Month: August 2017

This ‘Little Mermaid’ Star Was Living a Dream. Then Racist Commenters Tried to Tear Her Down.

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, August 25, 2017 


Diana Huey stars as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.” Tracy Martin / Mark & Tracy Photography

Singing “Part of Your World” as Ariel under a sea of bright lights was a dream come true for actress Diana Huey.

But it was also a dream Huey wasn’t sure she’d accomplish even when she first auditioned for a touring production of “The Little Mermaid” musical in April 2016.

“I had gone in with very little thoughts that I would book the job because I didn’t think they would cast an Asian girl as Ariel for such a long touring contract,” Huey told NBC News about her New York audition.

“Looking back at that now, it makes me sad that I had put that doubt on myself,” she added. “I typecast myself right out of a job in my head because of the way I look, not because I didn’t think that I could perform the job.”

The show opened for a two-month engagement in Seattle in November 2016 before later touring across the United States, with stops in Atlanta and Orlando among other cities, Huey said. After a two-month break, it departed on the second part of its tour, which is scheduled to run until November and is produced by theater companies Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight.

But touring the U.S. hasn’t been without its share of bumps in the road.

After Huey’s photo was released during a round of publicity in October 2016, she came across a slew of negative social media comments criticizing the show’s casting, her appearance, and her singing abilities, she said. At the time, she forced herself to ignore the comments; she stopped reading them and focused her energy on the upcoming tour.

“I was so happy and I eventually forgot that for some people, I was this controversial and upsetting issue,” Huey said.

But after a fellow cast member posted a promotional video of their Memphis stop in July, Huey couldn’t help but read the new social media comments that surfaced.

“People were upset that I didn’t look like Ariel, upset that they didn’t like my voice and everything,” she said.

Huey first recounted the social media criticism she received as Ariel in an interview with The Buffalo News newspaper.

The article was initially going to be a feature about the show and her role as an iconic character, Huey said. But the interview shifted into conversations about race and then Huey started talking about her recent experience on social media.

After sharing a link to the Buffalo News interview on her personal Facebook page, Huey put out a statement, which has been shared more than 600 times.

“No one should feel like they aren’t enough because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes or any factor outside of WHO THEY ARE,” she wrote. “And as I go out on the road city to city as an Asian American playing Ariel, I hope that it will inspire the next person who is out there auditioning for something to believe that THEY can be cast in a role based on their work and their talents.”

A ‘dream come true’

As early as the age of four, Huey knew she wanted to be on stage. During family holidays, she’d rummage through her mom’s dresser, put on makeup, and wrap a pink feather boa around herself.

“If I had known when I was a little girl watching ‘The Little Mermaid,’ like someday I’d wear Ariel’s pink ballroom gown, I would have exploded,” said Huey, adding that she is a “huge Disney nerd.

“I have been a huge Alan Menken fan my entire life and getting to now sing his music is a complete dream come true,” Huey said, referring to the Oscar-winning Disney composer. “Disney has been a huge influence in my life.”

Born in Japan and raised as an adoptee in a multicultural household in Seattle, Huey moved to New York three and a half years ago to expand her professional acting career. Huey said one of the reasons she made the move was because she began to feel boxed in for certain acting roles.

“When I was working in Seattle at the time, there weren’t a lot of Asian-American actors or actresses so I would always be at any call when they were calling for someone ethnic,” Huey said. “If the character was not white, I would always be called in for that. Obviously if it was an Asian call, I’d be called for that.”

More than ‘an actor playing Ariel’

Despite the negative comments she initially received online, Huey said the experience has actually given her a better understanding of the character of Ariel. While singing “Part of Your World” during a recent sound check, she said the song felt empowering and relatable.

She added that the experience has given her a better understanding of herself.

“I didn’t just feel like an actor playing Ariel singing these thoughts of hers, but that I was just me — wanting to be in world where I wasn’t being judged or hurt. It was really real,” Huey said.

“The way that it is in the show, Ariel is fighting to belong in her world and fighting to be accepted and fighting to stick up for herself, and I was like, ‘this is way too real right now,’” she added.

Since discussing the negative comments, Huey has received an outpouring of support from people who appreciated her taking a stand and using her experience to continue the dialogue surrounding diversity in theater, she said.

Witnessing the impact of her performance on the Asian-American community, particularly children, has also been empowering and rewarding, she added.

“When I see a little Asian girl watching the show, it’s just it’s really powerful,” she said. “It’s a very cool feeling, and it’s something I didn’t think would happen for me.”


‘Masala Runner’ Mohan Iyer Sets His Sights on 100th Marathon

Monica Luhar for NBC News, August 4, 2017

For eight years before he began his journey as a recreational marathoner, Mohan Iyer had a toxic habit of eating junk food in front of the TV after stressful days at work as an information technology consultant.

“I was really torn, and I kind of ate every junk food conceivable,” Iyer told NBC News. “And that kind of obviously led to some health issues: My cholesterol went through the roof, and when I went to India, I was 250 pounds — very obese.”

After moving his family to Texas from the United Kingdom in 1995, Iyer began suffering from sinus headaches due to allergies, he said. In an effort to get them to stop, he visited a doctor who put him on blood pressure and cholesterol medications. He also tried multiple diets to address his sudden weight gain.

But Iyer knew he had to do more than just take medicine — he also had to make major lifestyle changes.

It wasn’t until he relocated his family again to California in 2008 that Iyer began to take up an interest in running, determined to get rid of the “couch potato habit” after concern and encouragement from his wife and two sons.

“All my allergy issues and sinus headache went away as mysteriously as they started … and I haven’t stopped running since then,” he said.

Before he started running, Mohan Iyer weighed up to 250 pounds, he said. Here, he dances at his son’s wedding. Courtesy of Mohan Iyer

That year, Iyer participated in his first 5k run in Huntington Beach, California, on Super Bowl Sunday, falling in love with the rush of endorphins. Two years later, Iyer ran his first marathon in Chicago with his family and friends cheering him on.

So far, Iyer — who calls himself the “Masala Runner” and documents his travels online — has participated in a total of 135 races and plans to complete his 100th marathon this October in his adopted home state of Illinois.

The recreational marathoner said he has run in all 50 states, all 7 continents, and at least 24 countries (his goal is to run in at least 50 countries). Since 2010, Iyer has run at least one marathon per month, he noted.

Mohan Iyer after running the Boston Marathon. He said it was one of the most emotional finishes in his marathon career. Courtesy of Mohan Iyer

Since posting his marathon journey on social media, Iyer said colleagues and friends in the South Asian community have told him they were inspired to lead healthier lifestyles, with many asking him for advice on travel and marathon destinations and how to escape jet lag.

“I have seen people change their lifestyles and have affected at least a few of my colleagues to really start running,” he said.

Those lifestyle changes could be critical, as South Asian Americans are at higher risk for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, according to a 2016 study by the University of California, San Francisco. South Asians have “the highest death rate” from heart disease compared to other ethnic groups in the U.S., the study found, and “more than 60 percent of cardiovascular disease patients around the world are of South Asian descent.”

When Iyer runs in smaller cities or outside of large metropolitan areas, the experience can sometimes be different and isolating, as he often realizes he is the only South Asian man running, he said.

Having lived only in large metropolitan areas like Chicago and L.A., Iyer said he didn’t know what to expect when he expanded his running destinations into smaller towns.

Mohan Iyer running a race in the Swiss Alps. Courtesy of Mohan Iyer

“The experience has been mixed with some small towns rolling out the red carpet for runners and embracing us regardless of how we looked or where we came from, while I have also received somewhat puzzled and baffled looks from bystanders in a couple of very small towns,” he said.

But most of the time, Iyer said he gets pumped up by the excitement from the running community and people cheering him on from the sidelines. In the end, it’s that resilience and love that gets him through a tough marathon, he said.

“The running community though is very well-knit and no one cares about nor discusses politics or ethnicity,” Iyer said. “The only race we care about is the one we run…not the one we belong to.”

Iyer added that he’s not the same person he was eight years ago and attributes the positive changes in his self to running and the people he’s met across the world.

“This marathon journey has taught me to stay unperturbed during stressful periods at work and cope with tough challenges with relative calmness, and helped earn friends from several corners of the country and the world,” he said.

Blogilates Founder Cassey Ho’s New Podcast Spotlights Real-Life ‘Sheroes’

Monica Luhar for NBC News, July 27, 2017 

LOS ANGELES — Many of Cassey Ho’s fans know her as the bubbly fitness instructor whose series of online workout videos have attracted millions of viewers worldwide.

But lately, the 30-year-old Los Angeles-based creator of “POP Pilates” has been testing out microphones and going over scripts in her headquarters’ podcast room, working on a project that Ho said will show a different side of her.

“A lot of people see me as a fitness instructor due to which obviously I am,” Ho told NBC News. “But there’s this entrepreneur behind it all that runs five different brands.”

With more than 3.8 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, “Blogilates,” Ho is now producing a podcast, dubbed “The Sheroic Podcast,” which she started in June with friend Lisa Bilyeu, co-founder of Quest Nutrition.

The program focuses on female empowerment, living your best life, and learning from real-life superheroes, or “Sheroes,” according to Ho. Early episodes include “Turning Jealousy into Admiration and Hate into Inspiration” and “Hate Your Body? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t.”

“The more we talk about it, the more normal it becomes and the less ashamed we have to be about certain things,” Ho said. “I think it’s important to talk about that.”

Ho, an avid listener to podcasts, said she wanted to start one herself because she felt that they allow for longer, more in-depth conversations.

“I’m really excited I get to do that with Lisa and we both challenge each other,” she said. “Sometimes we agree on everything, sometimes we don’t agree. We’re super raw and open about that.”

The pair has worked on the show’s concept together since the beginning, including emailing back and forth about possible titles.

“We are both into comics and animation and things and so Lisa was like, ‘what do you think about calling it the Sheroics or something?’ And we narrowed it down to ‘The Sheroic Podcast,’” said Ho, who drew the podcast’s logo, which includes a heel and a red cape.

”You wear heels when you feel powerful and in charge and so I wanted the heel to be in it, and a cape for a hero, so I thought: why don’t we integrate both those things?” she said.

The Birth of Blogilates

Starting a new project is second nature for Ho, who said she has been an entrepreneur and marketer as early as middle school, when she would sell things that she made.

Co-hosts of the Sheroic Podcast: Lisa Bilyeu (left) and Cassey Ho.
Co-hosts of the Sheroic Podcast: Lisa Bilyeu (left) and Cassey Ho. Courtesy of Blogilates

“I think the most important thing is that I work hard for everything that I want. I never ask for it,” Ho said.

After college, Ho moved from Los Angeles to Boston to work as a fashion buyer. Leaving Los Angeles meant she was also leaving her job as a fitness instructor, where in 2007 she had developed “POP Pilates,” a “dance-on-the-mat-type” program.

Her students were sad to see her leave, she said, and at their request, Ho uploaded a 10-minute exercise video on her YouTube channel.

When the video racked up thousands of views in just a few days, Ho decided to quit her new job and stepped up her Pilates game, teaching 12 times a week to make ends meet at sports clubs and gyms in the area, she said.

“I was serious about going hard and going big,” Ho said.

When her class sizes began to grow and requests for more POP Pilates-related workouts continued to rise, she knew she had to keep going.

Ho’s POP Pilates empire has grown into a fitness program that has been taught at 24 Hour Fitness locations in the U.S since 2015. She also recently launched her own line of activewear called POPFLEX.

Today, Ho estimates there are 3,000 certified POP Pilates instructors that teach on any given month.

The Power of YouTube

For Ho, YouTube has also played a tremendous role in her success by helping break down barriers of entry in entertainment.

“I am Asian American; I am a girl; and I don’t have six pack abs,” Ho said. “I don’t look like your typical fitness instructor that you see on DVDs or magazine covers.”

“When you allow audiences to choose who really resonates with them, you can really see what makes an impact,” Ho added. “Because the audience is able to choose, that’s why Blogilates became what it is today.”

Ho said that while her YouTube channel has always seen gradual growth, the goal behind Blogilates has always been to connect more people through fitness and help forge friendships and relationships beyond the virtual space.

“Blogilates started online, but my goal is to take everything offline, or to start turning it offline because when we’re stuck on our phones all the time. Yes, we can feel like you’re part of the community when you’re online, but nothing can replace true, real life relationships, having those real conversations, seeing people,” she said.

This Wheelchair Dance Company Is ‘Redefining Disability and Reinventing Inclusion’ 

Monica Luhar for NBC News, November 2016 

Marisa Hamamoto moved swiftly across the dance floor as she practiced a series of high-energy jumps and acrobatic movements during a contemporary dance class in Tokyo in 2006.

But within minutes, her life as a dancer was put on hold when she was hit by a chilling numbness that took over her body. One moment, she felt as though she were flying, and the next, she found herself losing all sensation.

“In the middle of all of that, I started to feel my elbows tingle and then a couple minutes later, I collapsed onto the floor,” Hamamoto told NBC News. “I couldn’t move my arms and legs.”

Hamamoto, then 24 and a senior at Keio University, was rushed to the hospital and later diagnosed with a spinal cord infarction — a stroke in the spinal cord or an artery that supplies it — which left her paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors told her she would probably never walk or dance again.

During her physical therapy and rehabilitation, Hamamoto incorporated her own dance training into her recovery instead of sticking to a sheet of plain exercises that were given to her, she said.

“Instead of lifting my knees, I would hum a song and lift it into a rhythm,” Hamamoto said. “Every single tiny movement I would feel, I would try to dance. I literally danced my therapy and made it into my own dance class.”

Two months later, Hamamoto walked out of the hospital, ready to perform again, but after her paralysis, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, and any time she felt a tingle in her body, she’d have reoccurring nightmares and immense anxiety.

“I lived in a lot of trauma,” she said.

After the paralysis, Hamamoto feared going to a dance studio. She had faced her share of rejection as a dancer for many years, and the paralysis felt like another door that had closed on her.

“The more my body moved, the more I became scared that the paralysis was going to happen again,” Hamamoto said.

RELATED: ‘Dances Of Transformation’: Ananya Dance Theatre Finds Justice Through Movement

Raised in Irvine, California, Hamamoto was first exposed to dance at the age of six. Growing up, Hamamoto couldn’t help but feel different. She recalls one day in elementary school when she brought sushi and rice to school, only to be teased by her fellow classmates for her lunch choices and the shape of her eyes.

“Being the only Asian-American kid in class, I was also teased for being a little chubby so somehow the dancing…when I danced, I almost felt like I can forget all of that,” She said. “Whenever I danced, I felt beautiful. I felt free. I felt powerful.”

At age 12, Hamamoto — whose father is from Honolulu and mother is from Japan — had her heart set on becoming a professional ballerina after being inspired by a ballet performance at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. She shoved the criticisms aside and forged her own path.

“Everything about that performance — from the dancers, to the stage set, to the costumes, to just the whole being on stage under the lights — everything about it, I just fell in love and wanted to be up there myself,” she said.

But not everyone was supportive of her decision to become a professional ballerina.

“Even though I worked really hard, and got scholarships to top ballet schools, I was still being told by my dance teachers I didn’t have what it took to be a ballerina,” she said.

But those criticisms and doubts only fueled Hamamoto’s dreams of becoming a professional dancer. Three and a half years after her paralysis, dance found its way back into Hamamoto’s life. In 2010, she attended a New Year’s party in Japan, where she was first exposed to partner dancing and noticed the transformative effect it had on dancers and non-dancers alike.

“Everything I ever wanted in dancing was in a ballroom — something about connecting with another partner was something beautiful,” she said.

Several months later, Hamamoto received an apprenticeship at one of the best ballroom dance schools in Japan, she said.

She moved back to California in 2011, and in 2012 made her way to Los Angeles, where she was determined to grow as a professional dancer and share her love for ballroom with others. Two years later, Hamamoto discovered wheelchair ballroom dancing, which she found was underdeveloped. She felt compelled to take action and enhance it, in part due to her own paralysis, she said.

“I saw that there was an underserved population with people with disabilities and especially paralyzed from the waist down, neck down, that didn’t have opportunity to go to dance class,” she said. “Because I’ve had so many doors close on me as a dancer, I decided to open it up for others.”

Determined to create a more inclusive and diverse space, Hamamoto launched Infinite Flow — a professional wheelchair dance company with studios in Studio City and Sherman Oaks, California that aims to change perceptions on disability and show what inclusion in dance and everyday life can look like — in 2015.

“I truly believe that every single person has a dancer inside of them and each person deserves to find that dancer,” she said. “I think we can create a better world through accepting and celebrating each other’s differences.”

RELATED: On Stage and With Pageants, Jennifer Kumiyama Is Improving Life for People With Disabilities

Hamamoto said Infinite Flow is the first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company in the nation, though she notes the existence of other physically integrated dance companies that focus more on contemporary dance.

“Infinite Flow is not about wheelchair users, it’s about everyone,” she said.

Infinite Flow incorporates six main programs, including a professional dance troupe created to change society’s perceptions on disability. Other programs include “Infinite Flow Kids” and adult wheelchair dance classes. Hamamoto has also spearheaded a new project called Infinite Inclusion, which centers on community events that celebrate diversity and dance.

Hamamoto said she has received calls from people around the world who have shared concerns about the lack of inclusive dance classes in their local communities. She recalled the story of a mother who struggled to find a dance studio that would enroll her daughter, who was in a wheelchair.

Once paralyzed from the neck down, Marisa Hamamoto founded Infinite Flow, a professional dance wheelchair company that aims to create a space for diversity and inclusion. Photo by Tony Cordell

“The mother wanted her [daughter] to be in a group class, but no one would take her seriously,” she said.

While Infinite Flow is still in its beginning stages, Hamamoto acknowledges the stigma that still exists within the dance community and beyond.

“People don’t take the work seriously,” she said.”I still run across the same issue in my community. I think people still look down on what we do.”

Hamamoto said that ballroom dancing healed her at a time when she had lost all hope. She equally hopes that Infinite Flow will help others dance their way through life’s obstacles, too.

“For me, so many doors had closed up on me as a dancer and I still feel like I’m trying to find the dancer inside of me,” she said. “I feel like it is almost like my mission to help open doors for others. I’m seeing barriers being broken in front of my face all the time.”