Carrie Ann Inaba started out as a Fly Girl on the series In Living Color, had a singing career with some hit singles in Japan, has choreographed for several television series and has danced on stage with the likes of Madonna and Ricky Martin.
Shes a judge on the incredibly popular Dancing With The Stars (five seasons strong), has her own production company, and most recently she is starring on a show with her own name on it - Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann.
Some people might have let that kind of career success go to their head (and many have), but the jovial Carrie Ann is as grounded as the grass roots Hip-Hop she once danced to as a Fly Girl.
We spoke to her at length about Dance War, her rising star in television and dance, and some of her amazing career experiences. Why didnt she and Jennifer Lopez get along? Did she feel stereotyped playing Fook Yu in the Austin Powers movie? Read on
AllHipHop.com: The Dance War show is very unique in that you're actually requiring people to sing and dance. How did you and Bruno come up with the concept for the show?
Carrie Ann Inaba: Well, actually this is Bruno's show, Bruno came up with this concept. It's something that he did in the UK last summer. He did it with another judge out there, they co-created it together so that they could compete against each other. The American half of BBC brought it here and ABC picked that up and they asked me to be his formidable opponent. [laughs]
AllHipHop.com: Do you think he [brought you on because of] the debates that you guys [have on] Dancing With The Stars?
Carrie Ann: Yeah I think so. When you've got a show like this and so many new people on it you've gotta have some people that everybody already knows. America's come to know us through Dancing With The Stars, and it takes it on a new twist with me and Bruno back in the studio doing what we normally do. Although there really is a big twist on the show that I wasn't expecting, and really I'm more of the creative director of my group than I am the choreographer, because we each have a choreographer that we work with.AllHipHop.com: Who do you work with on choreography?Carrie Ann: I found this guy named Jason Young who's fantastic, he's been working with me and my team. But it's very hard for me because I want to be in the studio doing all the choreography, because that's how I normally work. It's kind of like we're more of the creative directors and mentors of the team than just the choreographers. But it's really fun.AllHipHop.com: I definitely like the competitive edge of it. It's a little different than dancer versus dancer, so it's a little more intense.Carrie Ann: Yeah, I like it because it's very different and Bruno & I have such different visions that's it's kind of nice to see. He's a little bit more old school and Vegas than I am, I'm creating more of a pop group and he's creating a dance troupe that will go on through a performance of a Vegas or Broadway kind of show.AllHipHop.com: I kind of see him to be more Broadway and you to be a little more Hip-Hop/Pop.Carrie Ann: That's the world I come from. Especially since I used to be a singer, and that's kind of where I first started and then went into dancing more intensely after that. Being a Fly Girl [on In Living Color] which was my first job and one of my favorite jobs, it's always been with me.
AllHipHop.com: You were a singer [with hit songs in Japan], but your ancestry is actually Chinese, Irish and Japanese. That kind of reminds me of O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill. Were you ever received differently in Japan, or did you have challenges with [the diversity of your heritage] growing up?
Carrie Ann: I grew up in Hawaii, and because in Hawaii when you're Asian you're the majority it was never an issue in my mind. No one told me that it would ever be an issue, so it never really was one to me. But I did go through culture shock when I moved to Japan and suddenly everybody was Japanese. [laughs]
I don't know why that surprised me but it completely shocked me. I had culture shock that everybody there looked like me, because in Hawaii it's truly a melting pot, everybody's got Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Irish, there's a lot of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii now too. It's a huge mix of various cultures, mixes and breeds in Hawaii, and in Japan it's a homogeneous society and I was blown away.
It really caught me off guard, and it took me a while to adapt because I look Japanese more than anything else, so people thought I was Japanese. But when I would speak and they would see who I was, I certainly wasn't just an average Japanese girl from Japan.
AllHipHop.com: Do you feel that there's still an amount of exploitation of Asian dancers or performers in the media and in entertainment in general?
Carrie Ann: I think with the media and entertainment, art in general exploits everything. You can look at [the word] exploit - it has a negative connotation, but it could also be looking at it as it explores and introduces the world to various cultures in a way. I studied multiculturalism for a long time and when I went back to school that was my major.
I think it's really important to introduce different cultural ideas, if you're gonna do it on a television show or in pop culture you kind of have to turn it into something that everybody can kind of swallow. You have to dumb it down, and that's where I think we get the feeling that it's being exploited because they only take the bits and pieces that serve the need for that particular job or project.
Like when I played Fook Yu in Austin Powers talk about stereotypes - I actually thought it was hysterical. They were playing on the whole joke because the girl who was my twin, we look nothing alike. But they were playing on that all Asians look alike [idea] - but every culture goes through that. I don't see it as a problem, I've never seen it as a problem.
Why would Gwen Stefani introducing the world to what goes on in Harajuku be a negative thing? It's not a negative thing, there's a whole great subculture of fashion that goes on in there, I think Gwen is fashion forward and so is Madonna. I think they're trying to find something that hasn't been shown before and show it in a way that makes their careers move forward.
AllHipHop.com: How do you feel that you've been able to crush stereotypes in the industry?
Carrie Ann: I like that, and I'm aware of that to be honest with you. I wasn't aware when I first started, but when I was a Fly Girl I got a lot of mail from people talking about how I gave their children a different role model, not just to be a doctor or engineer or pharmacist. At an early age, I was aware that people were watching at there was some sort of responsibility.
When I was offered a role on Madonna's tour to come down the pole topless in a G-string with a shaved head, I was like, "Okay, I wanna do it" because I thought it was such a unique way to showcase myself because it was unexpected. Then to go on and do the Austin Powers thing which was bizarre, funny and a lighthearted look at [Asian] culture.
Now to be the only American judge on a panel of three on Dancing With The Stars, they chose me to be that judge and I'm Asian. It's huge, and I'm honored by ABC and the BBC for taking that chance on me, because they could have easily chosen any race or person.AllHipHop.com: You [told a story] on The Chelsea Handler Show about how you didn't necessarily get along with J-Lo when she was on [In Living Color]...Carrie Ann: Yeah, we didn't get along that well [laughs]. I don't know why, but when you put five women in a room together there's always bound to be trouble. [laughs] There's always power struggles, women are very competitive with each other but what was sad was before Jennifer came in there was no sort of competition. We were five girls who were all really happy to have work and we loved being the Fly Girls. It was something new, we had a great time and it was a really strong family atmosphere.
Then they decided they wanted to replace one girl or add another girl, so they had the first set of auditions for which Jennifer auditioned, but she didn't make it. We chose a girl named Carla and it was great. But what happened was they weren't happy with her performance, so they let go two people [Michelle and Carla] and then they brought in Jennifer.
When they brought Jennifer in it kind of disrupted the mix, so for her it must have been awkward too coming along into a situation where everybody else already got along and knew each other. She kind of came in late, and knew she didn't make the first round and that we had a choice in that, so she came in with a bit of that and I don't blame her. I think I probably would done the same.AllHipHop.com: You made the point yourself, you said generally people that are super successful are not necessarily going to be nice.Carrie Ann: I also get the stereotype of being the bitch. On the first season of Dancing With The Stars I got so many nasty emails, because I'm sitting next to two very vibrant people with British and Italian accents, so everything that comes out of their mouth sounds so adorable. When I say something it's straight to the point like, "Well, that wasn't so good" and they're like, "Boo, you're so mean." I'm like, he just told him he looked like Pinocchio on crack! Was I mean? [laughs]
We all go through it, it comes with the territory of being a woman. My friend Leeza Gibbons [actress /producer/Entertainment Tonight host] was one of the first women that I met in this business and was very kind to me. She sent me this thing for my birthday by Charlotte Whitton, it said "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult." [laughs]AllHipHop.com: How do you feel about [the popularity] of Hip-Hop dance [in the mainstream]?Carrie Ann: I think it's very relevant. There's generations that are completely influenced [by it], like my generation was influence by Solid Gold, those were the people I watched on TV that danced, and Soul Train and American Bandstand. I think there's a generation that grew up from when I was about 23, when I was a Fly Girl, and that Hip-Hop's culture has come to the forefront.
You gotta give Rosie Perez a lot of credit for that, I give her and Keenan Ivory Wayans a good medal in bringing forth Hip-Hop culture to the mainstream audience. The Fly Girls was brilliant of them, because we were jazz Hip-Hop dancers, what In Living Color did with those dance breaks and the Fly Girls was really bringing the coolest cutting edge music available. [Rosie] knew what was happening and she brought it to mainstream TV through Fox television and put the more commercialized visuals over it to introduce it to the world.
We're not ever gonna say we were the hardest hitting street dancers ever, we certainly were not. We were the first step in bringing it out to the mainstream, and then after that, in all the videos you saw five multiracial girls. We were the first to do the athletic look. Before that, when you saw people on TV they were the more long legged 5'7 and up. The tallest girl in the Fly Girls was 5'7, I'm 5'6, the smallest girl was 5'3. We were more athletic, normal girls. We didn't look like models and ballerinas.
A lot of people don't talk about how the Fly Girls were so much a part of that. A lot of people were using more Hip-Hop, and then the real good Hip-Hop started to come out after that. First we introduced it, everybody liked it - and the people that already knew about it could have more access now because we were giving it more mainstream access to the people. The whole thing was elevated by In Living Color doing it in a different way to a different audience.AllHipHop.com: It's good that you gave Rosie her props, because I feel like a lot of people have overlooked what she's done.Carrie Ann: She was amazing. She had no idea how to choreograph - she was a street club dancer who was discovered and given this incredible opportunity. A lot of people look at working choreographers like, "How come they got the opportunity? I've been working in this business for so long." She just broke all the rules, and that's what made her so outstanding. She didn't care, she had no idea, she knew none of the proper jazz lingo from the jazz world.
What came with Rosie was strong intentions to say, "I want you guys to learn this step, this was at the club the other night and this is what you're gonna do." She would show us the new house steps, and we'd work on it for hours and hours and she'd get so mad at us - and we're like "Dude, we're doing the best we can Rosie, cut us some slack." [laughs] We found this happy medium, but she really was strict about always making sure that the music was the coolest music. She was so adamant on introducing America and the mainstream audience to what was really going on in Hip-Hop culture.AllHipHop.com: What are you doing with [your company] Entermediarts?Carrie Ann: Well, right now I haven't done much with it because life got so crazy, but what happened was I started Entermediarts when I was about 30 or so after I graduated college. I went back to school when I was older. I really fell in love with videography and ethnographic filmmaking and documentary making. I fell in love with editing and edited for two years. I was kind of tired of the pressure of being in the spotlight, and I wanted to be more creative and behind the scenes.
I edited a whole bunch of choreographer's reels, almost every one of them came through my desk and helped a lot of people move forward in their career. It's like giving them a very commercialized version of their reels, and making reels more like television shows and upping the whole value of what a demo reel is supposed to look like. I loved doing that, and I've always wanted to produce television. That's always gonna be my goal in trying to get there, and I take my baby steps.
I wanted to learn it from not just being the person in front of the camera, but really get all the aspects behind the scenes so I started making documentary films. I went to the South Pacific for the Pacific Arts Festival. It happens every four years like the Olympics where all the cultures from the South Pacific come together to show off their arts and crafts. I was one of the producers from UCLA to give them archival footage. Then after that I started to do a documentary, but I wasn't able to gather the funds to get there.
Eric Nies from The Real World and I started to do a documentary about the underground house scene in New York. We would carry our cameras throughout New York in the middle of the snowstorms, shooting these nightclubs all night long. I have 170 hours of footage of house music stuff. After that, Dancing With The Stars came, and I never had a chance to edit it. We actually never got to edit it, so we've got this fantastic footage of the house scene in New York and maybe one day we'll do that.
I want to produce and right now. We have some shows that we're developing, but it's difficult because you get so busy. I'm the kind of person that when I'm working on one thing, for that moment I can only do that. So when you get as busy as I am right now, it's more difficult for me to get my other things going. That's something I have to work on. Now is the time for me to get all these other projects going because I've had a show that I wanted to put on about choreographers for a long time, but now that I'm doing [Dance War] it's not the appropriate time, so I have to wait a bit.
Good things come to those who wait, if you just put in the hard work, I've learned it all works out. We all lay our foundations for what we want.AllHipHop.com: What do you want people to know about you, your next projects and Dance War?Carrie Ann: I don't know where tomorrow's gonna take me, but I know I always wanted to put something up in Vegas. Vegas is such an amazing venue to put up shows, and I've got three shows that we're trying to set up in Vegas right now. One is an Asian themed showcase and one is all about the cultures of the world. I'm real excited to get those going, those are kind of like the creative babies that I've always had inside of me, and I do hope that I can produce television one day because I love television. I love the feel of it, I love the way it happens so quickly.
I love live TV. I grew up around some of the most incredible producers, and I don't feel any more at home working than when I'm on the set of a live TV show hanging with the crew. I get along the best with the cameraman, stage crew and grips are always my closest friends on the set. I really love to be sitting in some Uggs, jeans and a sweatshirt, I love that feeling. [laughs]
Hopefully I'll keep myself busy, and I hope people will watch Dance War and vote for Team Carrie Ann, because my team is special and they're good people with good values. I just feel like I really chose some incredible people, and I always believe that behind the performance is the person. I chose the ones that I knew had heart and would continue on to do something great in this business.