Well into the 1960s, Caucasian actors often snagged the roles of Asian characters; Shirley MacLaine famously played a geisha in 1962. But things started to change, in part due to Nancy Kwan's rise to stardom. Born in Hong Kong to a Chinese architect and English fashion model, she trained as a ballet dancer during her youth. While visiting Hong Kong in her late teens, she was scouted and eventually cast in the lead role in The World of Suzie Wong. The film was controversial, as many people believe that the "hooker with the heart of gold" character created and reinforced negative stereotypes about "exotic" Asian women. Still, Kwan's performance earned her a Golden Globe (for Most Promising Newcomer) and turned her into an international icon.
See a gallery of photos and find out about her trendsetting style when you read more.
Kwan helped shape beauty trends in the '60s and beyond. After the famous hairstylist Vidal Sassoon gave Kwan a bob haircut, this iconic photograph appeared in Vogue. According to Sassoon, "My new style, which until then had been known as the Mary Quant cut, because it had been seen first at her collection, got a new name: the Nancy Kwan cut." Variations on this style continue to be popular today, and Kwan later appeared in the infomercial staple Pearl Cream. But her biggest influence may be off-screen. Along with starting her own film company, Kwan has been an advocate for homeless youth issues and has served as a spokesperson for the Asian-American Voters Coalition. Her most recent film appearance is in the 2007 documentary Hollywood Chinese.