The career for a typical reality star post–reality TV is usually set in stone: local club appearances, a few FitTea sponsored posts on Instagram, another stint on reality TV, rinse and repeat. But that’s not so for Lauren Tsai, the breakout star of Terrace House: Aloha State.
If you aren’t one of Terrace House‘s many, many fans, here’s the gist: it’s a Japanese reality show not unlike The Real World, wherein six strangers live together as cameras follow their every move. Originally debuting in 2012, the show has since spurred five spin-offs and one theatrical film, and quickly became the most popular reality show in Japan. Since then, it’s been brought to Netflix, turning it into an international hit.
By her own assessment, Tsai is not your typical attention-hungry reality star. Born in Boston, the 21-year-old chiefly grew up in Hawaii as a shy teenager who spent most of her time indoors drawing and talking to her “online friends.” “Drawing is my favorite thing in the world,” she said. “I’ve always had an interest in expression. Now when I think about it more and why I was so attracted to art and so attracted to fashion, I think I really have an itch to express things…I was interested in acting when I was younger, but when I got to middle school, I chopped away any confidence that I had.”
Just before graduating high school, while on a mission to get out of her comfort zone, Tsai did two very out-of-character things: first, she applied for an unknown reality show that she saw an ad for on Facebook; and second, right after graduating, she moved across the world to Tokyo. “I decided to throw away everything I told myself about myself,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to rewrite this story.’ I promised myself I wasn’t going to be afraid of people or trying things, and I did a bunch of things that most people would think, ‘That sounds like something you wouldn’t do.’ ”
Within three months of moving to Japan, Tsai got the call to join the new season of Terrace House, which, ironically, was being filmed in her home state of Hawaii. Once again, Tsai threw caution to the wind. “I knew it would be an adventure, and I know it was something that I wouldn’t necessarily be so comfortable doing. I wanted to see what would happen,” she said. At the time, she had no sense of what that exposure would mean. “When I was filming the show, I didn’t feel that it was going to be popular. It was fun. It was a great time living with people, and we genuinely got close,” she said. “Then, as soon as I got back to the airport [in Japan], people recognized me. It was the most insane experience. Every time I went out in public, I’d have a mask and a hat on, and I’d still get stopped 10 or 15 times. It was hard for awhile, too, because I felt that maybe I couldn’t do this and was too much in the public eye. I was so uncomfortable with people recognizing me because I wasn’t comfortable with myself. Now I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t mind if someone sees me.”
Since Terrace House aired in 2017, Tsai has been steadily working as both a model and illustrator in Tokyo to great success, including a combination of the two in a collaboration with Marc Jacobs on a line of apparel and accessories in 2018. And on Monday, she’ll make her biggest transition yet: a starring role on Legion season 3. “I had never considered going to L.A. before, because I didn’t think it was going to happen for me,” Tsai explained. “Growing up, I didn’t see people like me in big movies. It seemed like the furthest dream that was always going to be a dream.” Still, the branching out thing has worked up to this point, so she mentioned to her representatives that she might be interested in acting, which eventually led to an audition for Legion. “It was the day after I launched my collaboration with Marc Jacobs, and I filmed it on my iPhone in Tokyo,” she noted. Two weeks later, she booked the part and was off to L.A.
To try to explain the intricacies of Legion, a brainy X-Men-adjacent series starring Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza that tends to err on the side of the absurd, in this space would be a disservice, but allow Tsai to explain her role in her own words: “My character is named Switch, and she’s a time traveller. She’s a young mutant who is trying to figure out how to use her abilities and the ethics of time travel. She has the power where she can draw a door and enter a time hallway where she can go into the future and past and different time increments. She can also slow down time in the moment.”
As with any property with a foot in the Marvel universe, further details are still under wraps, but rest assured that Tsai—who, as it happens, has also illustrated the cover of a Marvel comic book—had the time of her life diving into her first acting role. “I shot for five months, and it was the most incredible experience…ever, maybe,” she said. “I got to do so many things I was afraid of doing in real life. I got to cry and scream and run and sing. What a true joy it was.”
It also allowed the nerdy Hawaiian teen in her to see one far-off dream come true. “I met the director of the first episode, Andrew Stanton, and I didn’t recognize it was him, but he is one of my heroes,” she said. ” He was one of the first people to build up Pixar and make Wall-E and Toy Story and all of those things. He ended up inviting me to go to Pixar. It was insane. I felt like I was on 500 Red Bulls for the entire day. Even in the lunchroom I was like, ‘This is the Pixar lunch room!’ Growing up I had told people that it was my dream to work at Pixar. I kept it low; that’s a realistic dream. Not a movie star or anything…I don’t know, life is really crazy.”