Lucy Liu: Embracing a new definition of American beauty

As a girl, Lucy Liu felt like an outsider in a Charlie's Angels America. Now the sexy Ally McBeal actress is becoming one of Charlie's Angels herself.

By Veronica Chamers (USA Today)

As a child, Lucy Liu never felt beautiful. The sexy Ally McBeal actress, recently named one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, is even more blunt about it. Growing up as an Asian-American girl in a Barbie-doll world was, she says, simply "hell."

In the '70s, Liu felt left out because "I didn't have the whole blond flipped hair or the curves. I was skinny with a bad haircut, which didn't amount to a very successful dating process at all! It wasn't until college that I started learning about myself and feeling good about my life."

Fast forward to 2000 and there's a whole new America in which Liu can celebrate her ethnicity. She's just been signed to play, with Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, one of Charlie's Angels in the big-screen remake of the hit '70s TV show. "The original Angels were three white girls, all from the South," says Leonard Goldberg, who helped create the original series. "But the composition of America has changed so much in the last 25 years, you want an ethnic mix. Lucy is a wonderful actress. She brings a different beat."

In the '90s alone, the Asian-American population increased 39%, and Latinos grew by 34%. These two groups will account for more than half of U.S. population growth in the next half-century. America's now a place where you can buy sushi at your grocery store, read ATM screens in several languages and sing Livin' la Vida Loca along with today's hottest pop star, Ricky Martin.

Liu's character, the contentious and cool lawyer Ling Woo, is one of the most popular on Ally McBeal (Mondays, 9 p.m. ET, Fox). Her withering glances and razor-sharp barbs earned Liu an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She sent pulses racing with her turn as a leather-clad dominatrix in Mel Gibson's Payback. Right now, she's on the big screen with Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas in the boxing movie Play It to the Bone. And the girl who never felt beautiful plays a kidnapped princess in Jackie Chan's upcoming Shanghai Noon.

With her high visibility on a show much talked about at the water cooler, Liu has been singled out by the Asian-American community for both criticism and praise. The critics say Ling Woo's biting commentary and litigious nature reveal a character that is just the old Dragon Lady stereotype in a new Armani suit.

Such comments make the soft-spoken Liu livid. "It's not just Asian groups," she says. "A lot of groups have gotten so limiting and politically correct. Ling is just a person with this personality. If you do an immigrant with an accent, that's no good. If you do something that's a strong woman, that's no good, either."

Liu pauses for a moment, then continues. "I love this role and I defend this role, but people forget: Sometimes you take roles because you've got bills to pay or you've got kids. Sometimes you have no choice. It's about making a living."

At the same time Liu stands behind her work on Ally McBeal, she's reluctant to accept any of the awards ethnic groups have tried to bestow on her. "A lot of Asians have wanted to give me awards and have me come and speak," Liu says, humbly. "But I turn them down. I feel like, 'Hey, give me a little while. I haven't done anything to earn this yet. Don't just give me an award because I'm the only person that's well-known right now who's Asian.' It's flattering, but when I get up on that podium I want to be able to have some background and some history so I can say, 'I'm so glad to be here. It's been such a long road. It has been a long road for me, but not that long. There are a lot of people in the community who are doing so much more, except they're not in the public eye. Why don't you give them an award?' "

Acting is not Liu's only creative talent. She's a talented fine artist -- and accordion player, believe it or not -- whose mixed-media photography, which features people and places near and dear to her (including the people and landmarks of Beijing), has been shown in galleries in Los Angeles and New York. It was a Soho art gallery showing that led Liu to win an art grant to study in Beijing -- her first trip to her parents' native land. "It was an incredible experience," Liu says. "You go back there and you realize there's 5,000 years of culture and history there. That's something you end up respecting as an ideal. Then you really want to know about yourself because you are so proud of your culture."

Liu credits her immigrant family for her strong work ethic. Her parents met as college students in New York. "They were more progressive than other people who were married in China and then came here with their families," Liu says. Her father is an entrepreneur; her mother, a biologist. Liu is the youngest of three siblings. Her sister followed their mother into the sciences and now is a veterinarian; her brother followed their dad into the family business. As a child, Liu spent her Sundays at a Mandarin-language school. "I hated it!" she cries out vehemently. Yet at the University of Michigan, Liu studied Asian languages and cultures. "Just because I'm Asian doesn't mean that I know all about the history, the culture, the religion," Liu remembers wanting to say to those who assumed otherwise. "I'm just as clueless as you."

Liu, who is single, says her family has never pressured her to marry. "They wouldn't dare!" Still, she knows that she wants kids and that she will make her kids go to language school. But didn't she say she herself hated it? "I know," she says, laughing. "But now I know why it's so important."

Liu has spoken Mandarin on Ally McBeal, but the show's creator, David E. Kelley, has yet to write her musical skills into an episode. Greg Germann, who plays Fish, Liu's love interest on the show, is an accordion aficionado as well, so he was surprised to learn of his co-star's interest. "What are the chances of that?" he says. "Then we found out we both study with the same teacher, Milton Mann, this incredible octogenarian who only has three or four students. Occasionally, we take our accordions down to her dressing room and play. It's me trying to keep up with her -- that's generally how it goes."

The fact that Liu's fiery character sizzles onscreen and that she musically smokes him offscreen as well hasn't dampened Germann's affection for her. "Lucy is an incredibly gentle person," Germann says with wonder. "She's a deep river." Liu seems especially wary of buying into all the hype that surrounds her. "When all is said and done, and things start tapering down, it's going to be me, in my house, by myself," she says. "I want to be OK with myself and proud of myself. Not looking at some award, going, 'I won this. Why isn't the phone ringing?' " She's also working on a new series of photographs. "I'm photographing the people in my life," she says. "I think that has a lot to do with who you are. I'm doing it for myself because I'm not a prolific writer. I want to keep a photographic journal of who's in my life and what I've discovered through them."

As Liu's acting career soars, surely there are little girls who are discovering themselves through her image. And behind that image is substance. "Everyone knows that Lucy is funny and sexy," says Play It to the Bone director Ron Shelton. "But what she is more than anything else is talented. She's a terrific actress."