To Work in (or on) Hollywood, It Pays to Be a Democrat
In the Counterpunch article that appeared Oct. 23 (“Asian Americans Living in a ‘Bamboozled’ World,” by Guy Aoki), I was accused of wearing “yellowface” in my portrayal of the character Ms. Swan on “Mad TV"--and, by inference, of being a racist for doing so. After reading it, I couldn’t get to my laptop fast enough.
For starters, I would like to let it be known that the author of the article has never contacted me or, so far as I know, made any attempts to do so. He has never asked me a single question as to the origin of this character. So, in an effort to correct his misconceptions, let me ask and answer them myself.
Who is Ms. Swan based on? How was Ms. Swan created?
Ms. Swan is based on my grandmother, a spunky 85-year-old immigrant who toys with her ability to speak and understand English as it suits her. She’s been in this country for almost 50 years and we still can’t understand a word she says! (Unless, of course, she needs a favor--then she’s as clear as a bell.)
What nationality is Ms. Swan?
In the tradition of another fictional comedic character--Latka of the long-running series “Taxi"--Ms. Swan is meant to be an amalgamation of many nationalities, representing immigrants as a whole. She is from a fictional country called Kuvaria, where, incidentally, Santa Claus is also from. (Or so Ms. Swan claims.)
What nationality am I?
I have Hungarian/Mongolian, Russian and Polish roots. Last time I checked that still made me an American. And last time I checked, Americans still had the luxury of freedom of speech and expression. Ms. Swan is one of the many vehicles for my expression. By the way, on a show like “Mad TV,” everybody is parodied and satirized, from political figures to celebrities to athletes to immigrants. No one is excluded. If you don’t care for our brand of comedy, watch the news. That’s always funny!
What does the Ms. Swan costume consist of? Do I wear “yellowface”?
To become Ms. Swan, I don a housecoat one can purchase at Sav-On for $19.99. (My grandmother wears the very same housecoat around her Santa Monica apartment.) I wear knee-high pantyhose and black leather slippers from Italy. As the character is a manicurist by profession, I wear a checkered apron with little feet on it. I wear a black wig, peppered with gray strands, that is cut in the style of a chin-length bob. (This wig actually resembles my own hairstyle quite a bit.) The makeup that is used is a regular base from Cinema Secrets. It is the exact color of my natural skin tone. I have never, never used yellow makeup or even yellow tones. The “yellowface” that Aoki speaks of is a figment of his imagination. Ms. Swan’s facial appearance (the shape of her eyes and lips) was actually based on Bjork, a singer-songwriter from Iceland. I even toyed with the idea of making Ms. Swan Icelandic through and through. In the end, I opted for the freedom that creating her homeland would give me.
It’s too bad that anyone who read Aoki’s article couldn’t see Ms. Swan for themselves, as The Times erroneously published someone else’s picture with my name in the caption. Here’s a tip: If you are going to slam someone based on her appearance, at least get the right picture, people!
To tell you the truth, I can only giggle at Aoki’s own self-image. If he believes my nutty little character on a late-night sketch comedy show is a depiction of him and his “people,” then, as Ms. Swan would say, “He needs to take a chill pill!”
The only real place that Ms. Swan comes from is my imagination. I created her. If Aoki doesn’t care for my creation, that’s his prerogative and I urge him to change the channel. As for the rest of you out there, don’t believe everything you read. Check Ms. Swan out for yourselves. Tune in to “Mad TV” Saturday nights at 11 on Fox.
Actress Alex Borstein can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org/.