In Brooklyn, NY, Peggy Wang stands amid a group of photographers, stylists and art directors gathered for a photo shoot. While they are abuzz with chatter about outfits, hair and makeup, Wang sinks into her coffee, calmly taking two sips while decisions rattle on around her. This is nothing compared to being on stage.
Wang, a New Orleans-bred Chinese American, plays keyboard and sings vocals for the New York indie pop band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Since their debut in 2007, Wang has juggled her day job as a senior editor at BuzzFeed, a website dedicated to all things viral, and her gig as a world-touring musician.
Before moving to New York in 2001, Wang’s life was average at best and socially unfulfilling. Wang hails from a small, predominantly white area of New Orleans and she was an only child whose parents worked most days and nights, leaving Wang to a self-education in early ’90s pop culture: The Baby-Sitters Club, Clarissa Explains It All, MTV, mixed tapes. “My parents owned a video store and I remember when I was 8, I would sit in the back and watch videos all day,” she says. She had few friends and even fewer Chinese friends. Wang would mingle with other Chinese kids on the five nights a week her mother played mahjong, but the friendships never lasted.
Yet there was music. With her best friend, she formed her first band in eighth grade and they performed Bikini Kill covers and her original songs at the local coffeehouse. Wang played the guitar back then. “I was obsessed with fingerpicking,” Wang says.
Another infatuation was the first season of the MTV reality show The Real World and her dream was to move to New York. “Growing up, I’d never had a group of friends like that, so I always sort of wanted it.” Upon leaving New Orleans, Wang got exactly what she wanted — five roommates.
But even being surrounded by friends and sparking the attention of the indie pop spotlight haven’t eliminated her identity struggles. “When I first started at BuzzFeed, the offices were in Chinatown and I remember never feeling like I really belonged,” she says. even though she speaks fluent Mandarin, she still felt like an outsider. To reconnect, she would like to see her grandparents in China for a long-overdue visit. The last time she saw them was during a brief visit to China in 1992 when she was 10 years old. She hopes she’ll get the opportunity the next time the band goes on tour.
Back on the set, the makeup artist applies mascara while stylists dig deep into Wang’s hair, teasing, pinning, stuffing and spraying her strands into a perfectly aerodynamic bouffant without so much as a wince from Wang. even after a six-hour photo shoot in 25-degree weather, Wang remains content and thoughtful — quietly prepared for her close-up.
Ashley Schleeper is a writer in Norfolk, VA. She has been a contributor to NPR. Read her Hyphen album review of Belong by The Pains of Being at Heart, here.