Hapa Hour with Jennifer Kumiyama

Today’s Hapa is someone I consider one of my dearest friends and an amazing role model. She is beautiful, smart, and this woman can sing her face off like nobodies business. She is an advocate for human rights and an inspiration for all.

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Jennifer Kumiyama was born with Arthrogryposis and uses a wheelchair daily.  Kumiyama received voice lessons at Long Beach City College and California State University of Long Beach. In 2000, Jennifer earned a spot on Warner Bros. reality TV show “Popstars 2” and earned national accolades from many publications including Variety Magazine and TV Guide – referring to her as “the girl in the wheelchair, who’s voice blew everyone out of the water”.  Shortly after that in 2002 – Jennifer was cast in Disney’s “Aladdin; a Musical Spectacular” at Disney California Adventure Theme Park, where she is the first performer in a wheelchair to ever be on any Disney stage in the world. There – she performs 4 times a day for 8,000 guests a day, who visit from every corner of the world. It was at Disney that Jennifer took on her real role as an advocate for people living with disabilities – showing the entire world that talent sees no boundaries. This motivated her to become a speaker – sharing her story with schools, social groups, and major businesses. Her new passion, in addition to singing – is being a voice for people living with disabilities by breaking attitudinal and architectural barriers.

In 2010, Jennifer was crowned Ms. Wheelchair California and Ms. Wheelchair America 2011, 1st Runner-Up. During her reign,j  she spread the message of hope through her platform “Empowering Children with Disabilities to Make Their Own Dreams Come True”.

she was cast in a major rolE as ‘Carmen’ in Sundance Film Festival hit and Academy Award Nominated film “The Sessions”, MTV’s teen sensation “Awkward” and became the founder and owner of The Ms. Wheelchair California Foundation.  

On a side note, I’ve always called Jennifer, Kumi.

 
Alex – What makes you Hapa?

Kumi – I’m super mixed – Chammorro, Chinese, Japanese and Black. I was also raised in a half Filipino home, when my dad re-married.

Alex – Please tell us about your disability.
I was born with a rare disability called Arthrogryposis. The literal Greek translation is curved/hooked joints. So – I have limited range of motion in all four of my limbs.

Alex – How long have you been in the entertainment industry?
 
Kumi – I’ve been in the entertainment industry for 16 years. I was on a few episodes of ‘Popstars 2’ – a reality TV contest similar to ‘America Idol’, but they were looking to build a pop band. I was cut right before the dance round (thank God!). I was in ‘Aladdin; a Musical Spectacular’ at Disney’s California Adventure Theme Park for the entire 13 year run and I was ‘Carmen’ in Fox Searchlight’s ‘The Sessions’. 

Alex -Favorite artistic moment?
 
Kumi – I think my favorite artistic moment was when I produced my first cabaret in 2009. It was pretty challenging to put it together from scratch – finding a band, other singers, finding the music to tell my story with. It empowered me to see for myself how much I can do on my own as an artist. I love a good challenge too. 

Alex – Tell us about Ms. Wheelchair California and what made you decide to first participate?
 
Kumi – When I was cast in ‘Aladdin’, I was fulfilling my own dream of being. I had no idea how it would affect others. As a kid, I never saw anyone in the media that looked like me. Being on stage in such a high traffic venue, where 8,000 guests from every corner of the globe visited and saw the show – there were others like me that finally got to see someone that looked like them on a Disney stage. It was, kind of a big deal. That’s when it hit me – this job has very little to do with me but everything to do with being an example and ultimately an advocate for the disability community. It took 7 years after I booked the show to be brave enough to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair California competition. The ffirst time I didn’t win the title, but I was crowned the year after – Ms. Wheelchair California 2010. Ms. Wheelchair California is an advocacy based pageant for women 21 years and older. I had a great reign and my platform was ‘Empowering Children with Disabilities to Make Their Dreams Reality’. I earned 1st Runner Up to Ms. Wheelchair America 2011. In 2012, I took over and renamed what is now The Ms. Wheelchair California Foundation. I just hosted my fifth pageant as owner and State Coordinator.
Kumi – I LOVE food from my cultures and others.
 
Alex – What’s your favorite food?
 
Kumi – I like sweets, speciifcally egg custard. 

Alex – What’s your favorite restaurant?

Kumi – Ten Ten Dim Sum! Soooo yummy!

Alex – Best meal you’ve ever had?

Kumi – My sister makes the best Chammorro meal – red rice, chicken keleguen with finadene and lumpia.

Alex – Favorite family recipe?

Kumi – My Lolo Lito’s chicken adobo. He used to make it weekly when I was a kid.

Alex – Difficulties in being a Hapa and someone with a disability in the entertainment industry?

Kumi – I feel like its already difficult being in this industry with a disability, there are less jobs available, fewer accessible theatres, and so on. Also, roles that call for people with disabilities are more often than not being played by able bodied people. I don’t understand why that is. I feel like the industry is okay with disability – to an extent. You can’t be ‘too disabled’ because, heaven forbid anyone feel uncomfortable. I find that being Hapa adds to that, especially when being any shade of brown is not ‘favorable’ by writers and casting directors.

Alex – How do you deal with people that are bullies?

Kumi – I squash them like flies! Just kidding – I kill ’em with kindness.

Alex – Funniest or worst professional moment?
 
Kumi – Funniest moment – when I was filming ‘The Sessions’ I read a sec description as if it were a line. I was MORTIFIED. Everyone laughed with me. It was my first non-singing gig. I had no idea what I was doing. 

Alex – Any advice you’d like to pass on to other Hapa’s and people with disabilities?
 
Kumi – Keep going in whatever it is you’re trying to achieve in your life. Remember that only you can define your own personal success, not others. Know your rights and don’t let anyone take them away from you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Always be an example of kindness. Embrace and celebrate all of your differences. Live unapologetically. 
Thank you so much Kumi, for being part of Hapa Hour! Be sure to follow Jennifer on all social media and check out her websites!
Twitter, IG: kumirocks
Snapchat: kumirocksursox
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