Love yourself. Find a way to truly do that. Heal whatever it is you need to. It’s a lifelong journey, but get a head start because then you can bring love to everything you do, instead of expecting the things you do to bring you love.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diane Phelan.
Diane Phelan, a Taipei-born actress and Third Culture Kid raised in New Haven, Connecticut, boasts a standout career, including Broadway roles as Cinderella in “Into the Woods” and Mrs. Hathaway in “School of Rock.” Notably, she made history as the first Asian American woman to portray Maria von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” and is an avid advocate, founding hashtag campaigns #RacismIsAVirus and #UnapologeticallyAsian. Diane Phelan stands as an extraordinary force in the entertainment industry, boasting not only her talent as an actress but also her unwavering commitment to advocacy and diversity.
Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?
I fell in love with microbiology in 8th grade and was planning to go to school to study biology for a career in Science. I wanted to work with viruses and find cures for diseases. I also turned vegetarian that year and I soon discovered the path I was heading down- med school, etc. would require me to dissect all sort of things I was too squeamish at the time for. Simultaneously I was finding my voice and community as a stage performer. I fell in love with how good it felt to be a part of something with like-minded folks, and singing gave me the visibility I needed as a young Asian American teen. I miss science, but I ended up where I needed to be.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My very first night, of my first professional show, I forgot to put on my microphone. It was hilarious in hindsight, but I certainly learned to get organized and get ready early from then on.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
I would tell them to write in a journal 3 pages a day to get to know their own mind. Have a space to work out your stuff daily and hold yourself accountable and be honest with yourself. Self-knowledge, self-worth and self-confidence are all related and that is ground zero for a successful life.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
My first voice teacher growing up, Paul Elkin, is who I think of immediately. He not only quite literally helped me find my voice- but he nurtured me as a human being to see my own beauty and self-worth. He truly saw me and was one of the most positive forces during a time I really needed it because growing up mixed race Asian was tough. We are close to this day, and I make sure to get him a ticket to all my shows because it means the world to share my success with him.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?
I don’t believe you need success to bring goodness to the world, so I had already started on some things. I’ve been a vocal advocate for diversity in casting and racial equality. Success has only amplified those platforms, and for that I am so grateful.
I’m a co-founder of the #RacismIsaVirus campaign and #UnapologeticallyAsian, both aimed to activate and empower Asian Americans and redefine what it means to be American right now, and changing the narrative of what it can mean. Both orgs have been featured in the NYTimes, Reuters, Asia Journal and Next Shark.
Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
#RacismIsAVirus happened at the top of the pandemic when this recent wave of hate crimes against API folks rose. The hashtag campaigns were aimed at getting people to speak out against it and acknowledge it. It’s almost hard to recall now, but people were not even acknowledging this was happening. The incredible team I worked with along with many other activists started sounding the alarm to call this out.
Unapologetically Asian happened soon after that. We shifted to a campaign that was created to get the Asian and Asian American community to find our collective voice. Instead of focusing on calling out hate crimes, which was quite honestly soul killing and exhausting, we were encouraging our community to find our joy and focus publicly on what makes us proud. We’ve hosted panels, made grassroots campaigns to get Asian Americans to vote, raised a lot of money for the folks at Stop AAPI HATE, and helped shift culture in a major way for Asian Americans, harnessing the power of social media.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
Not one story per se, but the messages upon messages we’ve received from folks telling us how our campaign has made them feel- It’s shocking and simultaneously touching to hear people in our community say they are finally throwing off the shame they have felt grown up Asian in America all their life. This shift from shame to belonging is a huge one and one our entire country needs for peace moving forward.
Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?
-Support Asian American History being taught in schools. There are currently only 4 states passing laws to include Asian American history in their curriculums. Asians have been in America longer than cowboys. Writing us back into our countries history makes a huge impact on belonging and helps weed racism out at the roots.
– Donate and support the folks at Asian Americans Advancing Justice. https://www.advancingjustice-aajc.org They are a grass roots organization working to fight for civil rights through education, litigation, and public policy advocacy. They do incredible work, and many of the fundraisers we have done at UA and RIAV have benefitted them.
Check out the film A Long March- https://www.lfffilm.com. This documentary shines a light on the erasure of Filipino Americans from WWII. It’s astonishing to see pictures of Asian Americans in scenes from American history.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”
- Go study abroad in School.
- Take that business minor, it doesn’t mean you are not a dedicated artist, it’ll just make you a better one.
- Find a good therapist and make therapy a priority.
- Don’t take anything personally. Everyone is projecting, and it truly has nothing to do with you.
- Love yourself. Find a way to truly do that. Heal whatever it is you need to. It’s a lifelong journey, but get a head start because then you can bring love to everything you do, instead of expecting the things you do to bring you love.
You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There are already so many incredible movements and causes that need our support. Our world is at a crossroads and I think the most important cause right now is saving our planet. Getting involved in every effort we can to make our planet an inhabitable place for future generations should be at the top of everyone’s priority list right now. The major way we can do this is using our vote. Vote for people and legislation who will hold big oil and large corporations responsible and change policy that keeps them from ruining our planet.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
My mother has a phrase she often says to me: “Gold Shines”. I’ve always taken this to mean that nothing can hide your true essence, so don’t feel the need to prove yourself or stress about what is or isn’t yours. Who you are will attract what is meant for you. It is a reminder for me to trust in my essence and intentions and realign myself if I’m ever off track from who I truly am.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I have always always been inspired by Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian work. I’ve long held her as an example of using one’s platform and success to make change in the world.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!
Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Diane Phelan Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.