Yes, pursuing my dream was ridiculous and indulgent. But acting was the only thing I was good at, and the only thing I wanted to do.
When I tell people that I used to be a film and TV actress, I often get the same reaction: “Really?! That’s so cool!”
But did it feel “cool” at the time? Not really. “Desperate” is a better way to describe it.
Between the ages of 19 and 27, I was a wannabe actress. What started as a casual dalliance with the Australian entertainment industry became an obsession. And I was obsessed because no matter how hard I tried, it was near impossible to get cast in anything.
Being an actress was my childhood dream. I studied for my ‘backup’ career – graphic design – but the whole time, I took acting classes on the side and attended auditions. Despite my enthusiasm, I never managed to book a job. And so, graphic design moved from backup to day job.
That is, until I scored my first role, at the age of 25. In 2007, I played a schoolgirl – and supermodel Gemma Ward’s best friend – in the Australian film The Black Balloon. That film, which also starred Toni Colette, went on to earn director Elissa Down multiple awards, including seven AACTA (AFI) awards.
Being in a successful film (albeit in a tiny role) was all I needed to start chasing that dream, hard. It was my big break. I was getting more auditions than ever before, so naturally, I talked incessantly about moving to LA and befriending Lindsay Lohan.
A friend took me aside, saying that I needed to “come back down to earth”. She was one of many to warn me to stop dreaming, and get on with my “real” life.
It hurt to hear this. Didn’t they believe in me?
But over the months, nothing spoke louder than my dwindling number of auditions. In Australia, there were practically no roles available for an Australian-Chinese woman in her late twenties. And, in the rare case that I did have an audition, I was usually so nervous that I flunked them.
I got a series of “normal” jobs in design, retail or admin, and tried my hardest to forget about acting. But, like a bad crush, I couldn’t let it go. At work, I felt like I was dying on the inside. I was constantly teary with frustration, because all I wanted to do was act. And I didn’t have enough money for even a plane ticket to LA.
I knew I was lucky to be employed at all. It wasn’t the end of the world if I couldn’t be an actress. But what else could I do? Acting was the only thing I was good at, and the only thing I wanted to do.
I’d chuck sickies if I had an audition or acting role. One employer was suspicious, and they were right – I was sneaking out to audition for a Sienna Miller movie. I got fired. This proved that I would risk anything, even my job, to get more acting work.
Surely, Asia would be interested in an Asian actress? During a trip to Singapore, I arranged to meet with the two best talent agencies. I chose Singapore because their official language is English – the only language I can speak.
None of the Singaporean agencies were interested in me. Strangely, they deemed my appearance “too Asian”. Apparently, a “Eurasian” appearance was favoured for being “more international”. And yes, my lack of Asian language skills was a problem.
Oh yeah, and they told me I was fat. I was 60kg, and they suggested that I aim for 45kg. To lose that much weight, I’d have to stop eating, and I’d probably end up in hospital.
This terrible advice led me to an important conclusion. I could not risk my life, through starvation, just for the chance to be an actress.
I returned home to Sydney with a new sense of clarity. I began to refuse auditions for racially typecast roles… which all of them were. You’d think that Asian women came in only four varieties: nail artist, refugee, cook or tiger mother.
As I headed towards 30, I wanted the world to know more about me than my ethnicity, or the shape and size of my body – the two factors that my auditions usually focused on.
Pursuing my dream cost me time, money and adult achievements. I had no savings and my resume sucked, so I went back to uni and moved back in with my parents.
Yes, pursuing my dream was ridiculous and indulgent. But I would do it all over again.
I live to avoid this question: “I wonder what would have happened if I tried?” Well, I tried to be an actress, and I got my answer. And this is it: I failed. But I’m proud, because it’s my failure. I lived it and I earned it, and thankfully, I never once said no to a slice of cake.
What was your childhood dream job? Did you ever try to pursue your dreams?