celebrity

INDEPENDENT LENS
Happiness

 

Pyanki is a nine-year-old monk living in Laya, a Bhutanese village perched high in the Himalayas. The nearest road is a three-day walk away, and Pyanki has never even left his village. In 2012, however, the world will come to him: Laya will at long last be connected to electricity, and the first television will flicker on before Pyanki’s eyes. He will have access to 46 television stations for 13 hours every day. How will these images shape a child so isolated from commerce, materialism and celebrity?

 

 

FINDING YOUR ROOTS
The Melting Pot

 

From AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES (2006) through the first season of FINDING YOUR ROOTS (2012), Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has been helping people identify relatives hidden for generations. Professor Gates employs a team of genealogists and the world’s leading geneticists to uncover the origins of a diverse group of 30 guests. Each of the 10 episodes will feature three guests bound together by an intimate, sometimes hidden, link, as Gates treks through layers of ancestral history, uncovers secrets and surprises, and shares life-altering discoveries.

 

The Melting Pot
Three celebrity chefs who cook the food of their ancestors discover family members who have shaped their lives — and America’s cuisine. Tom Colicchio of Top Chef learns the hardships his family endured living in a tiny town in Northern Italy and celebrates the courage of his original immigrant ancestor, a man who crossed the Atlantic many times to bring the Colicchios to the United States; Ming Tsai, the child of immigrants who fled Mao’s Cultural Revolution, was raised to believe that his family’s Chinese past was obliterated by the Communists, but instead finds that his roots can be traced back more than 2,000 years, yielding a large family tree; and Aaron Sanchez discovers that his family’s treasured Mexican roots include people who were Spaniards, Africans and Native Americans.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Ryan Higa

 

Original air date: Tues., Jan. 3, 2012

 

Leslie Wilcox talks story with Ryan Higa, also known as “Nigahiga” on YouTube. His self-produced online comedy videos led to the Hilo native’s inadvertent, meteoric rise to national fame. Ryan reveals how he first started using video cameras, his thoughts on the entertainment business and a deal that tested his integrity.

 

Ryan Higa Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

One of the main things on You Tube you have to do to stay relevant is continuously post. If you stop posting for a long time, people will forget about you.

 

So now, I’m gonna tell you about this great new product. It’s called the TEEHEE Band! Not the teehee band! The TEEHEE Band! Say it like that. Similar products like those magnetic bands claim to help you to fake balance tests! But thanks to the TEEHEE Band, not only does it help you to fake balance but it gives you another fist.

 

Not so long ago, as a teenager from Waiakea High School in Hilo, Ryan Higa had a lot of fun producing videos and posting them online for his friends to see. He had no idea that this hobby would soon make him a You Tube sensation. In fact, until June of 2011, he held the distinction of being the most subscribed to person on You Tube, and he remains very close to the top. Ryan Higa is next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’re joined by a young man who is known worldwide for his You Tube videos. If you’re of a certain age, you may not have heard of him. But if you’re in your late teens or twenties, you most likely recognize him right away. His name is Ryan Higa, and at age fourteen, he discovered his family’s camcorder. What he did next would set the stage for his future profession. He videotaped his family events, and found he had a knack for making people laugh. At the time of this conversation in 2011, Ryan Higa turned twenty-one years old, and he’s a You Tube sensation with nearly a billion views to his credit and a thriving media enterprise.

 

How did you become a You Tube phenom?

 

The reason I started putting videos on You Tube, I actually did it before, when I had a VHS camcorder, and I wanted to show my friends. I didn’t want to have to physically bring it to them, so I put it online so they could watch it. And I didn’t know all these thousands of other people would watch it. So, it was by accident, I guess, you could say that.

 

You thought it was just like a delivery service to your friends.

 

Yeah. I mean, I just didn’t want to have to physically burn a—‘cause I’m very bad with technology. I didn’t even know how to burn like a DVD. So, to do that, it was a lot of work for me. But once I discovered You Tube, I put it online, and they were just able to watch it.

 

Tell me about growing up in Hilo.

 

In Hilo, basically, that’s one of the reasons why I started You Tube, is because I mean, there was nothing to do. [CHUCKLE] We went to the movies, we went to the mall. Actually, I guess we went to the mall, ‘cause the movies were in the mall, so that’s all there was to do. I’m not big on, like, surfing, so a lot of my other friends went, surfing and stuff. But once I discovered how to use a camera, that was my thing, and I just loved it.

 

How did you discover how to use it? Did you get it for Christmas or something?

 

The first time I ever used a VHS camcorder was to film a family reunion.

 

And how old were you?

 

I must have been sixth grade, so eleven or twelve. How old are you in sixth grade, like eleven?

 

Yeah; eleven, twelve.

 

Probably around eleven; yeah. And I was just filming everybody, and then I was really bored, so I started having fun with it. I would put it like on the table, and make like I was an ant, an ant’s point of view. And then when we watched it back with the family, they were all laughing. I was like, Oh, this is pretty cool to make people laugh with a video. So from there, I just kept doing it. Originally, all those VHS videos with me and my neighborhood friends, we used to just make those just for my family. ‘Cause we’d have like a Sunday dinner, you know, every Sunday a family dinner, and then I would show it at that.

 

What did the other kids make of you?

 

I think a lot of people thought I was just really weird, ‘cause that’s when You Tube wasn’t even that relevant to people. Especially I think I started like beginning of high school. They were like, Oh, I would go to like, I used to wrestle and do judo, I used to go to events, and they were like, Eh, you guys are those guys that do the dress up like girls and do lip syncs, right? I think they thought we were a little weird. And then, couple years later, I think they got more used to it, ‘cause You Tube started to get big, so …

 

And what about your parents; what are they like as parents?

 

They’re great. They’re always supportive. From the start, they always supported that. They were like, Well, it’s a little weird, but at least you’re not doing drugs.

 

[CHUCKLE] Did they ever tell you, Watch what you do on that video?

 

My mom at first, she was very like … especially when I put it on You Tube, ‘cause you get all these, hater comments and stuff. She was like, You need to be careful. Because I would get comments like, death threats and all that kinda stuff. Yeah.

 

What did they want your death for? What set them off?

 

There’s a lot of racist people, people online. ‘Cause it’s to the world, so you find how people really are. And they’re hiding behind a computer, so they can say whatever they want. And that’s where you see people who just hate me for no reason. But at the same time, you get people who love me for no reason too, so …

 

And from Hilo, as you were delivering these videos to your friends, you inadvertently gained a huge following over years.

 

Right. I mean, the first time I noticed, I had put up like a bunch of videos, like lip sync videos. That’s how I started.

 

This is your buddies doing lip syncing, and you?

 

Well, originally, it was just me. And then, yeah, I got friends to do it with me. And then I posted all these lip sync videos. I left it alone for like months, and I didn’t even look at it. When I came back, I was like, Why are my friends watching this like five thousand times? There was five thousand views on every video. I was like, it’s a little weird. And then I read through all the comments, and they wanted more. So after that, I continued to do it. I just read the comments, and followed what they wanted. Yeah.

 

When you choose a subject for your You Tube videos—for example, one of my favorites is The Awkward Moment. And you know, it’s the kinda thing everybody mentions, but nobody ever kind of puts in a group and gives examples, and—

 

Right, right, right.

 

—tells you why it’s so awkward. And that’s what you did. It goes to something that people think about, but don’t talk about as much.

 

Right, right.

 

Oh!

Oh, sorry.

Yeah, I was gonna go this way.

I was …

I was gonna go this way.

Yeah.

Wow.

That’s really …

I’ll just keep walking.

 

Well, it’s great seeing you again.

Yeah.

Take care.

See you.

 

I try to stay really honest with my viewers. And like you said, it’s something people always think about, they just don’t say. And I try to do that. I just want to put out content that people can relate to. And everybody has awkward situations, so it was really easy to do.

 

What are some of your favorite topics? When you decide to make a video, what have been the ones you really embrace the most?

 

I think a lot of ‘em, when I talk to the camera, those are the ones that I’m really like, I feel strongly about something.

 

Right.

 

I did one on feminism, and I did one on awkward situations, and stuff like that, and arrogant people. It’s stuff that I have an opinion about, and I just try to phrase that to the people.

 

And it’s a rant.

 

Yeah; it becomes a rant, yeah.

 

And do you have it written down, or is it all in your head?

 

I try to write down points, but I don’t have like a script or anything. But, yeah, I write down points that I want to make. And at the same time it’s tough, because now that I have a bigger following, you have to phrase things in a way that won’t offend, try not to offend too many people, but at the same time, still be honest and stick to your opinion.

 

So you’re always refining what you do, based on what you sense the going traffic is.

 

M-hm; yeah. Yeah. I mean, I read the comments all the time. I have multiple series. I have a series where I do parodies on movies, like the rants, I have music videos. And whatever they’re craving, or whatever they want, or whatever they missed, that’s what I try to cater to them.

 

First, we open the fridge, grab the package, open the package. There’s no bacon strips in here, no bacon strips in here, no [BLEEP] bacon strips in here. Open the microwave, put it in, close the door, two minutes for ultimate thawing. It’s about to get epic up in here, epic up in here, epic, epic, epic up there. Open the door, like a boss. Step down like a boss. Take a gander at the world like a boss, but run off like an assistant. Bear wrestle this bear. Spill some table all over that bear. Mother [BLEEP] Spartan fight. Slipper kick. The game is tied, you’re down by three. Last second shot, blocked by yourself. Empty parking lot. No, blocked. Odor, blocked. Run around the block. Running, running out of time, running in slow-mo. Microwave, not much time left. Epic armpit hair. [SCREAMING] Clean up the mess, paper towels for [INDISTINCT].

 

Ryan Higa listened to his newfound opinionated audience and honed in on what they liked, and what they wanted to hear. This became his winning method for choosing his subject matter.

 

So, tell us about the numbers. I mean, the sheer number of people who view your videos, who, of all the many, many infinite number of things on the web, they pick your videos. How many?

 

I’m not too sure exactly what I’m on, but I think in total of all video views, I think I’m almost gonna hit a billion pretty soon. Soon, hopefully.

 

And since when? When does that …

 

It started from ’06.

 

And so far, what’s the single largest number of people viewing one video?

 

I think it’s around thirty-something million.

 

That’s amazing. And you think of all the competition for eyeballs.

 

Right. But at this point, though, because You Tube is so big, thirty million is a lot, definitely a lot, but there’s videos out there with five hundred million. Like Justin Bieber’s Baby video. I don’t care too much about the views. The views will come. I care about the ratings. I care about the favorites, like people that favored it, people that like it. I care about the comments. I just want them to like it. Even if it has less views and it has good ratings, I’ll be happy.

 

And sheer number of hits and favorable comments have brought you to the attention of some Hollywood, would you say, heavyweights?

 

Yeah. I mean, I got to have a dinner like James Cameron.

 

Of Titanic.

 

Yeah, Titanic, Avatar. But he invited us to watch his—well, he didn’t direct it, but he was a part of like Sanctum 3D. But yeah, he invited us to a private screening before that came out, and yeah, we had a dinner together. He was just really interested in learning about new media, because, he’s always ahead of the game. He was ahead of the game with 3D. He’s always one step ahead, and I believe that once people recognize that he’s doing that, everybody’s gonna follow him. But at this point, I think there’s still a lot of mainstream people who still don’t really support new media, or respect it that much.

 

What kind of questions did he ask you?

 

Pretty much the same questions here. He was just asking about, what is the viewership like, how did you gain such a big following. He had no idea that what’s happening was happening on You Tube.

 

Well, you mentioned you’re making a living off it. How do you make a living off You Tube?

 

You Tube has this partnership program, basically, where you can apply for a partnership, and if your material is clean, and if it has no copyrighted materials, they’ll put an ad next to your video. And basically, it’s like a CPM, where it’s like every so many views, you get like a dollar or something.

 

What does CPM mean?

 

I’m not sure. It’s like clicks per something, I don’t know.

 

Oh, that makes sense.

 

Yeah.

 

So basically, they provide the ad. You don’t have to go sell your own advertising.

 

No, no, no. I mean, if you were to sell your own ads, I’m sure you’d get a lot more. But, You Tube does a really good job getting ads for everyone. All these big companies, I’ve been approached by like Pepsi, and like Carl’s Jr., and they want to put ads in the video itself, like become a branded video.

 

Product placement.

 

Yeah, product placement and stuff like that.

 

And are you open to that?

 

Yeah. I mean, for me, I turn down a lot more than I think most people. And the only reason is because I did one when I was first starting off, ‘cause I thought it was crazy, to get paid for a video. But I did one of those, and I got such a bad response. Because it’s like, I could understand why. People don’t want to be sold. So I can do a branded video, as long as it fits my content.

 

I see. So what comes first, the client or the content?

 

Oh, the content, for sure. For sure. I mean … all the time, it’s always it has to fit my brand. If it’s some random thing, I’m not gonna do it.

 

So you personally are a brand now.

 

I guess. Yeah, you could say that.

 

And how would you describe your brand?

 

I don’t know. I mean, I’m just like, I guess, a personality. I try to keep it clean and appeal to a younger demo, I guess.

 

What about the fellow fourteen-year-olds with you back in Hilo; are they still into You Tube, and are you still their friend?

 

Oh, I’m definitely friends with them. One of ‘em is here, and a couple of ‘em are off in Portland, and other colleges. And I mean, they’re doing their thing too, but I mean, I would love to get them all together and make something again, just for the people who used to watch us.

 

And what’s YTF, the tee-shirt you’re wearing?

 

YTF, that also started as a joke. We were watching a bunch of Will Smith videos. And like, he’s really inspiring, the way he thinks. Like his thoughts are like, you can achieve anything. Because at one point, everything was impossible. Like electricity was impossible at one point. People thought flying in the air in a metal ship was impossible at one point. But YTF basically, we were talking about that, and we were like, Let’s start putting that in our videos. We have like little YTF texts everywhere in our videos, if you look past it. And it was just a joke for us to find it in each other’s videos. It embodies that same idea that Will Smith puts out, which is yesterday is in the past, today you have a choice, and forever is up to you.

 

We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, from the YTF crew. Whoo! Happy holidays! Whoo!

 

I always wanted to be an actor. I always wanted to be an actor, but in my mind, I thought I could never be one, ‘cause I was Asian. You never see Asian stars and stuff. So, I went the traditional route, I went to college for nuclear medicine, and I just hated it.

 

Why nuclear medicine?

 

I mean, it makes a lot of money. [CHUCKLE] It makes a lot of money, and I was like, yeah, I mean, I guess it’s interesting.

 

And you just made twenty-one.

 

Just turned twenty-one; yes.

 

And you just took a hiatus from University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

 

Yes; yeah.

 

Why?

 

Just because I feel like right now, I have an opportunity, I know it’s not gonna last forever, so I want to make the best of it now. And college will always be there.

 

What are some of the lessons of the business of video making on the web?

 

Well, the copyrights, for one. That’s a big point I learned, I guess. Because we started everything for fun. I did all those lip syncs, so I never worried about like wearing a branded shirt, or using copyrighted music. But once I started getting more views, yeah companies started contacting me and they wanted a piece of the pie.

 

Because you were bringing in some viewers.

 

Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

 

They saw money. They saw dollar signs.

 

Yeah.

 

I’m gonna be ranting about something I really don’t like. That’s liars. I’m not saying I never lie. I’ve lied before. Who hasn’t? There are times when you should lie. I’ll give you an example. I was talking to this rather large girl one time, and she said, Ryan, do I look fat? No. I lied.

 

So you’re really trying to be a change agent. You’ve already been a change agent and showing what you can do from Hilo as a kid. But you’ve got a lot more change to achieve.

 

Hopefully; hopefully. I don’t even care if it’s me. I just want somebody to make these people realize, these studios and stuff, that new media is important, and it’s continuously growing. I don’t think TV’s dead. I don’t think it’s gonna die. But I definitely think the Internet is gonna become just as big as TV, if not bigger. Because that’s where the new generations are coming from, I hardly watch TV anymore. Everything’s online. And a lot of kids, thirteen-year-olds now, they only watch online stuff.

 

Going back to your success at an early age on You Tube. What is the nub, what do you think people related to? I mean, because there are people in DC who’ve been watching you for years. What do you think attracted them, and kept them watching you?

 

Well, for me, I just had fun with it, and I think that kinda showed on the videos. We just posted videos for fun. Back in the day, that’s what You Tube was, it’s like put out a video for fun. Now, it’s a little different, where people are trying to be successful, so they do what works, I guess. But back in the day, yeah, we did it for fun, and I think people related to it, and they were like, Oh, that’s pretty cool, they’re just having a good time, I’ll watch it. But yeah, I think that’s like how it started off, basically.

 

And then, you just have to make sure you continue having fun, even though it’s a business.

 

Well, one of the main things on You Tube you have to do to stay relevant is continuously post. If you stop posting for a long time, people will forget about you, you know. There’s a lot of people who were huge four or five years ago on You Tube, but they stopped posting for a year, they took a break, say they went to college or did whatever there is, whatever they’re doing, and now they’re irrelevant on You Tube. So you just have to keep doing it.

 

Now, do you think you’re in the sweet spot, where you’re in this vanguard of people establishing commercial careers on You Tube, and in new media, or do you feel like, oh, maybe you’re a little early, maybe you know, the big money will really come later?

 

I honestly don’t know. But I’m not complaining right now. But, yeah, I think I got in at a good time. I did get in earlier, and right now is definitely like the best time to get into it in terms of business. I think people are gonna realize how valuable new media is.

 

They won’t be fighting the battles you’re fighting.

 

Yeah; exactly. ‘Cause that’s what we’re going through, that’s what we’ve been doing, and it’s slowly changing, and I think it’s gonna change. I just have to stay relevant as long as possible.

 

Do you think the people who are established in other parts of the media are interested, but kind of dismiss you because you’re young? Is it hard to really gain an audience and make your point?

 

I don’t think it’s too bad, ‘cause my audience is younger than I am, even. And I think they find it easier to relate to me, because I am young.

 

Now that you’ve lived on the mainland, looking back at your Hilo upbringing, what do you think it gave you?

 

Growing up in Hilo, for one … I mean, it’s very, very different, because now that I live in LA, and Vegas, mostly Vegas, the people, especially in LA, are very, very different. They will be really, really nice to you, like Hilo people, but in the back of their minds, they’re like, Okay, so what can I get out of you? They’re trying to get something out of you. Of course, it’s not everyone, but there’s a lot of people in LA, they just want to be your friend because you have something. If I didn’t have this following on You Tube, all these LA people wouldn’t look at me twice. But I get hit up all the time in LA for stuff.

 

And are you good at figuring out who’s what?

 

Yeah. And I think Hilo helped me with that the most, is because everybody there is so—not everybody, but most people there are so genuine. I come back now, even with the following and all that’s changed, and they’re all still the same people.

 

They’re not trying to get something from you.

 

Yeah; exactly. Exactly.

 

You know, in my mind, you’re very young, you’re twenty-one, you’re just at the threshold of adulthood and success, future success. But in You Tube years, maybe you’re not considered young.

 

In You Tube years, I mean, we were there from like—it started in ’05, and I started in ’06. There’s people before me, but a lot of times there’s like only one group, I think, that started before me that’s still also relevant. But a lot of them just stopped doing it, and I think it’s because they were in it too early, so there was no business side of it, so they were not able to continue doing it.

 

And so, that’s your challenge, is you want to stay in it.

 

Definitely.

 

And it is a job to stay in it.

 

Uh-huh. Yeah, ‘cause like I was saying earlier, as much as I want to break out into mainstream, it really is just to gain popularity, to bring back to my online following.

 

You don’t see it as—you’re not a crossover person.

 

I could be happy living off online for the rest of my life, even if I don’t get that A-list celebrity status or whatever. I just want to keep creating. ‘Cause I know that if I go into TV and stuff, it’s not gonna be the same, where I can do, the editing, the filming. Whenever I get a vision, I just want to create that vision. In TV and stuff, you can’t do that, ‘cause it’s like a team process. But on You Tube, you can create whatever you want. Well, I mean, the difference between TV and Internet is, when people watch you, they feel like they’re friends with you. And I feel the same way. I feel a bigger connection, because I interact with them a lot. I just try to talk to them through Twitter, Facebook, even on You Tube. It’s a little harder on You Tube, but I try to stay interactive with them. So if something happens in my life, I’m gonna let them know through a video or something.

 

And then, you also went to your fans and explained to them about copyright laws.

 

Right; right, right. Yeah, when my two most popular videos got removed …

 

How did they get removed?

 

Well, these music companies … I had music in it that was copyrighted, and these music companies just removed my videos. And yeah, they did that on Christmas, and that was their Christmas gift to me, I guess. But they removed my videos, and everybody noticed, ‘cause they were my most popular videos, and they were really upset at me for doing that. So I made this video telling them, I didn’t remove them, and I kinda wish they didn’t do that, and I don’t understand why they did that.

 

You Tube will not last lifelong if all the videos are gone. From a little stupid rule of, all of this happening just ain’t cool. I thought it was a place for fun, entertainment for everyone. Now these companies are barging in, tearing up the site like it belongs to them. Threatening You Tube for having their songs? Can’t we all just get along? Remove their video left and right, almost everything on their site. If there’s just one thing I hate, it’s all those mother-beeping copyrights.

 

I have a friend who’s kind of Web guru, and he has all kinds of conversations going on, texting, and Facebook, and Tweeting. And he says, because he has day-to-day contact with people he’s never met in his life before, he almost feels like he knows them better than his next door neighbor, or his friend in the office, just because there’s more expressing taking place between them. Do you feel that sometimes?

 

Oh, yeah; for sure, for sure. I think even more so for people following me, they feel like they know me even more so. I wish I could get the same from them, just there’s a lot of people. But I do talk to a lot of people I’ve never even met before, and I feel like I know them. It’s a lot easier to talk to each other in texts, you know, even if you’re a shy person. Doesn’t matter who you are, talking in texts is like, everybody can be open, you know.

 

And you build trust in people you’ve never met in your life, and probably never will.

 

Yeah; exactly, exactly. What has helped me so much is I always do what I’ve always wanted to do. And I feel like if I stick to that, it’ll continue to work out.

 

You know, I think of all the effort that schools put into Career Day, and guiding students into careers. And I’m thinking, nobody ever talked to you about this.

 

Yeah. No, not at all. [CHUCKLE], I mean, in the future, I think it’s a possibility, though. It’s like, Oh, you want to go into You Tube?

 

Yeah.

 

I don’t know, it’s a long shot, but it could be.

 

You’ll have to go back and talk to everybody.

 

My dream, which would be amazing, is to start like a You Tube school. ‘Cause I feel like I could teach people how to build a following on You Tube or on anything, on Twitter, or whatever, but obviously, especially You Tube. But that would be like crazy, ‘cause it is like a job now, it’s a job opportunity, like a college. It’s like acting school. It’s like, you learn how to act to do mainstream media. So why isn’t there a You Tube school where you can learn how to blog.

 

Are you worried that You Tube might turn out not to be the number one choice? I mean, after all, we saw My Space kind of fall off.

 

Exactly; yeah. But the thing which is very comforting to know is that Google bought You Tube. And Google is Google, so there could always be a site that comes up. But again, if you have that fan base, they’ll go with you. You’ll lose the people who are not true, like the people who don’t watch everything. You’ll lose them. But if you have this fan base, and you build that, they’ll follow you wherever you go.

 

And then, yeah, and you take them with you to your new frontiers.

 

Uh-huh; yeah, yeah. You just have to do what you love, and then you’ll be successful.

 

And you’re very lucky that you found what you love early.

 

Yeah; fortunately, fortunately.

 

Anyway, the TEEHEE Band does many other things as well. Like help you to read, run, laugh, cry, tickle, giggle, pickle, fly, look your enemies in the eye, and figure out the end of Pi. There’s never not nothing that the TEEHEE Band cannot do. For the simple price of TREE.99, all of your wildest dreams could possibly might not come true. You want a dog? TEEHEE! It’s there. You want a cat? TEEHEE! It’s there. You want another band? TEEHEE! Well, that’s another $3.99. All you have to do is call this number. HigaTV.com. So what are you waiting for? TEEHEE! [CHUCKLE] Ho!

 

There are no how-to manuals, no college textbooks for the career path that Ryan Higa is forging. This college dropout gets how technologies are merging in a way that promotes community engagement, and offers a whole new world of interactive communication and connection. It’s a definite paradigm shift in how people consume information and entertainment, and in the way that businesses are being framed. At age twenty-one in the year 2011, Ryan Higa works hard at creativity and at being a Web presence. Watch this Hilo boy, now living in Las Vegas, as he rides the You Tube wave of the future. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

Ready? Yeah. [CHUCKLE] What? God. I missed again. [LAUGHTER] [INDISTINCT] Ow! Run, run! Aah! Aah! Aah! Okay. It looked good like silhouettes. Tee-hee. [CHUCKLE] The ending. Yeah, yeah.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Jake Shimabukuro

 

Original air date: Tues., Mar. 12, 2013

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with internationally renowned ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro. Jake started playing the ukulele at age four and later found local success as part of music trio Pure Heart. Jake talks about pushing the limits of a four-stringed instrument, discovering the viral YouTube video that catapulted his solo career and settling into a new phase in his life: fatherhood.

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I guess I’ve always had this vision from the time I was a kid. I would watch rock bands, people like Van Halen, or guitar players like Yngwie Malmsteen. And you’d see these guys, they’re playing their instruments, and they’re like running all across the stage, and jumping into the audience, stage-diving, and just yelling and screaming. And I always thought to myself, Why can’t an ukulele concert be like that?

 

From a young age, he has pushed the boundaries of this tine, four-stringed instrument. Ukulele master, Jake Shimabukuro, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In his relatively young career, Jake Shimabukuro has already redefined the ukulele as a musical instrument. His unique blend of traditional Hawaiian music, jazz, classical, funk, and rock has captivated audiences worldwide. He’s performed on national television programs like Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and even for Queen Elizabeth II of England. His star burns brighter than ever with sold out concerts and a number one album. But how did the humble boy from Kaimuki become an international sensation?

 

Well, tell me about your family.

 

Both my parents, they’re really great people. I mean, they were excellent role models, I think, for both, my —

 

You described both of them as easygoing, carefree.

 

Yeah; very easygoing, very carefree. Especially my mom. My mom is very carefree. My parents, they divorced when I was quite young, so it was just my younger brother and myself.

 

I usually don’t think of single moms with two kids as carefree.

 

Yeah; no. My mom, she’s, I think, a very special person. ‘Cause she had a very hard life growing up. She really did whatever she had to do. I mean, made every sacrifice she could, to make sure that my brother and I got the things that we needed or wanted, and …

 

Did she work more than one job?

 

Yeah; she worked several jobs, and a lot of the work that she did was late at night. She’d work in the bars, too, for extra money. And so, sometimes, she wouldn’t come home ‘til after 2:00 a.m.

 

So, you’d come home from school, nobody would be home, and then she wouldn’t be home until your were sleeping.

 

Yeah. So, it was just me and my brother. But she’d always have food for us waiting for us in the icebox. Whenever we would come home, we’d open up the fridge and we’d see like, shoyu chicken, or she’d make her curry or something.

 

And your brother, how much younger is he?

 

He’s five years, five years younger.

 

Bruce is five years younger?

 

Yeah.

 

And I take it you were close. You had each other for company in the afternoons and evenings.

 

Yeah; we were best friends. But of course, growing up because I was the older brother, I always made sure that he ate, and would do his homework and go to sleep.

 

And he accepted that?

 

Yeah, we just did whatever we had to do to help each other out, because I think that’s how our family always operated. It was like, we always just understood that we were a team and we all had to do our part.

 

Even when you’re away, you’re still a team.

 

Yeah; no, exactly.

 

What about your dad? How did the dynamic work when your parents split up, and you lived with your mom? How did that work out with your dad?

 

I think both my parents had a difficult time with it. But I think they both knew that it was for the best. And there were times when we’d stay with our mom, and then there were times when we’d stay with our dad, and it was always pleasant. It didn’t matter who we were with. And the thing that I always respected about both of my parents is that, now looking back, is that they never, ever, even after the divorce, even when they were separated, they never said anything bad about the other person.

 

Jake Shimabukuro studied under several ukulele instructors over the years, but his very first teacher was his mom, Carol. At the age of four, he started playing traditional Hawaiian music with his mother’s Kamaka ukulele, and later began lessons at Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios. Jake says that playing the ukulele also helped him cope with his parents’ divorce.

 

My first ukulele teacher after my mom was a girl named Tami Akiyama. She’s now Tami Omuro. But she was an instructor for Roy Sakuma’s ukulele school, and I think I studied with her for about five or six years. And she always made music fun for me, and she made me want to go home and play, and practice. Not necessarily try to … she wouldn’t put any pressure on me, to learn something. But she always inspired me and encouraged me to just play all the time.

 

And you played for hours sometimes, right?

 

Yeah.

 

Just hours, and hours.

 

I loved it. I remember just coming home from school, I would rush home from school just so I could play my ukulele. My mom wouldn’t let me take my ukulele to school, because she had a Kamaka, and back then, Kamakas were — I mean, ‘til this day, they’re still — I mean, it’s …

 

They’re heirlooms.

 

Yeah; exactly. Right. I still have the one that my mom taught me on, the ukulele that she had when she was a teenager.

 

So, you were conscious you were parted from your ukulele, and you’d rush home.

 

Yeah, I’d rush home, and take it out, and I’d strum the three chords that I knew. The D7, G7, C chord.

 

During his high school years, Jake Shimabukuro described himself as a shy person, and not the outgoing performer that he is today. Instead of performing as a solo act, he would often seek out musical groups to perform with in the Annual Brown Bags to Stardom talent competition.

 

I didn’t think that I’d have a future, playing the ukulele. So, early on, when I would perform and play with people, I would always accompany singers. I would find people who could sing, and I would play with them. So, even throughout my high school years, I always found other musicians and I would gravitate toward musicians that were amazing singers, or were songwriters, and I would learn from them. I would try to figure out how I can accompany them, or what I can do to contribute to the song.

 

And you liked the idea of ensemble and team. You didn’t see yourself as a solo act.

 

Oh, yeah. I was deathly afraid to go up on stage by myself and just perform. Probably, it wasn’t until maybe … was it my junior? Wait. Sophomore. Okay; anyway, my junior year, I entered. And what I did was, I was gonna play a song, and I got so flustered, ‘cause I was so nervous, and I just completely blanked out. And there I was, standing on stage, and everyone’s just quiet and watching. And I’m like, Oh, what am I gonna do? So without thinking, I started just strumming, and I started singing La Bamba.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And everyone just started yelling and screaming, and laughing. Whatever, right? And I just started having fun with it.

 

And it was the idea of La Bamba being such an odd thing to play on an ukulele.

 

Yeah; exactly. Right? And they were like, What is he doing?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And all my friends were just like, What is he doing?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

‘Cause I’m a horrible singer. And I just started playing and singing. And then, Lanai Boy, I94 was sponsoring the Brown Bags to Stardom.

 

Okay; so he was the host radio guy.

 

So, Lanai Boy was hosting. And I remember, he was looking at me from the side, ‘cause you only have three minutes to perform. And he was kinda looking at me and trying to give me the cue; Hey, you gotta cut. And I looked at him, and I was like, No, I’m just gonna keep playing.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And I kept playing. And then, he came up on stage with his microphone, and I’m still playing. ‘Cause I think it was after minutes already, and he was just like, Okay, that’s great, you know, give it up.

 

But the crowd was loving it.

 

And everyone was just laughing, dying laughing, because I didn’t want to get off the stage. And I started playing, and I kept going, and kept going. And then, he started walking toward me, right? And then, I started kinda moving away from him. [CHUCKLE] And everyone was just dying. But he still remembers that, you know. Lanai Boy still remembers that, and that’s probably the day I realized that I enjoy performing on stage for people.

 

There was that chemistry with the audience.

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE]

 

And you just went with it.

 

I just went with it.

 

Jake Shimabukuro first gained popularity in 1998 as a member of the local band, Pure Heart. The trio was made up of Lopaka Colon on percussion, and Jon Yamasato on vocals and guitar. Their first of two albums won four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards and was named one of the top fifty Hawaiian albums of all time by Honolulu Magazine.

 

And we were just out of high school, so we were having a great time. I mean, we started out playing at coffee shops, and we would do birthday parties, graduation parties. We did a lot of graduation parties.

 

And why the name Pure Heart?

 

It was a name that Jon dad … we were driving in the car one day, and we were just thinking of names, and I think we were throwing words around, and we thought, Oh, yeah, like, ‘cause the music’s from the heart. But we’re so young and innocent, so we’re pure. And then we thought, Oh, Pure Heart. And it just stuck.

 

And it was a different sound, wasn’t it? Did you try for a different sound, or was that just reflecting who you all were?

 

No; well, I think we all had different influences. For me, and I think for Jon too, we were really into bands like Kapena and Peter Moon, and Kaau Krater Boys, and guys like the Sons of Hawaii, going back, and Hui Ohana. Those were the people that we listened to a lot.

 

As a member of Pure Heart, Jake Shimabukuro’s early recordings were mainly covers of previously recorded songs. After the breakup of Pure Heart and Jake’s second band Colon, he branched out into a solo career and began to develop his identity.

 

A dear friend of mine, Tracey Terada, who later became my producer for a lot of my early recordings with a band called Pure Heart, and a band called Colon, and then my first three solo records, he is an amazing ukulele player, and he was my teacher for many years. I guess he was kind of the last formal instructor that I had. But I learned so much from him, just about the instrument, how to develop style in your playing. Not just about how to play, but how to develop your own voice, your own signature, your own method, and how to cultivate that and really build.

 

That’s when you’re also developing as a person, too. So, that must have been an interesting subject, developing your own identity.

 

You know the expression, music is the universal language. And I remember thinking to myself, I think that statement falls a little short. I mean, I used to tell people that I think that music is the language of the universe, and I think everyone is born with the ability to speak that language. Because music is really just the language of human emotion.

 

Outside of Hawaii, the ukulele is often regarded as a toy or a diminutive instrument. Many perceive the ukulele to be capable of playing only traditional Hawaiian music. When Jake Shimabukuro performs, he pushes the limits of what defines the ukulele by showing off a wide range of musical forms from jazz to funk, to classical music, folk, and rock. Jake receives standing ovations from audiences who are thrilled to hear his dynamic and unique style of music.

 

I saw you performing in Washington, DC to kind of a jaded group of entertainment executives, and they were told that this ukulele master from Hawaii was coming out. And I saw them kinda look at their watches like, Okay, and after that, we have lunch. And then, you came out, and you just killed, you killed them. And I think they were on their feet, clapping well before you were ready to finish. I mean, you just blew them away.

 

Oh, wow.

 

Do you like doing that? I mean, there was not a big buildup before you came on, and an ukulele is an unprepossessing looking instrument. Right? You must see that a lot.

 

Yeah; I always joke with people and I tell them, One of the best things about being a touring ukulele player is that audiences all over the world have such low expectations. And I think that I jokingly say that, but it is true. It’s so true. When you see someone come out with an ukulele, you don’t expect a lot of music to come out of that instrument. Especially when, there’s no singing involved, there’s no other backing instruments, it’s just four strings and two octaves. And I think people’s expectations of the kinda music that comes out of the ukulele, most people, especially outside of Hawaii, will think of Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe Through the Tulips. But you don’t expect to hear a lot of melody or pop tunes, or rock tunes.

 

You think you know what you’re gonna hear.

 

Yeah.

 

But then, when you play, we don’t know what we’re gonna hear.

 

Which is kinda nice, because it has the same effect as going to a magic show, in a lot of ways. Right? You’re there, and he comes out, and like, What’s he gonna do? What? What’s he doing? And then all of a sudden, all these birds come flying out of his jacket or something, right? [CHUCKLE] But I think that element of surprise is so powerful in any art form.

 

What are some of the ways you bring complexity and range to music using an ukulele?

 

The one thing that I think I do different from other ukulele players is, the energy that I like to play with. I guess I’ve always had this vision from the time I was a kid. I would watch rock bands, people like Van Halen, or guitar players like Yngwie Malmsteen. And you’d see these guys, they’re playing their instruments, and they’re like running all across the stage, and jumping into the audience, stage-diving, and just yelling and screaming. And I always thought to myself, Why can’t an ukulele concert be like that? I mean, after an ukulele performance, I just want to be drenched, like I just wrestled a bear. So I try to incorporate — it’s basically like all these little things. You want to take a little bit of everything and really showcase it on the instrument. Dynamics, I think, is probably one of the most powerful aspects of music. And the ukulele has an extremely wide dynamic range.

 

For example?

 

Like for example, if you think of the trumpet. A trumpet is a pretty loud instrument, right, and people think, Oh, yeah, you know, you can play really, really loud. But if you think about it, on the trumpet, you can’t play really soft. Before you can even get a tone, you need to play at a certain volume, right? So, if this is zero and this is ten, the trumpet’s dynamic range may be from here to here. Right? But the ukulele can’t play nearly as loud as a trumpet. But, you can play so much softer than a trumpet. I mean, like most string instruments, even a guitar, you can bring it down to nothing.

 

Jake Shimabukuro’s blossoming solo career took him to Japan and across the U.S. mainland. A chance appearance on a small New York television show and the rise of the Internet video service You Tube helped launch Jake’s career to new heights.

 

There’s a local television show in New York called Ukulele Disco, and they feature all these different ukulele players. So, since I was in town, I guess somehow, they knew of me, so they contacted me and they said, Hey, you want to be on our show? I said, Yeah, sure, right. So, he took me to Central Park, and I sat on this rock, and he just had a little handheld video camera. And he asked me a few questions, and I played a song. And it just so happened I was working on an arrangement of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, so I played that, and it aired on TV. And it’s just a small local station in New York. And then, I came back home to Hawaii. So, this was about seven years ago. And about six or seven years ago, You Tube had just started out. So, I was back home in Hawaii and just minding my own business. A few months later, I get some emails and calls from friends, ‘cause lot of my friends were on the mainland and they were going to school, and all that. So they called me up and they said, Hey, people have been sending me this video of you performing, you know, playing in Central Park. So I was like, What are you talking about? So they forwarded the email to me, and there was this link, and I clicked on, and there I was. I thought, Hey, that’s the thing I did for that Ukulele Disco show. I was like, How did it get on this site? In a matter of weeks, millions, and millions, and millions of views. Millions, and millions, and millions of downloads, and I couldn’t believe it. I started getting calls from other bands and artists, and venues, people saying like, Hey, we want you to come play at our venue, or we want you to come open for our band, or record with us on our next record. And it was just incredible. I mean, since that video hit, I’ve been able to collaborate with people like Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, John Hiatt, Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler. In fact, couple years ago, I went with Bette Midler to England, and we performed for Queen Elizabeth. I mean, it all just stemmed from this You Tube.

 

Even with all of his success and international popularity, Jake Shimabukuro remains humble and grounded. To Jake, his family is the most important part of his life. He remains close with both of his parents and his younger brother Bruce, who is also an accomplished ukulele performer and instructor. A few months before this conversation took place in 2013, Jake and his wife Kelly had their first child.

 

You got married and had a baby, but how did your relationship with your now wife start?

 

Oh, gosh. Yeah. I know; I can’t believe I’m married, have a baby. It’s awesome.

 

And a great career.

 

It’s really incredible. I met my wife … it was actually my stepsister Lisa who set me up on a blind date with her. We scheduled a … I don’t know if it was a lunch or a dinner. But right around that time she was in a residency program, ‘cause she’s an OBGYN. And the day that we were supposed to go out, I got sick. So, I called her and I had to cancel our plans. I said, Oh, yeah, you mind if we do this another time? So she said, Oh, yeah, sure, just call.

 

Did you reschedule on the spot?

 

Well we didn’t set any date, but I basically just said that, Oh, yeah, maybe when I’m feeling better we can try to schedule something again. So she said, Okay. So [CHUCKLE] right around that time, I started touring, and I got really busy, and she was in the residency program. So, three years later —

 

Three years later.

 

I called her up out of the blue and I said, Oh, hey, it’s Jake.

 

[CHUCKLE] I’m feeling better now.

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I was wondering if you wanted to go out again. She was very sweet, and I think she kinda laughed about it. But she was like, Yeah, sure, sure, we can get together and you know, go out. And so, I took her out for Thai food, and we went a little place called Chiang Mai on King Street.

 

Kinda near where you grew up, right?

 

Yeah. And we had a three-hour dinner that night.

 

First sight attraction, or …

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Or did it grow?

 

I mean, as soon as she walked through the door, I … I mean, I don’t know if she believes it or not, but I knew that this was the girl I want to marry.

 

Really?

 

Yeah. I knew from that first date. And now, we have healthy baby boy. He’s about five months.

 

What’s his name?

 

Chase. And he’s just the greatest joy of our lives. I mean, he’s just amazing, the cutest thing. But of course, every parent thinks that of their child, I’m sure.

 

What are you most grateful for in your life?

 

Oh … the thing I’m most grateful for is just my family. And that extends to, of course, my parents, grandparents, and just my uncles and aunties. I’ve been very, very fortunate. I mean, every stage in my life, and even in my career, I’ve always, always had just good, solid people to guide me, and to help me and support me. And so, I’m most grateful for that.

 

Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro continues to push the boundaries of music with his dexterous and dynamic performances. His unique talent has taken the four-stringed, two-octave instrument far beyond Hawaii’s shores. When we spoke in 2013, Jake was on a break from a thirty-plus-city tour across Japan and the U.S. mainland. In 2012, he released a new album, Grand Ukulele, in which he teamed up with legendary producer Alan Parsons, best known for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Jake says that teaming up with The Alan Parsons was an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up. Mahalo to Jake Shimabukuro for sharing his story with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

It has the same effect as going to a magic show, in a lot of ways. Right? You’re there, and he comes out, and like, What’s he gonna do? What? What’s he doing? And then all of a sudden, all these birds come flying out of his jacket or something, right? [CHUCKLE] But I think that element of surprise is so powerful in any art form.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Ari Southiphong (Andy South)

 

Original air date: Tues., Jun. 11, 2013

 

Part 1 Finding the Light

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly Andy South. In the first of two episodes, Ari talks about growing up in Waianae, Oahu, discovering fashion as a career choice and landing a spot on the fashion competition show, Project Runway. As Andy, he maintained keen focus on school projects and clothing design, with questions about gender identity lingering on the backburner. In 2012, Andy changed his name to Ari and now identifies as a transgendered female.

 

Download: Ari Southiphong (Andy South), Finding the Light Transcript

 

 

Original air date: Tues., July 9, 2013

 

Part 2 A Life Redesigned

 

In the second of two episodes, fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong (formerly Andy South) talks about her transition to becoming a transgendered female through hormone replacement therapy. Ari elaborates on the challenges her transition has presented and the insight it has given her, both personally and professionally.

 

Download: Ari Southiphong (Andy South), A Life Redesigned Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Part 1: Finding the Light

 

My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. Ariyaphon means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.

 

Which definition did you pick?

 

The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.

 

Power.

 

Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southipong, former the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ariyaphon Southiphong is one of Hawaii’s most recognized young fashion designers. Name doesn’t ring a bell? You may know her better as Andy South. In 2010, Andy South was a top-three finalist on Lifetime Television’s fashion reality show, Project Runway. In 2012, a year before our conversation, Andy changed his name to Ari and began his transition to becoming a female. A child of Laotian immigrants, Ari, then Andy, grew up far from the glamour of fashion and television. Born in Kailua on Oahu’s windward coast, Andy lived with his parents, his sister, half-sister, and two half-brothers. Andy’s parents had a tumultuous marriage. By the time Andy reached the third grade, his parents had split, his mother remarried, and the family moved to the other side of Oahu, to Waianae.

 

And what prompted the move to Waianae?

 

Farming. [CHUCKLE]

 

What kind of farming?

 

Catfish farming. Catfish, and sunfish which is —

 

Tilapia.

 

— tilapia.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

It’s a fancy word for tilapia. But yeah, so freshwater sunfish, freshwater Chinese catfish. When we first started, we actually did an above-ground tank in our back yard in Kailua, and it leaked into the neighbor’s yard. It was a huge ordeal with us running into a lot of issues. It was also our test period, right, of trying to farm raise fish and see if it would be viable for us to actually do it as a business. We eventually moved out to Waianae, and I lived there most of my life, actually.

 

What brought your parents to Hawaii?

 

A better future, quintessential immigrant parents. But more so in my mom’s case, it was specifically … she had actually come here with her first husband, who is the father to my three eldest siblings, who are half siblings for me. But they came as college students, and it was also to escape Communism. My mother, youngest of five girls, daughter to a governor. So, when the whole government was overturned, they were actually warned to leave the country, or they would have eventually been killed if they were ever caught. So, that was their reason for leaving.

 

Is there an exciting escape story?

 

No. [CHUCKLE] College. [CHUCKLE] So, they didn’t have any —

 

Visa.

 

Yeah; college visas. And at the time, they were actually coming back and forth to Hawaii for college at the University of Hawaii. And it just so happened that things with the government weren’t going well, and so, eventually, Mom based herself here and slowly, everybody was sent over, starting with the kids. So, all of my twenty-plus cousins have gone through my mom’s household, when they were in their teens going to high school, starting college. And then, their parents made their way over.

 

So, your mom was a privileged daughter of a governor, to struggling catfish farmer in Waianae.

 

Yeah; basically. My mom would talk a lot about her growing up in Laos, and a lot of things that she … I guess, throughout our lives, growing up as farmers, she would reminisce sometimes about the easier times when life wasn’t so hard, basically.

 

She had somebody tending to her all the time.

 

Exactly; yeah. But I love when people reminisce. I love old stories. I love speaking to older people. I just think that life is so interesting in the way that the stories are all different, and then you realize it’s how they have come out of situations, or how they turn situations o benefit from, and to turn them into blessings, as opposed to letting it kill them.

 

So, you’ve always kind of been attuned to coping skills?

 

Yes; I think so.

 

And resilience?

 

M-hm. And I learned that all from my mom. And my mom still is the hero that I have, which I think a lot of people can say that their mother is their hero, or their father is their hero. I think for every child, it’s very deep for different reasons. And for me, it’s because I’ve watched my mom be the strong woman that she is, and I’ve seen her in her weak moments. You know. But even in that, she had shown such great strength by not letting it show.

 

Growing up as the boy known then as Andy Southiphong, Andy found his mother’s lesson of resilience to be a valuable and recurring one, as childhood teasing led to bigger questions.

 

Do you remember some of the early things that you had to use resilience to overcome when you were a kid?

 

[CHUCKLE] A lot of teasing.

 

About what? What kind of teasing? Regular kind?

 

Yeah, well, a lot of regular teasing, which is kids being kids. I obviously wasn’t the popular kid growing up. I wasn’t athletic. I was actually a lot heavier when I was a child, so I was teased a lot for, one, my weight, for me being just naturally effeminate as a boy.

 

Did that bother you?

 

It did, but I never let it get me down. Because I think I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors throughout my life, and they’ve been my teachers, a lot of my instructors.

 

What did the teachers say, or how did they let you know everything’s okay?

 

I guess it was the positive feedback that I was getting from them for my work, and for me being a good student. For them constantly telling me, You’re gonna go far. And even in elementary, that matters so much to the development of a child. Because had they not been that positive with me — and I don’t think they ever knew that I would get teased or that it bothered. I was never bullied, per se. I never was picked on, but you have other students in your class of how many really rowdy boys, and you don’t fit in with the boys. And then, if you play with the girls, that’s more reason for you to get teased, right?

 

Did you try to sound less effeminate?

 

Growing up, I did, throughout high school. It started to matter more as I grew older, and as I reached high school. Because that, I guess, is … you start to really decide who you are.

 

Or it’s decided for you?

 

Yeah; it’s decided for you based on the opinions of your peers. And I tried to; I took a weightlifting class as an elective. But I don’t think I’m the correct person to go to weightlifting.

 

And did you talk roughly? [CHUCKLE]

 

[CHUCKLE] I’m pretty sure. There were a lot of moments that I tried to. Locker room situations were awkward, because a lot of people just gathered and assumed that I was gay, and they would voice that. And so, from early on, that’s when I was like, Okay, maybe I am.

 

Did you know you were gay?

 

I did. Well, I knew that I wasn’t straight. That’s the thing. And the closest thing that I knew of to what I really am was being gay.

 

But you didn’t think that quite hit it?

 

No; never. And that’s the thing, and maybe that was the reason. That was probably the reason why I never fully accepted it. I didn’t come out to my mom ‘til I was twenty-one. Among my gay friends, my other gay male friends, I never felt like I … I still didn’t fit in. Something internally just wasn’t right. After high school, in college, I actually met more gay friends. Going out to the clubs more, meeting more of the community, that I started to meet transgender women and transgender men, drag queens or cross-dressers, that I started to realize that there’s much more to the community, than just being gay or straight, or bisexual or gay or straight. And it started to open my eyes, because then I started to get to know them. I started to get to know people for who they are. That’s never something that I allowed myself to do before, because I was so focused on school, focused on my career. And that’s how I am. When I was in college, everything was school-school-school. I was sewing all the time, I was doing extra projects, ‘cause that was my focus. And it could have been a distraction.

 

That’s what I was gonna ask you.

 

Yeah.

 

Do you think you did that as an escape from questions about identity, which are central to any young person. It’s who are you? What am I evolving into?

 

Exactly.

 

Who will I be, who am I now?

 

Well, ‘cause I knew that I had a talent that was received positively. So, I think that’s why I was always drawing, I was always creating. In high school, I always loved the big projects, the projects that every other kid hated. I loved building. We had to build these huge insects at one point, we had to make cell models. And I loved it. I spent all my money, all my allowance at craft supply stores. And on the weekends and on the school breaks, I would stay home and watch Home and Garden Television, and all these craft shows that I loved, and I started dabbling in quilting. And my mom taught me needlepoint when I was very young, so that’s where I got a lot of my initial sewing skills from. But that was my way of putting my best forward, because I knew that that was something that was very positive in me.

 

And were you consciously thinking, there’s other things I have to pursue, but I just can’t get to that right now?

 

M-hm.

 

I don’t know what it is, but something’s up with me.

 

Yeah; always. That’s always been in the back of my mind.

 

The former man known as Andy Southiphong set aside questions about identity and instead focused on finding a career that would play to his creative strength. During his senior year at Waianae High School, Andy fell in love with a career option he had not previously considered.

 

All those career days, and nobody mentioned fashion?

 

No; not at all, not in Waianae. And it wasn’t until I went to a State college fair at the Blaisdell that I found a connection with it being creative and seeing what you create being taken to a commercial sense, and being sold and being worn, and actually being utilized every day. For art to have a purpose; that was really, really interesting to me. To see something that you create become something functional in the real world. And so, after that college fair, I decided that I wanted to do fashion. That’s why I say it was serendipitous, because had I not gone to that career fair, I wouldn’t have realized that it was possible.

 

What were you looking for at the career fair? Did you have something in mind?

 

 

At the time, I was in culinary arts. And before that, it was architecture and mechanical drawing, and I had taken classes in both throughout high school as electives. And that’s because I loved being in the home, I loved to cook, I loved to do crafts with my mom. And so, I was trying to find something that was something that I loved. You’re told that you should do …

 

 

Build on what you know; right?

 

Yeah; build on what you know, choose to do something that you love, so that you’re happy.

 

Not long after that serendipitous discovery, Andy Southiphong branded himself as Andy South and enrolled in the fashion technology program at Honolulu Community College. He gained a reputation for designing edgy couture gowns. Several years after graduating, serendipity found Andy once more.

 

I think you were only twenty-three when you got yourself on Project Runway.

Yes.

How did that happen?

I went through an audition process. I had gotten a call while I was at work, and it was the casting agent for Project Runway, who had gotten my number from someone else. And they said that, We called a few people locally in the area, and they all had you at the top of their list to contact to audition. So, they invited me to audition. And even then, it was maybe a week before the deadline, and I was like, I don’t know. I had already looked into the audition process, I looked at the deadlines.

 

Was it a lot to do? Did you have to make something?

 

[SIGH] It was a lot of prep. Because you have to submit a portfolio, a digital portfolio, and you have to do a three to five-minute audition video, fill out the application, which I believe was twenty-some-odd pages. A lot. And that was like, written pages. And then, there was another forty of what you had to read for the contract. So, it was a very daunting process that I was just kind of like, Ah — I kinda wrote it off as like, Oh, I’ll try next year. But by them calling me I said, You know, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing.

 

I’ll stay up late a few nights and get it done.

 

Yeah. So, a lot of things happened just in that instant, because I knew that I listened to what I was supposed to do. I could tell that God was telling me, You need to do this because you’re getting too comfortable. ‘Cause at the time, I was working for another company locally, another fashion brand, but she was more focused on manufacturing and selling. So, not as creative, I was doing a lot of office administration stuff and shipping orders, taking orders, but really learning the business. And that’s really where I learned a lot of what I need to put into practice now.

 

And by this time, you were out of Honolulu Community College’s fashion program.

 

M-hm. I was already talking to the owner of the company about taking over. Taking over the company so she can retire, and I would have been set. I would be running another company, but it wouldn’t be the company I’m running now. And so, the fact that I acted on that gut instinct that told me, Okay, you need to do this, you don’t know what’s gonna happen but you need to do it and just be open to the possibilities. And that was me listening what I was supposed to do. The things playing out the way that they did that told me, Okay, you’re about to embark on a really crazy ride and you better free yourself up, and be open to what’s gonna come.

 

And you acquitted yourself in the way your mom said you should, with strength of character.

 

Right.

 

Was that hard to do? I mean, it must have been tempting sometimes not to make a snarky comment, as everyone else seemed to do.

 

Right. That would have been the easy thing to do. But I think I kept in mind that you’re always on camera, you’re always on a microphone, so even if you said something in private, they would ask you about it later.

 

 

And it’ll exist on tape forever, or digital records.

 

Exactly. So, I always kept that in mind, which kept me from overreacting. But I think after I grew out of my childhood tantrums and as I matured, I grew calmer in my thoughts. My friends always told me that I have a really calm demeanor about myself, that even in the thick of stress, in the thick of chaotic situations, I’m able to think logically and to be levelheaded about my reactions. And there are times when I’m running around the studio, crazy, and I’m telling people to do ten things at one time and I’m yelling at people, but most times, I’m actually much more thoughtful about my actions, and that helped me. That and also making sure that I had … many people don’t know this, about how important my faith is to me. And the more I talk about it, I think you hear it, that it plays a huge role in my day-to-day, even though I don’t talk about it and I don’t make it an Evangelistical thing. But I kept my Bible with me, and I prayed every night, and I just wanted to keep myself centered, keep myself grounded, ‘cause I knew that I was entering a place that I wasn’t familiar with. And I didn’t want to be just caught off guard and lose myself, I didn’t want to lose myself in it.

 

Rather, Andy Southiphong aka Andy South, was finding himself. At the brink of his fashion design success in Hawaii and on Project Runway, Andy was beginning to resolve those questions about his identity, that he had long kept in the back of his mind.

 

When did you discover transgender living?

 

Well, my first time doing drag was probably years into going out in the gay scene. And it’s not one of those things that had tormented me my whole life. I just knew that something wasn’t completely there, but it was never pressing on my mind all the time. So, I decided to do drag one year in Portland.

 

Was that because you’re a fashion-conscious person, or because you thought maybe you’d like to be a woman?

 

I thought that that was actually my opportunity to see if that was something inside of me that needed to come out. And along the lines of being a drag queen and being a performer, you’ve got a huge gray area of being a transvestite or a cross-dresser, which is a man who dresses up in women’s clothing, and then, transsexuals and transgender people.

 

And there are some people who really don’t know. They’re somewhere in between.

 

And there’s every different level in between being a cross-dresser and a transgender individual. So, I think that’s why a lot of the confusion comes up with people in the public just not knowing a lot, or not knowing enough. So, a lot of times, being transgender gets mixed with being a cross-dresser, and you know, you’re gay.

 

It’s a big category.

 

Right; yeah. Because a cross-dresser technically usually consider himself gay, because they still like men, they like being a man, but they like dressing up as women just to perform for fun. So, I’ve been asked many times, So are you gay? And I don’t consider myself gay. But it kinda just opens up the topic of conversation for all this gray area that can get very exhausting. And there’s a lot of different levels, but I don’t think that we shouldn’t talk about it, because every person is different. And it really should be as the person identifies himself is what they are. Because gender, sexual orientation are completely different; completely different things.

 

Talk about that, ‘cause I don’t understand that.

 

Gender and sexual orientation are different. And I think it gets mixed up, because your gender is often called your birth sex or your sex. Right?

 

Okay.

 

Meaning physically, what you have. And sexual orientation is whether you are homosexual and you like being a male who likes other men, or a female who likes other women. But gender identity has nothing to do with sex.

 

I see what you mean.

 

It has nothing to do with sexual lust, it has nothing to do with the taboo of a man having sex with what most people will call a tranny, which I find very offensive. I’ll joke around with my other sisters about it. When I talk to my sisters and referring to myself, I like to keep things light. And so, sometimes I’ll refer to myself as Trandy. [CHUCKLE] ‘Cause I’m Andy, and I’m transsexual. But even my family has had to learn a lot about, I don’t consider myself gay, I consider myself a woman who was born a male. Because I’m not attracted to other gay men. I thought I was when I was trying to live as a gay male. But I see myself with a straight man, I see myself having a real family, living as a woman, being completely that female role in society.

 

And yet, you’ve chosen not to have surgery. You’re doing hormones, right?

 

M-hm. Yeah.

 

Is there a longer term plan?

 

There’s a longer term plan, and the first steps are to get onto your hormone replacement therapy. Because it takes time, and you have to equal it to a girl going through puberty for the first time.

 

So, as you’re building a business, you’re going through this transition. And that affects even what your name is.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You could have kept your name.

 

M-hm; yeah.

 

What made you decide not to? It’s the Andy South brand

 

Right.

 

And your name is?

 

My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. And throughout the initial steps of my transition, I just wanted to be very sensitive to the fact that I wanted my mom to be as much a part of my life as she wants to be. Every mother wants to be a part of their child’s life.

 

Why did she choose that name? Does it mean something?

 

Yeah. Ariyaphon has the meaning in Sanskrit, which is the Buddhist language. She went to the temple to ask for two names; one of them being Ariyaphon. And the meaning of it, depending on the spelling, either means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.

 

Which definition did you pick?

 

The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.

 

Power.

 

[CHUCKLE] Exactly.

 

And so, this is a personal brand. So, you have to make that distinction between, this is me, and this is me. So, essentially, your transgenderism becomes a conversation in your business.

 

Yeah.

 

It’s the first thing out there, if you’re the spokesperson.

 

M-hm. It does. The true test was, I had done this after we had started working with Neiman Marcus, which is really great for a brand, being associated with a high end retailer like that.

 

Was that a factor for them, the fact that you’d chosen to go transgender?

 

No. I actually met with them about my second collection that they were purchasing, and I had gone as female. And at the time, I wearing a wig, and I was dressing in women’s clothing. But of course, in the beginning, I was very androgynous and maybe a little bit more detectable as not being a genetic female. And I conducted the first part of the meeting with just them, just their buyer and me, that’s it. And then, midway through, we got to catch up a little bit more, and then I told them, and I said also, I mean, I’m sure you guys know this by now by coming here, that I am now living my life as a woman and I have chosen to transition and act upon what makes me happy. I just wanted to make sure that the lines of communication were open. The main thing that I told them was, If you have any questions or concerns, or anything about what I’m going through, ask me. Don’t feel that you can’t ask me because we’re professional or we have a professional relationship. I want you folks to be open with me, and I want you to know that me doing this is not gonna affect my business. But this is my personal journey that I’m deciding to take.

 

What was the reaction?

 

They were supportive. And along with everybody, everybody was supportive. Because it goes back to what my mom first told me when I had come out to her as gay. It makes so much sense, because when you allow your professionalism, when you allow your character to speak before you do, there’s no denying that you’re one that should be respected. I think that was the main thing, that was my mom’s main concern with me living the living the life that I choose to live.

 

What a groundbreaking conversation you had with Neiman Marcus. How often do those conversations take place?

 

Probably not often, because you don’t hear a lot about transgender business owners or transgender women who are in the process of making that transition as they conduct business.

 

Yeah.

 

Usually, it’s before or after.

 

A lot of people would handle it a lot differently than you did. Because, you chose to just say, Here’s the deal.

 

Yeah. And I decided that because quite honestly, I knew that I wasn’t happy internally. And I guess what I always value above everything else is that I’m living a life that I feel fulfilled, and that I feel happy. Because if I’m not happy with the life that I’m living, there’s no way that I can do good for other people.

 

Ariyaphon Southiphong currently operates her clothing line, still branded Andy South, out of her workshop in Honolulu’s Chinatown. In a future episode of Long Story Short, we’ll talk more with Ari about her life as a transgender woman. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I love fashion very much, but it’s not the only thing that I love. What I love most is actually creating opportunity. Seeing something good being done for the world, thinking that I’m gonna leave the world a better place that what it was is why I live every day. And I’m given the opportunity by having a company, by forming my company, by having the drive that I have, having the courage that I have to do it, make the choices that I’ve made, and to continue living my life, as well as living my life in a good way, and creating a lot of great things for the community and for society, and specifically with creating jobs, creating opportunity for young talent that’s coming out of Hawaii.

 

Part 2: A Life Redesigned

 

I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature.

 

Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Honolulu fashion designer Andy South first gained national recognition in Season 8 of Lifetime Television’s reality competition show, Project Runway. In 2012, Andy announced that he was now a she, a transgendered female. Her mother renamed her Ariyaphon Southiphong, or Ari for short. Her clothing line continues to operate under the Andy South name. As of our conversation in 2013, Ari has not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery. Ari has been on hormone replacement therapy, biweekly injections of testosterone blockers and estrogen, which she plans to take for the rest of her life. When Ari, who had already built the Andy South brand, first told her mother about wanting to start hormone therapy, her mother had her concerns, based on a previous transition attempt.

 

Her first question was like, Why would you want to do this? Because she had gone through my first transition, which was right before Project Runway, and I stopped right before.

 

Were you not sure you wanted to?

 

I wasn’t sure.

 

Ah …

 

Yeah. I wasn’t sure about my first transition, because it was so quick. My body took to the hormones so quickly, the changes were coming on too fast. And I felt like I had made the decision based on pressure, or encouragement from people who didn’t really know me as well as I, thought that that person or that influence should be coming from. And so, I took a step back and I actually had a lot of resentment toward being transgender. I didn’t go out anymore, I had stopped talking to a lot of people. Because had to deal with my own internal conflict of, What did you just do to your body? A lot of things caused me to hate myself.

 

That’s what you were feeling like right before you went on the TV show?

 

Yeah.

 

‘Cause you were still centered.

 

Yeah. That’s what I was feeling right before going on the TV show. But that first transition and then off of it, I took it as, well, it was probably a lesson learned. And then, when it came up again, this was after I came back from Project Runway, and a lot of great things were happening, again that same feeling of something is missing. I had already gotten a glimpse of who Ari was. Who I was as a female.

 

Did it come to you as a visual? ‘Cause you’re a visual person.

M-hm; it did.

 

You saw yourself as a woman?

 

Yeah, I started to see her more often. I saw myself as a woman much more often, because I had that first glimpse of my first, few months on transition. In the beginning, I used to always talk about the Andy South woman, and she was always on the show. A lot of people will recall and they all became fans of that warrior woman that I was designing for. I guess what I realized was that the imaginary person I was designing for was me.

 

I see.

 

So, that imaginary Andy South woman who was a warrior. Because I felt like I had to fight for whatever it is that I wanted to do. And especially at that stage, it was such a breaking moment of my career that I think a lot of the reason why my designs came out as very hard and very defensive was because I felt like I was constantly fighting. I was constantly competing to remain in the game. And then when I came home after that initial collection — I mean, the back story to my collections are always very extensive. Because it’s about the woman and what she’s going through. And after that first collection, at the end of my first fashion show actually, the last model came out with this huge costume that was ripped away. It was about a girl going through the seasons, transitioning through winter, and then at the end breaking into the first glimmer of spring with the ice melting away and her hard exterior melting away. The next collection was extremely feminine. But I think that they made sense with the Andy South brand completely, because even though it looked like light and dark, the story was like a next chapter to this girl, where a lot of it was silk hand-dyed ombre, beautiful colors, like the water. Because I imagined this girl now coming out of this melted snow, out of this debris, like everything was frozen over and that she was coming out of this muddy, murky water, renewed and was finding a new femininity in herself. And that was in the same collection that I decided to make my transition.

 

This time, Ariyaphon Southiphong was confident about transitioning to a female body. But that didn’t make the journey an easy one.

 

Do you spend any time saying, Why me?

 

Many times. Yeah; many times. I constantly ask, Why was I born this way?   And after college, I actually transitioned from Buddhist, ‘cause I grew up Buddhist with my parents, and I became a Christian. But I understand a lot of the Buddhist teachings that my mom taught us. I constantly pray, and I constantly have conversations with God on a regular basis. And then, when I was dealing with the reality of my transition, and quite often the struggles. And a lot of people see me now, and they see me received very well in the general public. There’s a lot of things that I deal with internally that aren’t so … glamorous, they’re not positive, a lot of things that I question about myself.

 

Self doubts, you mean?

 

Self doubts; yeah. All the time. Because society is always telling you one thing, even though in your gut that you need to do the other. And especially in the beginning, I constantly prayed about, Is this right? That was my main prayer.

 

Did you have a mentor or counselor?

 

I mean, I did talk to my doctor about it, who diagnosed me with gender dysphoria, which allowed me to start my transition.

 

So, you have to say you’re mentally ill in order to begin something that you say is going to heal you.

 

Yeah. Because in the medical world, that’s the way it’s treated. You treat gender dysphoria by allowing yourself to live in the form, and attain that physical being that you identify with for your mental sake. Which when you think about it, it’s so … [SIGH] … it’s almost pitiful, when you think about it, of someone having to succumb to admitting to that, and admitting to them suffering from mental illness in order to be happy. Because I don’t think it’s a mental illness. I think that it’s just the life that I was born into. This is life. And my main conflict with God in the beginning was, like the main question was, Is this right?

 

Did you say, God, you know, You know I’m not your son, I’m your daughter?

 

Right. Yeah; exactly. I used to always ask, actually; I don’t ask anymore, because I know that for whatever the circumstances and whatever He has in front of me and before me, this is the path that He’s determined for me, and the journey that He’s already laid out, because He knows that I can handle it.

 

There are a lot of segments of the Christian church, and there are some elements which would say, Come on, that’s not right.

 

Of course.

 

I know you’ve heard it, and what do you do say?

 

I think that everyone’s walk with God is different. And especially with being a Christian, there are so many different variations, I would say. Some being a little bit more by the Bible, being closer to Catholicism. But for me, religion has always been kind of not a big question, but I’ve always been one to ask questions. And the reason why I think I’m such a strong Christian is because I found Christianity and I found God on my own. I wasn’t brought up forced to go to church. I wasn’t brought up forced to do anything religious. But I knew He was calling me. A lot of thing that happened in my childhood and my life, just aside from me being transgender, have already told me that He has been calling me back to Him, to know Him, to live my life in a way that will affect the world in a really great way. In the beginning, I used to always ask, like, Well, am I really supposed to live this life? My fear was that I was doing something wrong. My fear was that I was being selfish and acting upon my own want to be a woman. Going back to people telling me it’s a choice. People telling me that this is a decision you make, you’re not born this way. But for me to live as a straight male does not make sense. For me, it doesn’t make sense.

 

And for you to live as a gay male doesn’t make sense.

 

It doesn’t. It doesn’t anymore. Because I mean, the first thing people ask with the hormone replacement therapy is, Well, how do you change, how do your thoughts change? And for me, I just make more sense internally. My thoughts make sense, things seem more balanced.

 

With balanced thoughts and a decidedly female perspective, Ari Southiphong says she has a greater understanding of how to design clothes for women.

 

My idea of designing for women has changed, because now I’m wearing the clothing. Of course, my body is different from, your genetic female body that you have to fit, but the same things apply as far as you know, wanting to cover certain things, or wanting to wear a bra, which in college, I never really cared about. Well, the girl can go bra-less, I don’t care. Being a man designing for a woman, I didn’t have that innate sense of fashion being completely functional. You know, I always wanted, the really fashion-forward pieces, and I always designed for the very fashion-forward woman.

 

This should expand your market, shouldn’t it?

 

M-hm; exactly. I mean, as the business grows, in our first two collections, I learned a lot about our clientele, real women who bought our clothing. And I think it’s very common for students and for young designers to design for a very petite frame, for a very thin model. But the majority of my clients and my customers are older women who are not, size zero to a four. And so my design sensibility has changed according to, one, my personal transition and now being so connected with the brand, that I am the brand, but also, on the business side, designing to maintain my customer and give my customers what they want.

 

Would you do men’s clothes?

 

I have started. And that’s something I started to do before my transition for myself to wear. But I recently started to do some menswear pieces, and starting with the basics. Because I think with the women’s wear, I’ve gotten a very good grasp on the fit and the styles that I love to design and my customers love, but with the menswear, I guess I’m more focused on the fit. So, I’m doing a lot of basics, a lot of basic button-downs, cargo shorts, just to get the fit right. Because for a brand, that’s the most important thing, is that the product fits the customer.

 

I always look at, say, Vogue, and there’s some hideous looking dress on the runway, and they say, Metallics are in. And you think, Who would ever wear that? So then, your job is to convert that into something people would want to wear, using the theme or the color, or the something.

 

Exactly. The magazines will list the trends. So that’s why I always say the magazines really the ones who run the show. Because whatever they say, whatever magazines say are the trends are what the consumer will look for.

 

And then, you adapt that sense of a trend. Because you know, so many things aren’t wearable.

 

Right. Well, ‘cause fashion is a creative industry. You run the gamut from being commercial, commercially and retail-conscious of running a company, and making sales, and making things affordable. And then, there’s the extreme creative side of it, with haute couture, and handmade garments that are much more like art pieces.

 

Where do you see yourself?

 

When I first started, I saw myself doing a lot more couture, because I love the creativity of it. And I still do. And I would love to do couture gowns all day, every day, and I would love to go to France and study under a real couture house. But the reality is, to run a business, that’s not gonna be possible. I have to form a brand that’s much more wearable. And actually, I prefer to design things and manufacture them, and create them for people who love them and actually wear them. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing one of your pieces in the street.

 

So, is your ideal customer somebody like you, or is it somebody else?

 

I think my ideal customer is someone who’s like me in the sense that they’re risk takers, that they know who they are. And that’s what I base the Andy South brand off of. ‘Cause my logo is —

 

Authenticity.

 

Authenticity; exactly.

 

And that’s your life struggle.

 

Being who you are.

 

Ari Southiphong, the former Andy South, is self-assured about who she is. But she’s also well aware of the challenges that transgender dating presents, especially someone who’s in the public eye.

 

If the future is a husband and a family, how does that get accomplished?

 

Finding the right person. It’s gonna take a really, really amazing man to be that person, to know himself well enough to know that falling in love with me, or being attracted to me isn’t being attracted to a man. And I’ve met some really great couples with some of my sisters who are who are now sex-changed. They’re post-op. But a lot of times, the ones that have a really strong relationship are the ones that first started dating not knowing that she was born a man, and they built a relationship just exactly like a straight couple. And then later down the line, she has to tell them, because she can’t hold the secret in. When they meet the family, then it gets complicated, so it has to come out.

 

Yeah; but I would think that that would put you at risk for a blown-up relationship, or even violence.

 

Exactly.

 

Because you didn’t tell.

 

Yeah; exactly. So, you never know how someone’s gonna react. And not that it’s a matter of deceit and trying to trick someone into thinking you’re a genetic female, and tricking them into fall in love with you. I see it more as because of the society we live in, to have it at the forefront complicates a lot of things with people. And letting it come out over time, I think allows the person to get to know the person for the real reasons. Get to know their character. And whether they fall in love, they fall in love with that person’s personality, their strengths, their humor their beauty from within, before they completely shut the door on the fact that this person is transgender, even post-op sex change.

 

So, a lot of it is context.

 

A lot of it is context. And the reason why girls are working the streets, and they’re becoming creatures of the night is what I would say —

 

Which really puts them in position for violence.

 

Yeah. The girls who have to work the streets at night, they put themselves in a lot of danger.

 

Now, why do they have to work the streets at night?

 

Employment opportunities for transgender individuals, especially mid-transition or very early on when they’re still very androgynous, they’re very difficult to find, and it’s very difficult with the current laws. One thing that I hear from many young girls is when they get a job, if they show them their ID card with their gender on it, then they’re required to use the male restroom, or the gender marker that’s on, say, their driver’s license.

 

I see.

 

Because they’ve basically told them, I’m male. But for someone who’s living their life as a woman, that’s difficult. And that’s like kicking them when they’re down making them go into use the male restroom, for people to see that they are male. You know, that they are transgender. No matter how passable they may be on the outside with their features, the fact that it’s lingering, that’s the risk we take for living this life. And a lot of transgender deaths and murders go unaccounted or unspoken about, uninvestigated. They get swept under the rug, because it’s … sad to say that it’s just not a priority. Being transgender heightens that risk of someone trying to pick a fight with you, especially men who see you as a man and see you as a freak. So, the danger level of living a public life as transgender, it’s very high especially if you’re in the wrong place. But thankfully, I’m in Hawaii.

 

Have you ruled in or ruled out surgery?

 

I haven’t ruled out surgery at all. And ideally, if I could get everything done and be perfectly healthy, and live a full, great life, long …

 

Surgery is a risk, I guess. I mean surgery is a risk, and that’s a big one.

 

Surgery is a huge risk, and I know that my life purpose is more than just making the complete transition to being completely physically female. Because like I said, gender is internal before it is physical. When I first transitioned, it was very young of me to think that I wanted to do everything as soon as possible. I wanted to do everything quickly, so I can get on with my life and I can live my life. But as I transition, I learned to really, really love myself for the first time. And even before that, loving myself as gay male and accepting myself, it’s not the same when you finally accept yourself for who you are. And whether or not the surgery and the final—you know, ‘cause that’s like a final step to achieving the closest possible likeness of living as a genetic woman, right now, it’s not that important to me, because what’s important is my career.

 

Ari Southiphong, formerly Andy South, is also passionate about advocating for the transgendered community. Her openness about her transition comes from a strong desire to educate.

 

So, the T in LGBT stands for, what?

 

Transgender.

 

So, not transsexual, it’s transgender.

 

Transgender and transsexual are pretty much the same.

 

But I’ve read, speaking of looking things up. I read that you don’t have to have hormonal treatment or surgery to identify as transgender.

 

You don’t. You don’t have to have any procedures done, you don’t have to be on hormones to identify yourself as transgender. Like I said, gender is internal before it is physical.

 

And you know, there all these categories where you could get stuck on side streets, instead of seeing the big street picture. Like, transvestite.

 

Yeah.

 

Where does that fit in?

 

Transvestite is a gay male — or not even, it doesn’t have to be a gay male. It could be a straight male, as well, that cross-dresses.

 

So, people have to learn what transgender is, because we have all these labels. We use names we don’t even know what we’re talking about.

 

Exactly. That’s what I always encourage people to learn. Not only for the sake of me being able to share with them, but also for them to be knowledgeable, and for them to not look a fool either. That’s probably really embarrassing when you’re talking to somebody who does know what they’re talking about, and you’re using terms in the wrong context and in the wrong form. And it’s disrespectful as well.

 

I think there are very few people having conversations like this. You know, you’re open, you’re explaining something to me that I don’t know very much about. What would you say to people who really don’t have a clue about what being transgender means, and they’d like to know, and they don’t know how to talk to people about it?

 

You can research. A lot of what I did before my transition was actually research online, mainly because I needed to find out for myself, kind of unclouded by the opinion of the person sharing with me what being transgender is. But then also talking to people who are. Talk to them, because chances are, you might even know somebody who is, and you may just not know. Like, talk to them regularly now.

 

But how do you bring it up? I mean, what if they’re not?

 

Well, I mean, don’t just go and ask any random person, like, Oh, so are you transgender? You’ve gotta be really sensitive about it.

 

Good way to start a conversation.

 

Yeah. You’ve got to be sensitive about the form that you speak about it. But I think if you know somebody who is, I think asking about it is much more of a welcome thing than people might think.

 

Than tiptoeing around it.

 

Than tiptoeing; yeah. It’s much easier. I have a much greater sense of relief when people ask me about it, because I like that people are interested in knowing what it is that I’m going through. And the fact that they’re open to learning, that’s the first step to educating more people, and it’s the first step to transgender individuals becoming more a part of society. I mean, we’re steps behind the gay community, because there are a lot of things that don’t protect us, because a lot of our issues aren’t brought up and aren’t dealt with. They’re just not discussed enough to determine things and laws to be in place that are appropriate for us, but also appropriate for the rest of the community as well.

 

But on the other hand, I think people are reticent, because it’s so personal. And yet, it’s central to you.

 

Right. And I think in my case, I’m very open about it, because I realize that my life is in the public eye, that I can’t disappear and come back as a woman and expect to have the same life. So, that’s kind of the cross I bear. Alongside of the business purpose that I serve and the career that I’m building and the opportunities it offers, I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature. And I really want people to realize that, yeah, I am transgender, and I run a business. Because you don’t see that often. This life can seem difficult, being transgender, and it is. This isn’t a life that I would wish on anyone, because it’s not easy.

 

Because that’s front and center, everybody reacts to that first; right?

 

Exactly; exactly.

 

And even among very well-meaning people, and I think so many people are well-meaning, you hear all the pronoun confusion.

 

Yeah.

 

He, she, he she.

 

And my mom does that too. She still sometimes slips and calls me, he. But I understand that she raised me as a son for twenty-five years, and so for me to expect her and my family and friends to automatically change overnight, that’s selfish on my part. Me allowing myself to live my life is not selfish. It’s the right thing for me.

 

With confidence, Ari Southiphong is looking ahead, and her Andy South business is the priority. Her high end clothing brand is seeing growth. She’s forging ahead in the challenging fashion industry, while navigating new dimensions in her personal life. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

It’s much greater than just tolerating. You tolerate your crappy neighbor, you tolerate your husband’s snoring. But to really be accepted in a community, I think, is just such an uplifting feeling that probably I’m most thankful for, is for the support that I’ve been getting from fans and from community members who have thanked me for taking a stand, and for honestly just being me.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox features engaging, akamai, one-on-one conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people. Leslie brings out the personal stories, revealing experiences and core values that mold the people who shape our community.

 

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