Asian Heritage Month: An Interview with Lainey Lui
Elaine Lui – known more popularly as Lainey Lui – Is a broadcaster and one of the most successful gossip bloggers in the world. Her website LaineyGossip reaches about 1.5 million readers every month and she currently appears on two daily, national television shows; she is CTV’s The Social Co-Host and etalk Senior Correspondent. Lainey Lui believes gossip can be a positive force in society, which she addresses, for example, in her 2012 TEDx talk on “The Sociology of Gossip.” With this in mind, I was very excited when she agreed to chat with me – I wanted to ask her not just about Asian Heritage Month, but about her views on where gossip and human rights meet. Her responses – both very thoughtful and deeply personal – did not disappoint.1
Is Asian History Month important to you?
I’m going to be honest with you – it’s definitely important to me now, since you reached out to me and told me about it. I have to say I didn’t know that much about it. That may be a result of it not being present in the circles I run around in and it may be that it wasn’t communicated to me in a way that I noticed, and it could be because I didn’t go out and look for that information as an Asian myself – and that’s on me. So my point in answering the question this way is that we can always all do more – to celebrate our heritage, to share our heritage – and I think this is the point of celebrating the month and celebrating the culture – that we can all share more and do more and reflect more and it starts with you.
I do want to add that I wrote a book called Listen to the Squawking Chicken. It’s a love letter to my mother, who’s a Chinese woman from Hong Kong, and it’s really about her life and her journey. One of the b-plots – If you will – of my book is to share elements of Chinese culture and to share my pride in Chinese culture. It’s been really gratifying to me when I get feedback about the book to know that the people who read it were interested in learning about those parts of my culture that I wrote about. It’s probably the thing that I’ve done that I’m most proud of – and that has everything to do with my cultural background.
In your life and in your work as an entertainment reporter, have you faced challenges as a Canadian of Asian Heritage? How have you overcome or addressed these challenges?
I got into television late – most people I know started in TV in their late teens and early twenties. I was 32 years old when I got into CTV and working with etalk, so in my case, my Asian-ness was never a factor in helping me get in the door, because I had already established my gossip blog. What was so great for me working at CTV is that they appreciated me for my writing and for my information and for my mind, so it really had nothing to do with my appearance. Which is so awesome. That said, I will say that sometimes I could be the only Asian in a certain television environment, whereas you can have multiple white actors, or multiple white people on a panel. I sometimes wonder whether or not you can do that with multiple Asians or Black people or First Nations people or whether or not people who make decisions are still like: “Oh no no no, we’ve got the Asian already; we’ve met that quota.” Sometimes I wonder about that outside of CTV. The example, though, that I have with CTV is that when I joined etalk I was actually the second Asian. For many years, Tanya Kim was the host of etalk and I was the reporter on etalk and so there were two Asians and it was really awesome. That said, Tanya and I would routinely get mixed up for each other. Someone would come to me and mistake me for TK, and they would go up to TK and they would say “Hi Lainey,” and that was really frustrating for both of us because they didn’t know we were two different people – because there aren’t that many instances where there are actually two Asian standing side by side on television. The fact that people kept getting us mixed up was a reflection of that. That is probably the best example I can give you of those kinds of challenges. And it wasn’t a challenge, really – I mean, I kept my job and I did my job, but you start to see different perspectives. Certain realities get illuminated.
One of your recent blogs was critical of Hollywood’s tendency to have white actors play parts originally intended for Asians. Can you talk a bit about the importance of this issue?
I know that this has been a conversation that’s been ongoing in the entertainment industry, especially with #Oscarssowhite. I really started to write extensively about it, or at least try to bring focus to it when Willow Smith, the daughter of Will Smith, was originally supposed to star in the Annie Remake. That role eventually went to Quvenzhané Wallace. But, Willow is a Black girl, and traditionally Annie the orphan is a white girl with red hair. And people were outraged. They were like: “Oh my God, Annie is a white girl with red hair and we know Annie to have red hair and it’s curly. I can’t believe it – how could they cast Willow Smith?” What people were missing in that conversation was that Annie was an orphan. And an orphan can be any race. And the actual story of Annie was about finding a person who wanted to make a family with her. To build a home with her. That is not dependent on a red-haired girl or a girl with freckles and pale skin. That is a universal story applicable to any young girl of any racial background. It’s about not just imagining it, but being actually realistic about how stories aren’t confined to people who look a certain way. I think that the more we talk about it and the more we remind people that when you tell a story, be it about love, betrayal, disappointment, friendship, empowerment – that applies to everybody. I’m not Black, nor do I have red curly hair, but if I’m watching a story about an orphan, no matter what she looks like and what her racial background is, I can tap into those themes. Partly, it is a lack of perspective and a refusal to open minds to that truth, but when you are a casting director in Hollywood, and you say, “Oh no, we have to have this character be white,” it’s also a disservice to the audience. I think it’s an underestimation of the audience. And I think that the more we can have these conversations, the more we can change those opinions.
Do you think gossip can play a positive role in society when it comes to racial inclusion and human rights? If yes, what is that role?
Well I’m so happy that we’re having this conversation this week of all weeks, because all the gossip this week has been centred around one person.2 You may have heard of her – her name is Beyoncé. And Beyoncé just released a visual album called Lemonade. And in this visual album she addresses the themes of infidelity, the experience of Black women in the family, in society and also how Black women are often underestimated, not only by the non-Black community, but even within the Black community, by their own men. This has spawned I don’t know how many think pieces on gossip sites, and non-gossip sites and news sites. I have written extensively about it on my gossip blog, talking about infidelity, whether or not Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé, why Beyoncé is self-identifying as perhaps the “everywoman” who’s been wronged by “everyman” and why Jay-Z might be self-identifying as the “everyman” cheater. Conversations about fidelity and specifically about betrayals experienced by Black women have been inspired and continued. All of this initiated by gossip – and gossip from Beyoncé herself. She’s the one who put all this on blast. She’s the one singing about being a woman scorned and about how even she might be perfect and even she’s experiencing being cheated on. In this conversation, which she started herself, we’re beginning to exchange with other people – our friends, our readers, our audience – our views on fidelity. Our views on monogamy, even. Our views on marriage. These are really important conversations and we happen to be having them surrounding gossip.
You used to work at Covenant House, an agency that provides shelter, food and crisis care to homeless youth, and now you volunteer there. Can you talk to us about how your work with Covenant House has influenced your thoughts around inclusion and human rights? Why is this important to you?
Well, I am the child of immigrants – two immigrants who really worked hard to give me more than they had. And I am an only child, so I am the carrier of all my parents’ hopes and dreams and in that respect, I am the beneficiary of all their hard work. Now, all that is to say that I am priviledged. And I come from a place where, even though my parents didn’t have much, I had everything I needed. I was sent to university and I got a great education. I had all the skills necessary to succeed, because my parents provided that for me. So when I got to Covenant House, it gave me a sense of perspective – perspective seems to be the key word here – and an appreciation for my privilege and the fact that I am so fortunate. So it really checked me. It checked my sense of being spoiled, it checked my sense of entitlement and it also helped me grow compassionately. It helped me develop empathy and an understanding of homelessness, particularly around at-risk youth. There is a stereotype from a lot of people who believe that kids who are on the street are just too lazy to work. When I was at Covenant House I learned that over 70% of kids who are on the street don’t choose to be there – they’re running away from something. Who chooses to sleep in a sewer because they don’t want to make their bed? So it really gave me the knowledge to choose to go out and use my voice to spread awareness about what their reality – at-risk youth’s reality – really is. Because I worked at Covenant House Vancouver, I also learned about the underage sex trade, and it gave me an education on the dark reality for young kids when they get onto the street and how they survive, and what happens to them when they become adults, and that’s the only way they know how to make money – Instead of being judge-y about sex workers and prostitution. Also, it really gave me a baseline education – and by no means am I an expert and I still have a lot more learning to do – about our First Nations community. Our First Nations community is probably the most overlooked and underserved community in this country. I am embarrassed and ashamed to say that before I started working at Covenant House, the First Nations community’s issues were not top of mind for me. My experience and my time at Covenant House opened the door for me to need to start realizing that I need to know more, that I needed to get engaged. So Covenant House has probably given me more than I’ve given Covenant House.
2 This interview was conducted on Thursday April 28, 2016.