From the SGV to international TV: A conversation with YouTube star Olivia Thai

What started with a webcam and a dream turned into a music career for Olivia Thai. The 25-year-old singer began posting in 2007 videos of herself singing contemporary hits, and her YouTube channel has grown to more than 85,000 subscribers and 17 million views. Thai was also featured or worked on more than 300 videos by popular YouTube production company Just Kidding Films, performed on ABC’s Rising Star in June, and founded her own private music school located on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel.

Born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Thai began taking voice, piano, violin, and guitar lessons not long after saying her first word. The UCLA graduate sat down with Alhambra Source to talk about how that love of music turned into a career, her experiences performing on national and Chinese-language television, and why she still considers the San Gabriel Valley her home.

Olivia Thai | Photo by Mary Tan

In a 2011 interview with the blog "The Other Asians," you mention that your parents, who emigrated from Vietnam and are of Chinese descent, wanted you to “go for a more practical route” instead of venturing into the music industry. What pushed you to pursue music despite their reservations?

My parents spent the majority of my childhood working, something that I had to come to terms with and be mature about from a very young age. It’s not that they didn't love me, or they didn’t want to care for me. It’s that they worked really hard to put food on the table and a roof over my head, and I think that’s incredible of them. Although it was really difficult for me, I understood, even as a child, that that’s what they had to do. I’m glad that things are so much better now and I’m finally able to really get to know my parents for the first time in adulthood.

I think secretly 1 percent of them still wants me to do something that’s not entertainment related, but in my years of dedication to the performing arts, they’ve come to realize that this is what I’m going to do — probably for the rest of my life. My love for performing arts is so strong that there’s just no way I could do anything else.

What was it like growing up in the San Gabriel Valley?

I grew up in San Gabriel thinking most of the U.S. was Asian American. After I went to college and started acting, I realized that Asians are a really small percentage of the entire country. I think that was the biggest thing about growing up in the San Gabriel Valley — I had a weird representation of what the country was supposed to be like.

But I love it here. I think we have some of the best food. I love to spend time in Alhambra. There’s Cha for Tea, Honey Badger. One of my favorite things about Alhambra is the Farmers Market. All these different families talking to the farmers in Chinese, I translate for them sometimes and it makes me feel at home. 

You started Musique in 2004 in your studio apartment. Why teach music?

This particular student stood out to me because her dad was concerned about how shy she was. That’s why he put her in voice lessons. She had gone to several instructors and wasn’t responding well. When she came into my class, I made friends with her. Within six months she performed in a recital, all by herself. Going from someone who was barely able to speak in conversation to performing solo in a recital — I think that’s incredible. She’s really opened my eyes to the power of music lessons, to the power of teachers, and our responsibility as teachers to empower students.

Thai teaches a student voice. | Photo by Mary Tan

You competed and performed on ABC's singing competition Rising Star in June. What was it like to perform on national television?

It’s definitely been an accomplishment. All the people on Rising Star were the top in the nation, with thousands auditioning. For the last seven years I’ve been on YouTube, singing in front of my webcam, and this was my first time on national TV, on a major network. We were able to train with some of the top coaches in the country, in the world.

You posted a YouTube video in July alleging that JK Films wrongfully terminated your internship after you brought up issues of being underpaid for your work. Why did you decide to go public with this information?*

I just wanted to make sure that I did my duty as a public figure to inform the public of what was happening. That’s something that I’ve always been very active about — making sure that people are protected, they know their rights, and people are not being taken advantage of. I have no regrets posting that video, no matter what backlash I’ve been receiving.

What's next for you?
 
For the longest time, it seemed like I was wholeheartedly pursuing music, but the truth was that I was too scared to do that. Teaching music is definitely one of my passions, but I think my first love will always be performing music and I definitely put that on the back burner when I realized how risky it was. Recently, I decided to go full time YouTube and music; that was a crazy decision I don’t think I could’ve made without managing and owning Musique, which allowed me to safely pursue my career in music.

Now that I’m getting a more solid grasp of who I am as an artist, as a person, I would like to release an album soon, hopefully. For now, I’ll be on YouTube until the next big thing happens.

Thai plays the piano during a voice lesson. | Photo by Mary Tan

Do you have any advice for other aspiring artists?

Your truth is the most important part of all this. What is your truth as a performing artist? What is the message that you want to convey to the world? You have a responsibility as someone who reaches a lot of people to represent something that you believe in, that you are. That’s the most important thing.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: This dispute has been resolved. This interview was edited and condensed. This story was written in the Alhambra Source and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Youth Feed Journalism workshop.

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