Written by Mizhelle
Photo by Jun Matsuoka
I first met Noemi four years ago. She had just arrived in Japan from Hungary and was living in a cramped guesthouse with three or four other foreigners, one of whom was my best friend. My best friend, being the whirlwind that she is, had left Japan with a lot of luggage behind and had asked us to send it to Australia where she had just moved back to. Luckily, Noemi agreed to help me send them.
My first impression of Noemi was that she was a kind and sweet girl. She had shoulder-length, straight blonde hair then, and I complimented her for it. She thanked me but was a little bit flustered, saying that it wasn’t really all that beautiful at the moment. In between carrying heavy boxes to the nearest post office, she told me she was looking for a job in Japan, and that she wanted to model. I didn’t really know much about getting a job in the Japanese entertainment industry then, so I couldn’t offer any good advice. When we finished sending the last of my best friend’s boxes, I wished her luck. Little did I know that it was the start of a long friendship.
Today, she sits in front of me with an air of confidence, dressed in vibrant colors, her now long hair styled in soft curls. Since meeting Noemi four years ago, she has appeared in various music videos, variety shows, and TV dramas, with an upcoming movie to boot. Many of the foreigners I’ve met in Japan have tried their luck in the entertainment industry, but among the people I know, she is the only one who’s had continuous success. I was very thus very curious to know her story, and luckily she indulged me.
Noemi’s career in entertainment started in Hungary at the sweet age of sixteen. Her father’s friend came over to visit and upon seeing her, he convinced her parents that she ought to try a hand in the entertainment industry, and she did.
“I was doing a few magazine gigs, but I was actually acting. I learned acting, singing and ballet at a musical studio. I played in a theater as a child actress, but just a few things. I started to get connected television, but that’s a hard industry so I didn’t really get in. Basically, I was in theater at that time as a child actress.”
It was also in high school that Noemi’s interest in Japan started to develop. She came across Japanese anime and got curious, which eventually lead to an intense love for the country and its subcultures. At that time, there wasn’t anyone in her class who shared the same interest, and this made her feel isolated.
“I loved Japan and I loved everything connected to Japan. I liked Japanese guys at that time already, so I was the weird girl in the class, and I couldn’t really make friends. I was living by coming home from high school and watching anime, like four hours a day.”
Noemi recalls that while being in school wasn’t particularly fun, she met people outside school who shared the same love for anime and started seeing them every week. It was through these connections that she found another interest that became the catalyst to her pursuing a career in Japan: GACKT.
Anyone who is familiar to the Japanese entertainment industry has more or less come across this established name. GACKT is a singer, songwriter, actor and talent who has been active since 1993, first as a musician, and then as a staple character on Japanese TV. His image is that of a big-shot celebrity, quite different from other talents in Japan, whose role is mainly to appear accessible to the public.
Gushing, Noemi retells this story. “I remember the first impression I had when I watched his Vanilla music video. I thought, ‘He sounds like a man, but I’m not sure.’ And I actually called my friend whom I got the CD from. Okay, I’m watching this Japanese thin… guy, I guess? His name is GACKT. Is he a guy?
“It was actually weird because he was not a man or not a woman, but I fell in love with his music. It was really good and I started to listen not just to him, but X JAPAN and everything else. When I had to decide whether I was gonna study the Japanese language or go and just be a theater actress, I was like, ‘I wanna meet this guy! He’s so sexy!’ I had to choose and I chose to study Japanese at the university, giving up on my future as an actress.”
Journey to Japan: Dreams Coming True
During university, while studying communication and Japanese, Noemi still went to a few photoshoots, but she reduced her modeling activities to a select few, given that her priority was to finish her degree. After graduating, Noemi found a way to reconcile her love for Japan and her aspirations to become an actress. She saved money and finally came to Tokyo, where she began pursuing her dreams of breaking into the Japanese entertainment industry. Determined, Noemi took every opportunity she got to land a gig. This included attending to parties to gain connections, and registering at various talent agencies.
“I met people through parties. I have a friend who introduced me to a lot of high-class parties and I met people from all different kinds of backgrounds and companies. I met this woman who has a company, body painting or something, and then they wanted to do a wedding dress for a shoot and they asked for me, and that was my first. I also had some audition pictures taken, which I paid money for. 10,000 yen for photos, which I sent to agencies afterwards.”
From then, Noemi got more and more offers. During the first year, she tried to take as on as many jobs as she could, but after gaining some experience, she came to a point where she was able to turn down other offers.
Yet the highlight of her career in Japan is of course fulfilling the one thing that lead her to come to the country in the first place, and that’s meeting GACKT.
“So I came here and told myself, ‘I’m gonna be famous. I’m gonna be on TV, I’m gonna sing, I’m gonna act, and I’m gonna make my dreams come true and meet GACKT.’ I was so positive and strong about this that everywhere I went, I said, ‘I wanna meet GACKT.’”
And eventually she did. After going to a party with a friend, she was introduced to the hosts who luckily enough knew someone in his circle, and she ended up going to a small dinner gathering where she met him personally. Later, she also landed a role in one of GACKT’s DVDs, where she can be seen pulling a prank on GACKT’S band members.
Noemi came to Japan in August 2012, and by September 2013, she’s achieved the goals she set. That’s how driven she is.
Challenges of Being a Foreign Talent in Japan
Noemi’s ongoing journey, however, does not come without drawbacks. I asked her about the challenges she faced and continue to struggle with as she tries to make a name in the industry, and she came up with more than a few.
During her first year, many of the job offers she got came in the form of various roles in saigen dramas. A saigen drama is a genre of TV, which features a Japanese retelling of popular or remarkable real-life stories. For example, the story of Betty Anne Waters, who studied law for 12 years simply to free her wrongfully accused brother, has had many incarnations on Japanese TV.
A saigen drama usually casts foreign talents in Japan, which adds a manufactured exotic feel to the story, highlighting that its outrageousness comes from the fact that it happened somewhere else. The foreign talents are often asked to ask to act in English, none of which can be heard during the broadcast as they are dubbed in Japanese voices during post-production.
While Noemi got a lot of offers to play various roles in saigen dramas, she eventually retired from it, saying that jobs like these can earn one a bit of money, but not fame.
“One time is ¥18, 000. You work 24 hours. Once, I was the lead actress in one episode. I was working until 3 am. And the next day I had to shoot at 6:30, so I basically had 3 hours of sleep at a hotel. It’s a shitty job and the companies take a lot of money. But until you have that experience, you don’t know. ”
Noemi was also displeased with how talent agencies work. Unlike Japanese talents, foreigners in Japan can sign up with as many agencies as they want to. These agencies have a roster of numerous foreign talents, and in Noemi’s experience, some of these agencies are merely concerned with filling a role and getting the money. They aren’t concerned with investing on a talent and growing with them.
“There are rules. For example, when you go to a shoot and you cannot give your business card to the director or the cameraman. But actually, that’s a lie. It’s just that the agency doesn’t want you to have private connections. Because you’re not gonna use the agency next time. The directors are gonna call you personally and the agency’s not gonna get paid, of course. I realized the whole thing and recently, I don’t give a shit. So everywhere I go I give my Facebook, LINE, phone number and everything, and I got a lot of jobs last year in private.”
Noemi also warns that there are talent agencies out there that try to persuade the talent into signing a contract, one that prevents them from seeking jobs at other agencies. This would work, of course, if the agency can promise jobs monthly, but unfortunately, some end up with a binding contract that earns them little to no money.
When it comes to competition with other talents, from what Noemi says, it seems that getting a job relies less on looks or talent, and more on how little money one is willing to do the job for.
“So there’s one other girl and me. If I ask for 25 or 30,000 and she’s willing to do it for 15, of course they’re gonna choose her. And this other girl, she doesn’t give a shit. She’s doing this as a hobby. Most of the talents like this are married. They’re not professional models or they don’t care whether they’re famous or not. They’re basically ruining the chances of other people who actually want to get more and want to be more famous, and the agencies know that. So every time I ask for 25 or 30, I get a phone call saying, ‘Sorry, you were not chosen.’ It’s because they got somebody cheaper. But all those jobs are not acting jobs though. It’s something where you don’t have to do anything, like variety shows. Sometimes you just have to sit there.”
Noemi’s troubles with agencies have even gone as far as taking legal action. She tells of one story where a company still had her picture and profile on their website even though she had already quit them. She got a lawyer to ask them to take her picture down. Twice they sent a formal request to the agency, but it was only until her lawyer declared an ultimatum and stated fees that the agency finally obliged.
Noemi says that while it’s a lot of trouble to go against an agency, models need to know and fight for their rights. Otherwise they will always be taken advantage of.
Words for Aspiring Talents
Every year, a multitude of foreigners come to Tokyo. A handful of them aspire to make a name for themselves in the industry, but very few succeed. With this, I asked Noemi to give whatever advice she could for those who are willing to take on the same challenge, and she willingly agreed.
“First of all learn, Japanese. That’s always a plus. If you understand what the cameraman wants to say, that’s a plus. They’re gonna call you back.
“Learn acting. If you’re fluent, you should learn acting because you have more chances to get better jobs. There are jobs that you can always do but you’re never gonna get famous from them.
“Never trust agencies. Know your rights. And don’t be scared of lawyers. If you have a good lawyer, it’s not expensive. Unless there are people who fight, nothing’s gonna change. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”