Lucy Liu overcomes a painful girlhood self-image and goes into full-fetish mode for a belated shot at action-babe stardom.

by Tom Kagy


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Plucky Duckling

ucy Liu brings to mind an old adage about the smallest peppers being the hottest. At 5-1 she's a full head shorter than Charlie's Angels co-star Cameron Diaz (5-9), tinier even than the petite Drew Barrymore (5-4). Yet there's no question as to who -- in a stiletto-à-stiletto free-for-all -- would kick whose tightly-clad butts. It isn't so much Liu's reputed training in an Indonesian fighting art as her no-roles-barred attitude. Lucy Liu

     On the long, treacherous climb toward the top of the Hollywood heap, Liu has beaten out legions of taller, shapelier, prettier and more talented Asian actors by her commando-style readiness to do more in less. Think leather-strapped dominatrix (City of Industry (1997)) and hooker/stripper/nympho scenes in various B-, C- and D-movies. Even back in those desperate early days, Liu had the ambition and foresight to know that she didn't want her real name attached to the seamiest roles. She often worked under the elegantly deceptive Lucy Lui or the more flambouyant Lucy Alexis Liu.

     A remarkable thing about Lucy Liu's career is that her breakthrough into the ranks of bona-fide A-movie sex-symbols came at the relatively ripe age of 31. That was how old she was when the first Charlie's Angels movie opened in 2000. Her co-stars were, respectively, 28 and 25 -- and both had achieved stardom years earlier. Now that she's three years older, Liu is doing even better. Her second time around as the high-kicking Alex Munday, Liu earned a reported $4.8 million, quintupling the $850,000 from her first Angel outing. That's less than the reported $8 million and $12.5 million, respectively, for her fellow Angels, but considerably more than any other Asian American actress has ever made.


     Not bad for a little girl born into a struggling Chinese immigrant family in Queens, New York on December 2, 1968 -- especially one who grew up seeing herself as the most repulsive of ugly ducklings.

Lucy Liu leads a group of assassins in her latest action role.
Lucy Liu

     “I was as thin as a pipe cleaner, with short, short hair,” she told Red magazine. “My mother would cut my hair all the way round my head like a bowl because she thought it was cleaner. You couldn't tell if I was a boy or a girl. I had hand-me-down clothes; I was skinny, gaunt and generally unattractive.”

     That self-image survived into adulthood in the form of a painful shyness and awkwardness. In the fast-paced social environment of NYU, she was a fish out of water. She endured it for a year, then transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She combined acting, dancing and singing with a degree program in Asian languages. She also studied kali-escrima-silat, an Indonesian knife-and-stick martial art which, decades later, would prove useful to her acting career. PAGE 2

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“ You couldn't tell if I was a boy or a girl. I had hand-me-down clothes; I was skinny, gaunt and generally unattractive.”