By David Yi
From fighting off island mosquitoes to designing runway-worthy creations to schmoozing with The Donald, Korean Americans have done it all for instant fame (or at least modest visibility) and fortune (well, for a lucky few). Here’s a look at what the bulk of KA reality stars have been up to since the cameras stopped rolling.
Show: Last Comic Standing, NBC, 2008
Quick recap: The ponytail-wearing comedienne churned out stereotype after stereotype during her 11-week run. Joked Ku: “Who doesn’t have an Asian fetish?” “It’s an ancient Korean secret that dog is like 25 percent more lean than turkey. Duh.” “I don’t wanna marry an Asian guy. I like regular people.”
I was just accepted into the Friars Club (a private New York club famous for its risqué celebrity roasts). I think they need new members because their current members are all really old and keep dying! For the first round of auditions, I chose to roast Woody Allen so I could make fun of what a pervert he is for marrying his adopted Korean daughter.
Many Asian Americans have said that your material was based on tired stereotypes. How would you respond?
The fact that they are criticizing me for the type of material I do is reinforcing the stereotype of how Asians are extremely critical of each other. In high school, there was a banquet for the students who made the top 10 percent of our class. My parents were the only ones not there. When everyone asked why, I said, “Well, the top 10 percent wasn’t good enough for them.” Nothing is ever good enough for Asians! Why can’t we be more like black people? Black people are all brothers and cool with each other.
I like to think that I am breaking stereotypes. People think Asians are super serious. I am breaking that stereotype by choosing to be a comedian. I make a living off being really silly. How great is that? I think we are going through growing pains as an Asian American community. Jewish people have a long history in comedy. Asians have only recently been getting funny. People are still getting used to it.
Tell us one of your new jokes.
“I had a boyfriend who said my skin is soft as a baby seal. I was like, ‘Geez, how many baby seals have you been with? Well, that’s the last thing I remember before he clubbed me over the head. I woke up near a bunch of rocks with his balls on my nose!”
I want to record a Comedy Central half-hour special in the next five years. Comedy Central’s language and content restrictions aren’t as strict as NBC’s, so I’ll be able to do my real material.
Show: Fame, NBC, 2003
Quick recap: The fiddle-playing contestant on the cookie-cutter TV singing contest referred to himself as the “ugly duckling” of the group. When he didn’t win, he confessed that he “sobbed for like a bazillion hours afterward.”
I am currently playing Eddie in “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway. I’ve also been working on other theater projects, got to shoot my first film in New York (Ghost Town starring Greg Kinnear and Ricky Gervais), and shot a movie in L.A. starring an amazing array of Asian actors including Tamlyn Tomita, Ryun Yu, Rizwan Manji, Yuri Tag, Erin Quill and Allen Liu, under the direction of the awesome Chil Kong.
Did you get any gigs from the show?
Fame was an amazing experience. It really was my foot in the door. From the show, I ended up getting my agent, which was probably one of the best things that could have happened. Because I went back to school, I wasn’t able to ride the Fame momentum as much as I wanted to but once I moved to New York, my agents sent me out for numerous projects.
Do you keep in touch with the other contestants?
There are other people from Fame performing all over Broadway. Allyson Arena joined the “Mamma Mia!” company almost a year after I joined, Ryan Chotto is in the cast of “Hairspray,” and Brandon O’Neal is in the “Lion King.” We all keep in touch and consider each other our “Fame-ily.”
Is it difficult being an Asian American male in this industry?
It has been very difficult. I’d go to a casting call for an “Asian” role and it’ll be like a mini-reunion because I’d know most of the people there. I almost feel like you have to create your own projects. That’s why I would love to produce and write in the future and create the parts for performers of all minority backgrounds. We’re still fighting the stereotypical roles but I do see it changing, even if it’s at a slower pace than we’d like.
Show: Project Runway Season 4, Bravo, 2007
Quick recap: The New York designer started off by wowing judges with her flair for sleek sophistication, but her work slowly sizzled until she was finally cut in the denim challenge.
I’ve been working on my line, na be, which is a job and a half in itself. So far, the reception has been pretty fantastic, and I’ll be selling in about 15 stores following my first season.
Did Project Runway change you?
I don’t think it changed me, but it did reaffirm something that I’ve always known. That is, to follow my heart. The only reason why anyone goes on a reality TV show, especially in fashion, is for the exposure. That’s half the equation for a brand, especially one that’s trying to start up, like mine.
On the reunion show, Heidi Klum commented that you were very stoic. What’s your take?
I have to be honest and say that the last place I wanted to be was at a taping. I had just come off my own runway show, and had tons of work to do to prep my line for market. I just felt like I had moved on. Also, I’m the type of person that, if you put me in a room with 15 other very vocal people, I’ll be the last person to say anything. The reunions of the past had some drama, and there just wasn’t any in our season. So it was an attempt to drum some up, and I happened to be the target. It is TV, after all.
Show: America’s Best Dance Crew, MTV, 2008
Quick recap: The hip-hoppin’ boys in white masks, now known to America as Jabbawockeez, popped, locked and flipped to the top in Randy Jackson’s debut contest.
Since the show ended, I’ve been on a non-stop roller coaster ride. I haven’t spent more than a week back at home. I’ve been traveling the world doing shows with Jabbawockeez. We recently launched our clothing line called JBWKZ, which can be found at Macy’s, Sheikh, Against All Odds, Man Alive and on our website, www.jbwkz.com. I’m currently on the America’s Best Dance Crew tour, and we’re hitting 25 major cities across the U.S.
My life has completely flipped upside down. Before the show, I really was living the life of the “struggling artist.” I literally was living off of canned soup and PB&J. I always knew that we had something amazing. It was just a matter of time before the world finally got a chance to see it. For the first time, we are not back-up dancers for an artist. We are the artists.
What advice would you give to future contestants?
Keep God as your focus. I know that none of this would be possible without Him. On top of that, stay hungry, stay humble, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams.
Show: American Gladiators, NBC, 2008
Quick recap: The petite mortgage broker put up a valiant fight against warriors with names like Crush, Siren and Helga, but her Gladiator journey ended in the Eliminator round, when her shoe fell off while swimming and she didn’t have the traction to race up the final uphill treadmill.
I’m heading back to school to obtain a masters degree in accounting and I’m studying for the California CPA exam. So basically, I’m not having much fun these days.
Has anyone recognized you from the show?
The most memorable incident was when I was pulled over for expired registration tags. The new tags were in my glove compartment. The police officer took my license and stated I was “the girl on American Gladiators.” He said the whole station was rooting for me to win it for Redondo Beach.
What has your workout regime been like since the show?
I can now fully appreciate the fact that the camera adds 10 pounds and have opted to ease the load during my training. At the time of the show’s taping, I was able to bench 185 pounds. Sounds impressive, but I wasn’t too thrilled with how huge and manly my arms looked on TV. So now I’m lifting less weight, but still hitting the gym three to four times a week. I also surf and practice yoga and martial arts.
Show: Survivor: Cook Islands, CBS, 2006
Quick recap: In a contest that began by pitting African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and whites against each other, the six-pack-sporting Yale Law School grad outlasted his fellow castaways for the $1 million prize, shattering stereotypes along the way.
It’s funny, I thought life would get simpler after winning Survivor, but it seems like the opposite is true. I’m working on a range of projects that includes charity work, giving speeches and lectures, appearing in a Discovery Channel show for Shark Week, creating a national Korean American political network, and building Red Mango stores in Northern California. But the biggest news is that I got engaged to a beautiful, wonderful woman, although the idea of wedding planning is totally stressing me out.
What did you do with all of that money?
The biggest beneficiaries of the money were the federal government and the state of California. Almost half went to taxes. I also donated a big chunk to charity, although now I wish I’d paced myself better since I had no idea I’d be deluged with so many requests to support so many worthwhile causes. It’s been awkward trying to explain to people that I’m not in a position to donate when they think I’m still sitting on a big pile of cash.
Are you thinking about getting into politics?
If you’re asking whether I’ll ever run for office, the honest answer is that I don’t know. I definitely believe in the importance of public service and the need for greater Korean American representation. But I view running for office as an option of last resort. I hate promoting myself, and the idea of campaigning makes me really uncomfortable. On the other hand, I don’t want my kids growing up in a country that still doesn’t have any Korean American political leaders or role models. For now, I’d prefer to take a more supportive role in building a Korean American political network and encouraging others to run. But if, after a few years, there isn’t anyone else who I think has the right intentions and is better qualified to seek public office, I would give it serious thought.
Any advice for future Asian American Survivor contestants?
There are a lot of different strategies you can use to win Survivor. So if you’re on the show, I’d encourage you to choose a strategy that allows you to represent our community in a positive way. Or at least in a way that’s not going to cause Asian American kids to get beat up in school.
Show: The Apprentice 6, NBC, 2007
Quick recap: The raspy-voiced millionaire made it to the final two, but in the end, got the boot in the boardroom with Donald Trump’s ill-fated words: “You’re fired.”
I’m in negotiation with a cable company for an eight-episode season where I would take a major role in a reality-based TV program. I’ve also done a few commercials, print campaigns and 50 public speaking events in the last year. Giving back to the community is really important to me, to use fame for a greater cause. I’ve spoken for the United Way. I’ve met the governor about the education in Washington State. I met Barack Obama and gave him some feedback about the Asian community and blogged for him on behalf of Asian Americans.
How’s your company, Zoodango.com, a networking website for business professionals?
It’s going really well. We just launched and already have 25,000 clients. We map people’s lives in a geographic context. I had the epiphany when I went to the zoo with my kids. When you walk in, there’s a map of the zoo. I thought, “Wow, this makes it really easy to find what you’re looking for.” If I could see my life from a bird’s eye view, it would really help me make decisions.
Do you have any advice for future Apprentice contestants?
You have to go at it 100 percent in both strength and mind. Mark Burnett told us that among the two shows he executive produces, The Apprentice is much more difficult. On Survivor, you don’t sleep. On The Apprentice, not only do we not sleep, we also have to function in a business environment, be savvy in the relationship game and try to win.
Any words on The Donald?
He has a charming personality and an impeccable memory. You want to be memorable to a judge like Donald Trump.
Do you keep in touch with fellow contestants?
Every time I go to L.A., I see the winner Stephanie. She’s a real estate attorney. The job was not fit for me and I’m glad that she won.
Any advice for those who want to become millionaires like yourself?
I’m writing a book. The whole concept is how to think like a millionaire in 30 days. You have to build eight daily habits. You can’t think like the average person. You have to change your mind.
Show: The Biggest Loser 4, NBC, 2007
Quick recap: The bubbly former U.S. Army private dropped 85 lbs. throughout the course of the weight loss competition (225 to around 140 lbs.). She was the 11th contestant cut, but weighed in at 128 lbs. at the show’s reunion.
After the finale, I decided to work toward becoming a psychologist in the field of health and fitness. I am currently taking a class in sports psychology and I absolutely love it. When I have time, I do freelance writing and I’m writing both a fiction and non-fiction book. I’m also a motivational speaker and try to squeeze in lectures here and there.
Have you been able to keep the weight off?
During the show, I was on a very strict eating regimen and worked out three to 10 hours a day to be in the shape I was in at the finale. Unfortunately, that is not realistic for me considering I don’t have three to 10 hours to work out every day. I don’t think weight or size matters as much as knowing that you’re healthy, active and happy. When I was in the 120s, I was amazed that I could get to that weight, but being in my 140s makes me feel more balanced because that what’s realistic for me and therefore, I can embrace it. I’ve set goals to help me keep on track, including doing my second triathlon in 2009.
What advice would you give to future contestants?
Be true to you. This may be a game, but remember that you are there to change your life.
Show: America’s Next Top Model Cycle 6, UPN/CW, 2006
Quick recap: The bug-phobic beauty was bullied by contestant Jade Cole and booted off the runway for her lack of “fierceness.”
After the show, a few agencies gave me offers, but I shied away from it all. I’m finishing school to pursue a career in fashion merchandising.
How did ANTM affect your life?
I would get recognized every single day. Today, I still get recognized.
Have you tried distancing yourself from the show?
I can’t because of the crazy marathons that are airing! And when people have questions about the show, I always tell them everything they want to know.
You were portrayed as confused and insecure with your heritage. Were you?
The reason why I always seemed confused was because I was nervous and just being there messed up my whole state of mind. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Being Korean is the biggest part of who I am. Korean was my first language — I write and speak it fluently. I can’t live without my mom’s homemade Korean food. I’ve been to Korea five times. Did you ever notice they didn’t show me talking on the phone like everyone else? It was because I was never allowed to speak Korean to my parents while I was there! My mom sent me a huge package of seaweed, kimchi and rice, along with a personal letter, but they didn’t include that clip on TV.
Show: American Idol Season 6, FOX, 2007
Quick recap: The self-proclaimed “pool boy” impressed judges with his soulful ballads and made it to the top 24. But alas, the barefooted performer was among the first two eliminated after his raspy rendition of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.”
I’m working on an album. It should be released on iTunes in November. I’ve been writing a lot of songs — maybe 30 or 40 — for myself and other artists. One of the songs was for LaTonya Holmes, who’s on Broadway doing “The Color Purple.” And last fall, I went on a college tour all over the country.
Do you keep in touch with any of the other American Idol contestants?
Yeah, I just recorded a song called “Playing Games” with Antonella Barba. It’s up on her MySpace page now and getting about 20,000 plays a day. I talk to Jared Cotter. He was my roommate during the show. Now he’s a host on Fuse.tv.
Did you watch the show last season?
I didn’t watch a single episode. I was too busy. I have it on TiVo somewhere.
Any advice for future contestants?
You really have to go out there and be yourself. You can’t have a big head. If you try to be fake, it’s so easy to see through.