Jeannie Mai Teaches Us to Own Our Truths, Our Faults and How to Face It Till We Make It
Written By: Annie Kim
Photographed By: Jared Schlachet and Joe Magnani
Styled By: Sarah Nearis
Makeup By: Motoko Honjo Clayton
Hair By: Traci Garrett Jeannie Mai
Vivacious, outspoken, bold and relatable are just a few words to describe Jeannie Mai, a Vietnamese-American television personality, style expert and an executive producer and Emmy-award winning co-host of “The Real.” Mai’s unique zest for life is contagious and one of the many components that have her stand out, even in a room full of people whose job is to do just that. Throughout the years, as she climbed the professional ranks of the entertainment industry—starting off as a makeup artist at MAC Cosmetics—Mai’s purpose has always remained the same: to inspire and encourage women to own their truths and know their worth.
“Own you before they do,” the San Jose native frequently says to her fans, whom she calls ‘Mai fam.’ “Own whatever it is that you don’t like about yourself before someone thinks they own it for you…then they think they have the right to shame you, to embarrass you, to hold it over your head or remind you about it.”
Mai doesn’t let anyone have that kind of power over her. What she once saw as insecurities are now her greatest assets. “When you just own that about yourself, not only does it become a unique trait of yours, but you [also] might realize that it’s one of your powers,” shares Mai. Her story and success are written on her terms—and by her terms only.
But like all powerful people who go down in history, this wasn’t always the case. Learning to own (and speak) her truth was no easy task. This past May, the 40-year-old opened up about a traumatic childhood experience in her recently launched YouTube series “Hello Hunnay”—a web series where Mai candidly shares her thought process and opinions on life, fashion, family, social issues, beauty, dating and much more. In this vulnerable episode, she revealed why she had a major falling out with her mother, Olivia TuTram Mai, who is widely known as ‘Mama Mai.’
Mai was sexually abused by a close family member when she was nine and it went on for four years. At the time, when she tried to confide in her mother about the abuse, Mama Mai didn’t believe her. Hurt and betrayed, she left home at the age of 16 and didn’t speak to her mother for eight years. The unfiltered episode documented the first time the mother-daughter duo addressed the heart-rending incident. Mai hopes that by sharing the rawness of her story, it will help others in similar situations find the strength to speak up and heal from the inside. Your story is your power.
Using the years of hard lessons and heartbreaking experiences as a tool to help others, Mai was awarded the 2019 Pioneer Woman of the Year at Los Angeles City Hall for her fight against sex trafficking. She also serves as a board member for several nonprofit organizations, to name a few, Dress for Success and Same Sky. Through her platform, the star hopes to empower women everywhere to find their voice and own their truth.
Despite the grievances of their past, Mai and her mother have mended their relationship. The celebrity credits her mother for her success and ebullient personality. “Although everyone enjoys Mama Mai, she’s not for everybody,” Mai says. “The way she mothered me, I took that and created my personality…the way I handle things now is because of the way she raised me.”
Specifically, from a Vietnamese-Chinese background, she knew that her mother’s “overly strict, overly controlling, absolutely nosy” and tough demeanor comes from a place of love. To reassure Mama Mai, she learned to over-communicate, covering all her bases and thinking five steps ahead: where she was going, how she’d get home and how she was guaranteeing her safety.
“It’s the way I reacted to [Mama Mai’s strictness] that made me mature faster and learn a lot of the lessons that I needed to learn in that time,” shares Mai. “Life is 10 percent of what happens to you. How you react is 90 percent of who you become.” Fast forward to today—her playful banter and interactions with Mama Mai often steal the limelight in any setting.
Along with starring in her daughter’s busy life by creating mischief and injecting sassy (but well-intended) comments, Mama Mai plays a notable role in “Hello Hunnay.” Although many of the topics in Mai’s digital series are often covered on “The Real”—where she is one of four co-hosts along with Adrienne Houghton, Loni Love and Tamera Mowry-Housley—Mai feels that the daily hour-long talk show doesn’t allot enough time for her to express what she needs to share.
“I have so much shit to say so it helps to have a digital series like ‘Hello Hunnay’ where I can run it and say as much as I damn well want,” laughs Mai. “I just don’t ever want to shortchange people when I have opinions or something that really helped me… I never want to give you a version that may not hit you as hard as it did for me.”
In addition to being a co-host on “The Real,” producing episodes for “Hello Hunnay” and a recurring fashion correspondent for “E!’s Live From The Red Carpet,” Mai is also juggling another exciting new project as the sideline correspondent for “Holey Moley”—an all-new extreme mini-golf competition series executive produced by NBA star Stephen Curry with ABC. Mai loves that “Holey Moley” will resonate with anyone and everyone of all ages and backgrounds, which was one of the main reasons why she wanted to be involved with the show.
“There’s a moment where I actually tee off with Anthony Anderson from ‘black-ish.’ Let me tell you the most unexpected outcome came out of that,” she says. “You should absolutely watch because we have celebrities coming every week and I golf with them… I kinda kill it just so you know.”
With all the diverse directions that Mai is constantly being pushed and pulled in, both personally and professionally, the celebrity doesn’t strive for perfection. Instead, she focuses her mental energy on recognizing what she wants to improve on, then cultivates her thoughts into action. “Own whatever it is you’re not great at,” explains Mai. “The number one thing for confidence in general is to own the process of becoming what it is you desire.”
However, don’t mistake what Mai entails as confidence for faking it. “One fucked up piece of advice that people used to tell, especially to women in the industry, is to ‘fake it till you make it,’” she says. “The fuck are we learning if we fake who we’re supposed to be… I say ‘face it until you make it, don’t fake it.’” Mai urges women to trust and listen to their intuition because that’s where your power lies—within you.
Another message that she constantly reminds her fans is to “kill it with confidence, hunnayyyy.” Mai’s fervor for fashion and unique sense of style have been a constant heartbeat in her career. She kills it with confidence on the daily by seeking encouragement in the power of an outfit and the pop of a color, especially on the days that may be harder for her to get out of bed.
On lazy days, Mai’s feelings will want to dress her in baggy pants, an oversized hoodie and a baseball cap to hide a makeup-less face. “Instead, I’m going to put on a wrap dress that’s a gorgeous fuchsia and a great pair of heels that make me look cute wherever I sit, stand or walk,” she describes. “When I run into a friend and she’s like, ‘Oh my god, I love this color,’ that reaction that I’m receiving because of my energy [that’s generated from the outfit] is being reciprocated works wonders on what I didn’t have by myself.”
At a young age, the fashion expert found solace in the colors, cuts and fabrics nestled in her closet where she bore the concept of “Wearapy.” Though fashion, Mai believes that her philosophy behind the practice of “Wearapy” offers healing effects on women’s confidence and mood, which can aspire a more purposeful and fulfilling life. “The outside immediately starts to penetrate the inside when you have an outfit that makes you feel good,” she states. The key is: don’t let your feelings pick out your outfit and don’t let ignorant people dictate your feelings.
The direction of Mai’s professional career wasn’t always clear, but she always knew she wanted to be “in the business of making women feel good about themselves.” The goal was never to be famous, to achieve consistent screen time or to be celebrated for her personality. Mai’s goal is to empower “all the sisters (and brothers) out there” to find their confidence and discover their unique power from within through various life ports. She shares her story in the hopes of celebrating you and the power within your truth.