INTERVIEW: Interview with Lela Lee
Lela Lee strikes controversy with her racy Asian American cartoons, "Angry Little Girls."
Angry Little Girls, a comic strip created by Lela Lee, features emotionally charged, ¡°in your face¡± characters who are unlike any average six year old. Lee's inspiration to create Kim, the first angry little Asian girl, stemmed from a mixture of her initial reactions toward the chauvinistic and male-humored cartoons at Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation and her experiences as an Asian American female. The comic has since been expanded to include characters from a range of cultures and is growing into an underground pop culture sensation. Besides cartooning, Lee's acting credits include roles in the independent films "Yellow," "Shopping for Fangs," and has guest starred in the television shows "Felicity," "Charmed," and "Friends." Look for her in an upcoming PBS documentary series Asian America, slated to air next month.
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Lela Lee Interview
May 16, 2003
Interviewed by Janice Chan
Transcribed by Annisa Kau and Angela Kang
Janice: So please give us a brief introduction, say your name and a little about yourself.
Lela Lee: My name is Lela Lee; I am a cartoonist and an actress. My comic strip is called "Angry Little Girls" and it originally started from a character that was called "Angry Little Asian Girls." It became popular by accident, or I don't know what, so I expanded it, carried on, and made more little girls. So that's me.
Janice: Tell us a little about your background, how you grew up, and how this may have contributed to your formation of the "Angry Little Girls" cartoon idea.
Lela Lee: I am Korean American. My parents immigrated and I was born here. I was actually the only daughter to be born in the U.S. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, an hour east of Los Angeles. When I grew up, there were probably two other Asian families and we were made fun of. They would say, "Oh are you Chinese?" And I would say, "No." And they would say, "Are you Japanese?" And I would say, "No." And they would say, "Well, what are you then?" I would say, "I'm Korean" and they would say, "Where is that?" My parents were probably part of the first influx of Koreans to come to the U.S. at that time in the early 70s. Now I think it has changed a bit because I go back and I see that certain shops are run by Koreans or maybe because I'm Asian, I'm always looking for other people that are Asian. It seems that the numbers are getting a little bit more diverse. It's getting more diverse out there and also people have become more knowledgeable and more aware of other countries because everybody has become so globalized and awareness of other cultures is not so rare.
Janice: You created Kim, the "Angry Little Asian Girl," during your sophomore year at UC Berkeley. What led you to start your acting career before reworking your comic strip?
Lela Lee: Actually, I was doing both at the same time. I was taking acting classes, Drama 10 or Drama 101, and then I was also taking a video class. Basically, I just took whatever class interested me and if I had any inkling that it would be interesting, I took it. I just decided I would take a video class. I didn't get any credit for it, but I just wanted to do it. It was in that class that I was able to have access to editing equipment and video equipment. Then, the idea of me actually making something, the teacher was encouraging that. So I thought okay, I could do that. That's where I learned, that's where I did it. The acting was not something that I thought of later, it actually started simultaneously.
Janice: Why did "Angry Little Asian Girl" become just "Angry Little Girls"?
Lela Lee: Well see, after I made "Angry Little Asian Girl" my sophomore year, I hid it in the drawer for about four years. Then for some reason, four years later I thought, "I'm going to do something with this. " So I revisited it and I redid the first and then added four more episodes, so I made five. When I sent that out, people really responded to it in such a positive way that a lot of people said, "I really love your comic strip." I say, "No it is not a comic strip, it is a cartoon; it is an animated video-well it is minimally animated, but its still animation." People will say, "Oh okay I love it," and someone else will say, "I really miss your comic strip" and I say, "It is not a comic strip." I thought about it and I was like, you know, a comic strip is cheaper to make and doesn't require much equipment. So what I did was I taught myself about comic strips and the history of it and went to the library a lot. For two years, I just practiced and then I had this idea to expand it. I'd go drive around LA in my station wagon, and in the back of my trunk, I'd have shirts and I would sell them. I just set up a table anywhere I was allowed. I'd never ask, I just put myself there and I would sell the stuff and a lot of people would come up that were non-Asian and they would say, "Oh I really love that shirt, but I can't wear it because I am not Asian." I said, "No that's not true and I then I started to see that they felt excluded, yet they identified with the feeling. So I thought, "I am going to expand this because there are a lot of other girls that get it, that feel like they can't be a participant in this because it is Asian." That's why I expanded it.
Janice: How did your experience lead you to create "The Angry Little Girls" comic strip?
Lela Lee: Well the "Angry Little Girl" comic strip is fictional, but parts of it are from my own observations. But there is a storyline and each of the girls reacts to other characters in different ways, like how Kim would react to Debra. I don't actually have a friend like that, but its sort of their personalities and what they bring to each other. So that is very fictional and I think, "Okay, so where do I want this story to go?" and I think in those terms. But then when something happens to me that I think is sort of perplexing, really ironic, or sort of funny, then I find a way to put it in to have one of the characters experience that.
Janice: Do you think these girls' personalities reflect different pieces of your own personality?
Lela Lee: Yea, but everybody has them. Everybody feels that way; everybody feels a little depressed, everybody feels really like, I don't know, fatalistic, and everybody feels happy at times. These characters are very hopeful, trying to find meaning in things and sort of seeing beyond what that reality is. So sometimes I can be that way too. I'm really hopeful, but all of those aspects, I think, are encompassed in a person's emotional makeup, perhaps.
Janice: There seem to be some controversial topics in your comic strips. Why do you choose to base your cartoons on these types of topics?
Lela Lee: I don't think anything is controversial. What do you think is controversial in there? Like the race?
Janice: Previously, some Korean males criticized your work, that it was not true and that Korean girls didn't act that way. What did you feel like when they criticized your work?
Lela Lee: Actually, I think it was when it came out. I think people are now used to it because it's been around for a little while. But when I first came out with "Angry Little Asian Girls," a lot of my early emails were reprimanded. A lot of them were from Korean males. They tend to be a little more traditional. I don't think they were comfortable with the idea of a female being so angry and they didn't think it was proper. There was actually another time when I was being interviewed by a Korean newspaper and the reporter was female and she was even saying, "Why do you use such bad words?" I think it's just the old school thought from the mother country that women should not be so expressive in that manner. That is probably why, but you know what? I don't encounter that anymore.
Janice: So do you feel that the attitude towards the subject matter is changing?
Lela Lee: I think maybe it did. I don't know. I feel like they probably gave up on me.
Janice: So what is your goal in being a subject of "Asians in America," the PBS documentary series?
Lela Lee: My goal? My goal is that some publishing company will see it and feel stupid and give me a publishing contract. Seriously, I have been trying forever, well not forever, I'll take that back. But I would definitely like to get syndicated and I would like to get published, but it is hard because when my submission is received, a lot of the editors at places get very excited. They even jumped to my book agent one time and said, "Oh my god, I would really like to invest in her merchandises." But then they didn't do anything. They were really excited by the possibilities of it, yet they couldn't really buy it. So it feels to me that I am sort of waiting. The thing is, I would still continue doing it on my website and continue doing it on the level that I am doing it where I am doing it all myself. But I'm thinking it has a potential to reach a mainstream audience. I really do think it has the potential to be in the newspaper. I see other comic strips in the newspaper and I go, "You know, there's no reason why mine can't be in there too" and that pisses me off. But it's fine, it'll happen, one day.
Janice: So you are basically working on that right now? Do you have any other future plans?
Lela Lee: No, that's really it. I'm working on a television show called "Tremors" and I am waiting to hear whether or not that'll be picked up for another season. That will sort of influence how much in scope I'll be able to work on my comic strip. I always draw my weekly comic strip, but it's a little difficult because I shoot on location in Mexico, so when I'm there, I have to juggle a little bit. So you know it all depends, but I really will be focusing on my comic strip because I really, really, really, really love it. I think I'm really lucky that somehow it sort of happened and that it was something that I never set out to really do. I never imagined myself that I'd be drawing a comic strip, something I never thought of myself doing. But now that I am doing it, there's nothing else I could imagine myself doing. It's like, I don't know, it's like a glove that fits. Anyways I like it, I really enjoy it. When I am drawing something and it looks really fun and cute, or the comic strip sequence of the joke works out, it's very gratifying. I don't know, I really enjoy it.
Janice: I know you appeared in "Better Luck Tomorrow," so how was that experience to be in a break through movie?
Lela Lee: "Better Luck Tomorrow" is a fabulous movie. I was really excited about it. What happened was I took two years to really focus on books and work on them. I think what happened was I was acting in all these Asian American films, like "Yellow" and "Shopping for Fangs," and then I sort of was hiding, it seems. People were thinking that I disappeared and my friend called and said that they needed extras for "Better Luck Tomorrow," and I said that I wanted to go be an extra. So I went down there and they were really excited because they were like, "What are you doing here?" And I was like, "I want to come! I want to be an extra." So they game me a cameo and they said, "Would you slap Jason?" So I was like, "Hell yeah." I slapped him really hard and it took six takes. Every time I was trying to get it louder and louder. It was funny because people in the other room where like, whoa, that was a good one. So it was really fun. I mean, it was a great movie. I didn't know what all of it was about, but after I went to the premiere of it, I thought, "This is fabulous, this is so fresh." Those were the Asian kids I knew because I had a friend that stole radios, cars, and stuff. It's true when you are perceived as a model student, you end up getting away with a lot more. So I just thought it was really great because it portrayed Asians, especially Asian males, in a dangerous way. It was really nice.
Janice: Well, thank you very much.
Lela Lee: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
Published: Friday, August 01, 2003