By her own tally actress Lauren Tom has sought counsel from over 50 psychics in the last 20 years. “My father believed strongly in certain people’s ability to see the future, so he used to drag me to some of his visits,” she explains. “I thought the whole thing was kind of weird. But then my father died–at a relatively young age–and I began to wonder where he went, what had happened. I saw one psychic, then another. It became a consuming passion, to understand myself better through these seers. Needless to say, I went through lots of extremely wacky experiences.”
About five years ago Tom was asked by HBO to develop a one-woman show. “They were looking for personal stories from people of color,” she says, “but I didn’t think I had an interesting story to tell.” While speaking with a producer, Tom brought up her spiritual encounters. “‘That’s it,’ he said while laughing, ‘your life as seen through these sessions,'” says Tom. “And since I didn’t mind setting up myself as a fool, as a gullible truth seeker, I said yes right away.” Originally a skit titled “25 Psychics”–“because I didn’t want it to be a laundry list of all 50 or so”–Tom has expanded it into an hour-long show that evolves as she incorporates new psychics and the latest events in her life.
One psychic she’s particularly fond of is Abby. “The first one I saw in New York after moving from Chicago, Abby was a tea-leaf reader with a blond beehive three feet tall. She told me”–Tom puts on a Brooklyn accent–“‘You’ve got to sleep with every guy until you find the right one.’ Well, the advice cost me only 15 bucks.” Another psychic was a Sikh guru. “He practiced kundalini yoga and communed with the spiritual world–very 60s hippie. He kept wanting to sell me a parcel of land but told me that paperwork wasn’t necessary. I didn’t buy.” An astrologer she consulted recently disclosed that she was a despot in a past life. “That explains why I’m kind of bossy,” she deadpans.
Tom says she must have inherited that trait from her grandmother, who figures prominently in her routines. “Grandma Helen on my mother’s side dispensed practical sound advice and probably would’ve dismissed psychics as crackpots. One of the stories I tell is how she got to Chicago from China. This handsome guy–my grandpa–went back to his village to look for a bride. He brought with him dazzling jewelry to impress grandma, who was from the wealthiest family. As it turned out, he tricked her. He was a poor waiter and had borrowed the jewelry. She came anyway, using the money she’d stashed away.” Tom’s grandmother opened a Chinese takeout on the 3700 block of Fullerton in the mid-30s and later a full-service restaurant in the same neighborhood.
Though her mother married into a well-connected merchant family in Chinatown, Tom never lived in the city. Instead she was raised in Highland Park, where she took dance lessons and longed to be Jewish. “Oh, how I envied my friends for their bas mitzvahs.” In 1980 she went to New York and landed a role in A Chorus Line, but after that gig ended, she found there was little acting work for Asians. Eventually directors Peter Sellars and Joanne Akalaitis, advocates of color-blind casting, took her under their wings, and in 1989 Tom made her local stage debut at the Goodman in Akalaitis’s reworking of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.
The following year Tom moved to Los Angeles, where she’s done several supporting roles in movies–“baby-sitter, the heroine’s best friend, etcetera”–and a part in The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan’s novel, in which she played one of the four Chinese-American daughters, “the one who quarrels with her yuppie husband.” It’s still her claim to modest fame, though “a lot of people confuse me with the others, probably not realizing that Asians don’t look alike.”
She’s had better luck in TV, with guest stints on Friends and Homicide and as a cast member on Grace Under Fire. A canny impersonator–“I can easily put age and accent into my voice; that’s how you can tell my psychics apart”–Tom keeps busy with at least six voice-over jobs. “Let’s see, I’m the Laotian mother and her daughter on King of the Hill. Amy Wong on Futurama. And I’m the hero’s girlfriend on a couple of Saturday kiddie cartoons. Things are getting better for Asians, at least behind the camera.”
Tom will unveil the latest version of 25 Psychics–with an upbeat ending, she says, now that she’s married to a “Jewish boy from Highland Park”–next Thursday at 7 at Northeastern Illinois University’s Fine Arts Recital Hall, 5500 N. Saint Louis. Admission is free. Call 773-794-6258. –Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debra DiPaolo.