During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
Born and raised in Washington State, actor Ally Maki says she felt like she never fit in. Her mom signed her up for every club under the sun, but nothing ever stuck.
“At the end of the day, I would always quit these clubs,” she explained to TODAY’s Sheinelle Jones. “Looking back now, as an adult, I realized that it really was because that a lot of these clubs didn't have Asian American women that looked like me that kind of had that shared sense of identity.”
It was that search for a shared identity that would eventually lead her to create one of the most popular Asian American lifestyle brands in the country: Asian American Girl Club.
Once Maki grew up, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career. She eventually found recognition in TBS’s “Wrecked” and as “Giggle McDimples” in “Toy Story 4.”
But while working in Hollywood, she says she experienced extreme casting discrimination.
“I really, truly believed I was this very all-American girl … with all these like hopes and dreams of like … I could be the lead girl playing the California girl,” she said. “And it was all of a sudden that all of these kind of boxes were instantly placed around me of like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, you're not that you will play the best friend or you're the nerdy girl … the kung fu martial arts (girl) and you have an accent,’ you know, and that was kind of a real big struggle for me.
“I remember just feeling like, ‘I don't know who I am anymore,’” she said.
A fourth-generation Japanese American, Maki said always looked up to her grandmother and mother.
“They really instilled me with this sense of strength that you really can be anything,” she explained. At the age of 16, her grandmother had been interned in the Japanese American camps during World War II. Her grandfather fought for the United States in the famed 442nd Infantry Regiment, which was composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans.
“It's crazy that while she was incarcerated, he was fighting for this country,” she said. “I always take that story with me, because they never let it define them.”
After “Crazy Rich Asians” came out in 2018, Maki told Elle in 2020, she saw an outpouring of support and pride for the community and capitalized on it.
“I really just had this name, I couldn't get out of my head. I was like, 'Asian American Girl Club,'” she recalled to TODAY. ‘I didn't know what it was going to be … But I was on the floor of my living room. And I was with a couple people. They're like, 'Just launch the logo and see what happens.'"
Maki and her friends made an Instagram account and put out the logo.
People were excited immediately, Maki said.
“I swear to you, the next morning, our inbox was flooded with girls from all across the country, literally writing, like, college-style dissertation essays overnight just about their identity and what it meant to them,” she said. “And that was when I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is really something.’”
As they say, the rest is history. Since that fateful night, Asian American Girl Club has evolved into a fashion and lifestyle brand with women of all ages sporting the club’s logo.
“The most amazing thing for me, I think, has been able is seeing these girls that didn't know each other, now become best friends through it,” Maki said. “I'm just absolutely so blown away, … This was created by us, but it's made for all. This is really just what we're bringing to the table, this is who we are.”
She added that if given the chance to go back in time to talk to her younger self who felt so isolated, she would tell her “that she’s strong.”
“And I would tell her that she absolutely can do anything,” Maki said, starting to get emotional. “ One of the things that I like to say is that we're undefinable — that no one can put you in a box.
“Continue to dream and dream as high as you can possibly go. And that everything is available to you.”