“Is that Brenda Song?!”
One of the salespeople who ropes tourists into taking double-decker bus tours spots her as she poses on a New York City sidewalk. Passersby are stopping and gawking as she turns it up for the camera. It’s a bright fall day and the actor stuns in a kelly green turtleneck paired with a chic jungle-meets-the-future skirt. The ensemble feels like something out of the closet of Madison Maxwell, Brenda’s recent role in Hulu’s Dollface, a 20-something ambitious publicist with a knack for telling others what they’re going to do instead of asking what they want to do.
When you see a Disney Channel legend like Brenda on the streets, you can’t help but crack a smile and reminisce about those wonder years on the beloved network. That time she was karate-chopping Wendy Wu, homecoming warrior (FYI, Brenda’s also a second-degree black belt in taekwondo in real life), or those years she spent playing London Tipton, our generation’s original crazy rich Asian with the self-congratulatory catchphrase “Yay me.” To see the actor in person today is to see some of your most cherished pop culture memories now as an adult, dressed to the nines, killing it, thriving. What we all hope for in our own adult lives.
“Yep, that’s Brenda Song,” I replied with a fat grin on my face.
“When I was 16, my mom got breast cancer for the first time. I got accepted to the college I've always wanted to go to. I also booked The Suite Life,” Brenda says, twirling uni pasta with her fork onto her spoon. It’s a few weeks after the photo shoot and we’re sitting at Kali, one of her favorite restaurants in Los Angeles. “So my dad was like, ‘What do you want to do because here's the thing: You go to college to figure out what you want to do, but if this is what you want to do, you have this amazing opportunity to do it. At the same time, if you do that, it has to become your career because Mom and Dad can't drive you anymore.’”
Up until then, acting was treated as an after-school activity for Brenda — if she misbehaved, she didn’t get to go to auditions. The daughter of immigrants, her mother had her at 17 while her father was working as an electrician and also studying to become a schoolteacher. The family’s home was in a low-income neighborhood of Sacramento, where she loved watching Star Search and practicing her runway walk in front of stuffed animals. When she was four, she fell ill and refused to take her Robitussin. Her grandmother brokered a deal: If Brenda took her medicine, she’d let her take classes at the acting school she wouldn’t shut up about. Once she recovered, Brenda held her grandmother to the agreement. So her grandmother, who was working as a housekeeper at the time, withdrew everything out of her savings account, $527, and Brenda enrolled in the acting school through which she met an agent.
First, she booked a commercial. Then eventually she nabbed her first major television role at age 10 on Nickelodeon’s 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd — a zany kid’s sitcom about a former bully who has magically turned into a dog and won't revert back until he completes 100 good deeds. Following her stint on Nickelodeon, Brenda began her reign on Disney Channel. In 2000, Brenda made her DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie) debut in The Ultimate Christmas Present, a wacky, ahead-of-its-time movie where she and her best friend Allie (Hallee Hirsh) literally cause a snowstorm of trouble after they steal Santa Claus’s weather machine to engineer a snow day. She starred alongside Lindsay Lohan in Get a Clue, in which a group of high schoolers follow a thread of mysteries in search of a missing teacher. Stuck in the Suburbs had her playing the rambunctious Natasha, a teen whose best friend, Brittany (Danielle Panabaker), accidentally swaps phones with pop sensation Jordan Cahill (Taran Killam) after he visits their suburban hometown.
As many know, she took the Suite Life of Zack and Cody gig as London Tipton, the airheaded heiress with a heart of gold. What a lot of fans might not know is that she originally auditioned for the role of Maddie, the studious, hardworking candy-counter girl at the Tipton that ultimately went to Ashley Tisdale, and vice versa.
“I don’t think people realize how ahead of the curve Disney Channel was,” Brenda says. “They were colorblind casting way before anybody else. They were giving me TV movies since I was 15 that people would never even think about. They were just telling stories and wanting kids to be able to see themselves on TV at a young age.”
Brenda’s half Thai, half Hmong, but her Thai mother was adopted into a Hmong family, so she was raised speaking Hmong and celebrating Hmong culture with her two younger brothers. Although she says that she “definitely struggled with insecurity” and “crazy Asian traditions” that her friends didn’t understand, she’s always been proud of where she comes from thanks to guidance from her mother.
It’s safe to say that Brenda was one of the first Asian Americans many young people saw on television, at least in fully developed roles instead of just being a throwaway background extra or one-liner guest star. Sure, her characters were often exaggerations, London best embodying that, but this made sense for children’s programming. For many young Asian Americans who didn’t see themselves represented in pop culture, Brenda was a beacon of hope. Her slew of different characters on Disney Channel showed that there were different ways you could be an Asian American teen. And the fact that London was the best character on Suite Life? Yay us.
So it was no surprise in 2018, when Crazy Rich Asians came out and sparked conversations about Asian representation, that the Disney Channel generation was reminded of London. Memes dubbing her the original Crazy Rich Asian made the rounds on the internet, resharing screencaps of London’s most indulgently wealthy moments.
“To be just a part of that conversation, I was just happy with that,” she says. “It's way past the time that this should have been happening. I was like, even though London Tipton lived over 15 years ago, we're fine with it.”
London’s legacy also extends beyond her luxurious lifestyles. There’s one thing that people come up to Brenda for more than anything else: the PRNDL. The scene is quintessential London, who’s learning to drive from Mr. Moseby (Phill Lewis) and refers to the gear shift as the PRNDL — park, reverse, neutral, drive, low.
“Phill made me laugh so hard. We didn't get very many takes because the ‘AM/FM’ [line] broke me so many times. We shot that scene so quickly, we never even thought twice about it,” she says. “I have so many people that are like, ‘That's how I remember. When I learned how to drive I just remember the PRNDL.’ I'm so glad that we could get some useful information out there.”
Growing pains are a part of anyone’s passage into young adulthood, even if you’re one of the Disney Channel’s most recognizable performers. Brenda learned that early on with her mother’s continual batter with cancer, something that wasn’t in the public eye when she was playing one of the funniest characters on television. Today, Brenda has become outspoken about cancer awareness through Stand Up to Cancer by sharing her mother’s journey, who has had it four times since she was first diagnosed.
“The first time it happened, you're just so young and almost in denial that you just don't know. It happened again, it wears on you. You live with death looming over you,’” she says. “Having had the death talk at such a young age and living with it, was so incredibly impactful in my teenage years. My mom still has her chemo treatments every three weeks, and it's so normal for us because we've been doing it for 15 years now, and we have to remind ourselves that it's not normal. It has made our family so communicative.”
As anyone who's coming into their own, there were other avenues that Brenda wanted to explore beyond what she was doing in her everyday life. When Clint Eastwood was making Gran Torino, the first mainstream American film to feature Hmong Americans, she says she read for a role but Disney didn’t let her move forward in the process because of an implied rape that takes place in the movie. Having to pull out was devastating because she was excited about the possibility of speaking Hmong in a role.
She went on to appear in 2010’s The Social Network as Christy, who sipped appletinis with while discussing the fortune that Facebook one day would be worth and interrogated her boyfriend (Andrew Garfield), the CFO of Facebook, as to why he didn’t know how to change his profile’s relationship status before ultimately starting a fire in a trash can on his bed. It was her last season of Suite Life on Deck, and Disney also apparently had hesitations about Brenda signing on to the Aaron Sorkin feature, but they eventually came around.
In more recent years, Brenda has had a slew of roles that she was “breaking into this adult world but still able to play my age and do things that I felt comfortable doing.” She popped up in a couple of episodes of Scandal and New Girl, starred in short-lived network series such as Dads and Pure Genius, and had her own 2017 Freeform holiday flick Angry Angel. She’s thankful for everything that’s come her way, but there was one “no” that struck a chord with her.
“A lot of people don't know this, but I never got to read for Crazy Rich Asians, ever,” she says. A fan of the books, she asked her managers if she could get a meeting or audition for any possible part. Her managers came back to her with the message from Crazy Rich Asians that she wasn’t right for a role in their eyes.
“Their reasoning behind that, what they said was that my image was basically not Asian enough, in not so many words. It broke my heart,” she says. “I said, ‘This character is in her late to mid-20s, an Asian American, and I can't even audition for it? I've auditioned for Caucasian roles my entire career, but this specific role, you're not going to let me do it? You're going to fault me for having worked my whole life?’ I was like, ‘Where do I fit?’”
After the Crazy Rich Asians heartbreak, she took some time off to travel. During that time, she worked through the disappointment and returned home to Los Angeles with a refreshed mindset.
“I got myself together and said, ‘Brenda, there is only one you, and you can't change who you are. You can't change your past.’ I am so grateful for every job that I've done," she says. "All I can do is continue to put good auditions out there, do the best that I can — that's all I can ask for."
Within a week of getting back, she was offered the lead role in the 2019 summer thriller Secret Obsession for Netflix that was viewed 40 million times in its first four weeks on the platform. Soon after, Dollface came onto the playing field.
“It's taken me almost 10 years from Disney to really feel like I found a niche for myself,” Brenda says. “At 31 I finally feel like I know what my strengths are, and I'm trying to steer into that. The thing is, people are like, ‘Well, we know you from comedy, so you have to do something to change everyone's minds.’ I was like, ‘Why? This is what I love to do.’”
Brenda owns the role as Madison in Hulu’s Dollface. Created by Jordan Weiss and featuring producers such as Margot Robbie, the series is sort of Sex and the City meets Broad City set in Los Angeles with a dash of surrealism. Jules, played by Kat Dennings, is dumped in the very first scene and comes crawling back to her former BFF Madison after years of neglect. The comedy also stars Shay Mitchell as Stella, the party girl with one-liners that kill, and Esther Povitsky as the neurotic ball of stress known as Izzy who works with Jules. An ensemble cast, the show works best when it’s all four of them in a scene together, their chemistry bubbling into comedic perfection.
The comedy’s approach to friendship is what shines bright. It shows that you’re allowed to be angry or not want to talk to your friend when they’ve done something hurtful, and it doesn't portray that behavior as catty. As Brenda puts it, it’s a “twist on a show about girlfriends who are just living their lives.”
Brenda thought she blew the audition for Madison and that they’d make her read for Stella considering her body of work with silly, wild characters. She was beating herself up so much that she was shocked when they asked her back to read for Madison with Kat. When she ultimately booked the show, Brenda was “so emotional” because it was a “dream job” for her.
“I've always been a part of male-driven projects and it was amazing [to be] literally going to work every day and hanging out with my girlfriends,” Brenda says. ”It flew by so quickly because we literally just hung out for four months. We became so close because we all got along and we were so surprised that none of us had ever met each other before. It was meant to be.”
Brenda jokes about how they all largely act like their characters IRL as well. That if they were all to go to lunch together, she’d be the one starting the group text asking for everyone’s availability, Shay would recommend an amazing spot that nobody knows about yet, Esther would be asking about the menu options since she doesn’t eat meat, and Kat would be the one asking if it’s nearby because she doesn’t want to leave the house.
The Dollface star can’t stop gassing up her castmates and the bonds she formed with Kat, Shay, and Esther. How generous Kat is as a scene partner and the hard work she put in as an executive producer for the show, watching cuts and giving notes all the while also starring. How the girls would check in with Shay as she got closer and closer to her due date (she was cracking jokes up until finally going to labor). How much she’s loved seeing Esther perform her hilarious stand-up at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. It’s clear just how much Brenda cares for each and every one of her costars (and is also looking forward to going to a knitting convention with Kat).
Recently, Brenda made her return to Disney Channel as the voice of Anne Boonchuy in Amphibia. Coincidentally, the character is also half Thai, making for a serendipitous homecoming. Some of her friendships from those teen years are also just as strong. When Danielle Panabaker’s former Sky High costar Michael Angarano guest-starred on Dollface, she was quick to send her Stuck in the Suburbs partner a photo. Brenda’s known Aly and AJ Michalka since she was 14 and was a bridesmaid at Aly’s wedding along with being in the musical duo’s dreamy, ethereal music video for “Star Maps.”
“As we all grow older and spin into adult careers, seeing each other is amazing because we've all been through this crazy thing together that not very many people understand,” she says. “I wouldn't stay friends with them just because we worked together. These people are great, and it makes me really happy to see them all so successful. It's not easy to make that transition.”
What’s next for Brenda? There’s, of course, letting fans get through the first season of Dollface. But she jokes that she’s completely booked on Sundays and Monday nights thanks to football season. She considers herself a “spinster with a Mr.,” spending her free time baking and at home watching The Great British Bake Off.
“I have no idea what the future holds, and I used to be scared of that, but now I get excited,” she says. “I really feel like what's meant to happen will. I guess this is adulting.”
Photographer: Emma Trim (@emmatrim)
Stylist: Kandace Banks (@_kandace)
Hair: Monae Everett (@monaeartistry)
Makeup: Charlie Riddle (@charlieriddle)
Photo assistant: Megan Leonard (@megan.g.leonard)
Fashion assistant: Lee Musho (@lee_musho)
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue