Tuesday, December 8, 2015

When you have no chance in hell. And you take it anyway.



This is Gerry Woo. You most likely don’t know who he is. You don’t need to, either. But I do, and I think about him on a semi-regular basis. Since I first heard about him over ten years ago, I haven’t been able to forget him and probably won’t for a long time.


This is his story: Gerry was the first Asian-American signed to a major record label in America. He released one album on Universal Records in 1988. It failed. Gerry was then presumably dropped from his record label and was not heard from again until 2003, when he resurfaced as a contestant on a reality show called Fame (how I learned about him). He was pushing 40, bald, and changed his name to Harlemm Lee, presumably so the producers of the show wouldn’t know about his past life as Gerry Woo. He won the show, with the prize being a record deal, a starring role in an Off-Broadway play, and a yearlong hotel stay. The record was released without any promotion, the Off-Broadway play was cancelled before it ever began, and if it wasn’t for the free hotel stay, Gerry (or Harlemm) said that he would have been homeless. He hasn’t been heard from since. And that is pretty much the end of the story.

So why do I know this guy? And why do I care?

I remember Gerry because I look up to him as an example of going after exactly what you want, doing exactly what you want to do, and giving it everything you got, even when the odds are against you, success is not guaranteed, and you will most likely fail.

The chances of Gerry going platinum (or gold, or cubic zirconia) in the 1980s were 0%. Sure I say that in the assurance of hindsight now, but I’m also sure that I would have said it with 100% confidence in 1988 as well (even though I was only one year old then). I say this not because Gerry couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, or had no charisma. It was because Asians were not a part of pop culture at the time. Think about it: back then, Asian-Americans weren’t on TV, in the movies, or on the radio. We were the butt of jokes, told to go back to our country, and the victims of hate crimes (actually, these things still happen to us today).

Gerry had to have known this. But he did it anyway. Because he felt it was his calling. He felt that he was born to be a triple threat entertainer who could sing, dance, and act, so why do anything else? Why be a doctor or a lawyer or a chef when your first choice is to be an entertainer?

Maybe Gerry was an optimist who thought he was going to succeed; he was going to be the chosen one, the one who would break barriers and shatter glass ceilings. The first Asian-American to win Grammys and Tonys and Oscars.

Or maybe deep down he knew he had no chance of success. But he had the unstoppable urge to be himself and follow his bliss. Because doing anything else would be a lie. It might have been as simple and straightforward as that.

In a world that expects you to live a certain way and suppress your dreams into your unconscious, I think of Gerry whenever I think about giving up. I often think about giving up on my career, my side projects, even my happiness so I can have a steady stream of income and have all of the things that everybody else has. But then I think of Gerry. Making lots of money was not important to Gerry. What other people might think was not important to Gerry. Fame was not important to Gerry. Or they were, but he wanted these things doing things his way. His chose his life’s passion over life’s expectations of him.

But I still wonder: Does he regret his pursuit of an entertainment career? Looking back, does he think he should he have pursued something more worthwhile? He sure had one hell of a journey, but was it worth it? And his destination would not be ideal for anybody.

If you’re wondering whatever happened to Gerry, I read from an unreliable online source that Gerry was working in an office prepping for another comeback, waiting for his next big break. But that was a number of years ago. Maybe he’s given up on those dreams now.

In Gerry’s situation, I think he did the best he could, making the best of all of his circumstances. There were some small victories: the fact that he signed a major record deal is a big deal. He won a reality show on a major broadcast network. I’ve never lived in a hotel for a year, but that sounds pretty cool. Room service every day…

His story of relentless perseverance inspires me, if that means anything. The cultural climate of the 1980s, which is what would ultimately decide his fate, he had no control over. He just did the best he could with the cards that he was dealt.

Gerry had no Plan B. Maybe he should’ve had one, considering that he had no chance in hell with his Plan A. But if you factor out the “hell,” aka the skin and generation in which he was born into, he was a success. He was a success in all that he could control, which is all you can do. I suppose that’s life.

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