The red carpet is a great place to make a statement. All those cameras focused on you and only you, and the ensuing images ready to be shared around the world. It’s where you can cement your status as a rising star, as Lupita Nyong’o did during her Oscar season with 12 Years a Slave, or a place to shatter assumptions about gender, as seen with the stylish adventures of Billy Porter. Right now, we don’t have a lot of glitzy in-person events that offer such opportunities, and virtual celebrations don’t quite pack the same punch as the real thing. Still, if you know how to do it well, you can still ensure that all eyes are on you. Step forward the wonderful Kelly Marie Tran.
While promoting the newest Disney animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, Tran’s publicity options have been somewhat limited. Talk-show appearances have decreased in number and most of the junket work is happening via Zoom. It would be super easy for the public to overlook the marketing of this film, even if it is part of a long and beloved tradition of Disney animations. Our focus is just elsewhere. But Tran is taking no prisoners. Not only has she been killing it in the fashion stakes, but she’s ensured that the narrative around her is stronger than ever. Her virtual red-carpet appearance for the film’s premiere saw her pulling out all the stops. She wore traditional Vietnamese clothing, including an áo dài and khăn đống by designer Thai Nguyen. As noted by cultural journalist Diep Tran, a ‘khăn đống is usually only worn by brides, queens, or any other occasion where you are the center of attention.’ And boy, did Tran look amazing! Not only was it another opportunity for her to showcase an Asian designer, something she’s done a lot this season, but it allowed Tran to grab the spotlight with both hands and remind the world that, after far too long of being a cruel target, she’s a star.
Kelly Marie Tran wore an áo dài and khăn đống by Thai Nguyen on the #Raya virtual red carpet. Give us the entire outfit, Disney! I need multiple shots. People need to know how magnificent Vietnamese headdresses are.— Lady WhistleDiep (aka Diep Tran) (@diepthought) March 5, 2021
Viet kids: Thai Nguyen designs for Paris by Night. pic.twitter.com/U7eL12Q4zP
Tran should have been granted her A Star is Born moment once she was cast as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Her elevation from bit-part player and improv actress to the heroine of a galaxy far far away should have been celebrated for what it was: a beautiful and exciting moment not just in one woman’s career but for Asian women. Tran herself talked openly about how thrilling the opportunity was and how excited it would be for her as an unabashed Star Wars fan to join this beloved franchise. It didn’t take long, of course, for that to sour.
As happened with John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, Tran was almost immediately subjected to online cruelty and bigotry. Following the film’s release, Tran was barraged with hate. She was specifically targeted by alt-right creeps who had made a career out of poisoning the wells of pop culture. Rose Tico was positioned as the punching bag of choice for this small but screeching subset of the fandom, the ones who saw The Last Jedi as some sort of personal betrayal. Rose Tico’s entry on Wookieepedia, the franchise’s online encyclopedia, was vandalized to include vile anti-Asian slurs. Certain YouTube opportunists started to blame Tran for her own harassment. The hate was ceaseless, and it was consistently bolstered by bad faith reporting and for-profit bigots.
Eventually, Tran walked away from social media, deleting all of her Instagram posts and removing herself entirely from the internet. Many spoke out in support of her, from director Rian Johnson to co-stars John Boyega and Mark Hamill, to fellow Star Wars fans. The 2018 San Diego Comic Con included a cosplay Rally for Rose. Fans tried to drown out the hate on Twitter with hashtags and fan art. At one event, The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams voiced his support both for Tran and Rose, although that feels somewhat galling in hindsight when we note that her role in the film was about two minutes of screen time and zero involvement in the plot. It was tough to ignore her sudden absence from the narrative and wonder if it was a sign of Lucasfilm caving into the hate. Tran, who had entered the franchise with such giddy enthusiasm and always seemed to be having the time of her life promoting The Last Jedi, seemed visibly smothered by it all.
Who could blame her? How can you prepare for something like that, especially when the giant corporate animal you’re joining doesn’t seem interested in helping you out? John Boyega has talked at length about how Disney and Lucasfilm all but left him and fellow POC actors in the franchise in the gutter, using them for cheap diversity points and not much else. In that context, people like Kelly Marie Tran became acceptable collateral damage to the corporate agenda.
Since then, Tran has mostly kept a low profile, but she hasn’t been silent on the abuse she received. In August 2018, she published an essay on the subject with The New York Times, detailing how the harassment mirrored the microaggressions and violent rhetoric she had dealt with her entire life as a Vietnamese American woman. She wrote that, at one point, she began to believe what was said about her. Tran concluded the saay by saying, ‘You might know me as Kelly. I am the first woman of color to have a leading role in a Star Wars movie. I am the first Asian woman to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair. My real name is Loan. And I am just getting started.’
Here’s your reminder Kelly Marie Tran was the first EVER Asian Woman on the cover of Vanity Fair! pic.twitter.com/fX8zkXZmy8— Kels ☆ (@Kelseyummm) September 9, 2019
The promo cycle for Raya and the Last Dragon shows that Tran is indeed just getting started. Not only is she now a Disney princess of sorts but she’s one specifically defined by her South Asian heritage. Her fashion choices are Asian-inspired or made by Asian designers. She talks frequently about being part of an all-Asian American female improv troupe called Number One Son. She got the Raya filmmakers to add more moments of the Vietnamese language. She’s executive producing a documentary on Lily Hevesh, a Chinese student who has become a viral sensation for her domino art. Oh, you racist a**holes have an issue with an Asian woman being in your space movie? Well, screw you because she’s not going anywhere and she’s not about to downplay her heritage for your nonsense. She’s honoring her voice, her identity, and her status as one of a handful of Southeast Asian women in an industry that typically pretends people like her don’t exist.
Tran shouldn’t have had to be as resilient as she’s shown herself to be. She shouldn’t have been thrown to the wolves as she was, left to languish in a cesspool of hate like far too many women of color who have dared to simply live their lives. The experience does seem to have changed Tran. In her profile by The Hollywood Reporter, Tran’s friend, the comedian Jenny Yang, said that ‘Kelly has definitely become more of a shit-kicker. She’s much more willing to draw boundaries, she proactively asks for what she needs and brings to her team the work she wants.’ In an interview with IGN, Tran said, ‘I miss who I was when I played [Rose Tico]’ and that ‘I don’t know if I could ever play her again, but I miss parts of her.’ As someone who loved her character, it’s sad to see how this wonderful moment and what it meant for a rising actress was stomped upon repeatedly, denying Tran her dues.
Really, it’s Lucasfilm’s loss, and now she’s getting her unfiltered moment in the spotlight, the one that was ripped from her hands years before. Frankly, it’s effing awesome to see Tran on top, where she belongs. They do say that the best revenge is living well. Hopefully, that shine will stay focused on her and her future work, long after Star Wars has faded from focus.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.