Our final episode of The Distance

Stay tuned for our new podcast!

Illustration by Nate Otto

Lily Liu was 16 years old when a talent scout approached her at a department store. She started her career as a model, but found her true calling behind the scenes, first representing her three daughters and then opening her own talent agency. For Lily, who’s spent her career working for opportunities for Asian and Asian-American talent, the issue of representation has taken on a special resonance.

This is our final episode of The Distance! Thank you for following along and sharing our stories these last few years. The episodes will remain online if you’d like to revisit them or share them with a friend who didn’t catch the show’s original run. We also hope you follow us to our new show: The Rework Podcast.


WAILIN: When Lily Liu was 16 years old, she was shopping with her mother at a department store when a talent scout approached them. Lily and her mother had recently immigrated to Chicago from Japan, and her mother didn’t speak English.

LILY LIU: The scout handed a business card to my mother and she didn’t know what it was about, so she nodded and said, “Thank you,” and that was it. There no conversation between them. My mom was always supportive with whatever I did. We decided to make a phone call, and immediately the person who gave me the card responded favorably in setting up the appointment. And from there, things changed. It was interesting because there was what was called a round sheet, a list of photographers and their phone numbers, which we don’t do anymore, and we were expected as the model to make the phone call, make the appointment, make our rounds, and introduce ourselves and hoping they would, you know, remember you.

One of the photographers that I remember said to me, “Why do you want to do this? You’re short and you’re Asian.” And it was very disappointing and I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I think it’d be fun, and it’s not something I would do as a career, but I’d like to give it a go.”

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. It’s the fifty-eighth and last episode of The Distance. I’ll have more to say about that at the end of the episode, plus you’ll hear a teaser for the new show we’re working on, but today we have one last story about a long-running business. It’s the story of Lily Liu, a former model who today runs Lily’s Talent Agency in Chicago. She’s devoted the last 35 years to helping other people get noticed, especially people who aren’t well represented in popular culture.

MERISSA: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Merissa, a support team lead at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

WAILIN: So Lily Liu, at 16 years old, had just been asked by a photographer, “Why would you want to be a model if you’re short and Asian?” She said it seemed fun and she wanted to try it.

LILY: It was an honest answer and a couple days later, he actually gave me a phone call and said there was a client of his who was looking for an Asian model for the cover of a hair magazine. Evidently, this client had been looking all over for an Asian woman with a certain face and length of hair that he thought would be perfect. And so I went to the place and he came in and he said, “Oh, you know, your hair is much too long. I want someone with chin-length hair.” And I said, “You want me!” Because that’s exactly what I have.

WAILIN: That’s when Lily took off the wig she was wearing, and her natural length was just right.

LILY: That was actually my first job, and it turned out to be a big job because it was the cover of a magazine. The agency was really pleased with how quickly things started moving for me that she signed me up as an exclusive talent and that was it. They all asked me—I’m too short to be a model. I explained, “I can make everything else around me look larger.” I did a lot of electronic things, like I would sit next to a TV or stand next to a TV or furnitures. I was always the girl for the Sealy mattress. I did a lot of hair magazines, I did a lot of hair products like L’Oreal. When I started modeling, I was the rare Asian model. I was with models who were tall and thin and blonde and blue eyes. To me, they were just gorgeous. I think when I saw them, I started losing confidence with myself. I’m wondering, why did they select me for this role when I’m actually modeling with all these beautiful models? And they were quite successful because they had portfolios and they came even from all over the country.

WAILIN: This was the 1960s, and there weren’t a lot of women that looked like Lily. This created an additional challenge in an industry that could already be pretty cruel, as Lily found out when she competed in a pageant called Miss Photo Flash.

LILY: I was the top ten, but I was also the shortest. And one of the things that we had to go to was doing some interviews, and my language was really poor. It was all broken English and so I couldn’t communicate well. Whatever answer that I responded probably didn’t translate in the correct way so I got that rejection, but it wasn’t just that. Some of the girls in the top ten made a comment to me about my nationality because I’m Chinese and Japanese, so they were calling me names and said something that was very political and that I got it for whatever reasons. And I found that to be very hurtful. Though at the same time, there was one special girl, I think she was also top 10—didn’t make it but, she came to the side and she comforted me. And she said, this girl has a reputation of putting everybody down.

As far as the rejection for me, I think I’ve learned to toughen up because when I came to this country, I was bullied by other kids. I had to stay strong. On the first day of school, I was running to make I wasn’t late and I fell flat on the cement and my face was scraped with all these scratches and when I went home, my mother always believed Vaseline was miracle, like miracle cream, so she put Vaseline all over my scratches and told me I needed to walk to school because education was very important in my culture. So I went the first day of school with Vaseline and scratches all over my face and I think that started the bullying. I think the kids looked at me differently. It’s so hurtful when kids are looking at you, not just because you’re Asian, different, shiny face, scratches, can’t speak the language. They would call me FOBs, fresh off the boat, go back home, go back home. And these were kids that would tell me in school and I would be so sad. And I didn’t even know what FOB meant at the time. I went home and then I was explained why. So it was hurtful. I had two brothers who were always protecting me and making sure when I would go home crying, they would stay after school and they would have a confrontation with those kids who bullied me. I think I grew up feeling like there are people like that, so if they’re mean to you, it could be not a rejection on yourself, but they have the problem. I remember when I started the business, being an Asian and female owner, there were a lot of comments made that I didn’t have the experience to start a talent agency. And I think I used that and said, you know what? I’m gonna make it. I take it as if that I want to show them I’m not gonna give up.

WAILIN: Lily modeled through college and the early years of her marriage. She booked a national commercial for Jovan perfume and used the money from that gig to pay for their honeymoon. But she was realizing that she didn’t want to be in front of the camera anymore.

LILY: There were so many models that I thought, they should do this with their hair, they should do this with makeup. When I started modeling, I was 16. I think by the time i was 23, I wanted to be behind the scenes. I wanted to be an agent. All the pageant people, they would come to me, asking me to teach them to walk, and their makeup, and what dresses they should select. In the pageant world, people talk and they’ll say, “You’ve got to take a little private class from Lily. She doesn’t charge much, she’ll do the best she can to at least place somewhere in the top placement.”

WAILIN: And then Lily had her first child, a daughter. She started modeling at just three months. Then came two more daughters, and Lily started them in the business even earlier, as newborns.

LILY: It got to be a point where they would all get bookings on the same day, and it would be not necessarily all in the same place. The clients were so nice, they got to know me really well enough. They’ll say, “Just leave the kids—your kids are well behaved and just come right back,” so I would leave more the older kids that I knew would be okay, but they were friends with the stylists and the art directors and the photographers. It was like a family. At that time, you could do that. Nowadays, we discourage parents from bringing additional kids unless the clients request for them.

WAILIN: Managing her children’s careers gave Lily enough of a foundation to start her own agency in 1982. And although it had been decades since she booked her first modeling job, there still weren’t that many Asian faces in print ads or television commercials, let alone pop culture like TV and film. Lily saw it as her job to recruit more diverse talent.

LILY: When my kids were born, you still didn’t see a lot of Asian models, so whenever they wanted an Asian model, they knew: Call Lily. And I would be on set and I would meet other models and they would say, “Do you accept other people, other models? And I said yes. That’s how my portfolio grew, starting with my three daughters in the business, and then growing because I was in an environment where I would meet other models and I would end up representing them. Having Asian models in the business was very difficult. And when I started this business, I actually had my mentality focused in saying, “Well, you know what? It was a success for myself and my daughters. I’m going to represent and brand myself as an agency having the most Asian models.” I knew better that I couldn’t just stick with Asian models because you know, obviously they’re not going to be booking Asian models every day, so of course I had others, but I wanted to make sure that all the Asian communities, or at least majority of the Asian communities, knew I had an agency and that my goal was to try and get as many qualified Asians on my roster. And then eventually I developed my agency as the best child agency so I started representing the children and then from there, I started to focus on adults and now, we have about 50/50 adults and kids.

I really I hope that I made a difference because I think when they needed Asian talents, before they couldn’t get it in Chicago, so they would end up flying in models from LA. A lot of that happened, even New York. But now I think I made a difference in that, if there was a Chicago casting or Chicago booking, they can go to Lily’s and book the Asian kids or Asian models because I had so many of them and if I didn’t, I would go to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce or I would contact my friends in the community, they would have a bunch of kids. It’s the resources that you know. You make sure that you have enough for the demand. And that’s what happened. I remember one time I needed senior citizens, so I went to the Chinatown and they had a senior citizen home and they needed about a dozen Chinese ladies for this one booking and they said, “We don’t know how to get a ride there.” So I with my friends, we picked them up at the center and we brought them and we filled out the voucher. And they didn’t understand about the payment schedule, that they get paid after we get paid, so I just went ahead and paid them, you know, minus our agency fee, and they were so happy. And any time they needed Asian senior citizens, they knew they can contact me and I would go straight there to the senior citizen home. And they were all so happy because they would be made up with their makeup and the hair and beautiful. And I would always ask them, “Do you mind getting a little Polaroid snapshots of them? Because you’re making them so happy.” And so they would get this Polaroid picture, and I don’t know if it was really the money or the Polaroid they were really so happy about, but it really made a difference to them.

WAILIN: Lily’s Talent Agency has been around for 35 years now, placing kids and adults in commercials, print ads and voiceover parts. Thanks to an uptick in TV shows being filmed in Chicago, like Empire and Chicago Fire, there are more opportunities now for local actors. Even so, her experience in the industry shows that when it comes to media representation, progress is incremental. Here’s just one data point from Hollywood: The movie The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan’s novel about four Chinese American women and their mothers, came out in 1993. There has not been a major studio-backed live-action movie with a majority Asian American cast since then. And even when there are parts for actors or models of color, there can be pitfalls. Remember that Jovan perfume commercial that Lily booked when she was a college student? Here’s the part she was cast for.

LILY: I was supposedly the concubine of this man, an Asian man, but when a man at that age wears that musk, Jovan musk for male, they can get this beautiful lady.

WAILIN: It’s less likely that you would see that kind of concubine storyline in a TV commercial now — and if you did, it would probably be met with a barrage of Internet outrage and public shaming, So maybe that’s progress. But every once in a while, Lily’s actors encounter situations where they’re not comfortable, and it’s her job to look out for their interests.

LILY: I had a Japanese actor confirm a booking, but when he realized the script was actually mocking the Asian culture and delivering with the heavy accent—which was not a problem, but when it’s mocking and putting down in a very negative way, even though the money was there, he said, “You know, I’m sorry. I didn’t receive the script before. It was very general. I apologize.” We understood, I mean, you know, and we explained that to the casting agency and I’m sure that it went to somebody else, because it was part of the script, but certainly our actors do tell us, so they will come back and report to us what’s actually happened and if they’re not comfortable. Or if it’s a scene where their child is in and there’s a lot of profanity involved, the parents would say, “You know, I’m sorry, but this is not something that I would be comfortable with my children.” And we have to really respect them because if we don’t, they’re not gonna do a good job and it’s not what the casting director wants anyways.

WAILIN: There’s an old Hollywood cliche, never work with animals or children. Lily took on the challenge of representing children because she believed the industry needed more models that looked like her daughters. Today her agency is so well-established that aspiring talent come to her seeking representation, but Lily still likes to approach strangers while she’s grocery shopping or eating out.

LILY: I actually had a situation a couple weeks ago, when I was at a restaurant with my family and I saw this really good looking guy with a very nice-looking date or whoever it might have been. But it was the guy that I was interested in so it was awkward, but my daughter and my grandsons, they were saying, “Go ahead, Paw Paw.” Paw Paw is grandma in Chinese, and so I went to the table across and I said hello to the lady first and I said, “Excuse me, I have a talent agency and right now we’re scouting male models with his type of look. Do you mind if I gave my agency card? I’m here with my grandsons and my daughter.” And I pointed to her. She said, no, not a problem, and I gave it to him. But I think it’s always important, when you’re making the introduction, that you respect the person they’re with so that she’s not looking down and thinking, well why didn’t I get the call? Now, I haven’t gotten a call yet. But it’s something I do all the time, is scouting. If I go grocery shopping, if I’m at any activities, I always have my business cards and I’m passing them out because you never know

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. And I like I mentioned earlier, this is the last episode of The Distance. We’re launching a new show called Rework, which will broaden the scope of the stories we tell. On The Distance, we featured businesses that have been running for 25 years or more without taking outside investment like venture capital. A lot of the business owners we profiled also talked about stuff like growing slow and staying small, so we wanted to do a show looking at some of those principles too. We’re going to play a teaser for Rework after this episode, so please check that out, and make sure to subscribe to Rework on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen.

We’ve had an amazing time making The Distance and I wanted to say a big thank you to all the business owners that shared their stories with us. Everyone was so generous with their time and we learned a lot from them. Also thanks to Nate Otto for doing our illustrations and to all of our listeners for your support. I loved reading your emails and tweets and meeting you in person. And to everyone who wrote in with suggestions of businesses to feature on The Distance, I put them all in a Google spreadsheet and I’m sorry I couldn’t get to them all. You might still hear some of them on Rework, so stay tuned. And now, here’s a preview of Rework, the new show from Basecamp.