Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist's Alice Lee on Tokenism and the Importance of AAPI Representation

The Korean-American star is a triple threat talent, but explains that she doesn't want to be considered for "token" casting during E! News' AAPI Heritage Month Ones to Watch series.

By Samantha Bergeson May 10, 2021 5:00 PMTags
Watch: Alice Lee on the Importance of Asian Visibility: Ones to Watch

Alice Lee can sing and dance her way through Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, but her passion for music extends far beyond the hit NBC series.

The Korean-American star opened up about tokenism, representation and why there's "more room" for Asian-Americans in the pop music scene during E! News' AAPI Heritage Month Ones to Watch video series this month. 

While the message of Zoey's musical numbers resonate with audiences, Lee believes the series can help viewers discuss more sensitive topics off-screen. "A lot of things people don't talk about out loud, Zoey (Jane Levy) gets to witness," Lee explained in our exclusive interview. "I think first of all music is just very powerful and so many things can be portrayed with music where words sometimes cannot." 

Her character Emily is Zoey's sister-in-law, and the onscreen attorney deals with postpartum depression in season two after Lee was promoted to a series regular. "We are now just getting to see more depth in her character," Lee gushed. "I just really wanted to make sure I portray it right for all the moms out there...It was super challenging trying to tap into that but everyone on the show was super gracious and I felt very safe tapping into those emotions. I just think it's very important story to tell because people don't really talk about it a lot. The more you see things on media on TV and film, the more things become familiar and it's not as scary." 

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Representation extends into casting and even though films and TV seem to be more open to more diversity on screen, part of Lee is still skeptical. "But it's then like, 'Well am I still a token?'" Lee revealed. "I think there's a different between what's on paper and what's really being done...Just because you have a diverse cast doesn't necessarily mean you just check off a box."

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Lee began her career in the ensemble background of musical theatre. Yet Lee knew she was destined for more—and Hollywood is just catching up.

"At least for me, I just felt like I could do so much more and offer so much but it's out of your control," Lee continued. "And even these rare opportunities now where you're competing against other Asian girls for like two parts that aren't even substantial...I believe that if you just keep going it evolves, and the industry is evolving." 

The recent hate crimes against the AAPI community have been "triggering" for Lee, and even remind her of "everything that you've gone through." However, Lee trusts that more awareness has been achieved through the support she's received: "I think that's one of the biggest things, awareness and visibility." 

As an Illinois native, Lee herself has also struggled with her identity. "I always embrace being Korean but there was always something...I was still kind of weird about it," Lee admitted. "It's in America or anywhere where you're not white, people are like, 'Well, you're different,' and that feels wrong."

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Yuh-Jung Youn's Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for Minari embodied a specific emotion that Lee thinks only first-generation Americans can relate to.

"Yuh-Jung Youn said something beautiful, where she was like but it's different for the kids who were born here or who came here when they were really young because they grow up thinking they're American—and they are American—but they're being told that they're different so there's that different struggle and pain that I feel like our generation goes through that only first or second generation Americans know because it is a specific experience," Lee added. "We're not in our home countries where everyone looks like us."


Despite the feeling of being "different," Lee is now proud of her heritage. "Now I'm like, 'Yeah I know but that's what's awesome.' That's what it is. We are all different but we're American. Thats what makes America America," Lee concluded. "I think it's a lifelong journey of totally owning yourself." 

The actress is looking ahead to her own music career outside of Zoey's and has a pop single coming out in late May. Lee teased that some Zoey's co-stars will make appearances in the "fun summer song" music video. "I feel like there's more room for Asian-American artists in the music scene," Lee stated. 

Her EP album will be released summer 2021. In the meantime, fans can watch Lee in the season 2 finale of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist on Sunday, May 16 at 9 p.m. on NBC.

E! News' AAPI Heritage Month Ones to Watch series will run throughout the month of May. 

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