ICYMI: The Hollywood Acting Coach Under Fire for Urging Students to Pose as Hispanic

Revealing:

A recently-leaked audio clip, which appears to reveal a well-known Los Angeles-based acting teacher named Lesly Kahn advising a student to change her name and present as Latinx, has been circulating on social media.

The Daily Beast spoke with the woman who recorded the conversation, who asked to remain anonymous. She confirmed that it was a recording from an intro acting class of Kahn’s last Saturday.

In the controversial clip, Kahn can be heard urging an aspiring actress to change her name to “Rosa Ramirez,” insisting that, “Just the fact that your name is Rosa Ramirez is gonna get you a meeting.” When the young woman, who describes herself as “100% Ashkenazi Jewish,” says that no one has ever told her to change her name, Kahn expresses incredulity.

After confirming that the woman isn’t already on IMDb, Kahn proceeds to outline a plan of action for “Rosa Ramirez,” telling her to “wear something fucking red, wear some fucking sparkly earrings” and get new headshots taken. After reiterating that she should “come up with the most Latin name you can come up with,” Kahn further advises her to “stop admitting to being a huge Jew” because “it’s just not going to help you.” In the background, others can be heard laughing as Kahn says to “keep us posted” on “the saga of Rosa Ramirez.” Later, Kahn even advises the student to document her transformation on Instagram, suggesting that the exposure might be able to help the not-currently-working actress book a series.

The woman who recorded the interaction told The Daily Beast that it wasn’t the only disturbing conversation she witnessed in Kahn’s intro acting class. She recalled that, after the recorded incident, there was a point where the students were asked to share their biggest weaknesses as actors. One woman responded that “her weaknesses were that she is white and old.”

“I just sat there like ok, cool, here we go again,” the woman who recorded the class told The Daily Beast. “This was Lesly’s opportune moment to shut this all down, but of course, every Caucasian female in the room was like, ‘Oh yeah, me too!’ and then the original woman said, ‘I mean, I just have to say it, it’s racist.’”

When she tried to speak up, the woman responsible for the leaked audio clip alleges that Lesly said something along the lines of: “I’m not willing to have this conversation.”

“I’m just sitting there soaking this all in,” she recalled, “being a woman of African descent thinking, ‘Yeah, must be so hard for all of you white people to get jobs in Hollywood!’ That could have been the moment to address what had been said, but instead I was shut down.”

While she had had every intention of joining the group when she first arrived, she left class and told the office that she wouldn’t be coming back. After describing the uncomfortable “Rosa Ramirez” incident, she was given two email addresses to reach out to with her complaints. She told The Daily Beast, “I of course emailed them immediately as soon as I got home, and neither one of them has reached out to me.”

She confessed that she was “honestly kind of stressed out” by how the story blew up, adding, “I’m not out for attention.” In fact, she wasn’t recording with the intention of publishing anything, but rather for her own class notes. She shared the clips with “some of my friends of Latin descent” in an attempt to gauge if the interaction was as disturbing to them as she had perceived it to be. “And so one friend gave it to another friend, and that’s how it’s gotten around,” she explained.

“Equality feels like oppression when you’re accustomed to privilege.”

Reflecting on Kahn’s behavior, she said, “It’s not ok for her to be out there preaching this to fresh-faced people who may be new to this city and know that she has a reputation, and take everything she says to be gospel truth. Let’s say this girl goes out there like, ‘My name’s Rosa Ramirez,’ and then everybody finds out that she’s of Jewish descent. She’s going to look really stupid, and there goes her career.”

She added: “Equality feels like oppression when you’re accustomed to privilege. At the end of the day, that’s what it is, and that’s why so many people are crying right now, because it’s like ‘oh my goodness, there are other people getting things,’ but that doesn’t mean there’s any less for you.”

According to their website, Lesly Kahn & Company claims to offers “real-world career guidance and feedback” to actors, in classes that include acting essentials, technique clinic and comedy intensive. Additionally, they provide career counseling, on-set coaching and private classes. The website warns that LK & Co. isn’t for “the faint of heart,” adding, “We want you to work your butt off now, so that soon you can live your dream.” Their Facebook page boasts frequent shout-outs to former and current students. On February 22, they postedan article about One Day at a Time, the Netflix reboot that centers around a Latinx family in Los Angeles, captioned, “Kinda thrilling for me to see so many Kahnstituents working together. Ed Quinn, Todd Grinnell, Gloria Calderon Kellett and Isabella Gomez—just wow.”

Kahn’s bio lists a BFA in Acting from NYU and an MFA in Acting from The Yale School of Drama. Writing on her own experience in the industry on the Lesly Kahn & Company website, Kahn recalled, “Everything was out of my control: would I ever GET an audition? If so, when? How? Would the role be right for me? Would ‘They’ think it was right for me? What were ‘They’ looking for? Who were ‘They’ anyway? How should I look? What should I wear?!”

She concluded, “Of course, I couldn’t do anything about any of it. Still can’t. Neither can you. But if you’re willing to try some stuff, I can probably fix it so that, at the very least, you can always count on your acting. Wouldn’t that be a relief?”

Reached by phone, the office of Lesly Kahn & Co. referred The Daily Beast to Lesly Kahn’s social media statement. In the statement, which was released on her Twitter and Facebook pages on Monday, Kahn wrote, “I sincerely apologize for my recent comments. I believe in diversity and inclusion in the arts and in all areas of life. As a Jewish woman, I understand the pain that can come from being discriminated against. On behalf of myself and my company, the most sincere apology is extended to my students, current and former, and all others affected. I deeply regret the offense my words have caused. I value and respect people of all ethnic backgrounds, am extremely sorry and will use this learning experience to ensure against that type of incident in the future.”

When asked about Kahn’s statement, the woman who recorded the incident responded, “She had to do that to save face,” adding, “She’s not sorry for what she said, she’s sorry she got caught. Her heart’s not changed. She’s still the same person she was on Saturday.”

Dani Fernandez, one of the individuals who’s shared the audio clip on social media, is a former student of Lesly Kahn’s. Comments on Fernandez’s social media postings seem to illustrate a pattern of disturbing behavior in Kahn’s acting classes. One commenter recalled their negative experience in an intro class at Lesly Kahn & Company, alleging, “Some of the highlights were telling students to look up porn on their phone to get in the mood. Asking a girl if she’s ever done anal in front of the class.” The commenter, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast that the class they attended was not personally led by Kahn.

Sarah Ann Masse is an actor, comedian and writer who also took an intro class at Lesly Kahn & Company. Masse told The Daily Beast that she was first put off by comments that Kahn made in class. “She started talking about how she had been an actor, and she felt she struggled because she looked Jewish, and there were very few parts for Jewish-looking actors,” Masse recalled. Kahn eventually explained that she got a nose job “to look less Jewish.”

She took the class with her husband, who stayed behind and talked with Kahn after Masse had gone to check her class recommendations in the office. When they met up at the car, Masse says that her husband informed her, “I was talking to Lesly, she was crazy complimentary of you, talking about what a talented actress you were, but she told me that she thought you needed to get a nose job or else you wouldn’t get work.” Both Masse and her husband were disturbed by the alleged conversation. “My reaction was to be really angry, because first of all I think that for anyone, but especially for an acting teacher to suggest body modifications to their students, is super destructive,” Masse told The Daily Beast. “I was also really angry that she said it to my husband and not to me.”

Masse alleges she called Lesly Kahn & Company to report the exchange, and says that the man at the desk was “very upset and apologetic,” saying that Lesly would reach out to her. Masse never heard back from Kahn. She told The Daily Beast that she subsequently wrote about her experience in an all-women’s Facebook group, and “many people” came forward with similar stories of being urged by Kahn to change their appearance or undergo cosmetic surgery.

When the audio clip of Kahn leaked, Masse “was horrified.” She observed, “It’s bad enough to tell young women that they need to modify their bodies to have a career, but then she starts playing this ‘game’ of let’s pretend to be a different race, let’s pretend to be a different ethnicity—as though race and ethnicity are things that you can just put on or adopt…I think there’s this myth going around in the industry right now that it’s really hard if you’re a white actor because everybody cares about diversity, and that’s not true.” She concluded, “If [a role] is clearly supposed to be Latinx and you send in a bunch of white actors pretending to be that, you’re responsible for perpetuating the whitewashing and brownfacing that goes on in this industry.”

While Masse disclosed that she was nervous that speaking out about Kahn could result in professional blacklisting, she told The Daily Beast, “I can’t stand by and say nothing when I know the truth about my experience.”

Another performer, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast that Lesly Kahn suggested that she get collagen injections, a nose job, and a chin lift during an intro class, reportedly saying, “It’s really hard to get work when you’re too Jewish-looking.”

Buried deep in Lesly Kahn and Company’s five-star reviews on Yelp, it’s possible to find a few buried testimonies that mirror the leaked audio. In one negative review from 2016, a Yelp user wrote, “Lesly and her assistants also spent most of class complaining that everyone who was booking was ‘Latin and 17’ and if they could they’d ‘make us all 17 and Latin,’” adding, “Kinda racist and also inaccurate.”

On Twitter, Fernandez condemned “the mentality that Latinos are taking all the acting jobs (which is so far from the truth) and therefore white people should be allowed to do this.”

Articles and studies consistently show that Hollywood has a ways to go in terms of inclusionand rightful representation. A 2017 piece in The Verge pointed out that, “While Latinos make up 17 percent of the US’s population, television representation of Latinos in 2017 lagged behind at a mere 8 percent, the greatest racial disparity among minorities.”

When a self-identified Jewish woman tells a student that her only chance for success is presenting as Latinx, she’s playing into the paranoia that white performers are being pushed aside for people of color. This seemingly indefensible position is harmful on multiple levels, implying that performers of color who are finally being cast are merely filling quotas, or are being hired for their ethnicity as opposed to their talent or skill.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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