One look is all it took for a 15-month-old from Hickory, North Carolina, to win the hearts of Gerber Photo Search judges. Kairi Yang beat out more than 544,000 contestants ranging in age from birth to 4, to become Gerber’s 2019 spokesbaby — and the first Gerber baby of Hmong descent.
“Kairi was chosen because of the wide-eyed curiosity and the look of wonder we saw in her eyes,” Bill Partyka, the president and CEO of Gerber, tells TODAY Parents. “Her expressiveness in the winning photo reminds us of looking to the future through a child’s eyes and being excited for all that it holds.”
When Ying Vue and her husband, Peter Yang, learned that their daughter had nabbed the coveted title, they didn’t have many calls to make. That’s because the North Carolina couple, who are both Hmong, share a home with their parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. “Hmong in our eyes is all about the close bonds we have with our relatives during life and afterlife,” Vue tells TODAY. (The Hmong — pronounced mung in English — are an ethnic group from China and Southeast Asia and have their own language.)
“Being surrounded by all her family has been a very positive influence on Kairi’s life, especially when it comes to preserving our culture and tradition,” Vue, a Thailand native, tells TODAY. “Kairi will grow up knowing how to read and write in Hmong, so that she can speak with her grandparents.” But for now, the little girl enjoys listening to nursery rhymes, building blanket forts and playing with her dad.
“Kairi’s positive energy and smile lights up our life,” gushes Vue. “She has a one-of-a-kind personality.”
Last year’s winner, Lucas Warren, the first Gerber baby with Down syndrome, served as an honorary judge on the panel that selected Kairi. “He knows what it takes to be a Gerber spokesbaby, so he was brought in for his expertise,” Bernadette Tortorella, the associate director of media for Gerber, tells TODAY “We are excited that he was part of welcoming baby Kairi.”
The original Gerber Baby, Ann Turner Cook, 92, has simple advice for newly-minted ambassador. “The best way to be happy is to help others be happy,” the mystery novelist tells TODAY. (Cook became the face of Gerber after her family submitted a charcoal drawing of her for a company contest in 1928.)
Kairi’s family received $50,000 and she will be featured on Gerber’s social media channels throughout the year.
“We actually debated whether or not to enter Kairi. But we thought regardless of the outcome, she was going to be a winner in our eyes,” Ying tells TODAY. “We are so glad we decided to submit her photo.”