Q&A with MTV’s SuChin Pak

AsianDiversity.com
April 2002

1515 Broadway, in the heart of Times Square, is not a typical Manhattan office building. Inside the steely black skyscraper, high-powered executives are holed up in conference rooms just as pop music’s biggest stars hold sound checks and Hollywood’s elite meander through the halls.

The building also is home to SuChin Pak, the station’s newest face and the first Asian-American regular on MTV. Pak is a Bay Area native who, at just 26, has three TV shows under her belt in addition to her current duties as an MTV News correspondent and co-host of Chart Attack.

Born in South Korea, Pak moved to the United States with her parents and brother when she was five. She graduated from U.C. Berkeley with degrees in political science and ethnic studies.

Pak spoke to AsianDiversity.com last week at MTV’s headquarters in Manhattan.

You have said in past interviews that people always asked you if you wanted to be the next Connie Chung, but you really wanted to be the next Barbara Walters. Was there anyone else around for you to look up to?

Not as far as national newscasters. It was just Connie Chung. And it still is. I said Barbara Walters because she was doing the fun celebrity interviews. That’s what I wanted. Screw the local news. I don’t want to talk about floods and local politics. I was like, “Why can’t I interview Mel Gibson?” But it was really hard to be anything but Connie Chung and to do anything but news. But MTV News, while it’s still news, is also entertainment. There was no Asian Mary Hart. And you know, it was stupid, you couldn’t say you wanted to be Mary Hart. Nobody would respect you for that.

Actually, there seems to be an Asian female anchor on every local news program, probably because of Connie Chung. I’d like to see the presence progress into other forms of media. You know, we’ve got the news down. We can report the news because we’re ‘smart’ and ‘diligent’ – it’s the great model minority stereotype. But what about an Asian chick with a torn T-shirt singing about her heart being broken?

The MTV bio said one of your first interviews was with the rapper Ice Cube and you mistakenly called him Ice Pick?

Yeah, I mistakenly called him Ice Pick. Actually, he was here [at MTV] promoting his new movie and I told the story. It was my first celebrity interview. It was a very short interview because he cut it. He walked off.

Now at MTV, they’ve really been a champion of diversity for a long time – from programming to its corporate policies.

They actually have a diversity task force at the company. Heads of different departments at Viacom monitor and spearhead different programs within the company as well as outreach programs. It can be something as complicated as implementing focus groups with employees or as simple as getting high school students in Queens over to TRL. You’re right, it isn’t just in front of the camera. The feeling goes behind the camera as well. I think that’s always been a top priority for the company.

Which is great because a lot of companies talk about it but don’t really show it, which is so frustrating.

And I think MTV realizes it’s a long way off from being perfect but they’ve set the goal of being a leader in cultural diversity as a corporation. Granted, they fall short occasionally, but it is a top goal.

And now you sort of represent a diversity milestone, right?

Yeah. I didn’t even realize it. It’s funny because it’s not really spoken about. I think I’m the first Asian-American person really to be on MTV. I take that as something great. I wasn’t necessarily hired because I was Asian. Other people have brought that up to me but it wasn’t ever really a part of why I came here. And it’s not just that. Besides Serena (Astchul), who does specials, there are no other females in the news department. I’m the only daily female there.

So what do you think about – I guess, what if MTV had consciously decided they needed an Asian face?

I think it’s fine. It’s a little disappointing. But on the other hand, I think any change, especially something like bringing diversity to the media, which isn’t diverse as all, has to be a conscious decision at this point. It’s not the norm, so you have to really want to have different faces of color on your network. I don’t think it comes naturally.

I saw that there’s a Yahoo! Groups fan club for you. And at the entry page there’s a quote that says “SuChin is the bomb, the flava, and most of all our role model.” Is that weird? I mean, do you get that there are kids out there that either think you’re hot or that you’re a great role model. A lot of people hate that term.

No, I take that very seriously. Because there are so few Asians on television, I think that to say you’re not a role model, you’re just kidding yourself. You may as well embrace it. That’s very important to me and affects the decisions I make here and the stories I pursue. You know, with the Justin Lin film, “Better Luck Tomorrow,” when we went out to Sundance to do Mariah Carey, Jennifer Anniston, all the big films, I knew I needed one great story. It was important to me to get that sentiment out there that there is a huge presence of Asian Americans in filmmaking.

But is it creepy at all seeing or reading judgments about you online?

One of the first things I remember reading about when I was hosting “Trackers” on Oxygen are comments from fans who saw a picture of me at an awards show with a white guy. They were like, “You should be representing,” which was very interesting.

And then at MTV the feedback has increased and, you know what? I think most of it has been negative and mostly from the Asian-American community. They just have so much more invested in you doing well, so every step you take you have a ton of people watching.

So, we have pop, rap, R&B and the Latin explosion of a couple of years ago. There’s a pretty diverse musical landscape, but the one area that’s still struggling is Asian music. There are huge superstars in Japan who are nothing here. Do you see that changing at all?

Well, Asian Americans have always been not so focused on pushing identity to the forefront. For instance, Linkin Park has Asian Americans, but you don’t really hear about it or realize it. That’s kind of what I see for Asian-Americans in music. I don’t think I see a huge market for Cantonese pop singers. We’re barely getting Asian-American actors in motion pictures, much less trying to figure out how CoCo Lee is going to make it here. We have such a long way to go. And with the Latin explosion, I think there definitely is a closer cultural bond when you share a border. Asia is very far away and they speak so many different languages and they look so different. Shakira is from far away, but looks like Britney Spears. You can’t hide an Asian face.

And even with Latinos, I know from other stories I’ve written that it’s the lighter-skinned Latinos who are successful.

Here there’s an Asian-American pop singer who didn’t do that well but had a hit. I think she’s half white and half Asian. Do you remember her? She did a song on the soundtrack to the Resse Witherspoon movie.

Oh, Hoku?

Yeah, Don Ho’s daughter. When I saw her I thought that was kind of cool, but she’s half white. So I think there’s a certain amount of physical barriers the public has to learn to accept.

It’s funny, we were just doing this show about the 20 most controversial videos on MTV and one is about the Bloodhouse Gang. They had this video where they were all dressed up in dog costumes. I was reading the research and they have this other song called “Yellow Fever” that got a lot of heat. I missed the whole thing, but they were like, “Chinkity-chink-chink. Can’t get enough of the yellow fever.” And I couldn’t believe a label put that out. But at the same time I’m really glad they did it because I think we sometimes fool ourselves and get complacent, so it’s kind of nice when somebody does something so stupid that it shows how far we have to go.

Now I just have a couple of questions about the job. What’s the toughest or most challenging part about being here?

Trying to keep up with what’s really relevant with kids and then what’s going to be a future trend. That’s what I’m looking at in developing pitches. Kids’ attention spans are so quick that it’s hard to keep their attention. So I’ve struggled with starting to break stories kids will be talking about. I’d love to break a new band before they get really huge.

It’s also been challenging to criticize music here. You know, we poke fun at the boy bands and Britney Spears, but you can’t bag on what your audience is listening to. So I’m not going to go on TRL and talk about how N’ SYNC sucks – I’m going to tell you what their tour dates are and who they’re working with.

Who’s been your favorite interview?

Mary J. Blige was an amazing interview. A reunited Jane’s Addiction, to see that was amazing. I love Pink. I spent a day with her shopping for the [Video Music Awards]. It was just fun to see a young pop girl trying very hard to find herself and be successful and she has. She’s very honest all the time. And now that this album’s doing so well she has a voice.

What’s been a really challenging interview?

Well, a lot of the pop acts. It’s hard to get a serious interview from N’ SYNC or Britney. It’s rare for them to talk about serious issues when, since age 8, they’ve been shuttled between different shows and competitions. When you’re life is that busy you can’t really experience a lot, you can’t have your heart broken. In general, it’s just really hard to get artists to speak honestly about the music industry. You know, you can’t trash Atlantic Records because they’ll never send you another artist or video.

Finally, MTV has a huge turnover rate for on-air talent. Do you have any idea what else you’d like to do or are you pretty comfortable here?

When I was first offered the job I thought, “OK, how long is this gonna last?” I knew I didn’t want to be a VJ, I wanted to do news. But as for a future, I see myself here for a while. I’ve never really stayed anywhere for more than two years, so it would be really nice to be able to expand and grow here. I’d really love to do an interview show on the channel. I’d love to sit down with musicians and record executives and politicians, almost like Charlie Rose.