It’s strange to me that there are people who don’t take Chloe Bennet at her word that it’s easier to find work as an actress with the last name of Bennet than with the last name of Wang. And that’s leaving aside her actual lived experience. (And things like how Lindsay Price—half Korean—got more work after she’d had surgery to appear more Western.) That’s ignoring quite a lot of Hollywood history, because Chloe Bennet is hardly the first person to change her name to appear less ethnic. Heck, Annette Funicello actually assumed she’d have to do it, and she was thirteen at the time.
Basically, there are three kinds of changed name in Hollywood, and we’re mostly going to talk about the third. But let’s just brush up on the other two before we go on that way. There are interesting stories involved, and there are one or two people whose name change you would assume to have changed their name for a different reason than they did. And people who changed their name for whatever reason and ended up causing someone else to change their name further along the way.
Frankly, the first one is having a bad name. Or other personal issues; Jon Stewart, for example, dropped his birth last name of Leibowitz because of bad blood with his father. But Frances Gumm and Marion Morrison and various others changed their name because their names didn’t project the aura they wanted or because their names were just awkward or unfortunate. Lucille LeSeuer didn’t feel like a movie star name, so she’s known to the ages as Joan Crawford. Angelina Jolie is another person distancing herself from a parent, and Charlie Sheen is sharing with one.
The second is more technical—the rules of the union. My favourite story about this is how Michael Douglas, whose father we’ll get to in a minute, couldn’t be Mike Douglas despite going as Mike because there was already a Mike Douglas in the union, so he was Michael. So then someone who actually went by Michael and had the last name of Douglas couldn’t be Michael Douglas and had to change it, becoming Michael Keaton. Doubtless there will someday be a Michael Keaton who’s got to change his name, just to keep the cycle going. Similarly, there’s a Michael Fox with a career going back to the ’50s. So Michael Andrew Fox rejected the idea of being Michael A. Fox, because it sounded conceited, and adopted the middle initial of “J.”
So, then. The third reason. The thing that made Chloe Wang into Chloe Bennet. Margarita Cansino into Rita Hayworth. Issur Danielovitch Demsky into Kirk Douglas. Ramon Estevez into Martin Sheen. We can keep going; this isn’t new. We can go back to the silent era and the delightfully named Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla. Which, um, is a bit long and would have to be shortened regardless, I grant you. Still, Leslie Stainer is a perfectly reasonable name if you ignore the fact that it’s a bit Jewish. (And German Jewish, in 1914!) So the actor could play more upper-crust characters, Stainer became Howard.
Jon Leibowitz could have had a career. Jerry Seinfeld has, and Jon Leibowitz is funnier. And if Emilio Estevez hasn’t had the career Martin Sheen has, well, he’s done all right, and a teen idol with the last name of Estevez would’ve been unthinkable when Martin was young. By the time he started acting, Michael Douglas could’ve been Michael Demsky, but his father’d legally changed the family name and so he actually was Michael Douglas. You get the idea. And so someday, it will happen that having the last name of Wang doesn’t limit you to just a certain kind of role, even if you’re half white and frankly can pass with the name change. It just hasn’t happened yet.
It will doubtless take even longer before women who look the way Lindsay Price does don’t have to get surgery to look less Asian. Even Jackie Chan is believed to have had surgery on his eyelids, and goodness knows he’s had a long career in Asia. After all, Viola Davis was born Viola Davis, and she’s still limited in what roles she’s allowed to take. If you can’t pass, it doesn’t matter what you change your name to, it seems.