Kelly Hu’s mother just wanted the kids out of the house while she was cleaning. So every Saturday morning her son Glenn studied kung fu while Kelly attended ballet class. But unknown to mom, it was Kelly who was fast becoming Honolulu’s answer to the Karate Kid. “Glenn would show me the moves he learned and I would practice with him,” recalls Hu, who received her afternoon lessons in the family garage. Glenn would then make the most of his little sister’s talents. “He’d set up fights between me and the neighborhood boys,” she says. “He’d take bets, like Don King, and make money off my fighting.”
These days, Hu’s fists of fury are left holding the cash. She has spin-kicked her career into high gear with the role of detective Grace Chen, the stunning protègeè of Sammo Law, played by martial-arts master Sammo Hung in the CBS series Martial Law. Hu, 31, chops, whacks and sends her 5’5″ frame flying in the face of villains on the show, which returns Sept. 25. “The audience loves to see the girl fight,” says Hung. “She’s very fresh and quick to learn.”
Hu, who earned her brown belt in 1998, battled more than bad guys to attain her star status. As a girl of Chinese-Hawaiian-English descent growing up in Honolulu, she was expected to follow the model of the demure Asian woman. “You’re taught to be very modest,” says Hu, who sought the spotlight by joining the drama club at the Kamehameha School. “You don’t want people to notice you. I was just the opposite.” Going against the grain of the traditional Asian values stressed by Juanita Hu-Takara, 61, a retired engineering draftswoman, and stepfather Roy Takara, 59, an engineer (dad Herbert, 62, a retired salesman, is in Honolulu), Hu was often grounded for staying out late. “She was independent,” recalls Juanita. “She would have all these phone calls and not enough time to do homework.”
With an eye toward modeling, Hu entered the 1985 Miss Teen USA contest. But when she won the state pageant, Juanita warned her not to set her hopes on the national title. “I remember my mother telling me, ‘They’re never going to choose an Asian girl to represent the United States,’ ” says Hu, who so resigned herself to losing that when she won, “I was genuinely shocked.”
Suddenly Hu was a role model, not a rule breaker. “Everybody said, ‘You’re representing all the Asians in America,’ ” says Hu. “And I thought, ‘I just wanted to win a car.’ ”
When her reign ended, Hu moved to L.A. to pursue acting. Within a month the sporty red Mazda RX-7 she’d won in the pageant was stolen. “I never saw it again,” she says. “I cried like a baby.” But beneath the tears was that will of steel: Hu took out a full-page ad in Variety boldly announcing she’d arrived in Hollywood and was there to stay. “I got 20 calls the day it appeared,” she says. Hu began working steadily, nabbing small parts on television and in film, including Oliver Stone’s The Doors. In 1997 she landed a role on CBS’s Nash Bridges, whose producers later moved her to Law.
After a day on the set, Hu retreats to the two-bedroom Santa Monica apartment she shares with roommate Everett Ponciano, a computer programmer. (“We’re just friends,” she says.) She plots career strategy with her boyfriend Gordon Gilbertson, 33, a personal manager she started to date before becoming his client. “I thought Gordon as my manager was really a bad idea at first,” says Hu. “But he convinced me. Nobody is going to work harder for you than your boyfriend. And it’s worked out wonderfully.” Gilbertson won’t take all the credit. “She’s made a lot of her own breaks,” he says. Still, she has a few to go. Pointing to role models Sammo and martial-arts superstars Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies), Hu wants “to create a place for myself in Hollywood” as the first Asian-American martial-arts diva. Even if she has to hook-kick a hole in the glass ceiling.
Sophfronia Scott Gregory
Champ Clark in Los Angeles