Ally Maki knows firsthand that representation matters.
When she was younger, she joined club after club in search of a community where she felt seen—but they all came up short. Which is why the actress (who you no doubt recognize from popular TV shows like “Cloak & Dagger,” “Dear White People,” and “Wrecked” and whose voice you know as Giggles from “Toy Story 4”) founded Asian American Girl Club, an apparel company that celebrates Asian American women.
But this is about so much more than just apparel. Maki has launched a movement. A global community has rallied around AAGC’s culture-pushing content that is “dedicated to the normalization of the next generation of AAPI gals and boss babes,” as their mission so aptly puts it. Maki is giving the next generation a platform and a voice—and she’s just getting started.
Ahead, the actor tells Create & Cultivate all about her plans to carve out the career of her dreams and empower women like herself, how she handles failure, and her #1 piece of advice for aspiring actresses starting out today.
CREATE & CULTIVATE: You started doing musical theatre when you were six but you’ve also worked in the journalism field and even performed in a band. How did you settle on acting as a career? What did it take to get to where you are today? Was Hollywood receptive or have you had to fight for your spot? Why?
ALLY MAKI: I’ve had a love for performing since before I can remember. I was the kid who put on very detailed musical puppet shows from my bedroom but would be completely silent at school. I was insufferably shy. My parents were extremely supportive and really allowed me to try everything as a kid, even when we all knew it wasn’t going to be “my thing.” Sports was a total disaster. But I always got to try, which was important. When I started doing theater, everything started to make sense for me. It was the one place where I felt like I could be as crazy and weird as I wanted without any judgment. I think that passion and want for a safe space are what has always kept me going through any situation I’ve faced. It will always be fuel for me.
You recently landed the part of Giggle McDimples in “Toy Story 4.” We read that you were a huge fan growing up and that it was one of the first films you saw in a movie theater, what was your first memory of seeing “Toy Story?” Can you talk through why and how this movie impacted you? And how did this character Giggle allow you to unlock your true potential?
Friendships create the baseline foundation for a person’s life, especially during childhood. “Toy Story” as a franchise has taught me so much about friendship, purpose, and identity. I remember my mom had this huge basket that when you opened the top, was just filled to the brim with old school clam shell Disney VHS boxes. It was like a real-life treasure chest. “Toy Story” was the film that played on repeat all day long.
Animation hits in a way for underrepresented kids that’s insanely powerful. When you don’t see people who look like you on screen, you find yourself desperately searching for representation in any format. Characters like Buzz, Woody or Slinky Dog defied stereotypes and created heroes that looked as imaginative as we wanted. Anybody could find comfort in Rex’s anxiety. We saw ourselves in Hamm’s wisecracking wit. Giggle shows me how to use my voice in a big way even when I feel small. And we all know at the end of the day that these characters would be there for us at any moment.
You’re also on a lot of the merchandise, and you now have little girls dressing up as you. What does that mean for you to see that? How will that impact generations coming up behind you and why is that visibility important?
It really means everything. Seeing little girls dressing up as Giggle during the release of the film was absolutely one of the most emotional experiences. It’s a hard feeling to describe. I found it fascinating that through all the brilliant minds at Pixar who helped to create this character, a new iteration of what is possible was put into existence. I love that girls can now say “of course I can be police chief, duh.” This is what TV/film characters do. They can change culture in an instant. I remember a moment that really got me, a mom had sent me a message on Instagram saying that her 6-year-old Asian American daughter had just seen the film and told her excitedly, “Giggle looks like me.” She’s making that connection. It’s moments like these where you feel it on a massive level.
As one of the few South Asian actors in Hollywood what are some of the biggest challenges, you’ve faced as an actor? Do you think this is changing? And what more needs to be done?
I moved to L.A. when I was a teenager, and by the time I was in my early 20s, I remember feeling so burnt out. The industry was a massively different place than the awesome little musical theater camps I grew up in. All of a sudden, we were being categorized and put into separate boxes based upon factors like appearance and ethnicity. At 14 years old, it did a doozy on my self-worth. I internalized it in a way that went far past auditioning—I told myself I could never play or deserve to be a leading character. Even in real life. Half of my inner battle has been really reprogramming my own psyche. Finding and nurturing young talent in front of and behind the screen is so important. It’s about creating that pipeline of creativity.
You’re the founder of Asian American Girl Club, so when you’re not busy filming, you’re working tirelessly to inspire Asian American girls and women to not be afraid to use their voices and be proud of who they are. When did you decide to start this club? Was there a moment that inspired the movement or was it something you always wanted to do? How do you join the club, what do you do once you’re in, and how is it inspiring change?
There really was no specific “aha” moment for the creation of Asian American Girl Club, but rather a culmination of all of the life experiences I had not only experienced but witnessed through the eyes of other AAPI women around me. These women are multifaceted, beautifully talented, and so wanting to build a sisterhood of support. It’s something I found was missing in my own life, as a girl who had two brothers and very few female friends growing up. AAGC was founded on the floor of my living room with nothing but a name and a logo, truthfully not really knowing what it would be. We uploaded it to IG at 10:30 pm and I swear the next morning our inboxes were flooded with messages from girls around the country just wanting to tell their stories and share what it means to them that this exists. A few had sent in college style essays that read as if they were taken from my very own mind.
One of my hopes for AAGC is that it inspires others to start their own companies, projects our just aim for their highest dreams—because they see others who look like them doing it. To be fearless and strong knowing there are support and community behind them saying, “Yes, it’s possible.”
When did you first realize that you are a voice for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community? And how do you feel about that responsibility?
When I first started doing interviews, I was just answering questions authentically from my life experiences. Through each one, I started to get clearer and more confident in what I was saying and how it could be valuable for others. It certainly feels scary, but at the same time, I realize that if I’m not vocal about my unique experiences, there is no one else who can tell them. That springs me into action.
When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you #FindNewRoads + switch gears to find success?
Just follow your heart. If you had told me a year ago, I would have my own business, I would have probably laughed. Just follow where your intuition is taking you. It knows you better than you know yourself.
You’ve had an incredibly successful career. If you could go back and talk with young Ally, what do you wish you could tell her? Why?
That you can do all the things you’re dreaming of. It’s all possible.
You have become a role model to so many young women everywhere, what advice would you give to a young woman hoping to follow in your footsteps? How should they be prepared? What are the key traits to succeed in entertainment today?
Don’t be afraid to use your voice and take big chances. Everything good that has ever happened in my career has come from a moment of choosing what may seem like the scarier path—but something about it rang true to me and only me. You have to own that.
Take time alone to really think about what your true goals are. They are going to be unlike anyone else’s—and that’s okay.
Speak up for those that may not have as loud of a voice.
Embrace your uniqueness. The weirdest parts about you are usually what people will resonate most with.
The entertainment industry is incredibly competitive, how do you create a unique voice and character that stands out above the rest?
Funny enough, the hardest part about creating a character, for me, is grounding it in authenticity first. The trap of acting is feeling like you need to be someone else before you can play a character. Finding that tiny bit of truth that rings true for me is the impetus for everything else. Once you find it, it seems to open everything. You can then add all the fun nuances and character-driven elements and it still feels real.
Most people are scared to voice their opinions for fear of the ramifications, but you always seem so bold and self-assured. Do you ever worry being so outspoken will hurt your career? Where do you think this confidence stems from? What advice do you have for people who are feeling self-doubt and want to have more courage?
It’s certainly very scary, in this social climate, to feel like you can speak up, and I deal with that fear all the time. In my experience, I’ve always tried to stay true to who I am and speak directly from my personal journey. That’s all I can ever speak from. I remember when people first started to talk about representation, people would ask me my thoughts on it and I would just share things that have happened to me. Throughout the years, the more I talk about it, the stronger I get. It becomes less about fear and more about finding those people that connect with what you’re saying. Start small. It doesn’t have to be a full-on TED talk, but maybe practice a mini one in the mirror to yourself solo and go from there.
You don’t seem afraid of making tough decisions, but what is the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make professionally? And how did you get through it?
I am actually a terrible decision-maker. It’s something I’ve struggled with over the entire course of my life. Through mistake after mistake, I’ve finally come to the realization that it was never the decisions themselves that were difficult, it was always my underlying reasoning for making them. I was making choices based on what I should do and the validation of others versus following my heart, intuition and what I want to do—should versus want. It’s been a definite uphill battle these last few years as someone who is an absolute perfectionist and eager to make the people around me proud, but I realize that I am no good to others if deep down I’m not happy or fulfilled. All the art we create has to come from that good place. Don’t ignore that first gut feeling telling you what you know is true for you.
Who in your field most inspires/influences you the most? How has this person changed/influenced your career? Why?
I am incredibly enamored by those who walk the walk confidently and use their voice for change. Ava DuVernay, Reese Witherspoon, Malala, and activists during the Japanese American internment camps. My friend and editor-in-chief at Allure, Michelle Lee, who time after time shows how we can use our influence to help others.
Success is such a broad term and it means something different to everyone. How do you define success? Why?
Success should never be measured in comparison to others or defined by money or fame. There are so many alluring factors that come with a career in the arts, but I find that, at the end of the day, if you don’t 100% love what you’re doing, it will never fulfill you, no matter how high up you get. I’m still that girl that would put on goofy shows in my parent’s living room and I hope to never lose her. I really try not to let other people define my personal success. When I go into auditions, I only feel like a failure if I think I let myself down. If I knew I didn’t do the best that I could have or wasn’t true to myself. Everyone else’s opinion I try not to let affect me as heavily.
With success comes opportunity, but it also means you have your hands full. What keeps you inspired and motivated to keep going even on your most challenging days?
Being grateful and feeling everything. My stylist, Zadrian Smith, and I were recently in New York to attend an event that I considered to be a pretty big moment in my career. I remember being so extraordinarily overwhelmed by it all—the travel, feelings of unworthiness and social anxiety, looking and feeling confident (which are two completely different things) balancing auditions that always seem to pile on when I’m away. It’s so easy in these moments to lose focus of why we’re doing it all. It becomes a bit blurry and you can really lose yourself in the moment.
My inspiration in those times really comes from putting into focus what my goals are and the things I’ve day one dreamed of. When I feel it’s all too much, I will literally freeze in the middle of the room, take a deep breath and start to remind myself what I’m really doing this for and why it matters to me. If we don’t have our “why” then the doing just starts to feel like work. You start to just feel like a chicken with your head cut off.
The filtered world of social media often hides a lot of hard work and behind-the-scenes hustle. What is the reality of being an entrepreneur today? How hard is it really? Be honest!
This question makes me laugh because most people have no idea that we at Asian American Girl Club are a teeny tiny team. That means that—from posting to keeping up the shop, developing new products, social media campaigns, shoots, and writing content—it is mostly all created between a couple of people. I am hands-on with every single detail. It’s madness and there are times where I will just burst into tears, yell into a pillow, or fall onto the hardwood floor in the shape of a sloth-like snow angel. Entrepreneurship has challenged me in ways I never thought possible, but I love it so much. One DM from a girl who says that it helped her understand herself in a new way makes everything worth it. I’m such an adrenaline based person so the thrill of not knowing what’s around every moment gives me massive energy.
What is the best advice you have been given? Or a favorite piece of #realtalk?
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
What is the #1 book you always recommend? Why?
Anything by Brené Brown. Her words on vulnerability and shame have gotten me through some of my toughest moments.
What is the #1 movie you always recommend? Why?
Early Miyazaki films are the cornerstone of my youth. They were some of my earliest showings of outside-of-the-box heroines and women that were powerful in extraordinarily imaginative settings.
Photographer: Jenna Peffley