Jamie Chung On Being Asian-American in Entertainment, Influencing With a Purpose & ‘Standing Up for Those Who Don’t Have Voices’

After an uncharacteristic week of rain, spirits are high in Los Angeles as the sun is finally shining on a warm Saturday afternoon in January. Jamie Chung, who is fresh-faced and smiling, shows up for a day on-set with FN, sans entourage. She is refreshingly down-to-earth — eating a chili cheese-flavored Fritos snack pack, accidentally letting swear words slip throughout an hourlong interview. Later, during a photo shoot, she’s game for it all — jumping in patent leather pants and perfectly posing in a sheer neon yellow dress. It’s this approachable demeanor that makes it easy to understand why Chung has 1.3 million followers on Instagram.

After breaking onto the scene in 2004 on MTV’s “The Real World,” Chung has taken her early fame as a reality star and crossed over to become a successful actor, starring in Fox’s superhero series “The Gifted.” Chung, who identifies as an actress first, also holds today’s most coveted title: the influencer, and she’s not afraid to speak her mind.

What sets Chung apart in the overcrowded social media world is her need for more than just a pretty picture (although she’s good at that, too).

While she posts sensible street-style looks that garner upwards of 70,000 likes, and travel tales on her lifestyle blog, she has been equally passionate about burning issues, including politics and diversity in Hollywood.

As a result, the 35-year-old has caught the attention of many brands eager to partner with her — including Eddie Bauer and handbag label Hammitt — and now Chinese Laundry founder Bob Goldman. The CEO of Cels Enterprises (parent company to Chinese Laundry and its sister brands) is embarking on a new venture that’s capitalizing on the proved influencer effect to the nth degree. With the launch of 42 Gold as a way to address a rapidly evolving market, the brand is banking on influencers to capture the attention of the shopper in a way that’s next-level.

Chung is just one of the 42 influencers who have aligned with the label, which is targeting women who are doers.

“The whole industry is changing. Buying habits are changing,” said Goldman, who was on-set in L.A. last month. “The most important thing now is identifying the new consumer trends quickly. We are going to move fast to reassert ourselves to our consumer needs in different markets with help from influencers.” He continued,“It’s speed, value, and that’s what the consumer wants. We need to change and be there.”

Chung represents a powerful segment of the demographic, according to Goldman’s son, Stewart, Cels’ COO.

Jamie Chung
Jamie Chung photographed exclusively for FN. She is wearing an Elliatt tuxedo dress and Armani shorts paired with 42 Gold shoes. Styling by: Enrique Melendez. Hair: Castillo for The Only Agency. Makeup: Nicole Walmsley.
CREDIT: Derek Wood

“We are looking for women that are strong — who are influencing a community, family,” he said. “42 Gold is an elevated option. We see it as the [brand] for the next chapter in life.”

With staple styles including neutral mules, low-heeled sandals, booties and woven leather slides, the accessible assortment retails for under $250 and is a broad option with solid value. The collection is meant to be wearable, featuring classic looks that are both fashion-forward and timeless. Plus, it will have the weight of today’s most influential names behind it.

Like many companies facing the wavering world of digital, Cels is investing in the influencer marketing strategy to connect with its current and new shoppers. Engagement is key, as is authenticity, and there will be multiple channels of messaging that will go beyond product placement to achieve this, according to the firm.

“It’s going to empower women to the next level,” Goldman said. “We have a broad consumer group, so we felt each influencer [we partnered with] had to represent all these walks of life. And with Jamie, she is our consumer. She brings life to social media and who we want to attract.”

Launching Feb. 1 with Nordstrom, 42 Gold also features Revolve’s Raissa Gerona, the three founders of popular Instagram handle Betches and stylist Erica Hoida, to name a few.

FN sat down with Chung to hear her side of what it really means to be an influencer and where the responsibility lies.

Since influencers are a major part of the 42 Gold brand story, let’s talk about the landscape and how it’s changing. Where do you see yourself in this conversation?

“If I wasn’t influencing for a [greater purpose], then I wouldn’t call myself an influencer. But I think that I am. And I hate that word ‘influencer’ because I think there’s such a negative connotation to it; we have a responsibility to not only post beautiful photos or items that we are sponsoring; we should be doing organic [posts] that will influence people do some good. I have a balance on my [social media]. I would consider myself a business owner, an entrepreneur and an actor foremost. Fashion is always something I gravitated toward and I had so much fun with, so being able to turn that into a business is great.”

When did you see the shift where you were actually impacting your followers?

“It was a couple years ago. I started my blog [‘What the Chung’] in 2013, and in 2015/2016, my husband, [actor Bryan Greenberg] and I did a movie in Hong Kong that we both produced. We were taking holiday in Vietnam, and I had multiple young women that came up to me telling me they were reading my blog and were so inspired. I’m halfway across the world in a country I’ve never been to, and I have people who thanked me for inspiring them, and it had nothing to do with movies. I feel like with movies and television shows, people need that escapism, but this blog is such a personal and specific target market.”

Why do you continue to blog now when Instagram seems to have taken over?

“It’s so much work, but it’s to have an opinion. I was talking to a friend about it, and she’s been a blogger for quite a while. I asked if it was even worth continuing on. And it is because it’s a platform that you own. Even though your name is on social media platforms, you don’t really own it. It’s important to have a platform that you can [control].”

You’ve worked with many companies. Is it a different experience being part of a new brand launch with 42 Gold?

“It’s nerve-racking, but there’s something beautiful about starting fresh. The team knows what they are doing. It was great to see the mood boards, the line sheets. I had my input of what styles I liked and what worked for me and what my fans would like. And creatively, it’s been somewhat of a collaboration, and I think that’s why they picked me. This happened quite naturally.”

Jamie Chung
Jamie Chung photographed exclusively for FN. She is wearing a custom dress and 42 Gold shoes. Styling by: Enrique Melendez. Hair: Castillo for The Only Agency. Makeup: Nicole Walmsley.
CREDIT: Derek Wood

What sold you on 42 Gold?

“They reached out to me, but first and foremost, it had to align with my brand and my audience — and me and my style. Footwear is a really personal thing. 42 Gold is elevated. It’s for the working woman, the woman who does it all, the multitasker, the mom, the business owner. It fits with the modern-day woman. It felt right.”

What key styles and silhouettes did you think the collection should have?

“It’s anything with a sensible heel. Something that is fashion-forward but also timeless. I am running around in flats, and when I’m traveling, I like to take a pair of heels, flats and a sandal. It really is a brand you can wear all year round. I can wear these heels all day.”

On “The Real World: San Diego,” you were connecting with fans before the influencer world even existed. What was that experience like?

“It was my sophomore year in college. I don’t think there should be a negative stigma with reality TV. A lot of people have made the cross-over — and in fact, some of the most famous people in the world right now are on reality shows. So there’s nothing negative about it. The reason I did it was because it was a social experiment at the time. It was taking seven people from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, throwing them in a house in a primitive time in their lives and seeing what happens. That experience was irreplaceable.”

Would you do it again?

“It would have to be in the right context. [Perhaps] a reality show of traveling the world and learning about what different cultures believe to be fashionable or pretty. Reality doesn’t have to be a superficial, soulless thing. It can be more. And like Instagram, you have to make it meaningful. It’s your duty to.”

You’re not shy when it comes to speaking out on your social and political views. Do you feel a responsibility as a public figure to speak out about issues?

“In this day and age, you have to have an opinion. You have to stand up for what you think is right — and it’s about calling out people who are wrong, because you can’t just let them get away with lies and corruption and evil. It is a time in our society where you have to stand up for something. Otherwise, all moral ethics go out the window. And for the people who don’t want to get messy with politics, it’s bulls**t. Use your voice and have an opinion. My parents were born in Korea, and I’m technically first-generation American. We are a blue-collared family. My family worked as janitors, cooks and owned a business. They paid their dues, and I’m a product of that. I’m a contributing citizen. That’s the whole point of this society. You give back.”

Jamie Chung photographed exclusively for FN. She is wearing a Kooples jacket and pant set with an Alexander Wang leather bralette paired with 42 Gold shoes. Styling by: Enrique Melendez. Hair: Castillo for The Only Agency. Makeup: Nicole Walmsley.
CREDIT: Derek Wood

What about blowback? Would you ever hold back on something on social media in order to avoid controversy?

“Who cares if you lose followers? As long as it’s not hate-mongering or fearmongering, it’s not promoting hate. It’s calling people out and standing up for those who don’t have voices, like immigrants, and [emphasizing] women’s rights. It’s like, ‘You don’t believe in equality?’ That’s crazy.”

The fashion and entertainment industry is finally starting to address the lack of diversity. What do you see as your role there?

“You have to be a creator, and you have to champion the people who are leading the charge in terms of programming and shows you stand behind and you want to see. It’s supporting other Asian-American actors, writers and directors. It’s creating your own content as a first generation. It’s supporting the designers who are Asian-American, who are socially responsible and who run their businesses ethically and with total transparency.”

How does this mindset impact whom you partner with?

“A lot of brands and companies have a philanthropic [ethos]. I don’t only partner with these types of companies, but [it’s up to you] to bring them the opportunity and pitch them an idea with a charity you believe in. It’s your responsibility as the person making these deals to make these kinds of things happen.”

Do you have a go-to mantra?

“Don’t take things for granted; be open and empathetic. Be kind. It’s not a hard thing to do. That energy goes a long way.”

How do you personally pick what brands to work with?

“It can’t be forced. It needs to be aligned. I can’t fake-talk about a product or brand I don’t really believe in. There’s a lot that we turn down, but you have to pick and choose. You can’t do them all. It’s like an acting career. It needs to be the right move. I have no shame. I provide for my family. I support a lot of people, so I’m grateful for these sponsorships and ambassadorships. I’m not taking it for granted, because you never know when it’s going to dry out.”

What is your connection to shoes?

“I worked in a shoe store growing up, the Athlete’s Foot. I had an unhealthy sneaker obsession, and I still do, but now it’s just all shoes. It’s my splurge. I’ll have my staples, experimental shoes, fashion-forwards, and I certainly think 42 Gold is the everyday shoe.”

In a crowded market, what makes an influencer successful?

“It’s important to stay as authentic as possible. There are so many people out there. Everyone’s doing it. It’s evident [what works] when you look at someone’s page. It’s pretty transparent. There are certain bloggers I look up to, such as Aimee Song, Chriselle Lim, Jessica Alba and Gwyneth Paltrow. Some might disagree with me, but they have an opinion, they give back, and they use their platform for good. [For me], it’s knowing my audience and women my age.”

Do you think the influencer marketing strategy is going to last?

“It’s shifting. Advertising has changed. We are gearing to a different kind of [consumer]. It’s ever-changing, whether it’s about experiences or video. You have to get with the times or you get left behind.”

Click through the gallery to see all her looks from the shoot. And watch the video below to see behind-the-scenes footage.

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