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Singing, Acting and Philanthropy: Ha Phuong's American Dream

People

She's an accomplished singer. She's released a music video. She's produced and starred in a film that will be released this Spring. She's the mother of two school-aged daughters. And she has promised to donate 100 percent of her future profits from her singing, acting and producing projects to help kids in need.


And it all started with one little girl's dreams of the stage and screen.

Vietnam born Ha Phuong grew up in Ho Chi Minh City and has always dreamed of being a performer despite the fact that, she says, she was quite shy and timid as a kid. “Having this personality made me cautious in interacting with new acquaintances. However, once I got to know people I would be friendly and sociable. Today my best friends are from my school days."

Her desire to be a performer came from her family, she explains. “When I was little, my brothers and sisters were all fascinated by Vietnamese Musical Broadway because those gorgeous actresses sang beautifully and they always got to dive deep into their love lives. After watching, it we would recreate the musicals at home. I was cast as the protagonist. That memory lives in me forever."

After graduating from high school, Phuong enrolled in dance and music classes at the College of Arts and Culture, District 10 Culture House, taking private vocal classes and studying Vietnamese Broadway Musical. When she first came to the U.S., she studied acting at TVI Actors Studio in New York and engaged a private acting coach and vocal teacher.

Before long, Phuong became a professional singer, performing nightly at entertainment venues. But it wasn't all it was cracked up to be, she explains. “In Vietnam, being a professional singer doesn't mean you're a star or a diva. Therefore, when I first started I had to wait to sing after big stars finished their performances. If no big stars were there, then it would be my turn.

Sometimes when I was ready for the stage a big star who sang the same style as me arrived and insisted to perform first. When she finished, another big star arrived. I waited for hours. The unbelievable thing was it happened almost every day, not at only one venue but also other venues! On my way home, I cried a lot and told myself to work hard to become a star so my words could be valued. I was determined. Once I performed and won over the audience those big singers who sang the same style as me didn't have any chance to bully me like before."

But when she finally did garner some level of fame, people began spreading rumors about her, gossiping presumably to undermine her. But it didn't work and it soon became clear that those rumors simply were not true. “Then and there I realized integrity, humanity, and talent have got me where I am today."

Photo Courtesy of Hoàng Hồ

As if being a success wasn't enough, Phuong is also the author of a book titled "Finding Julia," which is inspired by Phuong's own life. The book, she explains, “tells the story of Julia expressing love for her father in a way that later she recognizes is wrong."

Her book has since been made into a film scheduled for release on May 11 in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Orange County, California. Phuong produced the feature film and stars in it with Andrew McCarthy and Richard Chamberlain. Her English language song from the film, “Lost in a Dream," has already been released in a music video.

The whole experience has been quite a ride for Phuong.

“It's been a journey to discover the treasures of technology and culture in this multinational country. Looking back, I do not know if I was a fool or brave. Imagine a foreigner who comes to the U.S. speaking little English but accepting challenges in different roles as an actor, singer, producer, screenwriter, and editor."

-Ha Phuong

In fact, her biggest challenges along the way, she says, have been acclimating to American culture and mastering the English language. Plus, she adds, “I completely forgot the fact that this is not my Vietnam and nobody knows who I am. Not to mention all of the difficulties while shooting and writing the screenplay, but I had already gone too far to go back. Have you ever experienced the dilemma of making progress yet unable to go back? The feeling was that I was lost in the ocean. It was a truly horrifying nightmare! Ha Phuong and Julia in the movie both have nightmares. And we both tell ourselves 'Where there's a will there's a way and I won't give up.' My journey is still ongoing and it is a valuable experience in my life as an artist."

Despite it all, Phuong fondly recalls the moment she would call her big break more than twenty years ago. “Everyone in my country loves soccer. When the 1994 World Cup took place they played my song 'Hoa Cau Vuon Trau' during halftime and it was broadcast by Vietnam Television every day. The audience had discovered me and said, 'This singer is lovely and charming.' When they found out that I had relocated to the US, they were disappointed. Remembering that moment makes me feel like I am on cloud nine."

The notoriety is something Phuong is thrilled to have. But the money, for Phuong, is all about being able to give back. All profits from Phuong's work go to the Ha Phuong Foundation, paying for their housing, surgery, food, clothing, and education for underprivileged children. Musical instruments, vocational training, and career development are also provided for children who are blind.

Phuong's charity work goes back nearly a decade. In 2008, she founded the Ha Phuong Foundation in Huntington, California with a $1 M donation that helped to build a multi-media arts center in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Garden Grove. She also sponsors the Ha Phuong Young Female Filmmakers Initiative.

In addition, she assists in the Vietnam Relief Effort, a non-profit organization created by her husband, Chinh Chu, and his sister. The Vietnam Relief Effort aids in school buildings; funding surgeries for war veterans and disabled people; and bringing Vietnamese doctors to the U.S. for training. She's done so much work that in 2016, Phuong was named a “top donor to UNICEF."

Photo Courtesy of Lý Võ Phú Hưng

Why Phuong does so much charity work, particularly with children, is simple. “When I was five-years-old. I was critically ill to the point that drove my family to bankruptcy. My parents had to sell our blankets to pay for my treatment.

When I grew up and we gathered for family dinner, my father would tell the story about when I was sick and how they could not pay for the hospital bills and had to borrow money, sell everything in the house, and leave behind only one black and white television. When the due date of the debt came they still could not pay and the television was collected by the creditor. When I heard that, I ran and hid in a dark corner to cry. I prayed that I would be blessed with good fortune in the future. I pledged to help people who were less fortunate than me."

At the very least, she hopes the money that she donates “will let underprivileged children know that they are not abandoned. They will receive love from other people, not only me. Therefore, they should always try and not give up."

Along with her charity work, movie projects, and plans in the music industry, Phuong is currently sponsoring a contest called “Lost in a Dream." She is inviting “amateur singers, professional singers, karaoke lovers, men, women and young people everywhere to send us a video of your version of the song 'Lost in a Dream' from the soundtrack of the soon-to-be-released movie 'Finding Julia' to win $20,000.

The contest ends March 15, 2018 with a live performance by the final five finalists. Judges are music producers Jay Messina and Jack Douglas; singer and voice coach Alissa Grimaldi; soundtrack composer Milosz Jeziorski; and myself. All out of state finalists will be flown to New York and hosted as they prepare for their live performance."

If you ask Phuong if this is how she imagined her life might one day be, she'll simply laugh. If you ask her what she imagines for her future, she'll simply tell you that she is not a prophet who can see the future. But if you ask her advice for finding your own success, she'll tell you to “Do what you won't regret in the future but is helpful to society."

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.