It’s May, folks, which means — in addition to “National Hamburger Month” (that better include veggie burgers) and “National Moving Month” (lezzies, rent your U-Hauls before it’s too late) — it’s Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Month. We at AfterEllen.com have seized this opportunity to highlight the dynamic careers and contributions of queer APIA women to the entertainment industry and visibility for queer women of color. Due to the overall dearth of out queer Asian women in the industry — which is puzzling as Asia houses the two most populous countries in the world — we’ll also extend the list to those women who’ve played gay on-screen (willingly and enthusiastically) and some who are not American.
In 1993, Kelly and Calvin Klein famously discovered motorcycle-riding Jenny Shimizu, who would soon be the androgynous new face of the fragrance CK One. Following her quick rise to fame with the CK One ads, the versatile model of Japanese-American descent worked with the likes of Donna Karan, Versace, Yohji Yamamoto, Prada and Jean Paul Gaultier, dominating both runways and editorials. Shimizu’s talent and androgynous style gained the attention of top photographers such as Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier and Mario Testino, solidifying her status as top model and fashion icon. Aside from modeling, Shimizu also appeared in E!’s Sexiest Top Models, appeared on the series Dante’s Cove and served as a judge on Bravo’s Make Me a Supermodel.
Not only does her body of work and name recognition speak for itself, but Shimizu also brought queerness and androgyny to the fashion industry and mainstream media. Romantically linked to Angelina Jolie and Madonna, Jenny Shimizu became a household name that could not be separated from Shimizu’s multi-layered identities, and that she’s an out Asian woman did wonders for visibility. Though her accomplishments and contributions are often clouded by the media’s interest in which famous female she’s slept with, Jenny continues to promote visibility for queer Asian women, androgyny, and the normality of being out in her career while still enjoying mainstream success.
Born in Vancouver, Canada and raised in California, Nisha Ganatra is an out director, producer, and actress of South Asian descent. She attended NYU’s Graduate Film School where she won the Tisch fellowship, PBS Grand Prize for Most Outstanding Short Film, and studied with Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Barbara Kopple.
Among her award-winning body of work includes the 1999 critically acclaimed film Chutney Popcorn, which she directed, wrote, and produced, and in which she starred as Reena, a second generation Indian American lesbian dating Lisa (Jill Hennessy). In the film, Ganatra explores the nuances of being out in a seemingly traditional Indian family, interracial relationships, and the frustrations with family members trying to find Reena a damn man. Upon release of the film, Ganatra insisted that she made the film specifically for South Asians, and the fate of the representation of South Asians rested in their collective “economic force” to assert that there is indeed an audience for South Asian films.
Ganatra also directed Cosmopolitan, the 2003 indie film about a lonely Indian immigrant man, Cake, the 2005 romantic comedy starring Heather Graham and Sandra Oh, episodes of The Real World and Real World/Road Rules Challenge, and produced several of Margaret Cho‘s projects, including CHO Revolution in 2004 and Margaret Cho: Beautiful in 2009.
In 2007, Ganatra returned to acting and co-starred in Don’t Go, a TV dramedy following a diverse cast in LA including Guinevere Turner of The L Word and Go Fish fame. Ganatra continues to stress the importance of cross-cultural reckonings between the South Asian community and the queer community, and encourages lesbians to support queer cinema by actually purchasing a ticket or DVD, rather than illegally downloading, in order to send a clear message to biased distribution companies that queer movies are indeed well-supported and worthy of national distribution and attention.
Honorable Mention: Shelley Conn
Though Shelley Conn is not American, her roles as lesbian Nina in Nina’s Heavenly Delights and bi-curious Jessica in the BBC series Mistresses deserve praise and acknowledgment during APIA month and beyond for their honest portrayals of South Asian queer women. The actress of English and Sri Lankan descent has worked hard to create genuine characters and one can only hope that she plays more queer female characters in the future.
Check back all month for more APIA women we love.