Before our interview, I was sitting at Tom n Toms in Koreatown, Los Angeles, staring down at my notes and scribbling down questions, when I felt everybody's attention directed toward the entrance. I glanced up to see Telisha Shaw walk through the door. She introduced herself to me as Telisu. Despite looking super-star glam and fabulous, she was so friendly and personable that I immediately felt comfortable calling by Telisu, the nickname given to her by her Asian fans that she has happily adopted for her newfound K-pop persona. With a sweet and bubbly personality, she turned our interview into a two-way conversation as we chatted in circles on a number of irrelevant topics.
Aside from dancing alongside top American artists such as Janet Jackson and Christina Aguilera, Telisu has been featured in Hollywood films such as Step Up 2 and television series such as Glee. During our interview, she took me by surprise and revealed her plans to debut as a K-pop singer. Later on, at the San Jose stop of the JYJ tour, we even met up again, and when she dropped her debut single "Our Secret" onto YouTube, she just couldn't stop squealing and checking her Twitter.
Telisu tells Asia Pacific Arts stories about her "sexy (or not-so-sexy) times with JYJ," why "boom!" is her catch phrase, and how she just couldn't keep "Our Secret" to herself any longer.
Asia Pacific Arts: How did you begin your career as a backup dancer?
Telisu: I'm originally from Memphis, Tennessee and I just came over to LA to audition for an agency. I made it, and then I was sent out for jobs. I have always wanted to dance since I was a kid, so I knew this was what I wanted and just went for it. It's been a pretty seamless process.
APA: How did you begin working with JYJ?
T: I got a call back in October 2010 from a producer who I've worked with before, and he said he was working with this enormous K-pop group. He asked if I had any suggestions for choreographers, and I told him about one of my dear friends, Jeri Slaughter. He got in contact with Jeri and well, long story short, they flew here and interviewed him; later, he got hired and brought me on as one of the dancers. And now here we are. [laughs]
APA: What expectations did you have before working with JYJ?
T: I feel like they have this reputation for having this intense work ethic that you don't really find in a lot of artists. That definitely was proven right when we went into rehearsals with JYJ. I think a lot of times artists feel that their job stops after the recording process. But, as I've come to find out with artists such as JYJ, they understand that the completion of the project includes going to rehearsals and making sure that the music, videos and stage performances are justified. You have to come with 110%, otherwise you're shortchanging yourself for not letting your project be the best it can be.
I looked them up beforehand so I knew what I was getting into, but what went way beyond my expectations was just how nice and amazing they are as people. I didn't think we were going to gel so well because of the language barrier, but that didn't stop us from communicating and starting this amazing little family.
APA: Is that relationship different from other artists you've worked with?
T: One of the things about being a dancer is that you get to be in the close circle with the artist, especially because you're the only one that gets to share the stage with them. The band and backup singers are set way behind them, but you're really sharing that energy and space with them. It's like everybody's childhood dream is coming alive, and it's so precious to be together with 15-20 people with the same thoughts. So, sharing that ground with people who you've struggled day in and day out with, throughout the whole process, forms a special bond, especially when you're making art with a lot of heart. I'd have to say our energy is definitely playful. [laughs] Since you get to come into their world and meet their family and friends, you grow this friendship where you just want to protect them. They are precious guys, and I see myself being in contact again even after the job stops.
APA: How would you describe their personalities?
T: Hmm… JJ [Jaejoong] is really quiet, but when he hits the stage he's a completely different person. We always laugh and make fun of him about that. When he comes into rehearsals, he [keeps] to himself in a corner. [laughs] Micky is -- I don't know how to describe him in one word, but he's definitely good with the girls. He's not afraid to talk to them. One time, we [the female dancers] lied and told him we were all lesbians. He was taken aback, but he was cool with it: "Oh… cool… they're lesbians." [laughs] And Jun [Junsu] is definitely the jokester. He is a super sweet-hearted guy. It's just so amazing to get to work at such an intimate level with these boys. I just don't see my life without them anymore.
APA: What was the difference between working on their 2010 showcase versus their 2011 concert? At the 2011 press conference, Jaejoong promised "more sexiness."
T: He did? [laughs] Oh, that's 'cause they met all the girls [back up dancers] right before the press conference. I told them, "Wait until you see these girls…" So, they walk in, and their faces were like "Oh yeahhh." They didn't say anything, but their eyes lit up, like "This is going to be nice." [laughs] I think they upped the sexiness because here in the US, it's part of the artistry. They're grown men, and I think they are trying to go with what the songs evoke. Like, you wouldn't do "Mission" choreography for "I Love You." The choreography represents the lyrics, and I think they're trying to show a more mature side to them here.
APA: I heard there was quite some talk about the crotch grab move from the first two stops of the tour. Will more of the choreography be edited in the Asian legs?
T: Yeah, that didn't happen in LA. It was edited out because I don't think it was met with the reception that was initially expected. [laughs] But in terms of the choreography, if it calls for it, it'll happen. Jeri Slaughter is really good at showing that through his choreography. Just because of the difference in culture, I think it'll be edited down some more.
APA: Do you have any favorite choreography?
T: I like doing the sexy choreography. Don't get me wrong, but I just love mashing it out with the boys. I love choreography like "Be the One" and "Mission" ‘cause you get to hit it hard. I love "Ayy Girl" ‘cause it's smooth and suave. But, I do love performing "Pierrot" with all the girls too. In "Get Out," I get to dance with all three of them, so that's fun. Underneath the stage, JJ and I have to be in a full embrace before the lift goes up, and before we always go: "Fighting!" Then, he rubs my face, and he even pulled my hair once when I walked away. I didn't even notice until I saw a fancam. "Look at that, JJ quiet and sexy type." [laughs] And Mick -- the facials I get from Mick. He just has this face he does when you're dancing with him or he's dancing with the other girls… I'm just like "Don't laugh!" You know he's into it, but you just want to crack up. Then, you get to Jun and you're like "Awww, Jun." He was on his knees, and I had no idea how I was supposed to work with that or how I should dance with him. I was like "Oh my god, your parents are in the audience. Umm… never mind I'm just going to leave now." [laughs]
APA: Any funny incidents on the U.S. tour that made it memorable?
T: When we were rehearsing for "Get Out," our lift broke. So, Micky's lift goes up first and then ours [her and JJ's lift], but only our heads were sticking out. I was like "Oh my god, I'm not going to make my mark. I'm supposed to get to Micky." The lift goes up a little more to our waists and I just had to climb my way out. By the time I got to Micky, he was trying to be funny like:"You are so late. Don't even worry about it. I'm over it." I was like, "No fair! I tried to get over to you!" He turned away and was like, "No, just go. You go dance on over to Junsu now." Then, we just cracked up laughing.
APA: It seems as though your interest in the Korean culture has grown. Has JYJ played a role in influencing that change?
T: For sure. Before I went to Seoul, I was always drawn to Korean culture. It didn't click for me until I was super geeked to get on the plane. I was like "Boom! I'm going to my beauty motherland!" Everybody who knows me knows that I always go to the Korean spas and am obsessed with the beauty supplies. Even before I moved here [Koreatown], I was always over here. When I got off the plane in Seoul, it was like love at first sight. But when I had to leave, I was so upset. I took this photo before I got on the plane and saw just how miserable I looked. [laughs]
I told my parents, "I'm moving over here [to Korea]" and they said, "Have you lost your mind?" I was like "I think so. I am just completely into it." So, that started the process of me learning the language. I got into K-dramas, and it blew up. I got into K-dramas because of Sungkyunkwan Scandal, and I was working with Micky at the time, so I was like "I gotta check it out." Then, I got hooked, seriously hooked. Like, I can't tell you when was the last time I watched an American show besides reality TV. [laughs]
Truthfully, I didn't know much about K-pop, aside from the few friends that worked with some artists, but yes, working with JYJ has sparked this complete deeper affection I have for Korean culture. And yes, it has influenced me to move there, and [now] living there part time and in LA. And this may sound silly, but I love penmanship. I always write in all uppercase or lowercase just ‘cause I like symmetry. Hangul characters are a blessing to me. "Oh my god, they've got squares and circles and lines, whoa!" [laughs] I just love it. I started taking classes at KCC, I'm trying to learn the language through that route, and I watch K-dramas to reinforce learning the language. It's one of those things you have to do every day. If you don't use it, you lose it. I asked my teacher, "How am I going to learn this language better?" and she was like "You need a Korean boyfriend." I was like "Okay, I'll look into that. "
By the way, you know that song "Black and Yellow?" My friends say it's my theme song ‘cause I'm just so in love with the Korean culture, fashion, music, dramas, everything! When I'm online, I know which sites to go to if I want to watch things or go shopping. So, the song "Black and Yellow" comes out and they're like this is totally you. [laughs]
APA: Have JYJ helped you out with your Korean?
T: Yeah, during rehearsals, we practice and they correct me. There are certain words I try to say, and they tell me what's right, but mostly they just end up laughing at me and think I'm crazy. [laughs] During the time we were apart, we used to go back and forth on Twitter, and when JJ and Jun wrote to me in English for the first time, I was so happy! We really try to help each other out. [laughs]
APA: What sparked your music career?
T: Through me dancing with JYJ, this whole new amazing dream came about, and I get to explore my music career! While I was on tour, I got an e-mail via my manager here in LA from a production company in Tokyo that wanted me to come and perform my music. I just felt unprepared, and I didn't want to go into it blindly, so I turned it down. But, I told myself that was the last time that'll ever happen to me. I told JYJ's managers about it and they were being so amazing, trying to help me get this off the ground. I was blessed enough to record with the producers of "Ayy Girl." Actually, when I met the producers, I had no idea they worked with JYJ. So when we both found out we had been working with them, they were like "We worked with them, so we have to work with you." It was like fate!
I was really excited about how this is all coming together. Hence, the name change on Twitter. So when it first started, I was basically getting these tweets about people calling me Telisu, and it just caught on and turned into this whole thing. It was given to me by the Asian culture like a nickname, and I think it's me. I just love it. Originally, it did come from the shipping of Jun[su] and I, but the name flowed and popped, and it was from my Korean loves! It's my homage to the fans. To me, it's a sign of being embraced by the Asian culture, because the Asian market is sparking this music career for me. Jun calls me Telisu too, and so does the rest of the JYJ family. If your family calls you Telisu, that's what you are. [laughs]
I'm so excited for everybody to hear the music I've been working on [squeals] I am grinning from ear to ear! My cheeks hurt! [laughs]
APA: What type of music are you working on?
T: I'd definitely say my music to going to be more K-pop. There's going to be English and Hangul on all of my singles. I'm like tearing up. I am so appreciative of this. I started recording with Interscope artist, FreeSol, and they produced a couple of singles for me. When C-Jes heard about it, when they came back to LA, that sparked everything else. Basically, they're helping me get started here in the U.S., but mostly I want to be an artist in Asia and Europe.
APA: As a non-Korean, how do you feel about making your debut there? How are you preparing for it?
T: I've been studying the language and going to Korea in my free time. I'm really trying to soak in the culture in any way I can, through music, dramas, everything. We know that a lot of things that don't happen or go well because of fear. I always felt embraced whether in LA or Seoul. They are happy that you even want to know about their culture, so they want to share it with you. I definitely think there's room in the market for other races. When you go to Seoul, they play everybody else over there, so why couldn't a non-Asian break into the Korean market? I'm going to be the first black K-pop artist. [laughs] I'm going to make it happen. I would encourage anyone not to let anything like race or ethnicity stop you from doing what you love. That should not be the reason why you let all your hard work, prayers and dream fall to fear. That's a great road to regret.
APA: Can you tell me more about your debut single, "Our Secret?"
T: I'd say it's very Janet Jackson and T-Boz from TLC inspired. It's an upbeat song that's kind of like a love letter about taboo love. Can you, regardless of race and where someone comes from, love somebody and not be judged? If you're seen as somebody who isn't on the same level as [a boy], could you still like him and have it be okay? Liking somebody is already hard enough, but then having to worry about these obstacles on top of it -- the song is about a taboo relationship and how it would be amazing for it to be accepted. And you're both afraid of what it'll do to the purity, that amazing little energy that you guys have with each other.
For the lyrics, I tried to put myself in that situation and figure out how I would feel and what I would do if it was me. There were a couple of times I got comments on Twitter saying, "You're just a dancer." Yes, that's a part of me, but they were implying that I wasn't good enough or I'm undeserving. I thought, "Well, what if he saw me as somebody amazing and great? Just as how everybody else finds something to love in him, what if he found something like that in me?" This song is really a layered cake. [laughs]
APA: I know there has been a strong reaction to your song as JYJ fans seem to be concerned about what your lyrics may imply. How do you feel in regards to that?
T: Before the release, I let a few people hear it and I've gotten a good reaction! I was fearful about how it was going to come across, because I definitely don't want to come off like I'm disrespecting anybody, look unappreciative or look like I'm unfocused on my job with JYJ as a dancer. I've shown it to all the boys and C-Jes, and they were pleasantly surprised by my music. Sometimes you need that reassurance to know that you're going down the right path. With the Twitter name change and my new blonde hair, this is going to be me from now on! My fans have been completely amazing, and I'm just so blessed they're in my life. Even when I doubt or question myself, they always reassure me saying, "You're doing it. Please do it!" So, full speed ahead! That's why I try to have a personal relationship with my fans on Twitter, because I want them to know they are a part of this and I'm appreciative that they are a part of my life. They helped influence my dream and me taking this to another level.
APA: Do you plan on collaborating with JYJ?
T: Oh, wow! I have never thought of that. That would be the icing on the cake, the cherry on top. [laughs] I would love to do that, especially to pay homage to where this all started. If it weren't for them, this would not have happened for me. I would love to do that to show my appreciation and gratefulness to them. Oh god, just thinking about it gives me chills. Who would even turn that down? [laughs]
APA: How has your career progressed so far?
T: Well, I just had a fanmeet, and I was so worried nobody would come! It was great to see some of my fans, and I incorporated them into my EPK. I'll be dropping teasers by the time I come back from the JYJ Asian leg. I'm super excited! It feels like the earth just keeps giving.
APA: What concept or theme are you aiming to express through your debut release?
T: I guess you could say it's based off of me being Telisu and the different facets of my personality. There's a very bubbly side of me that's completely my personality, and there's the mix of my fashion sense. When I tell people I do the K-pop look, they say, "Really? You look like you're in a rock band." [laughs] I think it's the mixture of the two worlds. I'm always like that. There's something always off about it that I like, so I can play on any part of my character or personality that I want. A little rock chic with a little sprinkle of posh. Definitely nothing that is too bourgeois that it's stuffy. Definitely playful for sure. I love fashion, and I love the idea that I don't have to look like a certain person the entire time.
APA: Are there any current artists in the Korean music industry that are influencing the music you want to make?
T: Top three besides JYJ -- I mean how many times could I mention how amazing they are? -- I love Wonder Girls, 2NE1 and Big Bang. Out of my musical influences, those would definitely be the top three. As far as showmanship, style, they're gorgeous! [laughs] I've been looking into them and researching them and paying close attention to what they do, their management, just everything.
APA: As a dancer, are you planning to choreograph your own work to your songs?
T: Oh, if only! I don't think I'd be able to handle doing that, along with making and singing my songs. [laughs] I want to focus on developing myself as a singer, and I love that I can bring in other people with their talent and expertise and showcase that in my work. Jeri Slaughter is on my artistic directing team, and I like it when choreographers let me be a girl but also let me dance. Sometimes you only get to do one or the other, and I love the fact that his style lets you do both. Girly and hood, you'll get it all from him -- which is why I'm starting my career off with him at the helm of my choreography. I'm open to other ones too though. I'm sure there are plenty others that I don't know yet.
Oh my god, I also love Rino Nakasone. When she did the "Keep Your Head Down" choreography, I just lost it. I was like "How are these two boys going to mash out this choreography? How is this going to work?" But when she put one in the front mashing out and the other like his shadow, I was amazed. I just freaked out. She is so sick. I'd love to work with Peanut and Gil Duldalao too. If I could have a choreographing team, they would be it.
APA: So it seems like "boom" is your catch phrase. What does it mean?
T: Boom, it's just how I feel inside! I put it out there, and I get energy back. It's my pop at the end of the sentence. It's contagious ‘cause people are hitting me back now with a boom! And I just love it. You've got to enunciate and elongate the o-s. It means: "That makes so much sense." Confirmation or agreement. It means, "Let's go! Let's get it started!" I guess it means a lot of things, but it definitely represents me. [laughs]
For more information, check out Telisu's Twitter and YouTube page.
Check out Asia Pacific Arts' review of the San Jose concert of the JYJ 2011 North American Tour.