Tanya Kim, Multimedia Personality and Animal Advocate

On how a lack of representation impacted her self-worth, the challenges of being a Korean woman in media, and how anti-Asian racism has affected her.

On how a lack of representation impacted her self-worth, the challenges of being a Korean woman in media, and how anti-Asian racism has affected her.

tanya kim

(Photo: Jared Leckie/ai Toronto Seoul)

by Isabelle Khoo
June 28, 2021




Before Tanya Kim became a Canadian household name, she initially dreamed of being an “In Living Colour” fly girl like Jennifer Lopez. This dream was inspired by her brother, who became a professional dancer and had the amazing opportunity to work with high-profile celebs like Michael Jackson and Gloria Estefan. 

Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the arts were always a big part of Kim and her brother’s life. “Being the good Korean kids that we were,” Kim said, they were enrolled in a wide range of lessons, including piano and dancing.

But while Kim’s parents were always supportive of her, they asked her to choose a “less unpredictable” career than her brother, which is how she ended up in broadcast media. 

“I always had a curiosity for journalism,” Kim explained. “I was addicted to murder mysteries — 48 Hours, Primetime Live — and all of those magazine news shows. I loved watching [them] with my mom. It was quite a bonding experience.”

The multimedia personality got her big break as the co-anchor on etalk alongside Ben Mulroney in 2003 — a role which lasted 10 years. Since then, Kim has continued to cement herself as a multitalented on-air host, producer, and animal advocate. 

The latter is a passion that led to her latest collaboration. In April, Kim partnered with local Toronto brand ai Toronto Seoul to release a hands-free, PETA-approved vegan leather bag with an attachable cross-body dog leash. The limited-edition bag was affectionately dubbed “The Mabel” after one of Kim’s beloved rescue dogs.

As a self-professed “crazy dog mom,” Kim had always thought about creating dog accessories but wasn’t sure how that would come to life. “I knew it would eventually happen either on my own or with someone,” she said. “I’m telling you, if you have a thought, write it down; manifest that shit. It’s gonna happen. Just believe in yourself.” 

Kim’s go-getter attitude and resilience is one of the reasons she’s been able to become such a prominent figure in Canadian media, despite the lack of diversity on-screen. But her life hasn’t been without challenges. 

Below, Kim speaks to The RepresentASIAN Project about how a lack of representation on- and off-screen impacted her self-worth, the challenges of being a Korean woman in media, and how anti-Asian racism has affected her. 

(Photo: Courtesy Tanya Kim)

On how a lack of representation impacted her self-worth

There was no representation, barely any, when I was growing up. Back in my day, Connie Chung was probably the first and maybe only Asian female face for the longest time, especially on the national airwaves. Then Sandra Oh came along and I was like, “Oh, a Korean! Finally.” But it definitely made me feel othered. 

At the same time, being born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, the population was about 85,000 and I was one out of maybe 10 ethnic people; four of them were my family. So we already felt like we stood out. We never saw people like us on the airwaves, in the papers, in the magazines, so it definitely affected my sense of self. I didn’t have the greatest self-esteem because of that, along with getting made fun of when I was little. 

When I was younger I also longed to have lighter coloured hair and eyes because I thought that’s what the standard of beauty was. I was conditioned by society [and the media] to think only people with white skin, light-coloured hair and eyes were considered beautiful and pretty. Fast forward to my first year of journalism school when I decided to pick up extra hours at my part-time job while juggling school work, all so I could save enough money to purchase non-prescription coloured contact lenses because I thought that would make me more beautiful, more acceptable, in the eyes of others. 

I wish I could give that version of me a big hug. Imagine trying to change the traits you’re born with just to “fit in” and be thought of as beautiful. I don’t ever want any other young Asian girls to feel that way. 

It took me quite a number of years into my adulthood (and therapy) to finally come to a place of acceptance, self-love and self-worth. Even then those things are still a work in progress. I’m just more mindful of it and mindful of me being OK with me and not worrying about what other people think or what uneducated guesses they may be making about our cultures and our ethnicities. 

“When I was younger I also longed to have lighter coloured hair and eyes because I thought that’s what the standard of beauty was…I wish I could give that version of me a big hug. Imagine trying to change the traits you’re born with just to ‘fit in’ and be thought of as beautiful. I don’t ever want any other young Asian girls to feel that way.”

On feeling like the token Asian in Canadian media

As an intern working at MuchMusic and then working my way up, I never really felt like I looked different even though I never saw [myself] in the building as producers, editors, camera people. But I was always very aware of the fact that I was the one — the token. 

It felt like, “OK, I hear you and I know you would love to be on camera but that spot is already filled by, for example, Sook-Yin Lee.” She was also an Asian face that was ahead of me in the game and that I could relate to. I thought, “This is so amazing,” but again, until that one person was gone, I really felt that there was no room for me or someone who looked like me because the tokenism thing was very obvious. 

Moving forward, I have to give credit to the two people who created etalk. Their names were Jordan Schwartz and Morley Nirenberg and they, for some reason, saw me and they needed a co-host for Ben [Mulroney]. That’s what it came down to, as far as I know, the work and I guess the right timing. But the fact that this major network allowed me to be a co-host of a national primetime television show was no small feat and I was so proud to own that even if it was a diversity thing. I don’t know to this day if it was, but I really do want to applaud them for at least taking that chance because back then there were no Asians leading their own show at the time. So I was very honoured to hold that position and feel the support from the CTV bosses at the time. 

On what her immigrant parents taught her about resilience

I feel like a lot of immigrant parents are similar in the way they teach us resilience by example, even if they aren’t verbally communicating that. They teach us how to be strong and resilient and keep moving forward. All of those things did help me [in my career].  

Getting laid off from etalk was devastating. It was a very difficult time and I think there’s still residual [feelings] left. You place a lot of worth on what you’ve accomplished sometimes, so you forget about who you are as a person as you’re go-go-go. Once that’s taken away from you and it’s quiet, you have to sit with yourself. So therapy and my parents’ strength have helped me not just give in to the grief and the mourning of [my job]. 

However, I do have to say, at the same time the whole “keep your head down and keep going” [attitude] is exhausting. Through therapy I learned you don’t have to be resilient all the time. It’s a good foundation but if you’re not dealing with all the other emotions that are coming up due to some traumatic event, then you’re screwed. It’s going to affect you and be toxic to you for the rest of your life. So I had to work through that too. 

On finding the courage to talk about mental health despite the stigma in Asian culture

The first time I started [talking about my mental health] was probably during my recovery period of getting laid off the first time. I think I was inspired by therapy, growing into my own as an adult, owning myself and being inspired by different people on social media. I saw how vulnerable and open they were and how I could connect with that. I wanted to hopefully be able to remain authentic and continue to do that too for anyone else who might be struggling or going through something similar. 

Also, [I found courage in] learning that to be vulnerable is actually the most beautiful thing all of us can be. Taking the leap is scary, but at the end of the day, once you receive that love and [comments like] “I feel the same way” or “I went through the same thing,” that just solidifies the reason why it’s always better to be real and vulnerable because we’re all human beings. We all bleed the same. That’s what we need to remember. 

On how anti-Asian racism during the pandemic has impacted her 

It’s really affected me. The Black Lives Matter movement was triggering for me, but this in particular is triggering because it’s bringing up old wounds that have been buried and it’s made me really think — and maybe overthink — about situations that I’ve been in in the past. Sometimes you spend so much time thinking about those things that you forget to be in the present and that can actually make you spiral. 

Seeing the visuals, it makes me cry every single time because I think about my parents. Thankfully, despite all the racism that they’ve probably experienced as immigrants to Canada, they’re safe now. I don’t worry about them living in the community that they’ve been a part of for close to 50 years. But I definitely worry about my fellow Asian community and my friends’ families and my friends’ parents. It’s very upsetting and some days I just can’t be on social media or turn on the news. Sometimes I just have no words. I [think], how much more can I personally ingest? It’s a lot to take in and process and learn about. My brain just feels like it’s going to explode but in a good way because I’m trying to erase some things that I’ve been taught incorrectly and educate myself and it’s a lot to handle. I can’t even imagine the Indigenous peoples going through it and Black people going through their stuff and Asians… It’s just a lot of shit going down now, so it’s been draining. 

I have to honour those feelings [of exhaustion], but also pull up the bootstraps and continue to uplift our communities and do what I can, however small, to make this a better living situation for everyone. 

On being a role model for Asian women in media

Being in the industry I’ve been in for so long, so much joy comes from being able to meet people who have watched me and shared stories like, “Oh my gosh, you’re a face that we could relate to finally!” I know that feeling, so it just touches my heart to hear that and to just let them know that it’s a slow process, we’re going to get there, but keep knocking those doors down.

I don’t want young Asian females, in particular, to have to worry about [tokenism]. Your Asian beauty, your smarts, your talents, your hard work, your kindness, that is what is going to get you to where you want to be and if I can do it, you can do it. If I can continue to spread that message, then that’s being a role model.

I don’t want young Asian females, in particular, to have to worry about [tokenism]. Your Asian beauty, your smarts, your talents, your hard work, your kindness, that is what is going to get you to where you want to be and if I can do it, you can do it. If I can continue to spread that message, then that’s being a role model.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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