"A girl from Hong Kong who speaks with a heavy Hong Kong accent, but when she sings she rocks like Pat Benatar."
That's how Tia Carrere remembers the problematic 1991 casting call to play Mike Myers' love interest, Cassandra Wong, in Wayne's World. Carrere was not from Hong Kong, nor did she have a Hong Kong accent. She was a Hawaii-born, Filipino-Chinese-Spanish American actress who'd had an arc on General Hospital and a failed Star Search appearance.
"I always thought that I was going to end up singing in a hotel bar in Waikiki," she told VICE. "I thought that would be the height to which I'd reach—and if I think about it, it sounds pretty good at this point."
Instead, she got the Wayne's World part, immortalizing a red lace dress and inspiring generations of strangers to bow at her feet and declare themselves "not worthy." (This is a real-life thing that happens often, Carrere said.)
And it's only one part of a decades-long Hollywood career that includes Grammys, Disney, Playboy, and getting conned by a nefarious lover.
A grocery store miracle
Born Althea Rae Janairo and dubbed "Tia" by her little sister, Carrere—a stage name she later adopted in tribute to Bond girl Barbara Carrera—didn't have an easy childhood. Growing up in Honolulu, she went to an all-girls Catholic school where, she said, wearing uniforms "was very helpful because nobody knew if you were the heir to the Shiseido fortune or catching the bus home." She was distinctly the latter and rode two buses on her daily 45-minute commute each way.
When she was 13, her parents and two younger sisters packed up and moved to Samoa for her dad's banking job, leaving Carrere behind with her grandmother in Hawaii where they felt she'd get a better education. It was a shock. But the bigger shock was when her mom and two younger sisters moved back—without Dad. Her parents divorced and her father married his Samoan secretary, eventually giving Carrere two half-sisters.
"Everything was all blown up. It was a very sad and very dark time," she said. "It wasn't what it was before. Everybody had their own fish to fry."
But one day, in a tale as old as Hollywood itself, the parents of a producer discovered her in a Waikiki grocery store and told her about a local movie their son was shooting called Aloha Summer.
"I'd never done any acting before. I was never in the drama club," Carrere said. "But I went in and I made pretend doing the shy local Hawaiian girl falling all over the Caucasian casanova."
It worked, and Carrere landed her first acting role as the hula-dancing female lead. "That changed the trajectory of my life," she said. "We didn't have the money nor did I have the grades to get a scholarship to go to college." Bolstered by her first gig, she jetted to California, eager to leave her troubled home life behind.
Left with nothing
The 17-year-old arrived in LA in 1985 with her newly minted SAG card and what she describes as a "scumbag boyfriend" who was decades her senior and serving as her then-manager. Within months, she'd landed modeling campaigns, a recurring role on General Hospital, and appearances on The A-Team and MacGyver. But the scumbag boyfriend was a problem.
"He ended up taking all my money and leaving me homeless. I had nothing after making $150,000 a year. I had $300," she said. "Note to self: Your boyfriend shouldn't be your manager and you shouldn't have a joint account. Bad idea."
Her fate lay in the hands of her sympathetic modeling agent who let her sleep in a hallway between two bedrooms until she could get back on her feet. "It didn't even occur to me to go back home," Carrere said. "I came out here young and dumb. There was no plan B. There was only ever moving forward."
She powered ahead with a slew of small film and TV guest roles (including a fantasized brawl with Christina Applegate on Married… with Children), and by 1991, the 24-year-old was in the final stages of a coveted audition to play David Hasselhoff's marine biologist girlfriend on Baywatch. Just before she was set to take the final swimming test, however, a buzzy movie script caught her eye.
Based on Mike Myers and Dana Carvey's popular Saturday Night Live sketch, Wayne's World promised slapstick comedy and a barrage of catchphrases to delight Gen X moviegoers. And the role of the confident rocker with impeccable style seemed perfect for Carrere.
"I remember going, 'Oh my god, this is the part that can change my life. And I can think of no one else that can do the acting and the singing and the rocking. But I can,'" Carrere said.
As Wayne and Garth would say, it was "excellent." The Penelope Spheeris-directed film debuted at No. 1 and ultimately raked in more than $122 million at the US box office. It cemented Carrere as not only an actress to watch but a singer on the rise, and she soon parlayed her success into a record deal and string of action movies. "I had this wind in my sails," she recalled.
In 1992, she also married producer and owner of the infamous Roxbury nightclub, Elie Samaha. ''She stepped out of the car and I thought she was very beautiful, and the rest is history," he told the New York Times of meeting her one night at the Roxbury.
Or in the (sexist) words of Garth, "If she were a president, she'd be Baberaham Lincoln."
An action star is born
Substantial roles for Asian-American women in the 1990s were scarce, but Carrere managed to land a steady stream of parts that let her talent shine.
"I got a bunch of roles regardless of ethnicity, which to me was the biggest win," Carrere said. "I also played all of the Asian backgrounds: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese. Strangely enough, the only thing I haven't played is Filipino, which is what I am primarily."
There was the African-Japanese computer whiz Jingo Asakuma in 1993's Rising Sun, opposite Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. Then came the mysterious smuggler Juno Skinner in 1994's True Lies, where she performed an extremely sensual tango with Arnold Schwarzenegger (a skill she'd later reuse on Dancing With the Stars.)
Carrere went into overdrive, doing an average of three movies per year from 1992 to 1999. There was a Wayne's World sequel and plenty of low-budget, forgettable fare like The Immortals, Kull the Conqueror, and Scar City. By the end of the decade she was starring in her own Canadian action TV series called Relic Hunter, which she describes as a "better" version of Tomb Raider.
"It was a lot. When all this stuff was hitting, I was just holding on for dear life," she said of her 90s surge. "I think it's my very simple upbringing: Work hard, do your best, stay healthy, get a good night's sleep, drink lots of water. This is the kind of stuff I was focusing on."
Harassed in hotels
While she narrowly avoided burnout, she did face the harassment that came simply by being a woman working in Hollywood. When the #MeToo movement came to the forefront in 2017 following the tidal wave of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Carrere was surprised to hear some scoff at young actresses who "put themselves" in compromising situations.
"People talk about how could girls go to hotel rooms? I remember going to so many hotel rooms," Carrere said. "It happened more often than I can even count. It was really creepy, but it was the norm just to do auditions."
One such encounter included being told to go to Steven Seagal's dimly lit room at the Hotel Bel-Air where, as she told San Diego News in 2017, he proceeded to look her up and down, have her do a turn, and question her about how comfortable she'd be with nudity. Her experience echoes allegations made by Jenny McCarthy against the actor in 1998.
"Thank god no one physically jumped on me where I had to punch them in the nose or knee them in the crotch," Carrere said. "We're finding our voice and our strength and our backbone now. Before, you'd just laugh it off and slap somebody on the arm, like they're being a naughty uncle."
Becoming a Grammy winner
Although acting consumed her life, music always remained Carrere's first passion. Right after Wayne's World, she released a 1993 solo pop album that went platinum in the Philippines, but mostly fizzled in the U.S.
"I know the smarter, easier thing would have been to go straight ahead with a rock album because that's what people were expecting at the time," she said. "But it wasn't the kind of music I liked." Plus, she'd struggle to reproduce Cassandra's hallmark raspy vocals since she'd had laryngitis while recording the soundtrack.
By the late 90s, however, Carrere decided to go in a different direction and get back to her Hawaiian musical roots. During those tumultuous years as a kid in Honolulu, Carrere's favorite pastime had been singing with her friend Daniel Ho, who attended the all-boys Catholic school nearby. And when he also moved out to LA as an adult, it was a match made in music heaven. The pair teamed up for four albums throughout the 2000s, all of which were nominated for Grammys and two of which won for Best Hawaiian Music Album.
In 2002, she also voiced big sister Nani in Disney's Lilo and Stitch and did a heartbreaking version of "Aloha O`e" that will absolutely still make you cry today. It coincided with her nude Playboy cover shoot—"How's that for a hat trick?" she said—but Disney was of a "don't ask, don't tell" mindset, and she continued voicing the character for the spinoff TV series for the next three years.
By her mid-30s, Carrere was at a crossroads. She had divorced Samaha in 2000 and was beginning to transition out of action movies and into more voice work and TV appearances. She added The O.C., Curb Your Enthusiasm, and a graphic stint as a nipple-fishing dominatrix on Nip/Tuck to her many, many credits. She also served as a guest judge on Iron Chef, a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, and a boardroom victim on Celebrity Apprentice.
(Her former TV boss won't be getting her vote this November. "He's so fired," she said of Trump, adding that she's "afraid the only guy who can beat him is Bloomberg because he's a successful businessman and America respects a self-made man." Note: This interview was conducted before Super Tuesday.)
After a whirlwind romance, Carrere married her second husband, British photojournalist Simon Wakelin, on New Year's Eve 2003, and they welcomed their daughter, Bianca, in 2005. Although they divorced in 2010, they reconciled three years later and have been, as Carrere joked, "living in sin" ever since.
"It's hard to sustain a career for decades and decades, particularly for a woman," she said. "But I think it's a natural progression that really dovetails nicely with me settling down and having a family, and that's what I am forever grateful for. It's been really enjoyable for me getting to be a Girl Scout troop leader and chaperone school events and go on camping trips. It's been awesome."
She just keeps going
That doesn't mean she's given up the spotlight. Now 53, Carrere is about to perform a series of live shows with her new Sarah McLachlan-esque songs. She's also on Cameo, if you're in need of a shoutout, and currently stars on Netflix's AJ and the Queen as eyepatch-wearing Lady Danger.
"I love chewing up the scenery as this big bad villain," she said of the RuPaul and Michael Patrick King-created series about a down-on-her-luck drag queen. "I'm waiting on pins and needles to see if we get picked up again for season two."
When she needed a showstopping outfit for the series' premiere, she returned to an old favorite: a mom-and-pop shop called Trashy Lingerie that made the famous Wayne's World red lace dress that's still hanging in her closet 28 years later.
"When you do an interview like this, and you think about the depth and breadth of the experiences that you've lived through, I have to pinch myself," she said. "I just keep going."