Just over a week ago, I had the opportunity to interview comedian, podcaster, creative entrepreneur, writer and the queen of “snorts” Diana Nguyen. We chatted for over half an hour and the interview was full of laughs, snorts and of course the obligatory conversation about her love for Keanu Reeves.
Diana is a creative entrepreneur, writer, producer, director, theatre maker, guest speaker, drama facilitator, MC and performer. She is a LinkedIn video content creator with 68k followers. She is known as #DancingDiana, and hosts The SnortCast, a live interview and podcast show. If that wasn’t a mouthful in what seems to be a career which doesn’t stop and doesn’t sleep, she is also the co-creator and executive producer of #PhiandMeTV, the first ever Vietnamese Australian family comedy series released June 16th 2019. Oh and yes, she has her following and show “Chasing Keanu Reeves”.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Diana was recognised as the “Overall Winner” for the “2021, 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians” conducted by the Asian Australian Leadership Summit. The impact of the recognition speaks volumes, and Diana discusses how receiving this award has changed her perspectives of her career path and what “being Asian” means.
“I was really shocked when I got the call and told that I was the “overall winner”, and it was so timely and a surprise coming out of nowhere. Literally, weeks before receiving the call, I was thinking ” geez, I am in the wrong career”. This thought creeped up on me just before the lockdowns in Melbourne,”
“This award is so powerful because of visibility, and it reinforces my pride in being Asian and in being Vietnamese. I feel like when I walk around the streets in Australia, people look at me as only being “Asian” and not “Aussie”, so this award acknowledges my and our existence as Asian Australians. I also felt that Asian Australian work in the arts was seen. “
One thing which Diana mentioned was that the week before and weeks after the awards, there is mainstream recognition in the media etc about recognition like this, but after all the hype is over, mainstream Australia forgets and there needs to be consistency in recognising the contributions from Asian Australians,
“The momentum somehow needs to continue and trickle into better representation in all areas of Australian society, and not just come and go as events and awards like this happen”.
Diana is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, with her mum raising the family on her own in the hopes the children will fair better in life and grasp opportunities in education and career prospects. She said her mum wanted her to be a doctor ( which is a very common aspiration Asian parents have for their children), but she became an actor, and after some time, her mum is now her biggest fan. This is heart warming as I could personally relate, but in my case, my parents still don’t fully understand what I do, but like with Diana’s mum, mine took time to accept the ambiguity and now they are somewhat “semi proud”.
As Diana and I bonded over the topics of growing up, we fell into a deep and meaningful discussion on issues around racism in Australia against Asians. Despite the fact, that instances of racism were rising over the last 2 years due to racial rhetoric from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not the cause of racism against Asians in Australia and the history and trend of anti-Asian hate has been happening since the Chinese came to Australia for the GoldRush during the mid 1800s. Diana shared how the whole racism issue has impacted on her, and how it impacts on the Asian/Asian Australian identity,
“My mum came to Australia by boat and she is grateful to the government and the system for allowing her in, and when the system gives you something, you need to appreciate and can’t go against them. So for a lot of the refugee/migrant generation when huge social issues like “Black Lives Matter/Indigenous Lives Matter” and “Stop Asian Hate” come about etc, there is a hesitancy on their part to say “hey, that’s not right”, because they have been conformed to “stay in their lane” and not speak out about these issues,”
“I think about this issue a lot and it makes me sad. We Asians/Asian Australias are seen as second class citizens – our lives are second class, below many others because we are so good at being inside the square and scared of disrupting the mainstream or raising their voices.”
Diana goes onto mention that the Australian creative and entertainment industry is full of toxicity because Asians are always pitted against each other and having to fight for crumbs or for the only spot in a show etc.
“I have really started to think about how toxic the entertainment industry is, as they pit us against each other with the limited roles on offer. It is as though there is only space for one Asian per show, not thinking that we are just waiting for this amazing utopia to have an array of different Asians in an entire show.”
A passion topic and something which has made Diana reflect time and time again of late is the question of whether she has chosen the right career path. The last two years have been difficult for artists like herself all across the country, who were automatically out of work when Australia went into lockdown. Actors, creatives, performers and artists who were scheduled to perform on set, on stage etc, were told that their jobs will come to a halt and this left many not being able to earn a living income. Diana spoke about this when in 2020, she lost major work for her portfolio and $11,000 when the Melbourne Comedy Festival was not able to happen due to the pandemic.
“There really was no support from the Australian Government when the pandemic hit and many actors, creatives and artists were out of work. This is disappointing considering we were one of the first groups to get hit by the pandemic job wise. The Melbourne Comedy Festival was all planned to happen before the world knew about the pandemic, and when it did hit that was it. For many artists, a lot of us rely on the work coming from a comedy festival for our portfolio and something as big as the Melbourne Comedy Festival would attract more stages and more audiences which means more work.”
“People think as comedians all we do is stand up and perform. They don’t see the work that goes on behind it all – it is basically a 5 month project. It is a business and takes a lot of time to plan. I know it was very distressing for comedians like myself, and I invested $11,000 of my own money into this with the guarantee that the festival would happen. It was dark. I had depression for 2 months, and all I could do was lay in bed trying to work out what I should do now.”
With such a dark time in her life, it took Diana to summon all her energy and her survival spirit to get back up and create her own virtual karaoke fundraiser where she was able to recover around $2,000 of the money she lost. She said she is grateful to the community who time and time again support her work and continues to encourage her to be better. However, even though Diana is slowly trekking up to the top of her game, she talks about her recovery with caution because when the pandemic hit, all artists, actors and performers were impacted, but if you are Asian, it is a double layered hit.
“As Asian/Asian Australians, we were/are and is always invisible and imagine the situation now with COVID – we are even more invisible, and to top all that off, we face the racism and are humiliated as unhygienic people who eat exotic animals. I remember two weeks before I was about to host a line up show for “Snort Cast Comedy” right at the start of the pandemic. I was out in public promoting the show and approached four men and asked if they wanted to come to watch the show. They said:”
“Give us a Coronavirus joke, and we will be there”.
“From that point on, I felt we are “f…cked”, and this racist rhetoric was going to screw us all.”
In saying all this, Diana is a real person, who punches out how she really feels. What she said, is really not far from the truth, and Australia as a whole has a long way to go in reconciling its racist past and present. But, it is not all doom and gloom, as Diana feels hope for the future, if we all as Asian/Asian Australians come out and support our own works, Indigenous works and other POC works.
“It is all about being very intentional and in going “hey, is there Asian content, podcast, writers etc I can support?” And go and do it without hesitation.”
Finally, I couldn’t escape this interview without asking Diana about her love and respect for actor Keanu Reeves. These days, you can’t avoid thinking about Diana when you see a picture or video of Keanu, because of her show “Chasing Keanu Reeves” and how in almost every video she makes, there is always a cardboard cutout of Keanu in the background. But, how did this love affair begin? And why does she keep “chasing him”?
“I just remember seeing this meme of him in 2019 sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich. I have never really been a Keanu Reeves movie fan because they are usually too violent. But that image of him sitting there eating totally turned me on unbelievably *snort*, hence became my show title “Chasing Keanu Reeves”.”
“However, I really didn’t know much about him and his life except that he did have some traumatic experiences, like losing his family, and when I was researching I realized the title “Chasing Keanu Reeves” is all about authentic Keanu. He doesn’t need to go for or fight for roles and he really shows up as this kind hearted and humble person in real life, and that is what the chasing is all about.”
“It is not like I want to have his baby, but it is the peace. I think I will be a very happy Asian Australian artist when I am at peace. “
As part of her NEXT STAGE commission to adapt the novel “Laurinda”, Diana Nguyen will work with dramaturg and director Petra Kalive to bring to life Alice Pung’s novel to life. “Laurinda will be showing at the Melbourne Theatre Company from August 6 – September 10, 2022, so please get out and purchase those tickets when it goes on sale in March 2022.
Images provided by Diana Nguyen – Stand up photo credit Jim Le, colored backgrounds Emma Holland and Keanu Reeves photo edited by Hon Viet.