“Silly and gross.” Those are the two words Eugene Lee Yang, the 29-year-old Korean American BuzzFeed producer and actor, likes to use to describe himself. Over the last year, as BuzzFeed videos have exploded in popularity, he’s gone from “that Asian guy” to “BuzzFeed Asian” to simply “Eugene.” People now recognize him (and his gravity-defying hair) on the street.
Yang grew up in the small town of Pflugerville, Texas, where his family were the only Asian faces for miles around. “When I was a kid, I thought I was so ugly. Not because I was actually ugly, but because I was different, the weird looking kid,” he says. “I was bullied to an extent, and at one point, I felt shame about my ethnicity.”
In fact, that’s how he started perfecting his signature hair. “I had that classic self-hatred—wanting to look ‘white,’ trying to fit in. The one compliment I got was about my hair, so in middle school, I started styling it. In a weird way, my hair became a mental crutch to me because it was the one thing I thought validated my looks.”
As adolescence passed and Yang began to excel in film at University of Southern California, he started to realize he had more to offer than just his hair. “I’m the most self-conscious person ever. But as a director you have to exude confidence or else you can’t run the set well. People won’t trust you or listen to you,” Yang explains. “At first, it was just a costume I put on, but now I sincerely do not care what other people think, especially racially. And [realizing that was] one of the most freeing moments of my life.”
A passionate advocate of Asian American representation in media and equality in real life, Yang often posts Buzzfeed videos against Asian stereotypes. He bluntly explains why stereotypes can be harmful: “Every day, someone’s going to walk around and someone’s going to make an Asian small penis joke. At first, growing up, I always thought ‘Oh f***, do I have a small penis?’ That’s what poor little Asian boys think! But now I just think ‘Oh, you’re so stupid’ and walk away.”
Coming across that type of ignorance actually helps society, Yang says, because it inspires people to keep pushing for change and representation. “So, let the idiots come,” he challenges.
This DGAF attitude is what has fueled his popularity at BuzzFeed. Many of his most popular videos, especially with the Try Guys series, are quite sexy and involve clothes being taken off, like the first one I saw of him Magic Mike stripping or when they attempted to recreate Kim Kardashian’s famous butt photo.
“I’m really not as slutty as people think,” Yang says jokingly. “But since I grew up as a young boy who thought of himself as ugly and unisexual, to feel like I can represent people in a way that’s sexually active and charged—it’s great! I get a lot of comments like, ‘Thank you for being slutty,’ and I say, ‘You’re welcome. I’ll go have more sex for you.’”
For Yang, this is the main problem with Hollywood. To cast a leading role in any film, there’s usually some romantic relationship involved. But there isn’t enough interest in casting Asian American men because traditionally, mainstream American audiences are exposed to desexualized secondary roles or comedic sidekicks.
That’s where Yang comes in. Admittedly, BuzzFeed isn’t Hollywood, but we have started to see more Asian American men on screen, ready and willing to represent life as it really is—to defy stereotypes and show that Asian American men come in all kinds. BuzzFeed, which this year reached one billion video views in one month with their original content, is an ideal platform to lead the charge.
To clarify, Yang says, “I don’t always want to be naked.” (Duly noted.) “But if I can be a confident Asian American man for viewers to be exposed to, then I’m going to be naked, be stupid, do all the things that all of us do in our spare time but don’t say we do—if that’s what’s progressive. Hand me a beer, let me strip naked, dance and sing on top of a bar. I’ll do it for you. Because it’s having an impact. Weirdly.”
Who knows. Perhaps he’ll star in the next Magic Mike movie. Even if he’s fully clothed, we’ll be watching.