If anyone’s had a breakout career, it’s business and culture journalist Karen K. Ho. After initially being rejected from journalism school, the Scarborough, Ont. native has been steadily making a name for herself in the industry—both at home and in the States. It started with a 2012 internship at the Financial Post, a 10-month business reporting stint on misunderstood communities in Yellowknife in 2015, and a series of high profile pieces, including a 2015 Toronto Life story on Jennifer Pan, the Markham woman convicted of the November 2010 murder of her mother and attempted murder of her father, and a June 2018 profile on Hollywood actor and “should-be-leading” man B.D. Wong for GQ magazine. All of this culminated in her August 2018 cover story for TIME on the runaway hit Crazy Rich Asians.
At a time when journalism is in flux and newsroom demographics largely remain the same, Ho’s continued success defies the norm, thanks to a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, including graduating from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2017. In between features and while briefly home to sort out a pesky visa situation in October, Ho spoke with the Ryerson Review of Journalism, reflecting on what led to her success.
On putting in the work (and the money)
I’ve been a member of the Asian American Journalists Association since 2013. I was laid off from a job at Star Media Group that year and used the severance package to attend my first AAJA conference in New York. I went because there’s nothing like that in Canada. There’s this whole community of people who look like me and understand the same challenges and they want to help me do better in my career. So every year, I’d try to figure out a way to keep going and afford the enormous cost of travelling to places like New York and San Francisco.
On seizing opportunities
When I started doing culture reporting, I was lucky and also prepared. When the Good Place came on the scene, I was talking out loud to a friend and I said it would be interesting to write a story about how the costumes seem like an integral part of this show. I said I was interested in pitching it to another site and he said, “No—do it for me.” And I thought, “Is that how it works? This is really great.” And then it ended up being for GQ.
On (one of) her big breaks
I was lucky and in the right place at the right time. A friend had press passes to see B.D. Wong’s new off-Broadway play in New York and she asked if I wanted to go while she was visiting from LA. I watched the play and met with him after the show, and then I went home and I told the same editor who did The Good Place piece and then I tweeted about the show. The next day he was like, “Hey Karen, do you want to do an interview with B.D. Wong? He’s doing promotional work for Jurassic World and he’s available to do press.” And I was like, “Yes.” And then I worked really hard. I thought, if we treat this like a cover story, something big is [going to] happen. I don’t think I’ve ever researched that hard in my entire life. And people just went off.
On getting Crazy Rich Asians
The culture editor at TIME read my profile on B.D. Wong and said, “You did a great job, would you like to work for us and cover this Crazy Rich Asians [press] rotation with me?”… I didn’t think it would be a cover. So, the first time I found out that it might even be a contender for the cover was when Constance [Wu, who stars as Rachel Chu in the film] told me during our interview. You can see it in the transcript [of our interview], I was like “What? They didn’t tell me this was going to be a cover.” And she said, “Yeah, I kind of have an idea for how they’re going to photograph me, and it looks like it’s going to be a cover.” And then I went home and I didn’t sleep.
On being a champion for the community
I didn’t mean to be a champion, but I remember meeting [former CBC radio-journalist] Ing Wong-Ward at a journalism conference, and it had such a huge impact on me. Being a visible minority, [Wong-Ward also lives with a physical disability], she was just an incredible radio producer. I thought, there is value in being yourself and being proud of who you are in your work, and acknowledging that [your identity] is part of your interest and what you feel is important to cover. But it’s also important to be really good, and driven, and hardworking, and know that you’re underestimated and that it’s your job to prove to everybody why they shouldn’t underestimate you.
Canada still looks to the United States a lot for how things are changing and, for better, for worse, I know that if I’m changing things in the United States that will have a trickle down effect to Canada. I remember how bad it used to be, but we still have a long way to go.
On what’s next
There are stories that I want to start pitching and investigating, or go back to the long list of stories that have been gathering dust for a while that I want to make sure I get out for the sake of the culture. And I really want to get a story in the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker in the next six months, mostly out of spite for people who think that I couldn’t do it, but also because I know I have the caliber of work now for those publications.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity