Rising star Cindy V opens up about growing up biracial, getting rejected at her first audition and her new role in Glee Vietnam.
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 critically acclaimed 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-nplay 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-was-not- 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.
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