In the recent Lifetime movie, List of a Lifetime, Kelly Hu plays a woman driven to look for the daughter she gave up for adoption after she is diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I love this character so much. There was so much to unpack with her,” Kelly, 53, tells Closer. “Losing her parents at 11, entering foster care, getting pregnant and giving up a child for adoption at the age of 18. I dove into all of it and absorbed as much as I could. It was both grueling and emotionally draining.”
The film, which is part of Lifetime’s annual Stop Breast Cancer for Life public affairs initiative, also stars Shannen Doherty, who went public with her own stage 4 metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in 2020. “She was very open and generous when speaking about her diagnosis,” Kelly says.
This new movie is just the latest project for the Hawaii-born actress who got her first big break on TV’s Growing Pains. Since then, Kelly has been a series regular on Nash Bridges and Hawaii Five-O and costarred in 2002’s fantasy adventure The Scorpion King. Off screen, Kelly is an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and an avid poker player who has competed — and won! — in several celebrity tournaments.
When you were a child, did you know you wanted to go into entertainment?
“I’ve always loved the idea of performing ever since I was a toddler. My mom says I would always make up songs and sing on my neighbor’s porch or pretend I was a showgirl dancing on stage. I’m pretty sure I was born with it.”
You started off your career as a teenager in beauty pageants. How did that happen?
“I started because I got a contract to model in Japan one summer, and my agent told me that if I won a local title, they could use that to promote me, and I would have the potential to make more money. So, I entered the first pageant I could find that didn’t require a talent!”
Was it hard to switch gears to get into acting?
“I feel like I was preparing myself to act all my life. There weren’t a lot of opportunities in Hawaii growing up, except for high school drama class. So, I took drama for eight semesters. When I moved to Los Angeles, all I was armed with was what I learned from [my teacher] Mr. Bertino and one credit, the season premiere of Growing Pains, which I landed while still living in Hawaii.”
Did your family support your ambitions?
“My mother didn’t like the idea that I wanted to be an actor at first, but after winning the Miss Teen USA pageant and landing that Growing Pains role, she saw that I had a real shot. We agreed I’d try it for five years, and if it didn’t pan out, I could always go back home and attend college. She held a bedroom for me for over 30 years! I think she still hopes that I’ll go back to school one day and become a lawyer!”
What do you think you would have done if your showbiz career hadn’t taken off?
“I have no idea. I pretty much put all of my eggs in one basket. I do love creating things like my T-shirt line, 33 Edge. So, I’d probably end up doing something in that realm.”
What do you enjoy about acting?
“Everything. It’s the best job anyone could ever do if you can get the work. I love the process. I love the connection. I love being on-set. I love the creative outlet. I love just about everything about it. I know how lucky I am to be able to do this amazing job for a living. I don’t take any of it for granted.”
When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
“I think I’m most proud of Scorpion King because it was the first time I had the lead role in a studio film. My mom and stepfather got to attend the premiere and see me on billboards around town. Also, back home in Hawaii, my brother rolled my father in his wheelchair to see the film on opening weekend. I’m so glad he finally got to see me in a lead role in a cinema. He passed the following year.”
It’s nice that he got to see you. You’ve also had a lot of success at poker. How did you become such a card shark?
“I’m pretty sure my older brother taught me to play when we were kids. Truthfully, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t understand what a full house or straight flush was. It’s kind of like using chopsticks — I know someone must have taught me at some point, but I don’t remember ever not knowing how to use them! I learned the betting part much later in life. Honestly, I enjoy the company more than the game itself. I used to play regularly with a bunch of older actors. It was so fun to hear about their stories in the business. Hopefully, we’ll be able to start up safely again soon.”
What do you do to stay fit?
“I don’t stress about exercise as much as I used to. I have three grandparents that lived well into their 90s, and none of them ever picked up a weight or stepped on a treadmill in their lives. I do, however, try to watch what I eat. I don’t eat fast or processed food. I enjoy cooking and spent most of the pandemic learning how to make and grow my own food on my balcony.”
What are you passionate about besides your career?
“I love traveling. Unfortunately, that came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic, but before that, I basically worked to finance my travel. For me, there’s nothing better than the experience of going to a foreign land where I don’t speak the language, allowing myself to get lost and discover new things and see how other people live. I love that feeling of being just outside of my comfort zone, where all of my senses become more heightened, and I am taking in all of my surroundings. It’s when I feel most alive and full of gratitude.”
Do you get back to Hawaii a lot?
“I used to go back to Hawaii several times a year up until two years ago when my parents moved to Las Vegas. I’m still active with the community there, helping to do fundraisers for local charities like Best Buddies Hawaii, which helps students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I have a lot of extended family there, and my two best friends that I’ve had since I was a kid still live on the islands. Hawaii will always be my home, no matter where I am.”