Bortles (you know, the Jaguars quarterback) fan from Jacksonville, Florida. His performance was included in Vanity Fair’s 15 Best New TV Characters of 2017, Buzzfeed’s 25 Breakout TV Characters in 2017, Vulture’s 17 Breakthrough TV Performances of 2016 and IndieWire’s The Best Breakthrough TV Performances of 2017.

This year, Jacinto made his studio film debut in “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Still on the upswing, he is next slated for the big screen in 2020, as a pilot in Paramount’s highly anticipated “Top Gun: Maverick,” alongside Tom Cruise, Miles Teller and Jon Hamm.

“With my generation, I have a lot of Asian friends who are kind of like Jason. I’m kind of the same as well. Asian dudes love to play sports and talk about girls. They go through their trials and tribulations. It’s not just about being smart and all that stuff.” -From an interview in the October issue of KORE.

Breakout in Film: Lana Condor

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The Breakout In Film Award honors a great actor who can tell stories and move audiences with effortless ease. Lana Condor receives this award for her outstanding performance as the shy all-American teen Lara Jean Covey in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” As Lara, she is in turns innocent, feisty, heartbroken and powerful. The Netflix rom-com didn’t focus solely on her Asian American cultural identity, and instead chose to show Lara as a relatable teenager juggling complicated relationships. Condor rose to the occasion with flair and an open heart. The resulting film was so watchable and touching that we couldn’t help but watch it again and again.

Condor was born in Vietnam and at the age of 2 months, she was adopted by American parents. That experience fueled her lifelong goal to support children in orphanages in Asia. “To All the Boys” director Susan Johnson collaborated with Condor’s adoptive father and sent a scholarship to four girls from Condor’s village of origin. We can’t wait to catch her next year in the TV series “Deadly Class.”

“Casting directors will often say that they are open to any ethnicity, but they’re not. They’re covering their asses and meeting their quota, so they can say they read everyone.Then you get to the casting room and everyone is blonde and blue-eyed.” -From an interview with The Cut in August 2018.

Changemaker: Tan France

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The Changemaker Award recognizes widespread positive impact on popular culture. In “Queer Eye,” Tan France shows the world more than his eye and expertise for fashion — while breaking down stereotypes as a gay Muslim immigrant, he’s also an advocate for self-love, mental health and positivity. His message has reached millions around the world.

France, who is of Pakistani descent, was born and raised in the U.K. He’s overseen operations for Zara, acted as managing director at Selfridges and as company director for Shade Clothing. Since then, France has co-founded and designed the women’s clothing label Kingdom & State. As a member of “Queer Eye”’s Fab Five, France has used his role as a stylist to break down barriers between people of different backgrounds, encouraging his makeover subjects to embrace their individual styles.

Yes, I know I’m gayer; yes, I know I’ve got a different skin color. Yes, I know I’m a certain religion. Yes, I know I’m an immigrant. But look at all the similarities we have.” -From an interview with Conde Nast Traveler.

Culture – Social Justice: Amanda Nguyen

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The Culture – Social Justice Award recognizes the impact of an individual who is committed to improving society by standing up for the rights of others. Amanda Nguyen, a prominent advocate and activist, is the founder and CEO of Rise, a nonprofit organization that accomplished penning and passing the landmark Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act in 2016.

Estimated to affect almost 25 million people in the U.S., her bill of rights restructures the way rape cases are handled, making it more accessible than ever for victims to seek legal help. Nineteen other bills protecting sexual violence survivors have since been modeled after Nguyen’s federal law, which Congress passed unanimously.

Nguyen was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for her “unprecedented efforts in bringing equal protection under the law and basic human rights to all survivors of sexual assault, regardless of geography.”

She has also been listed in Forbes’ 30 Under 30, as one of the Top 100 Leading Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy, a Young Woman of the Year by Marie Claire, and The Tempest’s #1 Woman of Color Trailblazer. In 2016, Nguyen was appointed by President Barack Obama to the State Department as his deputy White House liaison.

“I could accept injustice or rewrite the law. I chose rewriting the law.” -From an interview with The Guardian.

Culture – Lifestyle: Ben Baller

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The Culture – Lifestyle Award celebrates the influence that an individual can have on the way we dress, the way we walk and the things we covet. Celebrity jeweler Ben Baller has been pivotal to the look and feel of American youth culture. From being name-checked in rap songs (“Ferg is the name/ Ben Baller did the chain,” rapped A$AP Ferg in 2017) to being referenced in commercial art direction, Baller defines an aesthetic.

It all began when Baller first fell in love with hip-hop through breakdancing, getting his older brother to drive him to distant breakdancing competitions. He was also a gifted athlete. His nickname “Baller” comes from being one of the first Asian Americans at the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University to play NCAA football and basketball. As a DJ, he met Dr. Dre and began working at Priority Records and moved on to Aftermath. Later, he sold off his sneaker collection to fund his own jewelry business. His rise toward becoming the most-followed jeweler on social media was chronicled on his own reality show on Fuse TV.

“A lot of connections that I made early on made me who I am today.” -From podcast “The Business of HYPE With jeffstaple.”

Culture Ambassador: Livi Zheng

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The Culture Ambassador Award recognizes tireless individuals who use their talents to boost and promote their culture to the wider world. Indonesian filmmaker Livi Zheng has used her precocious cinematic ability to introduce traditional Balinese gamelan music to the world, through the documentary “Bali: Beats of Paradise.” She believes it’s underappreciated both musically and culturally — her work aims to both preserve and give new life to gamelan.

“Bali: Beats of Paradise” follows a collaborative project between an Indonesian composer (I. Nyoman Wenten) and an American Grammy Award-winning vocalist (Judith Hill), as they blend gamelan with classic funk elements to create a song called “Queen of the Hill,” for which Zheng also directed a music video. A look at gamelan’s essential traditions, as well as Wenten’s love for the music, is interwoven into the story of their collaboration.

Zheng is an alumnae of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Her 2014 debut martial arts film, “Brush With Danger,” gained her widespread recognition; she herself is a decorated competitive martial artist and former stunt woman. Currently, Zheng travels the world as a guest speaker on topics spanning film, culture and international business, and serves as head juror at the international film festival Southeast Asia Prix Jeunesse.

“When I traveled to Bali to make this film, the most important thing was to capture the culture and traditions of everyday life, including Balinese ceremonies. Whether filled with joy or sorrow, each one is always accompanied by the traditional sounds of gamelan.“

Athlete On Another Level: Naomi Osaka

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Presented by Pechanga Resort & Casino, the Athlete on Another Level Award recognizes Naomi Osaka’s dedication to and excellence in her sport. As the winner of the 2018 U.S. Open, Osaka has inspired future generations. When she’s on the court whipping her 100-miles-per-hour forehands and making powerful serves with laser-like intensity, we are witnessing a history-making athlete.

Osaka, 20, was born in Japan to a Japanese mom and a Haitian dad, but moved to Long Island, New York, when she was 3. At 13, she relocated to Japan so she could play under the Japanese flag. This year, she became the first Japanese woman to make it to the finals of any Grand Slam ever, and is the youngest woman in the world’s top 20. At the U.S. Open final, she beat her idol Serena Williams in a controversial victory that showcased Osaka’s astonishing athleticism and her gracious humility.

I think you should think that it’s not really the outcome, it’s the process. You just gotta keep going and fighting for everything, and one day you’ll get to where you want.” -From a video interview with Teen Vogue.

Digital Influencer: Cassey Ho

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The Digital Influencer Award honors the ability of one resourceful individual who has mastered the art of social media to impact culture and commerce. Cassey Ho is the personality, founder and entrepreneur behind Blogilates, a fitness empire that is currently YouTube’s No. 1 female fitness channel.

Blogilates’ videos, which offer easy fitness tips for working toward self-improvement with a healthy body image, have more than 600 million views and 4.3 million subscribers. From the success of her channel, Ho’s brand has proliferated into other ventures: a best-selling book, a popular DVD, the activewear line POPFLEX and a national partnership with 24 Hour Fitness.   

Ho, who is Vietnamese and Chinese, grew up in San Francisco. While attending Whittier College, Ho was a featured designer at San Francisco Fashion Week’s “Emerging Stars” show.

“You are so much more than your physical shell. You are your brain, your heart, your passions—your potential that you have to give to this world.” -From an interview with KORE.

The 17th Annual Unforgettable Gala takes place Dec. 8 at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. Visit unforgettablegala.com for more information.