|Blush's Ji Hae, Alisha, Nacho, Angeli and Victoria go on a walking tour of North Hollywood's Arts District|
It's pretty hard to not immediately want to join in with the giggling and rapid-fire conversation between the five women in Blush. There's an air of giddiness surrounding the pop/R&B/dance group when we meet for a walking tour of North Hollywood's Arts District. At first I think it's just the excitement of exploring their new neighborhood, but after a while, their genuine camaraderie and love for being around one another becomes apparent. After all, it's hard not to smile when you're surrounded by people you just enjoy spending time with.
And over the past three years, the ladies of Blush – Alisha Budhrani, Angeli Flores, Ji Hae Lee, Natsuko "Nacho" Danjo and Victoria Chan – have dedicated all of their time to rehearsing, recording and promoting their work. Their relentless commitment to their work and unprecedented success so far (They're the only Asian singers to date to have their first two singles hit No. 3 ["Undivided"] and No. 1 ["Dance On"] on a major U.S. Billboard Chart, and Quincy Jones has signed on as their Executive Producer.) aren't the only things that them apart from most acts, they literally won their chance to be in this group.
In May of 2010, FarWest Entertainment launched "Project Lotus," a talent search in Asia to create a group composed of five girls from five different Asian countries. After 3,500 auditions, 35 were chosen to participate in an intense training academy in Hong Kong. The entire process was documented in an eight-part miniseries that aired on the AXS network, and eventually resulted in China's Victoria, India's Alisha, Japan's Nacho, the Philippines' Angeli and South Korea's Ji Hae being selected to form Blush.
"Through the process, they helped us all individually. For me, I'm originally a singer and hadn't danced before. When I was in 'Project Lotus,' I had to sing and dance at the same time," shares Angeli. "It was hard, but I learned a lot."
"The thing about 'Project Lotus' was that every week the groups would change. So, for example, the whole time I was never in a group with Nacho, Ji Hae or Victoria, and only during the last two weeks I was with Angeli. Because you were constantly rotating groups, you were learning how to work with different personalities and people in general. It makes you like a chameleon," says Alisha.
Victoria adds, "The great thing about 'Project Lotus' was it was so positive. It was never like, Oh, I'm competing with you.' We were never competing against each other as country groups. Even within our own country groups, like me with all the other Chinese girls, we were all helping each other to achieve our dream. It was a really great process."
Having come together in such a unique way brought them even closer to one another and cemented their resolve to make Blush a success. After "Project Lotus," the quintet moved to Los Angeles and settled into a place near the Grove.
"We love the Grove. We used to be able to walk there, but we still always go there for food or to shop," Angeli tells.
Victoria "We love the cinema there. All the movies we've gone to see have been there," says Victoria. "Our stylist introduced us to this Greek restaurant there called Ulysses Voyage. Their stuffed artichokes are to die for."
"Umami Burger is the best burger place," Nacho chimes in. "I go to the Farmers Market a lot. A favorite is Moishe's Restaurant. It's Middle Eastern and so good."
"And Jambalaya from the Gumbo Pot," interjects Angeli. "They have a great candy shop, [Dylan's Candy Bar] too."
Since the girls just returned from a trip to France and barely moved into their new home in North Hollywood, today seemed like the perfect day to get acquainted with the neighborhood's many restaurants, theaters, shops and galleries while they tell me about their adventures around the world, with Snoop Dogg and the release of their first EP, The Undivided EP. We begin our walking tour of the NoHo Arts District at the Federal Bar, a popular gastropub that's bustling with a lunchtime crowd. It's in a converted 1920s Art Deco bank building, full of gorgeous exposed brick walls and sleek tile floors, and serves specialty bottled and draught beers, wines and creative cocktails, as well as a full menu of food offerings.
Republic of Pie, a bakery known for freshly baked pies of every flavor from Classic Apple to Chocolate Carmel Pecan. An old theater marquee and ticket booth adorn the front of our next stop, the El Portal Theatre. The historic landmark was originally built as a vaudeville house in 1926 and became a movie theater before being damaged in the earthquake of 1994. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2000 as the home for Studio Theatre (home of Theatre Tribe), Monroe Forum Theatre and the 360-seat Main Stage area. Celebrities such as Jason Alexander, Debbie Reynolds and Adam Carolla have graced the stages of El Portal, and Blush's Alisha has her own theater tales to tell as well.
"Growing up dancing, in the music, you feel something when you're performing. When I was 10, I watched the movie A Walk to Remember and saw Mandy Moore singing 'Only Hope.' I felt something when I was watching her sing. I didn't expect that you could feel emotion so much and have that impact with music and singing. I always thought my way of expressing myself was with dance, but I put the two together and found performing to be really fun. Then I started to do acting in school as well, mixing all three," she recalls. "My school was the first school in Asia to do an edition of 'Les Misérables' that I was in when I was 14 or 15. I also took a theater arts course, where in one week you learned to be a director, the next you learned lighting, the next you learned sound, the next you were an actor. It showed me that those behind the scenes can really make the show. People always look at Katy Perry and her beautiful outfits, but someone had to design them, alter them and someone had to do the lighting to make sure it doesn't clash with her outfits. It's such a big package, and even though it's so much, I can't live without it. When we don't sing or perform for a long time I'm like, 'Ugh, I need to do something, even if it's just tapping my feet!'"
Continuing our walk along Lankershim, we see a music rehearsal space, fitness center and improv comedy venue before being greeted by a staff member in front of Tokyo Delve's Sushi Restaurant handing out fliers advertising their lunch deals. When the ladies mention they're a music group and new to the neighborhood, the manager get super excited. They give him a copy of The Undivided EP, and he promises he'll play it in the restaurant, especially if they come back for lunch later. I had heard about the boisterous, karaoke-like, fun atmosphere of Tokyo Delve's before, so I know it would be a great environment for people to dance and sing along to their songs.
Singing and dancing are two things that most of the Blush members have been doing all of their lives.
|Blush in front of El Portal Theatre|
For Ji Hae, however, her singing and dancing abilities blossomed later in life.
"I was in middle school when I started learning to play the flute. My parents thought education should always come first, so I only started playing for school, but now I'm doing it because I love music. When I was younger I learned piano too but stopped, and now I'm learning again. Sometimes everyone in Blush stands around the piano while I play, and we sing our songs together," she says. "Becoming a singer wasn't my dream when I was little, but I just like singing and love music. After graduating from university, I realized that it's the only thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I told my family, who at first weren't very happy, and every day I tried to persuade them that it was my dream. We argued a lot, but now they are really supportive and happy. Everywhere in my parents' house there are Blush photos."
Victoria started out as a gymnast, and her one goal was to be in the Olympics.
"Watching the Spice Girls close the Summer Olympics in London, I wished that could be us. Maybe one day," she confesses. "When I was young I couldn't really sit still. We moved from England where I had a lot of space back to Hong Kong, and my mom said I got out of the cab and immediately did a cartwheel. I just couldn't sit still. It's always been in my blood to be an entertainer. As a gymnast, you're always entertaining the crowd. Then, during university, I did ballroom dancing. I was a little too old to be in gymnastic competitions, so I wanted to find something that I loved to do that was still competitive. My friend did Latin ballroom dancing, invited me to check it out and I just fell in love. It was great because every other week we would travel to another city during competition season and compete with other students."
We pass a playhouse, an Indian restaurant that the girls all want to try and a pizzeria before coming to Indexx, a clothing boutique that I've visited before with Jigsaw. We all resist the temptation to go in and splurge on some new clothes, and I ask if they've been to the Americana at Brand or the Glendale Galleria since they're probably the closest shopping centers to their new NoHo home. The last time I was at Nordstrom at the Glendale Galleria, Blush's video for "Undivided" actually came on the big TV screens and speakers in the store.
Victoria replies, "That was one of the first big malls we went to. Our stylist took us there."
"I think we were fitting for 'So You Think You Can Dance,'" adds Ji Hae. "They have the little trolley at Americana at Brand, it's so cute. It's like another Grove."
While their song "Up, Up and Away" was featured on the soundtrack for the Disney Channel hit "Shake It Up," Blush made their television debut performing on the dance competition show "So You Think You Can Dance."
|Blush at Millennium Dance Complex|
"Nacho was starstruck," giggles Victoria.
"I grew up listening to hip-hop, and everybody knows Snoop. For me he is like, c'mon, Doggystyle and The Doggfather," exclaims Nacho. "It was great to work with him. He was so nice to us. He told us to go to Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, and it was so good. I love soul food."
I tell her that she must try MP's Soul Food Eatery since it's just a little ways up Lankershim. We then arrive at the dance studio where Blush rehearses, the famed Millennium Dance Complex, and snap some pictures.
"It's good for us to have moved to North Hollywood because there are a lot of good dance schools and dancers living out here. It's easy to go to dance practice anytime," says Nacho, who spent the majority of her childhood dancing. "My mom has a dance school. She teaches classic ballet and jazz, so I had to learn. Ballet was kind of boring for me at first, but after a few months getting into it, I couldn't stop. I can't really do ballet in Blush [everyone laughs], so I'm more on a jazz, hip-hop and R&B groove."
"For me, I grew up doing hip-hop and Bollywood – all the hard-hitting stuff. And now, I'm getting to go back to that," adds Alisha. "It's really interesting because Nacho grew up with that foundation of ballet and jazz, and when you learn ballet first, you strengthen your body. She's very flexible!"
Blush has been fortunate enough to dance routines by choreographers that have worked with Beyoncé, Kat Graham, Omarion, the New Boyz and Justin Bieber.
"We've worked with Sheryl Murakami [on the video for "Miss Out"], Free Crawford and Nakul Dev Mahajan, who is a Bollywood choreographer for 'So You Think You Can Dance,'" shares Alisha. "There are so many that would be cool to work with, like Robin Antin and Benny Ninja, who was on 'America's Next Top Model' and is just a really good mover. It would be cool to learn technique and how to pose from him. Everyone has a different personality, and some are taller or shorter, so it would be good to learn how to pose differently."
As we wait for the food, the manager comes through on his promise of playing their EP, and the ladies all start clapping, singing and dancing in their seats. While The Undivided EP has generated a lot of heat for them and they've worked with award-winning songwriters and producers such as Tal Herzberg (Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga), JXL/Wolverine (Britney Spears) and Sander Kleinenberg (Janet Jackson, Daft Punk), their live performances are also a huge element to them as a group.
Nacho "We're just like normal girls, we go shopping and do things that normal girls do. But the difference between other girls and us is when we go on stage, it's totally different. We're normally so chill, but when we get on stage we're like fire. Everybody can see it in our performances," reveals Nacho. "We dance A LOT. We don't just stand there and sing. Every time I perform I feel the energy coming from the crowd and then I can feel the energy coming from the other girls, and that helps me push even harder on stage."
Blush has shared the stage with the likes of the Wanted, the Black Eyed Peas, Far East Movement, Justin Bieber, Diana Ross and Quincy Jones. They also supported Jessie J on several dates in Asia.
"We opened for her in Singapore, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, and it was amazing," recalls Victoria. "We got to see her perform and watch how she relates with audiences in different places."
"There were 50,000 people. It's the sporting event of the year. Everybody wants to go to the Rugby Sevens," adds Victoria. "It was a big first for us, but it was really great. We had a hundred young kids dancing with us on the field. I'm sure from the very top we looked like ants [everyone laughs]. That was really fun."
The girls also had a lot of fun watching their video for "Electric" come together at the hands of acclaimed artist Pat Lee and producer Lloyd Chao.
"We met them in Hong Kong. They had watched us perform, and so they were able to get a sense of how we moved," says Victoria. "When they came with the drawings, they were pretty true to our characters and who we are. It's was amazing how they're so experienced in doing that, they could just pick up on things about our personalities. They drew Nacho wearing these sunglasses, and they had no idea that she actually owns a pair just like them."
"They even picked out Ji Hae's star. She always puts a star on her face," interjects Alisha. "And they put a dog in the video. I love dogs."
As we wrap up lunch and the time exploring their new town, Victoria expresses how much Blush means to her in terms of providing strong role models to young Asian girls. The group just released the video for that latest single, "Warrior," directed by Trey Fanjoy, and it shows the women as powerful warriors in the desert, and towards the end, their faces are painted like the flags of their respective country.
"The great thing about Blush is that we are all from different places," Victoria concludes. "We're traveling around the world meeting different people and getting to do what we love.
The Undivided EP is currently available. For more information, visit blushband.com.