While American Idol isn’t doing too well in the ratings this season – they recently had their lost-rated episode ever – Heejun Han, the token Asian American American Idol contest of the season has caught the attention of critics and APA bloggers alike. His audition tape sets Heejun up to the audience as a goofy William Hung-like auditioner and then bolting out a pitch-perfection rendition of Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You.” Lisa de Moraes from the Washington Post sums it up best: “… the judges just got punked on their own racial stereotypes.” And 95% of the American audience, the ones that weren’t too busy watching Big Bang Theory.
Positive media portrayal aside – you know how it is and how quickly it turned on Jeremy Lin – Idol is bonafide American pop culture phenomena, whether you love the show or hate it. Here are a list of the Top 8 Asian American contestants, not including Heejun Han, that have made the biggest impact – for better, or for worse – in American pop culture.
8. Paul Kim
Four or five years after William Hung auditioned, a Korean American guy looked into the cameras and declared that he was the “anti-William Hung.” Confident, attractive and with a good voice, Asian American blogs such as ours rallied for his cause. And then he went into the battle octagon of Season 6 and warbled a version of Careless Whisper barefoot. He was eliminated from the semi-finals shortly afterward and started a chain – dare I say, a curse? – of East Asian male semi-finalists that have not been able to crack the Top 12 since Idol’s inception in 2002.
7. Melinda Lira
Do you remember her? Of course you don’t remember her, I had to Google her name to remember what her full name was. But I’ll never forget the episode where she was eliminated. The token Asian American contestant of Season 4, Melinda Lira’s first appearance on the series was her semi-finalist performance where she sang a mediocre version of Power of Love. Shocked and hurt that she was eliminated as part of a surprise twist moment created by producers, she immediately placed the blame on the show’s producers on live television, accusing them of not getting enough airtime. In the subsequent series afterward, producers had made a conscious point to profile every semi-finalist; even the token Asian American ones.
6. John Park
The lesson to be learned from John Park, of course, is this: if at first you get eliminated on Idol, try try to win the Korean version of Idol, SuperStar K2. And he almost won! It’s almost a given that almost all of the Asian-American contestants have found a career overseas post-Idol; Heejun surely has a good chance beating the hordes of teenage Korean-Americans singing Rolling in the Deep to TV show judges. hell, at this rate, I might apply to become a back-up dancer in Taiwan.
5. Thia Megia
Have you ever heard a wolf cry to the blue corn moon?
Idol – whether they’re conscious of it or not – seem to choose Korean guys and Filipina girls as their semi-finalists. The trend continues with Thia Megia, notable because she had a following on her YouTube channel before appearing on America’s Got Talent and Idol as well as being the youngest contestant at 15. While she was criticized for singing too much like an adult and was eliminated, placing 11th, I personally thought Thia was a stronger singer than the other Filipina contests that finished in a higher ranking, including Season 7’s Ramiele Malubay or the most successful APA American Idol contestant, Jasmine Trias.
4. Anoop Desai
Anoop is the most successful Asian American male contestant on any season of Idol, making it to 7th place. On the plus side, he genuinely had one of best voices on the show and had a penchant for singing 90s R&B songs – the songs I listed to on the radio when I was in college. On the flip side: his eyebrows.
3. Jasmine Trias
Season 3 had American Idol auditioning in Hawaii, where they recruited Jasmine, the contestant that always had a flower in her hair to remind people that she was from Hawaii — as if being Filipino wasn’t enough of an distinguisher or anything. If we’re measuring this by success metrics, Jasmine is the most successful Asian American American Idol contestant, placing third on the show. After the show she had a career appearing on TV shows in the Philippines. She now performs in Las Vegas.
2. Sanjaya Malakar
Oh, Sanjaya. A Half Italian, half Indian contestant from Season 6 more known for the wacky things he could do with his hair than his voice, he was the contestant that reminded American that there were an army of 11-15 year olds that regularly watch the show after placing 7th. After his time on Idol, he appeared as a contestant on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, that awful series that took place in the jungle with Spencer and Heidi from The Hills. Remember them? No? Me neither, but as one of the only Idols I’m aware of to stretch his 15 minutes of fame outside of music, he scores higher on this list.
1. William Hung
Back in Season 2, when American Idol was equal parts talent show and opportunity to make fun of terrible, terrible singers, William Hung was the quintessential bad auditionee and shame of the Asian American community; the guy who cemented the image that Asian American males sing badly, dance badly and – let’s be completely honest here – look like they have Down Syndrome.
But what happened afterward was more interesting: His 15 minutes of fame managed by his parents, he made appearances on MADtv, Entertainment Tonight, The Late Show With David Letterman, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the E! True Hollywood Story of American Idol. He released two albums – one of which solid 194,000 copies, starred in a music video with actual dancers and a movie overseas. Once his 15 minutes of fame were over he quietly moved back to LA to peruse a job as a crime analyst, being the only Asian American to achieve his dreams of being a singer while satisfying his parents request to find that well-paying lab job that your parents are always nagging you to do. Guys, if we were playing “more interesting life” olympics, William Hung totally won, and only at the cost of other people assuming that all Asian guys act just like him. Well played, Willliam Hung. Well played.