Hi Minji, tell us your origin story!
I’m a Bay Area girl, I spent my entire life up until the last 2 years living there. Go Warriors! I was always very proud to come from the Bay because of its progressiveness. There’s a lot of culture and diversity that I was really lucky to grow up around. I feel like I was exposed to a lot of amazing arts, technology and different types of people from a very young age. I think that definitely influenced my comfort with different people and shaped my world view.
My parents came from Korea in their early 20s so I am the first generation in the states. When I was 13, we moved to another part of the mostly diverse Bay Area called Pleasanton. At the time it was a very white neighborhood so it felt different to experience being ‘the other’ during a really formative time. I was never treated negatively but I was noticing how different I was from everybody else.
As a teen, I dealt with intense self-esteem, body, identity issues in positive and negative ways. I was really involved in school and became a super leadership nerd. In my private life, I was dealing with it in a really painful way in the form of a toxic relationship that lasted for many years until college. I had to learn about my own value and self-worth.
Since college, I’ve worked in the public health and corporate world and now I’m doing pretty much my dream job which is acting and working in the non-profit world running Kollaboration. We are a grass-roots movement to support and elevate Asian-American artists.
We’ve been around for 17 years, from a very humble beginning from one show in Los Angeles. I've been a part of it for 7 years now. We put on showcases to discover Asian-American talent and bring the artistic community together at our events. Now we have 14 city chapters, 103 shows under our belt and a growing digital imprint.
Out of all your accomplishments, what is an achievement that you’re especially proud of?
Being able to shake President Obama’s hand last month. May is Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month, which is something that started under the Obama administration to acknowledge Asian Americans in the U.S., address their issues and to bring light to the culture. Over the years, Kollaboration has been established as one of the leading organizations in the API artistic world. Through my role as executive director, I got connected with the White House Asian Pacific Islander Initiative group.
I was invited to go to the Champions of Change event celebrating artists and storytellers, which was incredible because it meant that I was invited to the White House. I nearly peed my pants as it was just such a great feeling to know that the work that I'm doing is really something special and can make a difference. That it’s valuable for our whole community.
There was a gala that night where Obama was going to be the keynote speaker. My good friend, who was also a Champions of Change honoree, Jenny Yang, and I hustled to the front and watched him speak 15 feet away. It was incredible. Both of us shook his hand. The paparazzi behind us got a photo of me making this ridiculous awe-inspired, swoon face where my expression just screams “OMG it’s President Obama!” For me, his presidency changed the world for the better.
It was always a risk for me to pursue Kollaboration as a full time job or to pursue acting. I wanted to be an artist instead of a doctor which was my original plan - that was what I studied in school. It’s a great profession and I have so much respect and admiration for them but it just wasn’t for me. That’s why Kollaboration exists - it’s not a common thing for Asian youth to go off the beaten path and they need support. It’s not normal or encouraged for them to do something that they’re really passionate about unless it’s within a certain range of careers. Get passionate about law or computer science - those are ok. Art? Not so much.
Taking on this job and to have the opportunity to meet Obama, shake his hand and to be in a room full of leaders who are doing amazing things was definitely a great achievement. I knew I’d chosen the right path and it felt really, really good. I feel proud and insanely humbled at the same time.
Was there ever a moment you felt discouraged from doing something but you believed in yourself and went ahead and found success?
I felt that for a large part of my life, oddly. There were a lot of small things that accumulated to tell me that I’m not particularly 'normal'. I’m outspoken and ambitious but there are different words that my parents would use to describe me.
There are all these preconceived notions of what girls are supposed to be, what they’re supposed to like and how they’re supposed to act. In some ways, I completely aligned with it, and some ways I didn’t. There was always a part of me that was trying to figure out my identity and also just being ok with it.
I was in a relationship that was really controlling, he was constantly trying to alter who I was. He tore me apart every day for years and that was very difficult to overcome, but I have, thanks to all the love around me.
Korean people can be very obsessed with how you’re supposed to look a certain way. I would get nit picked about my weight, my eyes, my nose, my features when I was young. That built up a really poor sense of self. Even though it might have been well-intended it’s ultimately really, really negative reinforcement. My grandma wouldn’t be mean about it but she’d be like “Oh, you’d be so pretty if you got eyelid surgery” She was telling me something is wrong and that I’m not pretty as I am - that's what mattered most.
I’ve had a lot of discouragement in passive aggressive ways with my parents about what I wanted to do. I joked about being an actor, and I got yelled at. My mom basically told me that acting is unacceptable and that it’s an inappropriate job. She and my dad are conservative Christian Koreans. This really saddened me because my mom is the one that has always supported me. Although I’ve had a rocky relationship with my parents at times, I really love them and I want them to be proud and happy with what I’m doing.
I came clean about wanting to be an actor in very small increments and it took a long time to be honest, but I had to stick to my guns. Luckily, I've always had incredibly supportive brothers and friends. Going to the White House and things like that make my dad tell me ‘Get a real job’ less. He still says it just to give me grief, but I don’t think he really means it anymore. It’s taken them many years for them to even start to see where I’m coming from and why. I know they're on my team now, and there may be bumps ahead, but I'm very grateful.
You said you stuck to your guns, what was it that helped you do that?
My mom. She is a very, very strong woman. She's so loving, patient, and resilient. Her love for me, affection, kind words, and encouragement in other areas definitely gave me a fundamental sense of self that helped me be ok with who I am.
Positive women. Music and film have always inspired me since I was a young kid. Seeing strong women gave me this hope and belief that there are people doing exactly what they want, being themselves, being loud, successful and being ok with it.
There are so many traits like family, respect, and honor that I’ve learned from being Korean paired with a strong sense of independence and go-getter-ness from my American upbringing. Both of which fused together to make me, me.
You talk about drawing a sense of self from women before you, if you could give all women a superpower what would it be and why?
Forgiveness of self is so important. I’ve had so many conversations with amazing women, I don’t know what the root cause of it is but I think women experience a lot of guilt for many reasons which I don’t think are reasonable or that I wouldn’t want to instill in my daughter. I would never want her to feel sorry for who she is or what she feels. It’s such a shitty, empty place if you can’t feel confident because you’re too busy feeling sorry all the time. I can't measure how universal it is but I have heard it from many women, especially Asian women, that we are psychologically conditioned to always think of others first.
I sometimes feel guilt and sadness towards my mom and her generation because I’ve experienced all things that I want, especially in the last few years. It wasn’t really an option for her with the way she grew up thinking she could travel the world, date, or explore. It was always ‘find a husband and do everything you can to keep that husband and provide for your children’. Which I think is super beautiful and admirable in one aspect and really limiting in another.
It was always, if you think of yourself, you’re being selfish. You're selfish if you think about what you want, your needs, your ambitions, taking care of yourself, taking time for yourself. You know, self-care. That term is so new. It was this new-age hippy term for crazy feminists, but I want it to be embraced, praised, and practiced by all women everywhere.
I want women to feel appreciated and feel comfortable with who they are and not feel bad about it.
How did you feel about participating in our #NUDEFORALL campaign?
It was amazing and I just feel honored to have been part of it. I think there’s an element of destiny in this because I was the last one to be brought into this campaign as someone had dropped out. I went with it because I’m at a point in my life where I say ‘Yes!’ to things.
It meant a lot to me as I was facing a lot of personal demons and I was definitely challenging myself. I still have a lot of body and beauty issues. I just got back from Korea and it really hurt me to see how much of an obsession with beauty there is there. All the plastic surgery and what not.
To do this campaign was very liberating but it was also terrifying. When people tell me that it was brave - I appreciate that, because I was definitely terrified.
Overall, I was so happy about the message and the aesthetic. It it gorgeous. But when I actually saw the campaign, I cried. I had a little bit of a meltdown. Not immediately, but my heart sank because it brought me back to my 12 year old, middle school self, judging my body in the mirror and comparing myself to others. It was total exposure therapy. Like if you have a fear of being naked, then you go and be naked in front of thousands of people. That’s essentially what I did. I don't know with what level of consciousness.
When I saw the campaign where it’s not just about my face, it’s my body and it’s billboard sized in a public space. It definitely shook me a little bit. I needed a day. Or three.
I think the campaign is so gorgeous and it re-surfaced all of that pride from the day of the shoot. Look at Atima and look at Nisha and Kelly - they look so good!
You look so good!
Yeah, my friends say ‘You look so happy!’ and I was so happy because I wasn’t looking at myself, I was just in the moment doing it! I was excited about the campaign but not about myself.
As an actor, rejection is part of the business, that definitely sucks, but it just becomes normal. Seeing myself on camera helped me a lot in moving forward with my self-confidence. OK, this is how I look. That’s fine. Sometimes you look pretty, sometimes you don’t, but that’s part of the job, to express human emotion so really, who cares. I thought I had made huge leaps in being comfortable with looking at myself and just having it be less of a priority.
But when I saw the campaign photos, I was like ‘OMG, I look so fat. It was a bad day, I didn’t have any time to work out because I was brought in last minute’ I was defending myself and getting mad and sad. Then I got annoyed with myself like ‘Really Minji? Shut up. It’s not a big deal. You got to be in the most amazing campaign with incredible women - why are you crying about it?’
Since then I've gotten over it. I’m really proud and over the moon.
The reaction to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s interesting to compare the perspective of seeing yourself in underwear vs. what other people see. Whereas I might point out things I don’t like about my expression or body, my friends just think ‘WOAH! This is so cool!’ Other people don’t see the same things you see, they’re proud of you.
Lastly, do you have a note to self you’d like to remind yourself of?
Be happy. Breathe easy, you got this.