Kea Ho, Don Ho's Daughter, on Hawaiian Pride and Her Father's Legacy
Don Ho was Hawaii's most famous export, an island-born pop singer who made a splash on the mainland in the 1960s. He was more than a musician, though, he was the sort of multi-faceted entertainer that we don't see so much anymore: Don Ho sang, he acted on television, he had his own TV variety show, he played the big rooms in La Vegas and New York City. He counted Frank Sinatra and Elvis among his friends. To many Americans, Don Ho was Hawaii, and to Hawaiians, this was big-time stuff. This was one of their own stepping onto the largest stages in the world.
Don Ho was 3/8 Native Hawaiian, with the balance of his heritage being Chinese, Portuguese and German. He died in 2007, but his legacy will persist in Hawaii and for Hawaiians for a very long time. And it persists in the flesh in the form of his ten children, many of whom grew up performing with him on stage. Kea Ho is the eighth, and led a charmed life, to say the least: Her dad was simply the most famous person in the islands, her name and face were in the newspapers on a regular basis, and many of her family friends (who often stayed in the Ho home when they visited Hawaii) were among the biggest celebrities the 20th century.
Kea's own heritage, thanks to a thoroughly mixed mother, is even more complex than her dad's—on his side, she's 1/8 Portuguese, 1/8 Chinese, 1/16 German, and 3/16 Native Hawaiian; from her mom she gets 1/16 Apache, 1/16 Czech, 1/8 English, 1/8 Spanish, and 1/8 Mexican. You may want to double-check our math on that but we believe it adds up to a full person. Kea grew up loving music and performing in her father's stage show; she went on to become a model and study fashion and has recently begun selling her own swimwear line, Lovechilde. She spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network about her love of Hawaii and of her famous father.
Your heritage is obviously quite a mix, although mathematically speaking you're slightly more Native Hawaiian than anything else. Growing up in Hawaii, did you feel connected to its indigenous culture?
Of course! I think it's safe to say that anyone growing up in Hawaii feels a deep, special connection to Hawaii and the culture no matter what ethnicity you are. There's a pride to people born and raised in Hawaii that Hawaii is the best and the culture is so unique. It's such a special place and being an island, it has that mentality that Hawaii is the best and coolest place in the world to be from. I would compare the mentality to that of native New Yorkers—there's that shared mentality of being from the best place in the world and you have to be from there to really "get it."
Was that something discussed in your household or family—did your father ever say or imply to you, "you are Native Hawaiian, that's a special thing to be, this is your culture"?
Being Hawaiian was a huge thing to my dad. He made sure my sisters and I grew up dancing hula, he would take us for real Hawaiian food (not plate lunch!), or make lomi salmon and poi. He would take us to the "country" side of the islands. He was a local boy through and through. He attended Kamehameha, the prestigious private school that the Queen Pauahi Bishop established for children of Native Hawaiian descent. My mom is a very sophisticated, lady-like Californian so I got both sides growing up, but I was definitely raised "Hawaiian-style."
Do you feel "indigenous"?
I do feel indigenous, though would never compare myself to the indigenous people in Hawaii who still live a very traditional native lifestyle on the outer islands or even Oahu.
But you would say you do feel a strong connection to the Hawaiian land.
Yes, an extremely deep connection. Being born and raised there, it becomes part of your soul. Hawaii is such a magical and soulful place in itself there's a yearning that comes with being away from it. Like the song "Hawaii Calls," it really does call once that connection is made. I think it's a big reason why a lot of Hawaii kids go away to college and end up moving home the next semester. It's really hard to be away from Hawaii. When I first went away to school my dad was flying me home nearly every other weekend. I wouldn't ask; he would just buy me tickets because he'd hear how homesick I was on the phone. I'd be in tears and miserable. Maybe I have a particularly strong connection but I think most Hawaii kids feel this way.
Hawaii is a cultural crossroads, a place where Pacific and Asian cultures mingle with Euro/Anglo traditions from the mainland. How do you feel about the word "Hawaiian"—what does it mean to you? Do you use "Native Hawaiian" to draw a distinction?
Generally in Hawaii you refer to someone as native Hawaiian if they are 1/16 or more Hawaiian. However I think the Hawaiian Homestead Lands, a government agency that decides which "Hawaiians" qualify for homestead land, only acknowledge someone as native Hawaiian if they are a fully half. That is extremely rare these days especially as Hawaii is so mixed! There's a huge population of mixed Hawaiian people, or local people. Being local, Hawaiian or haole is more a state of mind than anything else in Hawaii. What "Hawaiian" means to me is, of course, being native Hawaiian but also a mind-set. But people define the word in different ways.
In a pop-cultural sense, it could be said that your father invented 20th-century Hawaii. Or at least invented the idea that Hawaii was cool. To what extent do you think the Hawaiian image he created was based on Native Hawaiian culture?
Oh yes, he was cool, and the kind of cool that can't be manufactured, that was just him. There's a lot of talented people out there but I don't think anyone could've done what my dad did for Hawaii at that time—it was a special combination of timing, place, circumstance, and a magical person. Hawaiian culture definitely factored in to his shows. Hula, Tahitian dance, Hawaiian song, chant—that's what it means to be Hawaiian as well. He did what no one had done before in making it modern and hip on a worldwide scale, and put his own spin on things. Song and dance is a huge part of Hawaiian culture, it's a very warm, embracing, expressive culture.
How much did he use his Native Hawaiian culture to his advantage? Did he try to be an ambassador—did he feel a responsibility to represent Hawaii? Or would you be more inclined to say your dad was simply a pop singer?
He did happen to come along after a genre called Exotica (Martin Denny, Les Baxter) had opened up mainland ears to Polynesian sounds, South American sounds, African sounds. Did listeners find him appealing because of that appetite for the exotic?
He was considered very exotic! We have funny clippings from what would be the US Weekly or Ok! Gossip mags of the day talking about him rumors with him and various white Hollywood starlets and it was VERY scandalous, the white starlet with the exotic singer! He was the life of the party, he threw Jackie O in a pool once amongst other "kolohe" (rascal) behavior.
As far as my dad's impact career-wise it was partly great timing and what was going on culturally. He would often tell me about the cultural renaissance in the 70's where Hawaiian culture, arts, and music was making a resurgence, and he was very instrumental in Hawaii and the world doing what he was doing. That timing being part of "exotica" in the world go hand in hand.
So there is this larger cultural influence, and the cultural moment, and yet -- his one- or two-word biography will always be "singer" or "pop singer." What's his musical importance to Hawaii?
In the '60s he essentially created what was considered rock and roll in Hawaii at the time, with his original band the Ali'is. He was doing something completely different, he played back to back shows twice a night to standing room only crowds with lines around the block in Waikiki. He was a pop singer, he was a Hawaiian singer, he was rock star, he was a crooner, he was all those things. He was close with Elvis in a time when music was so exciting. Elvis used to call my grandmother "Momma Ho." Even later in life when my siblings and I came into the picture the way we grew up was being exposed to a wide variety of musical influences. In his show he would have a traditional Hawaiian singer like Auntie Genoa Keawe sing one minute then have a rock or punk band like Green Day or NOFX on to sing a song.
How much did he use his Native Hawaiian culture—or this role as Hawaii's "ambassador"—to his advantage?
I don't think he deliberately used his Native Hawaiian culture to his advantage, it was just part of him. The thing about my dad was that he never "tried" to do anything in that sense. Becoming the entertainer and ambassador he became was something that totally came naturally to him. Which is what made him so compelling to people was that he was just being himself, he wasn't trying to be anything that he wasn't, and I think people respond to authenticity. You know the saying "destined for greatness?" That was my dad—star quarterback in high school and college, homecoming king, valedictorian. Most people don't know that about him. He was a Renaissance man; before he ever became a singer or had a music career he had been a US Air Force fighter jet pilot, a taxi cab driver, bartender and janitor at the family bar. This magical quality he had, partnered with him being an extremely hard worker, a workaholic by definition, not just in music but in life, is what I believe allowed him to accomplish what he did, almost unwittingly. He began singing in my Grandma Honey's bar to bring in business when it was slow and the bar was almost going under and the rest, you can say, is history. He didn't "try" to be an ambassador or be anything other than himself, that's the best part.
He was also definitely no angel, and what often preceded him being announced onto a stage was "the wild, the unpredictable Don Ho!" And he was a lot of other things—irreverent, wild, funny, eccentric, sometimes sometimes brash, stubborn, demanding—hey, he was human after all. But he was the kindest, most amazing, gifted, charismatic person I've ever encountered. Even to this day I'll get told random stories or fans will write me about a random act of kindness or generosity on his part that they've remembered all these years and held dear, as they should, it's a special moment. And that was just him every day. Unless you caught him on a really bad day or when he didn't get his nap in.
There is a very romanticized image of the Hawaiian woman—beautiful and brown-skinned, adept at the sensual sway of hula dancing, a flower in the hair and—perhaps this is jumbled with Tahiti or something—topless except for a strategically placed lei. Perhaps strumming a ukulele. A living and breathing Sailor Jerry tattoo. Do you think this image helps or harms Hawaiian women in any way?
I think it depends who you ask! Everyone has an opinion. I see it as a truthful representation of a beautiful culture, sort of what I imagine Tahiti is like today. Women swimming topless and it's not a big deal, it's totally natural and part of being in tune with the lands as well. I don't see how it would harm Hawaiian women. I also don't think a romanticized image of anything means that's all there is. It's only one facet. If people are small-minded enough to only judge a book by its cover that's their problem. Personally I like being a romanticized image, and yet full of surprises.
To spin it a different way—you are, after all, a model, and you do trade not just on your looks but on cultural associations. You might not put on the grass skirt and lei, and yet—you wouldn't deny that that romanticized stereotype of the Hawaiian woman adds to your appeal in some way, would you? Just as a romanticized stereotype adds to the appeal of Claudia Schiffer of Heidi Klum—they do that "German thing" well.
Hah—I actually have put on the grass skirt and lei to become a real-life dashboard hula doll for a calendar! I love to dress up and find it adorable. And I would love to dress up in a dirndl and yodel—hey, I could do the "German thing" too! It's fun and, yes, it adds a certain appeal. I think owning your sexuality and sensuality is empowering, part of being human, and part of being a strong and independent woman. If it's part of who you are, you should live without fear and be brave enough to own it. And there's a big difference between owning your sexuality and using it to manipulate men, which is where a lot of girls in LA are confused! That being said, I didn't even realize how important it was until I started getting fan letters from women telling me I've been an inspiration to them in being fearless and not afraid to embrace my sexuality as part of being a strong woman, and not letting people use it as something negative to diminish them, and it's given them courage to embrace who they are and be stronger. It's crazy because I never expected to be an inspiration in that regard. I just got another one today actually! When I get fan mail from women that I've inspired them it means a lot. Particularly with native women I think it's important because as much as I love Hawaii there is a culture of domestic abuse, comparable to the issues in the movie Once Were Warriors. And that is an inculcated mindset.
As a fashion designer, do you draw on your Hawaiian-ness, or to put it more broadly, your "islander" status?
I feel any time you are creating from within yourself, parts of you are are revealed through your expression. The islands are a big part of me and in designing swimwear it can't help but come to mind when I'm designing, whether it's expressed simply in a color or a mood. I think people from Hawaii are more comfortable with their bodies as well, since you're always in a swimsuit, its warm, and more people lead an active lifestyle.
What's your history as a designer—how long have you been doing it?
I actually have a fashion design background. I went to school at FIDM [Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising] with a fashion design degree, and then from there was lucky enough to be able to review every ready to wear and couture fashion collection around the world for [China-based fashion magazine] WFM. I lucked into a job right out of fashion school reviewing collections for a trade magazine that had circulation in 16 countries. But I had an innate eye for fashion, I really think it comes from growing up backstage surrounded by all these crazy show costumes the showgirls and dancers would wear. It's funny because I would be downtown at FIDM or Calmart and the magazine I wrote for would be in the bookstores and I was just out of fashion school! I remember going into a magazine shop on the street in NYC and an older serious-fashion looking woman was flipping thru it and I was so amused that she could possibly be reading my reviews. I'm just a lil' island girl after all, reviewing these spectacular designer collections!
Who do you consider to be influences on your design style?
I'm influenced by the great couturiers like Thierry Mugler, Gianni Versace, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Tom Ford.
Is this Lovechilde collection your first?
I've been designing and trying to have a line since I was a little girl, and I've been designing collections of mainly swimsuits and dresses forever, but I just could never figure out anything other than the design side! So this is my first "real" collection where I've actually put the business end in place properly. My first business endeavor was trying to sell see-thru plastic dresses in middle school with a girlfriend. Of course at the time I thought the see-thru plastic dress was brilliant. Actually maybe it's time for the plastic dress to make a comeback!
What's your vision for the future of your label?
My vision for Lovechilde is big. It's bigger now than it was when I designed it because of the amazing feedback I've gotten from it with just a soft-launch. When I designed them I really thought no normal girl would ever want to wear them. We made them and the response has far exceeded expectations. The biggest stylist in Hollywood just pulled a piece for a fashion editorial and it's gotten amazing high-fashion write-ups, and people were drawing the comparison to Kim Kardashian's line for Beach Bunny right off the bat. It feels good to be received so well because there's a lot of swimwear lines out there by models and I want it to always be something higher-end, cutting edge and different. I just did my first lingerie piece, which I wore as one of my outfits to co-host a charity event at the Playboy Mansion. I would love Lovechilde to grow into a lingerie, swim, and dress line with flagships comparable to Agent Provocateur or Kiki de Montparnasse, where you can find original and sexy high-end pieces with a twist. Of course it's not for everyone. You have to have a slightly provocative taste and body of death to wear them, but yes dresses and lingerie are next!
Why did you pick the name Lovechilde?
I am by definition a lovechild—my parents were never married. But they lived a happy fairytale existence together until my father died in 2007. I was taught that love is the most important thing.
You've done some acting—what projects have you worked on?
I've mostly played the "hot chick" type of role—or my personal favorite, just for the humor in it, as the "future baby porn star of America." Not exactly anything I can sink my teeth into, but great experiences nonetheless, and I've met many of my best actress friends playing these types of roles on set. I played a stewardess in Just Go With It, which got chopped, but that was a great experience.
You recorded an album—a quite natural step given that you used to participate in your father's musical act when you were much younger. Can you tell us about that album, and do you have any plans to do more with music in the future?
Yes, it's a mish-mash of music that never got released because of various artistic differences. But I've found when things don't work out the way you planned there's something much bigger and better around the corner. Music for me is the ultimate goal and closest to my heart—I love fashion, but I love music more.
You're active in a few charities—can you tell us about them, and why they're special to you?
I recently helped co-host a big charity event at the Playboy Mansion called Summer Solstice at the Playboy Mansion Benefitting Rescue Humanity. They are an organization that benefits an orphanage in Nepal. When I first heard about them I was drawn to their tagline, which is "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." The injustices in the world are the things I want to take part in helping to change. A friend introduced me to the CFCA sponsorship program where I sponsor a child in Honduras. Our dollar goes so much further in countries like that, so it really does make a difference. I think it's important to make an effort to raise awareness for things that really matter in the world especially in the business I'm in which can be very superficial.
When you were younger you were known as a socialite—the glamorous daughter of Hawaii's most famous entertainer, a welcome presence at any event. Is it true some even called you "the Paris Hilton of Hawaii"?
Being very young, fashionable and social and with my dad being who he was, of course it drew that comparison. But that also comes from being very sheltered, when life is so carefree and fun and you've been protected from experiencing real problems in life.
It's not necessarily a compliment, is it?
No, it's not—if someone refers to me as a "celebutante" it's usually in a disparaging or not in a nice way.
And yet—being the Paris Hilton of anything gives you a cultural influence few people can claim. Can that be useful?
It is very glamorous and fun and I'm still very social and have a great time, but that's ultimately meaningless. What matters is what you do with your celebrity status or being in a position others may look up to or be interested in. It definitely helps to raise awareness about causes that some people would not otherwise look into. One of my dreams is to create a charity in my dad's honor for children of Hawaii for music and the arts. That will be a good day when that happens.
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