Living out of her manager’s car for five years, LiLiCo learned the hard way just how challenging and painstaking the road to stardom could be. The Stockholm-born celebrity, who now interviews the likes of Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio for the television show King’s Brunch, used to wash herself in parking lots, hardly slept and ate very little as she struggled to keep her dream of being an idol alive.
By Matthew Hernon
“Everybody told me the easiest thing to do was to go back to Sweden, but I didn’t have the money for that,” she tells us when we caught up with the 43-year old at a restaurant in Azabu-Juban. “So what do you do? You have to live; I therefore had no option other than getting up and going to work. My manager and I would drive up and down the country and I would sing at various clubs.
“Of course there were times when it was hard; you’re often hungry and desperate for a proper wash. The summer was particularly difficult because you couldn’t leave the doors open because it was too dangerous, and the air-conditioner has a detrimental effect on your voice. You just have to put up with it. The fact that I was pursuing my dream, however, made things that much easier! At the same time, I thought this was something I could write a book about in the future.”
And that is what she did, releasing her autobiography Crayfish and Sunflowers in 2010. As well as detailing her life on the road, the book also delves deeply into LiLiCo’s relationship with her parents, who were inspired to marry partially thanks to the inspiration of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
“My father was a huge Beatles fan—particularly of John—so when he married Yoko my dad decided to follow in his footsteps and try to find a Japanese lady. My mum happened to be backpacking in Sweden at the time, they fell in love, [and] soon after that I was born.” But the marriage proved to be a volatile one: arguments and thrown dishes were far too common memories. LiLiCo’s father left by the time she was nine and while they get on very well now, she barely saw him during her teenage years.
Those years were particularly trying ones for the youngster growing up in Stockholm. Her Asian appearance made her an easy target for bullies at school and things were even worse at home. She would spend much of her time taking care of her sick younger brother, while her mother often insulted her saying things like “everything you do is terrible; you can’t be my daughter.” She regularly dismissed her dream of becoming a singer saying she was “too ugly,” and if she ever struggled with her homework she would call her “the most stupid girl on the planet.” The put-downs continued even after LiLiCo became famous.
“She passed away two years ago, but there was no reconciliation before she died,” says LiLiCo. “Of course I have regrets about it. I’m like anyone, I wanted to love my mum and get a hug from her, but it never happened. We can’t choose our family: I know we are always supposed to appreciate our parents, but sometimes it’s not possible. I spoke about this on some TV shows and got a lot of feedback from people who felt the same, but didn’t have the courage to open up to others.”
In spite of the discouraging words from her mother, LiLiCo’s will and determination to become a star intensified. Flicking through the teen magazines that her grandmother sent from Japan, she realized that she stood a better chance of becoming an idol away from Sweden and decided to move to Tokyo. After a year working in a bento shop, followed by five years of roughing it on the road, LiLiCo released her first single in 1992 and then got a job as a voice actor on the Japanese version of the satirical animated sitcom South Park.
“I’d never heard of the show before I started, but I soon came to love it,” she says. “There were only five of us doing all the voices and we were always laughing so much. My main character was Cartman, who is hilarious. Playing him I could feel my voice getting deeper and deeper. It only lasted six seasons here—there were just too many words we couldn’t say in Japanese, so WOWOW didn’t want to broadcast it anymore. Unfortunately they used different voices for the movie.”
Despite not being involved in it, the film did inadvertently help her career. Asked in a magazine interview what her three favorite movies of all time were, she chose South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Miss Congeniality and the Swedish movie Under the Sun. Her answer intrigued the producer of the popular Saturday morning show King’s Brunch, and he subsequently offered her a role as movie commentator on the program.
“I think it was the variety of my choices that interested him,” she reflects. Miss Congeniality is a nice romantic comedy, South Park is completely out there, while Under the Sun is quite dark.
“Whatever his reason, I couldn’t believe he chose me. It was an amazing opportunity. That said I found it really tricky at first. I wanted to quit the show every week back then.”
Thankfully she didn’t. LiLiCo grew into the position and soon established herself as one of the most likable and admired celebrities on Japanese TV. Her slightly eccentric, but extremely professional presenting style endeared her to viewers as well as the high-profile guests who sat opposite her. She has interviewed some of Hollywood’s biggest names and struck up a great rapport with many of them.
“My favorite ever has to be Gerard Butler,” she says with a smile. “He is always so funny. Will Smith is another I really enjoy interviewing. There are many actors that don’t want to be asked this or that, but he is not like that at all. I remember the first time I met him; it was at the Men in Black press conference. He pointed at me and said “I want a picture with that girl.” The next time I met him we took a photograph of that shot and we’ve continued doing that ever since. It has become numerous pictures within a picture.
The only autograph I ever got was from Colin Farrell, which he signed “to my sweetheart.” I never get overly excited about meeting anyone, but he is just the perfect guy. I think because he is so handsome, people forget what a good actor he is. Everyone knows about his bad-boy reputation but he is actually really calm.”
She has now been doing the show for 13 years and plans to go on for as long as they want her. In addition to King’s Brunch, she continues to act, sing, appear on a host of variety shows and write magazine columns, as well as having a regular slot on the radio. She also designs handbags and in May she will be launching her own jewellery collection LiLiNa. She clearly loves keeping busy and hardly takes any days off. Having worked so hard to get to where she is now, there is no way LiLiCo is going to take anything for granted.
“In this industry you never know what is around the corner,” she tells us. “I work each day as if it’s my last because I might not have a job tomorrow. In that sense things haven’t really changed since those early days in Japan when I was living out of a car. The one big difference of course, is that I now have a nice bed to go home to in the evenings.”
Images of LiLiCo courtesy of Leslie Kee (Super Sonic)