Who are the most famous Americans I haven't heard of?
December 10, 2012 10:10 PM   Subscribe

Who are the most famous Americans I probably don't know about because their fame is primarily within non-English speaking communities?

Jenni Rivera's death is a huge news story, but I had never heard of her before. Likewise, when I flip through channels on my TV here in New York, I see people on shows produced here in the US who are obviously celebrities, but I know nothing about them because they're famous to Korean speaking Americans, or Mandarin speaking Americans, or Russian speaking Americans.

Who are the most famous Americans in non-anglophone culture? I am specifically talking about people who primarily live, work, and are famous in the United States, not Americans who have found fame in a non-anglophone culture abroad.
posted by ocherdraco to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I see people on shows produced here in the US who are obviously celebrities
How do you know that they're produced in the US? The Chinese and Korean stations in LA have some American-produced news or talk shows, but the star-studded dramas/comedies/variety shows generally come straight from Asia. I know a few Mandarin news anchors and they aren't famous whatsoever. There's no Chinese or Korean equivalent to Univison/Telemundo, which are US-based Spanish-language national broadcast networks. No major music companies, either. It's pretty difficult to find fame and fortune without a national distribution network, so most people trying to make it as non-anglophone stars pursue success in their countries of origin.

The traditional path to fame for talented Korean-American teens, for instance, is to audition for a Korean entertainment group, become a "trainee", spend several years practicing in total anonymity, join a new boy band or girl group, make a hit record, and land a part on a TV show. Typically the next step is Japan. They can become famous in America (among lovers of K-pop, not all of whom are Korean or Korean-speakers) without even trying, through the internet. If they really only want to live and work in America, then there's no reason for them to not use English.
posted by acidic at 12:34 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is a Canadian close enough? Dashan made it big in China!
posted by vasi at 12:55 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about Akebono and Konishiki? Both born in Hawaii, but became famous in Japan (and Hawaii) as sumo wrestlers. I live in Hawaii, so I'm not sure what level of fame they achieved among mainland Americans, Japanese-speaking or otherwise.
posted by zanni at 4:04 AM on December 11, 2012

John Reed perhaps?
posted by blob at 4:24 AM on December 11, 2012

Sixto Rodriguez?
posted by Grither at 4:36 AM on December 11, 2012

Dante Carver is somewhat famous in Japan and appears on commercials there all the time. I doubt many Americans have heard of him though. There are several actors like that in Japan.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 5:20 AM on December 11, 2012

Cristina Saralegui is a Cuban-American (born in Cuba but came to the US with her family after the Cuban Revolution, at age 12) whose talk show La Show de Cristina was filmed in Miami and was a huge huge hit both with US Hispanic Audiences and throughout Latin America. So I'm not sure if that meets your criteria "primarily ... famous in the United States" because she's such a household name throughout Latin America.

I'll point out one reason your criteria are a little tricky, at least for the world of entertainers, and based on what I know about the Spanish-speaking media at least. There are, for example, many cases of American-born Latinos who are well-known among US Latinos and Latin Americans on the backs of work produced outside the U.S. (e.g., Angélica María). Then you have entertainers like Don Francisco whose (huge, huge international hit) show is filmed in Miami, but he also taped a version of the show in his home country in Chile and he still identities as Chilean, not American.

But if you are really interested in people who have achieved fame primarily among U.S. Latinos and not among the global Spanish-speaking audiences it narrows things down a lot, because big-budget Spanish-language media produced in the U.S. is usually also marketed to Spanish-speaking audiences abroad, and because the Spanish-language tabloids, etc. are keenly aware of and publicizing the exploits of popular U.S.-based Latino/a entertainers. Basically, at least for mainstream media and genres, there are not clear bins of "produced for/popular in the U.S." and "produced for/popular with the global Spanish-speaking audience."

Probably the strongest exception/examples for "primarily ... famous in the United States" would be recording artists working in regional/niche genres that have their biggest audiences in the US: Latino rappers, and arguably norteño music (especially that coming from U.S.-based artists) has a bigger audience in the US than in Mexico. There I might name stars like New York Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee. And the slightly borderline case *because they are immigrants, like Cristina, but definitely US-based and have been for their entire careers) of Los Tigres del Norte, who are probably the biggest norteño group ever and I think they've done all their recording and most of their touring in the U.S. They are also a big enough phenomenon that I suspect the name would be familiar even on the many East Coast Latino communities that are predominantly non-Mexican American.

(for the purposes of this answer, I've considered Puerto Rico to not be part of the U.S.)
posted by drlith at 5:32 AM on December 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am specifically talking about people who primarily live, work, and are famous in the United States, not Americans who have found fame in a non-anglophone culture abroad.

So if I got this straight, you're looking for individuals who are American /grew up in the US, probably belong to an ethnic / linguistic minority group and are famous within that minority group.

My guess is that there are not many who would fit this description, because 1) if you want to become famous / popular you'd want to appeal to as large an audience as possible, whatever the language it speaks and hence English would be on your agenda to learn and 2) most of these ethnic minority Americans seeking fame and fortune (or fortune through fame) would probably be 2nd generation or below, and hence would grow up speaking English, so why would they limit themselves? They often don't have strong command of their non-English native tongue too. Another reason might be that the population of said ethnic minority might not be large enough to support a celebrity that caters just to that minority group. Sure there are lots of Latinos in the US, so you might have predominantly Spanish-speaking Hispanic culture celebs who mainly attract their own kind (I don't know of any), but for example I can't see a Mandarin-speaking only celeb making it big, just because at least in my area there aren't a lot of Mandarin-speaking only people here. (Plus, Chinese culture or traditional Confucian culture sorta frowns on making lots of money by plastering your face everywhere.) A Mandarin celeb might be able to do well in the enclaves of say NYC or San Fran, but that's still a small fraction of the cities in question and of the general population.

Again, just a guess. There might be some out there, but I haven't heard of any.
posted by ditto75 at 6:22 AM on December 11, 2012

Response by poster: How do you know that they're produced in the US?

Good point. I saw some panel shows on one of the Chinese channels that were definitely filmed in New York (they had an English language notice in the credits indicating their location) so i was extrapolating and assuming other shows are filmed here, too.

By the way Dashan is exactly what I'm NOT looking for, nor is Dante Carver or Akebono: none of them are famous for work they do in the United States .

drlith, I think Don Francisco gets at the spirit of what I'm asking about. While he is not only famous to Americans, his fame is based on work he is doing in America.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:27 AM on December 11, 2012

Would someone like Dolores Huerta count? I'm not clear if you're only looking for entertainment folks or if other sorts of famous people would count too.

Selena is another performer who didn't really come into the English-speaking American consciousness until she was murdered, but that's almost 20 years ago now.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:33 AM on December 11, 2012

Response by poster: Dolores Huerta fits what I'm thinking about. While I got started thinking about this because of entertainment figures, I'm really looking for anyone who fits the criteria, regardless of their line of work. It doesn't have to be someone who's on TV.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:42 AM on December 11, 2012

If fame among an American language group (even if that group is small) is enough, then various Hassidic Rebbes would qualify among Yiddish speakers.
posted by Jahaza at 7:00 AM on December 11, 2012

Any California high school student is supposed to know who Dolores Huerta is, depending on how much of the assigned reading they did. She's hardly obscure. I think this might be more regional or situational--I live in LA, don't watch much TV, and I knew who Jenni Rivera was--she was very popular. Do you recognize the winners of the Latin Grammy awards?
posted by Ideefixe at 7:02 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Nope.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:23 AM on December 11, 2012

Bob Sapp in Japan?

This isn't quite an answer to your question, but Newt Gingrich once exerted outsized influence over the affairs of Mongolia.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:54 AM on December 11, 2012

And people who do know those musicians probably aren't up on shoe-gaze, either. I think this sort of question is really more about individual interests, or how much attention someone pays to pop culture that's not directly in front of their gaze. My building's repair guy is from Costa Rica and he didn't know Jenni, but he's all over mixed martial arts.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:54 AM on December 11, 2012

Among young adult Asian Americans there are some "celebrities" that are probably not very well-known to other people. (Including not-so-young adult Asian Americans, or teenage Asian Americans.) I'm thinking about people like:

Wang Fu: a group of guys who make movies, and started with funny youtube videos. (I'm not personally a fan, but they're VERY popular.)
Joanna Wang: a Taiwanese-American singer/song-writer who has a sound very similar to Norah Jones. While her professional music career seems to be more of the stuff that was produced in Taiwan, she was first well-known among Asian Americans for what she wrote/performed in LA.
Kal Penn: If you know him, you probably know him as Kumar from Harold and Kumar. He also starred in The Namesake, taught at UPenn, and worked (works?) for the Obama administration.
Michelle Krusiec: She's an actress who starred in Saving Face, and is often on TV in small roles. She's also currently starring in the play Chinglish.

However, all these people speak and perform in English. They just don't have that large a fan-base outside of Asian Americans. If you're really interested in people who are famous in a language-specific community, Yalek Huynh is probably known to any Cantonese-speaking family in the SF Bay Area, because he has hosted the local Cantonese News for a LONG time.

(On preview, I agree with Ideefixe. It's not like not-knowing these people is really specific to ethnicity. It's more like how I don't know any metal bands because I don't particularly enjoy metal music.)
posted by tinymegalo at 4:53 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if this counts, but I remember when I was in China in 2004 people were really into the song Big Big World by Emilia. Not sure how famous the actual singer was, though. It was a song that I had maybe heard a couple times in the States, but I remember hearing it a lot there. I think it might have been popular as an English learning song.
posted by imalaowai at 8:51 PM on December 11, 2012

Aha! And, I finally found the New Yorker article I was thinking of, about Renán Almendárez Coello. For years he had (maybe still has?) the most-listened show in any language in Los Angeles.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:33 PM on December 11, 2012

Response by poster: These are all interesting, thank you. I get that there might not be a while lot of people who fit the specific thing I was asking for, but these folks seem to get at the spirit of my question, which I guess could be summed up as "Who do I not know about because I am a white anglophone person who doesn't regularly consume non-English media?" Or, more succinctly, "What interesting people are right in front of my eyes if I only knew where to look for them?" Thanks all.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:21 PM on December 12, 2012

Your original criteria were almost impossible to meet. You ask for Americans to be famous in non-anglophile culture yet they are not allow to pursue success in the said non-anglophile countries by forcing them to base in the U.S.

With your new clarification I have one guy in mind.

Leehom Wang. WTF! Born and raised in Rochester NY. Formally trained at the Eastman School of Music, Williams College and Berklee College of Music. Leehom is probably most famous pop star nobody ever heard of because he's currently base in Taiwan. Let's me give you a statistic for his popularity, he currently has 27 millions followers on Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter). Go listen to his music and more music. Go watch his interviews (in English!) on CNN.

Let me ask you question, would he achieves a fraction of his success if he has stayed in the U.S. ?
posted by Carius at 4:21 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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