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  • Audrey Cleo

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    Meet Kanya Sesser + Details about my latest project.

    Kanya Sesser, 22, was born without legs, taken in by monks when she was abandoned as a newborn at a Buddhist temple in her country, Thailand, and adopted by American parents at age 7. She lives her motto “No legs, no limits” through everything she does, especially as an athlete. A model, part-time community college student and avid skateboarder and surfer, Sesser is especially serious about her sports: She previously trained to be a member of the U.S. Paralympic Team in 2012 and is setting her sights on a spot on the team for the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in South Korea.

    Kanya Sesser photographed at Venice Beach by Michelle Yap.

    Kanya Sesser photographed at Venice Beach by Michelle Yap.

    That’s Kanya’s story in a nutshell and why it’s become my latest passion project. I originally pitched her story as a print one but was turned down. Reluctant to let the opportunity go, though, I decided to hire my own crew (me, a cameraman/sound mixer and my “production assistant” sister who has a) never been a production assistant and b) worked for a burrito) to interview Kanya as she participated in an adaptive skateboarding event at Venice Beach. Upon hearing about my project, my friend Silas generously offered his music library for me to use in my limited web series about Kanya, the first two episodes of which I produced and edited and are posted below.

    Interviewing Kanya on Venice Beach. Photo by Michelle Yap.

    Interviewing Kanya on Venice Beach. Photo by Michelle Yap.

    There are stories that hit a nerve, that reach through the screen or paper and resonate with you deeply not only because they are inspiring and interesting, but also because they make you examine yourself. That’s what I find fascinating and engrossing about stories like Kanya’s; I hope that’s what you find, too. More to come.

    Be sure to SUBSCRIBE to my YouTube channel for more Kanya, and videos and vlogs by yours truly.

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    [WATCH] My latest segments on Young Hollywood, now on Apple TV!

    My favorite part about my job is being able to meet the people I do: some are celebrities and bonafide stars, while others are on the very edge of entering celeb-hood. T-Pain, Teyana Taylor and Frankie Grande – judges on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew: Road to the VMAs” – are members of the former category, but the subjects of my sit-down in the Young Hollywood studio fall squarely in the latter category. Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell aren’t household names. But with the highly anticipated N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” bowing in theaters this weekend, they might well be soon enough.

    I don’t usually take on the role of “critic” when it comes to TV shows and movies, although if you follow me on social media (here and here), you’ve seen me opine about my favorites and not-so-favorites *cough*TrueDetectiveSeasonTwo*cough*. As an entertainment news person, I’m in a weird hybrid role that, at times, straddles the line between PR and journalism. It may come as no surprise that entertainment news involves a lot of behind-the-scenes politicking that I won’t get into because it’s just not worth getting into. I love my job; that much is true, and I’m incredibly grateful that I can say that I do. I’ve worked long enough to know some things, one of which is that few people say they genuinely love their job. For me, sometimes that job means taking on more of a promotional role rather than a critical one.

    With Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell of "Straight Outta Compton."

    With Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell of “Straight Outta Compton.”

    Fusion recently published this article about how Hollywood largely ignores Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and women both in front of and behind the camera. The author references a powerful study conducted by researchers at USC Annenberg that revealed some pretty startling statistics about how grossly under-presented minorities are, while straight white males and those associated narratives continue to dominate our big screens. But, then again, this is a story we hear time and time again, especially when awards season starts heating up. So, really, the statistics are not very surprising at all.

    Part of the reason I believe in the power of film and TV is that those mediums are the ones that make people important; they make stories important by the very fact that they are being told. The logic goes, then, that if your story isn’t being told, guess what? You’re really just not that important. And what an insidious, dangerous and silly reflection of the varied, diverse reality we all live and will continue to live in decades to come.

    So, let me take off my promotional floppy hat and put on my critical trucker’s one when I urge you to go and see “Straight Outta Compton” this weekend. Spend your money to see a movie that doesn’t feature a predominantly white cast doing the same superhero stuff we’ve already seen this summer. Support the work of some up-and-coming on-screen talent who are just starting out and bringing to life the story of one of the most influential rap groups in pop culture history. Go see it because you learned the words to “Boyz-n-the-Hood” before Dynamite Hack did that cover of it – because you put a picture of yourself up with that #straightoutta meme on your Facebook. Go see it because the faces and images of inequality look all too familiar in 2015. Go see it because it’s an important story, and it’s getting told.

    See my interviews with Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre) and Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) from “Straight Outta Compton,” and my set tour of MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew: Road to the VMAs” below.




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    [WATCH] Touring the set of Disney XD’s new show, “Gamer’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything.”

    The stars of Disney XD’s new show, “Gamer’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything,” took me on a tour of their TV home and stepped up to my thumb war challenge!

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    My favorite videos from Comic-Con 2015, and it’s not even over yet!

    I have many fond memories of covering Comic-Con in years past. When you cover the year’s (arguably) biggest pop culture event four years in a row (and for three different outlets), the five days spent in San Diego become a sort of annual working vacation, emphasis on the “working” part. Each year had been a whirl of press lines, junkets, interviews and Storm Trooper dance-offs. I would still advise anyone going to pack at least a four-pack of sugar-free Red Bull!

    This year, I’m sidelining it as a fan, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t kept my antenna up for all the latest news coming out of the Con. Below, my two favorite videos fresh from Hall H: the “Game of Thrones” audition reel (!) AND the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” BTS reel. Note: Yes, I saw the “Batman v. Superman” trailer. I’m still processing that one.

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    J-Law charms on Conan at Comic-Con 2015.

    Well, now I want to hear the remixed remix version of “The Hanging Tree.”

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    [WATCH] “Max” star Josh Wiggins takes my canine quiz on Young Hollywood.

    Check out my latest interview for Young Hollywood with Josh Wiggins, star of “Max,” a new movie about a boy and his dog. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. In theaters June 26.

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    Art of the present.

    A few of my M.A. colleagues in actual Santa Monica, not a green screen. Photo by Matias Jaskari.

    A few of my M.A. colleagues and me in actual Santa Monica, not a green screen. Photo by Matias Jaskari.

    Last week, I graduated from a master’s program that has, more or less, taken up the majority of my life over the past nine-and-a-half months or so. A lot can happen in nine months; a lot can not happen in nine months. It was the latter that motivated me to consider pursuing my Master of Arts degree in specialized journalism at the end of 2013, punctuating a year of career ups and downs for me. I have always been a student of sorts, which is probably why I have pursued a career in journalism and media in the first place; it’s a constant education. To pursue it more formally as an Annenberg fellow at USC would make it official.

    So, I accepted, as a matter of professional detouring and personal development and growth. I’ve learned that, in the right context, sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is say “Yes” even if you’re only, like, 60% there. Saying yes means opening yourself up to something, even if you’re not sure what that something is. For me, it has meant learning and accomplishing a few somethings: I shot, produced and edited three documentary shorts about some pretty fascinating people – this guy, this guy and this gal.

    I took my love of sports stories and (metaphorically) ran with it, completing a graduate thesis project about surfing in the Olympics. I wrote the first act of a screenplay. I wrote some other stuff. I took up a post as a teaching assistant my second semester, fulfilling a career-long dream of torturing working with undergraduates and even taught a two-hour class of my own accord, perhaps one of the most intimidating things I’ve done, well, ever; it was also one the most rewarding.

    I listened and learned, took lots of notes by hand, on Evernote and sometimes wrote them ON my hand. I detoured and broke down and cried and kept going. I met some of the most accomplished, intelligent, inquisitive and driven people I’ve ever met – and ever will meet – in my life. I spent most weekends locked in my home office, downing cans of Diet Coke in front of Adobe Premiere and not seeing daylight except for the Saturday morning dance class I made myself walk to and from. I stopped cooking and am just now doing my first load of laundry in a month. I need to surf. Badly.

    Perhaps most importantly, I learned the value of not holding back. If there is anything I hope that my colleagues in the program, all of them women (!), have taken away from our weird, wonderful journey together, it’s that our voices are too precious to not be shared. Too often, the politics of the working world prevent us from using them at full volume, preclude us from writing with candor and intimidate us from speaking our truth. But our voices matter in shaping the discourse of our world and sharing the stories that would, otherwise, fall to the wayside. Using them means not letting one narrative dominate over the countless others that count, too, and restoring the agency of those in the margins.

    Our speaker at graduation, Jorge Ramos, said something about journalism being the art of the present. Taking this professional detour and ticking off this checkbox on my personal bucket list has surely been an exercise in the art of staying present, of stepping outside of my comfort zone and just enjoying the ride.

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