This interview was originally published in the May 18, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly e-mail newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more stories like this one? Subscribe for free.
Whether or not you watched American Idol in its early days, you’ve probably heard of William Hung or seen his infamous 2004 audition. Despite being sent home, his positive attitude won over audiences worldwide and led to a record deal with Koch and two studio albums — the first of which reached #34 on the U.S. Billboard chart and #1 on the U.S. Independent chart.
William spent a few years away from the public light, with a stint as a technical crime analyst at the LA County Sheriff’s Department, and the occasional commercial cameo. These days, he’s a motivational speaker, drawing from his experiences to help people communicate — regardless of boundaries.
The Slant caught up with William on May 16, 2018, over the phone.
Natasha Chan: You were born in Hong Kong, but have now spent a good portion of your life in the United States — do you consider yourself Asian or Asian American?
William Hung: [laughs] Well, I would say I consider myself Asian American. But I really don’t look at it that way, because I hate to put myself in a box based on race or ethnicity. Just because you are Chinese — just because I’m Chinese doesn’t necessarily mean I’m smart in math, for example. It turns out that I am good at math, but that may not be true. Or, “Asians have to get straight A’s. Asians have to be engineers.” I don’t know about that.
The answer is, I would say, I consider myself Asian American. But hopefully it’s not a box that confines me
NC: You’ve definitely become a part of American Idol culture, which is in turn an iconic piece of American culture. How do you feel that your being Asian American impacted the show?
WH: Well, I’ve definitely heard criticism as well as supporters. And the criticism can be harsh sometimes. They will say that I portray, or potentially portray, Asian stereotypes. But the way I see it, I disagree. Because I just I try my best like everybody else, if only to fail the audition.
It’s okay not to make it to Hollywood — so what? It doesn’t define me as a person, and it shouldn’t define you as a leader, as a person, just because you fail at something. That’s the way I see it, and I also feel that the reason I still do what I do, after 14 years since my original audition, it’s because I have a bigger mission than myself. I want to inspire people to overcome their fears. I want to inspire people to become champions by choice. To take ownership of their lives.
Andrew Hsieh: And when you’re talking about inspiring people, you’re not limiting that to inspiring just Asian Americans or just Asians. You’re being more inclusive than that.
NC: And more recently, as Asian Americans have started finding their footing, there’s been more conversations about your being Asian American contributed to your popularity. At that time — you mentioned it’s 14 years ago now — do you feel that was the case at the time, and do you have an opinion on that?
WH: Well, I’m really not sure on this one, but I do know one thing that’s for sure. Because of my audition, there are far more singing reality shows and entertainment reality shows in general. And I never thought that would be possible. There’s now an American Idol everywhere. There’s Singapore Idol, Malaysian Idol, Icelandic Idol, The Voice in China. It’s crazy.
NC: And you don’t think that your being Asian American contributed to your popularity?
WH: I think it did contribute because it was unusual. That situation was very unusual. Back then, in season 3 — I think one thing that my friends, my mentors, they look at it. They say to me, most people, when they failed the audition on American Idol back then, they would get really angry. They would get upset. There’s even videos of one guy throwing a water bottle at Simon Cowell. But I didn’t feel a need to do that. It wasn’t scripted, it wasn’t planned. But I just tried — I just wanted to be confident.
NC: You mentioned your friends and your family — how did they react when they saw that you auditioned?
WH: They were — they were shocked.
AH: Did they expect you to do something like that?
WH: No, they didn’t. Literally my mom, she gave me — once she saw me on Fox, she gave me a phone call, and I was, like “uh oh, I don’t know how to deal with this.”
NC: How have they reacted to you in the past 14 years? Do they see you more as an entertainer, or do they still see you as the same old William?
WH: Well, they’ve seen me evolve over time. Especially my parents. Because initially they were not sure what to think of it, but they support me because they said, “you’re my only son.” So, yeah. It turned out great.
AH: You had a really positive attitude toward it at the time, and it sounds like you continue to have one today. But I’m curious if it changed the way you saw yourself.
WH: Yeah — in terms of seeing myself, that’s the weird thing. I see myself as being the same guy as before. Maybe an evolved version, a better version of myself. But like, for example, I don’t really see myself as a celebrity. Everyone else in the world sees me as a celebrity. [laughs] That’s the thing that feels awkward. People ask me, what do I think when I get requests for pictures and autographs when I walk down the street? [laughs] I say, it still feels awkward. Because I don’t see myself, you know, as that special. And maybe that’s the thing too. Because my friends would say I’m very grounded despite my success.
AH: Does that happen pretty often, that you get recognized?
WH: Yes, it’s even a little more often now. I mean, it was up and down. Initially it was crazy. And now, I would say that throughout the last 8 to 10 years, it’s more like here and there, occasionally, it’s not that big of a deal. And now recently — I don’t know what it is — there’s more people recognizing me now. More media coverage, more interviews, yeah.
AH: And you’re still doing special features, too, like with Deadpool Karaoke.
WH: Yes, that one is definitely getting attention, and I noticed that one of the Facebook Lives I did — it was for Pocari Sweat, it’s a sports drink. That one got over 200 thousand views.
NC: Do you feel uncomfortable getting that attention? Or do you enjoy it — how does that make you feel?
WH: I think overall, I look at it as a good thing. Because it allows me to connect with people much easier. It’s much easier when people can connect with me, instead of me having to connect with them.
NC: Have you seen Asian American roles change over the last few years in Hollywood? Because you’ve been around the last 14, 15 years in the industry.
WH: Yeah, I think Asian Americans in general have made substantial progress. I mean, I’ve seen a lot more talented people, especially in the entertainment industry. They’ve really made a name for themselves. I attended a director’s guild — like an Asian Pacific Islander awards for HBO, and I was very impressed how there are young, talented, Asian American males and females winning awards.
AH: Are you a fan of a particular Asian American performer?
WH: I have too many. I’d say I love the old school, like Andy Lau. I kinda like Jason Chan. So, yeah.
NC: During your audition, you mentioned you were studying to be a civil engineer. And after a winding road as musician and working for the police department, you know, on LinkedIn it says you’re an “empathy cultivator” now. Can you talk a little more about that and what that means for you on a daily basis?
WH: Sure. So that’s also evolving over time. I feel that the biggest thing I see is — one of the problems of the world is that, how would I say it? The communication, right? It’s almost like there was a point where we really took the time to understand people for who they are. Not based on color, not based on the way you look.
I mean, now it’s sometimes — it’s very polarizing. I think that’s the right word. It’s like, “I’m right! You’re wrong! You’re stupid!” I see it in the way people talk online. It’s like, “wait a minute! That’s not very constructive! That’s not the right way to treat people!”
AH: Is that based in part on what you saw from your audition, or do you think it’s something separate?
WH: Oh, no, it’s related. Because it took me a long time, because I don’t think I really realized it until recently, but I think that one of the main barriers for having empathy or caring about people is the fear inside of us. It’s like, we don’t, as human beings, people don’t like to deal with the unknown. It’s like, “oh my god, this guy, ugh! This lady! I don’t want to talk to her! I don’t want to deal with her!”
NC: So a large part of your role as an empathy cultivator, is being a motivational speaker or going to corporations, organizations to tell your story?
WH: I definitely go to a lot of corporations and associations, yeah.
NC: And people often link motivational speaking with giving advice on things to do and say to achieve success, but do you feel there are certain things you shouldn’t do to achieve that success?
WH: Yeah, I think that — the way I see it, I think about the greater good. That’s my philosophy. That’s what I believe in. So I’m not gonna do [something] just because — for me — I think it’s finding the right balance. Because I have to take care of myself first.
So in the grand scheme of things, I can’t say yes to everything, for example. I can’t say yes to all the volunteer work or all the opportunities. I have to be more focused, and in that sense, I have to take care of myself first.
In terms of impacting people, I do try to take the ones that will impact the most people. In fact, next month, I finally got accepted to speak at a TEDx events for the first time. So that’s something I’d love to do, because not only can I do a great talk, but millions of people will get to see that one.
NC: A big part of being able to balance everything in your life — I’m sure there’s time you have to say no to things. What’s one of the most difficult things you’ve said no to in your career?
WH: One of the most difficult things to say no to in my career. I would say — hm. I don’t know if it’s that it’s difficult, but sometimes, the way I make decisions — I don’t just base it on the opportunity or the money. I also look at what I’ll do and if I don’t feel it aligns with my values or my vision, then I’m gonna say no. I don’t care how good it sounds. I think about the long time effect.
NC: Is there any particular situation you recall that this happened?
WH: Hm. I can’t think of a situation off the top of my head, but I remember — oh yeah, I remember. It was a while ago, it wasn’t recent. But there was a movie deal where I would have had to use a lot of profanity, or say bad things to other people — I mean, I would [have gotten] paid a substantial amount of money, but that’s not right. That’s not me. So I refused. That’s okay, there were other opportunities, and if I did that one, maybe I wouldn’t get that other opportunity.
NC: So having to say no to that role in the movie — did it play out the way you expected? Were there better opportunities down the road?
WH: I mean, there were. I got commercial deals afterward that I didn’t take for bad timing, but I was on like, AT&T, Jack in the Box back then — I mean, the image, the brand is very important. I don’t want to do something that doesn’t align with what I’m trying to represent.
NC: What’s next for you? What are your biggest career or personal goals?
WH: I would say one of the biggest goals I have is to continue to build my professional speaking business. I love what I do to get people communicating in a way that’s caring, fair and kind. Getting people to take ownership of their choices in life. Not everybody will be dealt a great hand. I think that’s a good analogy. I wasn’t dealt a great hand in the beginning, and then somehow I was able to turn it around to where I am today. So if I can do it, [other] people can do it too.
AH: At the time, you were considered a “viral” trend before things went viral. I’m curious if you still take the time to see what trends today — do you watch a lot of YouTube, do you pay attention to other performers who you find interesting?
WH: I think my time and energy is limited right now, so I can’t keep up with everybody. I do check out some people that I plan to collaborate with. Like you mentioned earlier, the Deadpool 2 Karaoke, I’m going to collaborate with Atsuko. She’s an Asian American comedian. So of course, I’m going to check her out, look at her clips, look at her website just to see what she’s been up to. And you know, she has a different way of approaching things, but she’s doing it great, too. She has a cause that she wants to fight for and things like that. So people who I plan to collaborate with, I definitely study them.
NC: We have a question from our previous guest, Michelle Lee, who is the executive director from AAMPLIFY. She asks, what is one impression or opinion most people have of you that is untrue?
WH: I would definitely say the one about portraying Asian stereotypes. I definitely don’t agree with that one. Like I mentioned earlier, in life, you just try things. You just see what happens. The difference between me and other people was that my audition somehow went viral, millions of people knew about it. and therefore there are gonna be some people that liked it and some people that hated it. So that’s what I disagree with.
AH: Do you have a question that you’d like to ask our next guest?
WH: What is the biggest failure you have experienced and how have you overcome it?
NC: So William, I’m actually curious what your answer to that. What was your biggest failure?
WH: Oh, biggest failure. [laughs] Well, it actually wasn’t my American Idol audition, even though it was a very public failure. I think my biggest failure is that, perhaps, I never saw my whole entertainment — oh, I don’t want to say never. I don’t like that word. Let me try again.
I didn’t see how my entertainment career could be a business. I had the whole notoriety and sudden stardom and all that stuff. I didn’t leverage it in a way — like a business. And I wish I’d done that sooner. Some people ask me, do I have an agent, do I have a manager? To this — I mean, now I don’t have an official one, but I do have a team of friends and mentors that can support me. I wish I had that sooner.