Lights, Camera, Medicine: Why 'Gossip Girl’s Nan Zhang Left the Hit Show

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If there is one thing Nan Zhang – that’s Kati Farkas to “Gossip Girl” fans – would like the public to know, it would be this: She was never in a fight with Leighton Meester, and she did not leave the show because of a supposed rift with the Queen Bee.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” says Zhang of the tabloid gossip. “I mean, Leighton is such a sweetheart and just so incredibly nice.” However, gossip happens in real life just as much as on “Gossip Girl”. When her character, Kati, left the Upper East Side (and the show) under the explanation that her family moved to Israel, rumors abounded that Zhang had left to attend Brown University—a school that she has no connection with whatsoever.

“I think for one episode I was talking to a Brown representative. It’s really funny,” says the Chinese American actress. “Once, the Brown school newspaper called me and asked me for an interview, and I was like, ‘You know, I go to Hopkins.’”

web-nanzhang-3At Johns Hopkins University, Zhang studies neuroscience in hopes of graduating next year, then entering a medical school and becoming an optometrist. She started pursuing neuroscience research with professors when she was only 16 years old, realizing that she could save lives and help people with her abilities. Modeling and acting, both passionate pursuits of hers, still lie second to her love of medical research.

While Zhang seems to have the qualities many girls dream of, from her glamorous good looks to her sparkling intellect, she, too, has struggled with coming to terms with her cultural identity—and with her parents. Born in China to strict parents, Zhang and her family moved to New Orleans when she was still a child. Her parents, both doctors, never encouraged her to pursue a life in the entertainment industry.

“I’ll just be honest: my parents are severely traditional. I actually didn’t tell them that I was modeling at first, but when they found out, they weren’t very happy about it. But I realized that I was trying to impose an American way of life on them, and that as parents they just wanted the best for me,” she recalls. “When they saw the ‘Gossip Girl’ trailers, they realized that it was real and now they understand. They were like, ‘If you can do this, you can get into Harvard med school.’”

As an only child, she was often told by her parents to go back to college. Zhang had temporarily left school in order to pursue a modeling career, because driving back and forth from modeling assignments to school had begun to take a toll on her health and spirit. However, during the writers’ strike of 2007-2008, she realized that she had to make a definitive decision about her future—especially because the future of Gossip Girl was shaky. Ultimately, she chose to return to school in order to attain a degree.

“Honestly, you can’t go back to school once you’re 30; don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can,” she says.

web-nanzhang-4Her agency, William Morris, and the “Gossip Girl” production office were very supportive of her decision to become a full-time student again. There were also no catfights or dramatic last words – contrary to what the gossip blogs and tabloids claimed. In fact, Leighton Meester, Nicole Fiscella (who plays Isabel Coates), and Zhang frequently hung out on set. Consequently, Zhang left the show feeling very good about her choice despite between being entwined in the dilemma that many young Asian Americans face—choosing whether to follow a traditional route supported by their parents or to take a completely different path.

“When you’re in that business, with my upbringing, you have certain values that are priority,” she said.

Additionally, as “Gossip Girl” became increasingly popular and as the season progressed, that Zhang became concerned that she might only be playing the token Asian girl. “It was a fun character; I enjoyed every part of it. But I wish they would have portrayed the characters with more dimension.” In being one of the few minorities on the show, Zhang had a lot of pressure to be an example to Asian American teens who watch the show—which was tough to achieve, considering she barely had any lines to be a fully-developed character.

While she is no longer in the limelight—at least for the time being, as she is still signed with William Morris Agency—Zhang has become a greater inspiration to girls with diverse interests. For those who know the real reason why she left, it’s clear that one can be a Gossip Girl and change the world too.

Photos courtesy of Nan Zhang.