Filipino Actress Janine Tugonon On Hollywood's Asian Representation

Katie Chow

Model and actress Janine Tugonon ’s career path was supposed to be straightforward: At 20 years old, she'd go into the medical field like her grandmother, mother, and aunt before her. But while studying pharmacy in her native Philippines, her classmates entered her into a school pageant, and in no time at all, she was winning national competitions.

After visiting America for the first time in 2012 to compete on the world stage — where she won first runner-up — Tugonon fell in love with the U.S. and decided to leave the Philippines to pursue acting and modeling. Now, she splits her time between New York and L.A., going wherever work and acting classes take her.

Leaving behind the recognition and job security she had in a pageant-loving culture was a big risk for Tugonon, but she also had to contend with the even greater challenge of breaking into two fields in which Asian representation is still lacking. So far, it's paid off — she became the first Filipino model in a major lingerie campaign, and you might've also spotted her in ad spots for other big-name retailers. In partnership with Toyota — whose all-new 2020 Corolla was built on the principles of perpetually evolving and doing the unexpected (sound familiar?) — we talked to Tugonon about finding a career she’s passionate about, the future of Asian representation, and why she never takes the easy way out.

When you were growing up, who inspired you to be an actress?
"I feel like it's always been there in me. But when I was in the Philippines, with my family, going into acting was not always the number-one option. We were all in the medical field, so it's something I just put aside and didn't even think of pursuing. When I moved to the U.S. in 2013, that was the first time I ever did acting, even just going in front of people and doing a script. So then I studied, and I really loved it. I wouldn't say there was one particular person who inspired me; it was just me watching a movie and doing what they were doing that stuck in my head, like, That's really cool and challenging, and I want to do it someday. "

Asian representation in American media has grown rapidly in the past few years, but there's still a long way to go. What do you hope to see in the future?
"My first struggle when I moved here was with modeling. Yes, they liked my beauty, but in general, if [brands] get Asian representation, it's usually [someone who is] Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Some [models] have darker skin tones, but I feel like [brands] got used to Asians with lighter skin tones. So a lot of the Pacific Islanders, the Asians down in the islands who have darker skin tones, are still not globally known or widely used [in campaigns]. I would get some jobs that would put me on hold and then release me, because my target market is not widely known. That's one thing I would want to see, for Asians coming from the islands or from the southeast. I hope that eventually, we'll be in the spotlight and be recognized in the U.S."

Which industries do you think have seen an improvement in Asian representation?
"I would say the beauty industry... I've gotten a lot of beauty jobs [that aren't] only limited to Asians with lighter skin tones. In fashion, maybe they're not yet there.

"I also feel like in TV now there's a lot of diversity, even in movies. [Watching a recent superhero blockbuster], I thought, Wow, this is a lot of diversity. It looks good; it actually looks more fun. I feel like the film industry is growing faster than the modeling industry in terms of that. I watch a lot of movies and TV series, and I see many nationalities or races there.

"I've even noticed some of them don't have American accents. Now, I feel like they're using actors that have a different accent for a specific role, which is good. For someone coming from a different country, it's hard to learn an American accent in a snap. But they're opening more roles, like, 'Okay, let's make this role for this person, so it's okay for him to have an accent.'"

Have you felt any pressure to get accent coaching?
"Yes, I did it in L.A. when I first started there — it's just so expensive. It's a lot of pressure because when you don't have an American accent, your roles are limited. Mostly, when they hear you speaking differently and you know that the role is for someone who's from here, the casting directors will just be like, 'Okay, it's going to be hard to cast her for this.' Instead of having a huge amount of auditions you can go to, it's limited to a few."

You’ve been the Philippines’ representative to international pageants. Do you feel pressure to represent that culture in your day-to-day life now that you live in the U.S.?
"Filipinos, we always love representation. When they see someone who's Filipino, or even part Filipino, they're happy. We have that feeling of, Wow, she's Filipino, good for her! We're going to support her. I was born and raised there, so of course I'll always keep that identity. If I do something big, for them, it's going to be a huge thing. And I want them to feel that I am here because I'm carrying your name as well, for them to see that a Filipino made it."

What has been your biggest challenge in moving to the U.S., and how did you get through it?
"The biggest challenge in the beginning was being able to stay here, because it's always been hard to just move here, especially if you're coming from the Philippines. It's not easy, with all the immigration laws and everything. I had friends who helped me with a place and getting a car — letting me stay for free in their homes and driving me around. And these are people who aren't even my close friends. That's one thing about Filipinos: They're very family-oriented; they'll help you even if they don't know you personally. Since they knew what to do in terms of immigration, they also helped me with that, and getting a part-time job. I also had a friend in the Philippines who had me meet up with an agent, who became my modeling agent when I was starting. They just helped me all around."

As a model and actress, you're constantly subjected to other people's approval. In spite of that, how do you stay true to who you are?
"In the beginning I would be like, Oh, you have to do this and that, but eventually, you start to know yourself more and who you are. That made it easier for me to [realize], Okay, this is me, and this is how it's going to be. I would just have to improve based on that [personal image of] me and not on what other people want me to be. I've learned that through the years, and even now I'm still trying to learn. It's hard being in this industry — every day people will say things, even your agent or a friend. But once you have that foundation of your character and who you are, then it's easier to shrug off comments that won't help you."

What's a piece of advice you'd give to yourself from five years ago?
"I would say don't waste your youth. I feel like when you're young, it's so easy to chill and think, Oh yes, I'm just 18 or 19, and I can still do this; I can be lazy or not think about what I'm going to do. I've been saying that to a lot of young people recently: 'Don't waste it! Start doing what you think you want to do.' Time goes by so quickly. You have to think, What do I have to begin with that I know can make me go further? And once you've found what you really want, don't waste time — start working, start training, start doing everything you can."

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