DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'

An Ex­clu­sive With Cindy V From Glee Viet­nam

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BORN IN HO CHI MINH CITY

in 1998, the sec­ond and youngest child of a Cuban-American fa­ther and Viet­namese mother, Cindy V Har­ris (“Cindy V”) would grow up and do some­thing few would have imag­ined pos­si­ble in pre-21st cen­tury Viet­nam. In a lit­tle un­der two decades, with her café au lait com­plex­ion, cas­cade of wavy hair and strong, some­times grav­elly, R&B vo­cals, she would even­tu­ally sing, dance, model and act her way to star­dom in an in­dus­try dom­i­nated by skin-whitened, hair-straight­ened beauties. Iron­i­cally, Cindy’s ex­otic Latina-laced, Asian hy­brid fea­tures are now the it look, help­ing her stand out in an oth­er­wise light-skinned ta­lent pool.

I asked Cindy what it was like grow­ing up be­tween two cul­tures. “When I go to Amer­ica they don't think that I'm Viet­namese and in Viet­nam they don't think that I'm from Amer­ica. I'm in sort of a strange limbo but I find it quite fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause I get to ex­pe­ri­ence both sides. When I walk around the city there's an open de­bate whether

I'm Viet­namese or not and it's funny be­cause they do it right in front of me.”

When she was young, Cindy’s mother Ly re­calls her six-yearold daugh­ter mak­ing ev­ery­one laugh with her

funny, spot-on ren­di­tions of char­ac­ters in the pop­u­lar Viet­namese show Ngay xua

ngay Xua. By 2009, the hit American mu­si­cal dram­edy TV se­ries about high school mis­fits— Glee— had caught her at­ten­tion.

“I ba­si­cally drove my fam­ily crazy over

Glee ever since it came out eight years ago. I col­lected ev­ery­thing from ac­tion fig­ures to sound­tracks to sheet mu­sic. I know ev­ery sin­gle line from Glee in all six sea­sons.” says Cindy.

Lit­tle did she know that she would share the same pas­sion for Glee as one of the founder-own­ers of BHD, one of Viet­nam’s big­gest TV and movie pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies. Nguyen Phan Quang Binh had long dreamed of bring­ing Glee to Viet­nam. A renowned di­rec­tor, his pre­vi­ous works in­clude

Canh dong bat tan (The Float­ing Lives) about a pros­ti­tute taken in by a fam­ily on the Mekong River and the crit­i­cally­ac­claimed Quyen, about a Viet­namese cou­ple that flees Rus­sia for Ger­many. In his three movies and mul­ti­ple tele­vi­sion shows, Nguyen has been known for tak­ing some risks. In cast­ing Cindy in the lead role of Rachel, he was tak­ing yet an­other gam­ble: that a non-typ­i­cal Viet­namese face would res­onate with his Viet­namese tar­get au­di­ence.

The Viet­namese adap­ta­tion of the orig­i­nal US-based Glee adopts lo­cal con­text and scenery and many of the se­ries’ more so­cially con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject mat­ter is mod­i­fied for the lo­cal au­di­ence while still push­ing the en­ve­lope on chang­ing val­ues. Among those changes, though not in the orig­i­nal

Glee, would be the ac­cep­tance of a mixed race Viet­namese girl as any nor­mal high school stu­dent. It wasn’t plug-n-play easy—Cindy spent sev­eral weeks en­dur­ing an itchy straight hair wig be­fore they even­tu­ally ditched it in fa­vor of her nat­u­ral curls.

In the name of full dis­clo­sure, Cindy’s mother is a long-time friend of mine and I have known Cindy since she was a spunky lit­tle half pint. Now she is rec­og­nized by her haute cou­ture fash­ion as part of Ho Chi Minh City’s young celebrity class, strik­ing model poses on the red car­pet with her tall, slen­der fig­ure. But as I watched her talk to me an­i­mat­edly about work­ing on Glee, I rec­og­nize the same goofy, fun-spir­ited, frizzy-haired girl I first met over a decade ago, with an en­dear­ing ten­dency to scrunch up her nose when think­ing about some­thing funny, and then im­me­di­ately burst­ing out in laugh­ter.

Land of Milk and Honey

When Cindy was about seven, I had helped to get out the word to stu­dents at in­ter­na­tional schools about an au­di­tion for a Vi­namilk commercial that a friend’s com­pany was pro­duc­ing. It had to have been one of her first au­di­tions. The com­pany would go on to cast a blue-eyed blond Cal­i­for­nian, a freck­led brunette Brit and other fair-skinned cu­ties as wood­land fairies and am­bas­sadors of its

milky white good­ness. 2005 Viet­nam was per­haps not quite ready to sell milk with much color. When I re­minded Cindy of that au­di­tion her face lit up with the mem­ory and she laughed. We didn’t need to dis­cuss why she didn’t get the part.

While one might as­sume the plum lead in a high pro­file pro­duc­tion might be a pretty pin­na­cle mo­ment for a 19-yearold, act­ing was never Cindy’s pri­mary goal. Singing and mu­sic re­main her pas­sion. I re­call at­tend­ing her birth­day party in her teeny bop­per years. Ac­tu­ally, I re­mem­ber lit­tle of it ex­cept a mini Miss Bey­oncé tak­ing to the stage like a star­let and belt­ing out her fa­vorite pop tunes. Ul­ti­mately Cindy hopes her role in Glee will pave the way for her singing ca­reer by mak­ing her more re­lat­able to a larger Viet­namese au­di­ence, a savvy strat­egy con­ceived by some­one ob­vi­ously cog­nizant of how oth­ers con­tinue to per­ceive her, and yet with­out the bit­ter­ness that usu­ally ac­com­pa­nies that aware­ness. She told me she has to work hard to go from her usual R&B vo­cals to the enun­ci­ated style re­quired to cap­ture Viet­namese tones— Glee’s songs were all trans­lated into Viet­namese and she was de­ter­mined to get it right.

Did she want to even­tu­ally reach a more in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence? “Yes, I think that is ul­ti­mately the goal of ev­ery per­former en­ter­tainer, we want our work to be re­ceived by as much au­di­ence as we can,” she replies.

In no other time would this have been more pos­si­ble than to­day. On In­sta­gram, Face­book and Youtube, Cindy’s rise is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the evo­lu­tion of so­cial me­dia. Her Glee pre­miere was ad­ver­tised broadly through Face­book and In­sta­gram while Glee it­self will be aired on FPT Play, Zing TV & Danet be­gin­ning Au­gust 18th and show­ing a new episode ev­ery Fri­day at 8pm. Ul­ti­mately, th­ese shows are most likely going to have a sec­ond, per­ma­nent online life for any­one, any­where to watch any time, just as Cindy’s mu­sic videos and X-fac­tor per­for­mance can be watched on de­mand to­day.

As she was film­ing, I talked to my long time friend Ly, her mother, who while hold­ing down a job of her own, is by her daugh­ter’s side late tonight like so many days and nights over the years. There were mod­el­ing con­tests in New York, count­less pre­mieres and au­di­tions, singing and act­ing for parts in TV shows, and a sea­son on the X-fac­tor. This doesn’t even in­clude trav­el­ing back and forth to all the train­ing. “I have had a lot of train­ing over the years and I'm very lucky to say that I have been trained by the best in Viet­nam and in­ter­na­tion­ally from Roger Love to John Huy Tran to Travis Aaron Wade and John Robert Pow­ers. In all ar­eas from singing to act­ing to danc­ing to mod­el­ing and even pageantry,” says Cindy.

Ly told me she felt a lot of pres­sure from other par­ents to steer her chil­dren to a more con­ven­tional track. “With the cul­ture in Viet­nam I re­ceived a lot of dis­agree­ment from other par­ents and friends—they think I want my kids in this show­biz for my own fame and money, they keep re­mind­ing me Cindy should go to Uni—but I gave my kids a chance to ex­plain their de­ci­sion to me, and dis­cuss with me how to make it work—and if it is log­i­cal I will give them my sup­port.”

I watch them sit close to­gether out­side from in­side the build­ing as the crew pre­pares for the next shoot, talk­ing and laugh­ing like best friends. Ear­lier Ly air­ily dis­missed the long hours and con­stant travel and ups and downs of au­di­tions and com­pe­ti­tions like they were noth­ing, in that self-ef­fac­ing, it-was­not-that-bad-re­ally way that is typ­i­cal of her. But I know it has not all been a bed of roses. Rais­ing two am­bi­tious chil­dren es­sen­tially alone for two decades in Viet­nam is a chal­lenge few can ap­pre­ci­ate. Thanks to her tire­less sup­port and Cindy’s ta­lent and sheer will, Cindy has al­ready done more than most peo­ple twice her age and in for­ma­tive years that most of us would agree are not easy even in the most bor­ing of cir­cum­stances.

Where does Cindy hope to see her­self in ten years? “Hope­fully I'll be an es­tab­lished singer ac­tor and pos­si­bly own my own com­pany, hope­fully a pro­duc­tion com­pany. But who knows?” I think it is telling that de­spite be­ing cast as Rachel in Glee, Cindy iden­ti­fied most with a male char­ac­ter named Finn, she ex­plains, “be­cause he didn't re­ally know what he was do­ing, he just took it one step at a time. I think a lot of peo­ple can eas­ily re­late to that.”

Her mother has her hopes as well. “She al­ways got cast in school plays be­cause she was able to re­mem­ber her lines eas­ily. From the time she re­ceived awards from the US un­til now, op­por­tu­ni­ties kept fall­ing in her lap. Her big role this time, she got it her­self and with the show she loves — I hope this is her time to re­ally shine.”

As a makeup artist dabbed at Cindy’s flaw­less com­plex­ion and long lashes be­fore one of many takes that night, Cindy broke out in a lit­tle song. It wasn’t much, just an al­lur­ing hum re­ally, but it was as if a mu­si­cal vibe was puls­ing just be­neath the sur­face, barely con­tained. It is hard to imag­ine such a song­bird could be caged by tra­di­tional ex­pec­ta­tions or oth­ers’ an­ti­quated per­cep­tions.

As we part late that night af­ter she spent all day and night film­ing, I have the urge to pon­tif­i­cate in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence par­lance about how she is quite lit­er­ally a ris­ing two-way, East-West soft power pro­jec­tion phe­nom­e­non, sin­gle-hand­edly bridg­ing cul­tures while si­mul­ta­ne­ously push­ing bound­aries on so­cial norms and re­defin­ing what it means to be a mem­ber of a new gen­er­a­tion of global glit­terati. Even all of K-Pop can’t claim so much.

But I re­sist. She has enough on her plate al­ready. “Proud of you Cindy!” is all I have the heart to say to the tired young woman, as she walked away to find her mo­tor­bike to ride home, like any other teen in Viet­nam af­ter a long day on the job.

Text by MeiLee Dozier Image Pro­vided by Mo­men­tum

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