Selene Luna is best known as the voice of Tia Rosita in Disney Pixar's Coco. She is an established presence in Hollywood with multiple roles in movies and TV shows, including Margaret Cho's "The Cho Show. " The Mexican American actress, who lives with a physical disability, has also broken ground as a featured burlesque dancer in five national tours of the undisputed queen of burlesque Deeta Von Teese. She is also an advocate for people living with disabilities including a 2019 trip to DC to meet with legislators and speak at a rally on Capitol Hill.

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Full Transcript:

Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington.

Before we start our show this week, we wanted to tell you about a podcast. We just discovered through the OSSA collective, the show was called Brunch and Slay, where they remember that "if she can, I can, we all can." Host Ameerah Saine is the founder of the lifestyle brand Brunch and Slay which she created to inspire women to live their best lives every day. We think you'll really enjoy the show. So be sure to check it out wherever you get your podcasts.

Now for today's episode, which is Part 1 of a two-part interview with Selene Luna, best known as the voice of Tia Rosita in Disney Pixar's Coco. Selene is an established presence in Hollywood with multiple roles in movies and TV shows, including Margaret Cho's "The Cho Show. " The Mexican American actress, who lives with a physical disability, has also broken ground as a featured burlesque dancer in five national tours of the undisputed queen of burlesque Deeta Von Teese.

In 2019, Selena went to Washington DC to meet with legislators like US Representative Maxine Waters at the 2019 Conference on Independent Living to advocate for disability rights and spoke at a rally on Capitol Hill alongside US Senator Chuck Schumer.

And this October 28th, we're collaborating with Selene to produce Chronically Funny: A Comedy Revolution Featuring an All-Disabled Lineup of Women. This virtual comedy show will be followed by a round table discussion with the performers.

So please welcome to the show Selene Luna.

Selene: Hi ladies. Thank you so much for having me

Passionistas: We're happy to have you here. We're really excited to talk to you about all of these amazing things that you've been doing. What are you most passionate about?

Selene: What I am most passionate about is disability justice. And I guess you could call me an advocate for disabled justice. And it's not necessarily a fire in my belly that II must do this. It's a necessity that I have to do with, I have better things to do with my time. Uh, being an advocate for social injustice is really exhausting. And it's an absolute shame to me that we have to go to such measures just to be heard. Um, and so that is why I am, uh, I guess you would say an advocate for disability justice because it impacts my life personally and those and those around me, uh, people in my life and I, as, as early as I could remember, as a little child, nothing got under my skin, then things that were not fair unfairness drove me nuts and it still does. And so, so I guess you could say I'm very passionate about injustice when it comes to, uh, individuals with, and it's driven by my own personal challenges in a society that openly discriminates against people with disabilities. So, um, it's not a joyful passion. It's just a necessity in my life.

Passionistas: Why do you think, I think it is still this way. Why do you think that we've come such a small distance to tackle this issue? It feels like we should be further along.

Selene: I agree with you and I have the same question. It absolutely blows my mind, but then the same question could be like, why is this country still racist? Um, you know, so many questions. Why do women not, uh, have income equality in the work force? So these are all great questions I have too. It's like, what planet are we on?

I guess, to have some sort of an answer. I think, um, I can't understand exactly why, but we are in a society for generations, hundreds of years. I mean, as early as time going back to the early days of Egypt, uh, people with disabilities were, uh, mutilated discriminated against, um, violently tortured simply because they were born in a body that they can't help. They, as a disabled person. The most frustrating thing is my response to society is how do you think I feel? I didn't choose this body.

You know? So then you're punished on top of something. You had no choice over. So it blows my mind. And I can say simply put, that the biggest struggle as a person with a disability is not my actual disability. It's society's perception of disability. Because like many disabled people I know myself included, uh, we are fine in our bodies and our different bodies with different abilities. And I, I have to give a disclaimer, I hate the term differently abled. And I think I just kind of used it. So bad on me, but, um, we're totally fine. We just need equal access to what everyone else has. And for those watching who weren't familiar with me, you can't tell on camera, but I'm a little person I'm only three feet, 10 inches tall. And, uh, and it's not easy. I do have a lot of, um, physical things. I mean, I have, I suffer from chronic pain, intense, debilitating, chronic pain due to the structure of my skeleton. So, so the right things I I'm, I have to get through, but it's the least of my troubles. My greater troubles are society's open discrimination.

Passionistas: So take us back to when you were a young girl and what your childhood was like, and when you first knew you were funny and why you think you sort of became funny.

Selene: My childhood was I'm riddled with adversity. Uh, I'm a Mexican immigrant. So my parents brought our family to the, uh, to the United States from Mexico when I was three years old. So I don't really have a memory of that, but, uh, but the challenges we faced were like a lot of racism and bigotry because we were Mexican, we were new to the country. Um, and I'm, there was no, I was the only person who with a disability in my family.

Actually correction. My father is actually disabled as well, but he wasn't born with a disability. Like the majority of statistics, uh, say the majority of people with disabilities were not born disabled. And so that's why it blows my mind that people are so dismissive of it because you never know who's next. I mean, you could be hit by a car and in one second, your life changes.

So that's what happened to my father before I was born, he was in a horrific accident when he was 18 and he lost his entire right arm. Uh, he's an amputee. So, um, but I forget honestly, because the way we grew up was, um, never really talking too much about it. You know, we were, I grew up in the seventies, my parents are old school. You just suck it up and you get on with life. So that was great for me in many ways, but it also was not good for me because then I felt very isolated. None of, no one in my family was a little person and nobody really had a disability that was addressed, um, directly, uh, everyone's needs were met, but there wasn't a conversation about disability at all. And my dad was busy working two jobs, you know, it wasn't, we just don't even talk about feelings.

And, um, so what I'm getting at is that's a little bit of my background. So my upbringing upbringing as a disabled little girl, it was very isolating. I, it was very dark. I felt very alone. I was never immersed in any type of support network. I was never exposed to a disabled community. And my only point of references were, uh, disabled people being ridiculed on television. And like, you, you know, I grew up watching, um, like Billy Barty, the Buggaloos , uh, you know, things like where the creatures on television were, little people in costumes. It was very dehumanizing. And the irony is, and I grew up to do that myself, but as a child that had a lot of internalized shame, enablism, it's the only images I identified with, were the d humanizing images of little people on television and movies, including the Wizard of Oz that brought up a lot of anxiety for me.

Uh, and I didn't feel human. I didn't, I felt like I'm not a human being like my siblings or my parents, like I'm something different and it must be really shameful cause we don't talk about it. So it was really awful, no gentle way to say this. Uh, but grew up old school, you just bare and grin it and you chug along and you don't complain. And so that's where the funny comes in at a very young age, I think around the age of five. I think that's about when you start having a little self awareness, maybe five, six. I remember in kindergarten, I remember really in first grade that's when it really hit me that I was not like the others. And when I started to have this self-awareness as a defense mechanism, I was really joking all the time and never serious. And it was really a distraction. It was really to help me survive.

And I think a lot of kids or dealing with a heavy things at home use humor to protect themselves. I mean, I'm always concerned now as an adult, I look back if there was a class clown in the room in the classroom, that's a pro... There was a problem at home. And so I was a clown. I was always, uh, using humor as I just figured if I can make them laugh, they'll forget about what I look like. And so I think anyway, long story short, I think that was my childhood.

Passionistas: You had these experiences seeing these images on television and in movies, and yet you chose to go into the entertainment industry. So what drew you to that in as a career?

Selene: What drew me to it is while I was having this realization of, you know, when I was very young realizing what I was, I didn't understand what I was, but I knew I was different and in a shameful way, not like cute different. Um, so I, and I grew up in Los Angeles. So Hollywood was very much on the radar, uh, socially. And, uh, so as a little kid, I thought, well, if I can make them laugh and I figured I can go into showbiz because I thought I could be the one who changes the images that make me feel ashamed. And also it would be an opportunity to be in control of the dialogue. I figured if people were gonna laugh and point at me, it would be on my terms. And so that's how I saw that platform. On top of having no real education, I thought, and I'm not implying that you don't need an education to get into entertainment, but I just thought my talent would be to entertain people and make them see me the way I want to be seen and heard. And, uh, but you know, once I did it, it was a very different reality.

Passionistas: So, tell us about that reality. Tell us about how you broke into the business. What, what were your first gigs? What were auditions like?

Selene: Well, the reality was a pretty harsh in the sense where, um, I, you know, I had my mind made up that it's going to be up to me to create a new image for people like me, but I didn't really realize that I wouldn't have the actual platform to execute my plan. Uh, I, you know, I'm 20 years into this career to this day. I can tell you easily, maybe 98% of my auditions or opportunities are to play a creature or a monster of faceless character to this day. And, uh, but I mean, things are actually literally just changing now. I mean this year, uh, there are new roles now, but, um, that we never had. Uh, so that was sobering for me. So what I did was I, and this is like the mid-nineties, early- to mid-nineties. I am, I was five years old, kidding.

Um, this is around the mid-nineties. I took a workshop class, summer workshop of how to write, stand up comedy at the, uh, at the world, famous Hollywood Improv. And so I took like a summer kind of workshop and I fell in love with it. I was like, this is it. I have a microphone. And people just have to sit and listen ‘til I'm done. And, um, and it went really well. I really excelled and so much so that, um, one of my greatest regrets in life was a failed opportunity on my part, Bud Friedman who's a legend in the comedy world. He started the Improv. Uh, he saw one of my workshop like showcases and he came over and he pulled me aside. I mean, this man created careers for people like Roseanne Barr and he's major. And he pulled me aside and says, it was really old school.And he's like, "You got it kid, you know?"

And he invited me to perform at regular shows. And so I started performing at the Improv, but I was riddled with so much shame and self- loathing and so insecure and not fully developed as a person. Then I was easily intimidated. Uh, even in the nineties, it was still very much a man's world, the comedy club. And, um, I, I just felt really scared and intimidated being around all these funny men. And they weren't welcoming to me at all or warm. Um, but that's not their job. You know, my friend and I, one of my dearest friends in the business Murray Hill, he's a comic in New York, uh, we have an ongoing joke. It's called showbiz, not show therapy. So you can expect to be coddled if you're feeling nervous or anxious, you either gonna do it or you're not.

So I wasn't ready. I didn't have the skin. And after a year of Bud Friedman, you know, bringing me under his wing, I quit. I quit like an idiot. I throw in the towel. It was so scary. It was never fun for me. I practically wanted to cry after every show. And just the guys, the men were so tough and I just, um, I was invisible to them. And, um, anyway, so that's how that all started. But flash forward, about 10 years after that, I went back into it, ready to go. Uh, I was much saltier.

Passionistas: What experience did you have in that 10 year period that made you so salty?

Selene: I had a very interesting experience that really helped me to develop as a performer. And it was one of those things that it was something I needed that I didn't know I needed. Literally two weeks after quitting the Improv, I found myself at a party. And at this party I met some women who are still great friends of mine. Some of my closest closest friends is this grow a group of girlfriends and they were all doing, um, a dance troupe called the Velvet Hammer Burlesque. And at the time, uh, there was no one else doing it. I mean, I know burlesque is very popular now it's had a huge resurgence, but this was the very early days of the Neo Burlesque Movement at the time, the only people doing it were the stupa girls that I befriended the Velvet Hammer, Deeta Von Teese, who is now world famous and Catherine Delish and also a handful of gals in New York.

And when I was introduced to this, I didn't even, uh, couldn't wrap my head around what they were doing. I didn't totally get it, you know, other than having seen maybe some burlesque and like old timey movies, but I didn't quite understand what they were doing. And it was very punk rock. And, uh, so they invited me to perform with them. And next thing I know, I ended up performing and developing as a burlesque dancer for about 11 years. And I got to tour the country a little bit of Europe. And that's where I really found my footing as a stage performer. And, and it's not that I was like excited about stripping in front of anybody. To this day, I mean, I get dressed in the dark, but I had a, I have a very confrontational attitude about what I do because my entire life I've been told what I cannot do because of what I look like.

One of those things was, and every disabled person relates to this. You weren't neutered. If you're disabled, you are neutered. You are never seen as a sexual person with adult desires in any way, shape or form. Uh, it's almost angelic you're on this like, sorry, pedestal. Like you can't be a full human with full human desires. So that is what drove me to do it. I agreed to perform with these women because I just thought, you know, this will be an opportunity to show the world that I am as feminine as any other woman in the show. And, um, my first time performing, it was to over a thousand people and I was just luck here goes nothing. And I really thought I would get laughed off stage, you know, for being the freaky looking one. And the audience was amazing. They loved me and I kept doing it for another 11 years.

Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Selene Luna. To learn more about Selene, visit her website, SeleneLuna.com. And find out more about Chronically Funny: A Comedy Revolution Featuring All-Disabled Lineup of Women on October 28th at 8:00 PM Eastern | 5:00 PM Pacific at ThePassionistasProject.com. Now here's more of our interview with Selene.

You were talking about how the world of comedy was so male dominated and that contributed to you not being ready to be in that world at that time. Do you think the fact that this was women who were supporting each other and surrounding each other with positive energy, do you think that helped you overcome that? Not liking to be undressed in front of people?

Selene: 100%? Absolutely. It was like a different planet compared to the comedy clubs. There was no male energy. Uh, not that I don't enjoy male energy, but, um, and also there were men involved in the show, but they, they were like feminist guys, you, they were like really cool creative dudes. And still great friends with them to this day. I mean, we were like a family. And we're all still in touch and love these, this group of people madly. And they helped me grow up as an artist. I felt like raised by them. And, um, they were, a lot of them were experienced artists and been doing it much longer than I had. And I learned a lot from them. And the, the women in the show made me feel like I was part of a sisterhood. They were very nurturing about it. They embraced me, everyone supported each other.

But I also want to clarify that this wasn't some feminist group. It wasn't like a feminist movement. It wasn't like I'm woman hear me roar. That's why I'm stripping it. It wasn't that these were just rock and roll chicks who were really wrapped up in the vintage lifestyle. And we had a lot of fun getting dolled up and glamorous. And, you know, we, it, it was a real bonding thing. It was kind of like almost like a quilting circle. We would make our costumes, we would, you know, get together and have a costume making circle, you know, it was bonding like that. And it was very like glitzy and glamorous. And so it wasn't like some feminist thing. We were trying to be pretty, you know, we're trying to be cute, but it was a bunch of bad-ass girls.

Passionistas: What do you think was the most important thing you learned about yourself from that time in the burlesque show?

Selene: That's a great question. I think what I learned about myself is that I am in fact, a complete woman and, um, and I deserve and have the right to be as feminine as I want to be and claim my sexuality. It made me feel like essential individual. And it gave me the permission to do that.

Passionistas: So then how did you transition from that back into the world of standup?

Selene: Well, during that period of time, uh, that's when I met my now very dear friend, Margaret Cho, um, world famous comic. At the time, her husband, Al, he was involved with our troop. Actually it, he was, uh, he had his own kind of performance art group, either really cool artists. And, um, what we would do back then is, um, our show's producer, well, our show's creator got him on board and, uh, him and his, um, performance art friends would do a fake picket in front of our show. Cause we were a bunch of ladies stripping. And so, um, so he and his buddies, uh, they would dress up like priests and have big signs and, uh, and they would picket in front of the theater and that's how we would sell out because it would draw attention. It's like old school marketing. And, and, um, so it was just, we always had a real sense of humor about what we were doing. We didn't take it seriously.

And, um, so, so he was involved with us at that capacity. And, uh, and then that's how I met Margaret Cho, uh, at the time, they're no longer together, but at the time, uh, she would come and watch the show. Cause you know, her husband was kind of part of our marketing gag and it was really funny. And um, and then eventually she and I had a lot of friends in common. We became friends. She actually started doing burlesque performing. She's actually a dancer herself. She's a belly, uh, trained belly dancer. And she started doing burlesque and then she started producing a burlesque comedy show. She asked me if I wanted to be in it. And so that was really the start of our relationship. So we were starting to share the stage. She would do comedy. And I was one of the featured burlesque dancers.

And over the years doing the show, we did the show for years and over time, she and I got to know each other more and more, and we became friends and she began to encourage me to do stand up. And, uh, she w I'll never forget, you know, one day she pulled me aside and she said, you know, in stand up comedy, nobody cares what you look like and you have full control of your dialogue. So, uh, so she really encouraged me to go back and do it. And that's how I went back. But, you know, it's a craft that it takes many, many years to develop. And so my little stint for a year, you know, at the Improv was barely scratching the surface. I felt like it was as if I'd never done it, you know, compared to where you need to be. And, uh, so yeah, and Margaret became my mentor in stand up and was my greatest support and encourager.

Passionistas: What unique challenges do you face doing standup as a woman with disability?

Selene: I'm very fortunate, uh, to say, I don't think I've really encountered many. I really haven't. I'm now, uh, uh, pretty bold. I'm, I'm, I'm now pretty bold and aggressive and I'm not shy about getting what I need. And I think that energy just comes off of me and I get what I need. Um, I really honestly have not had many challenges, but I'm very fortunate in that way. There are other performers with disabilities, you know, I know personal friends of mine who are also disabled comics and they face challenges that I don't face.

For example, being in a wheelchair, uh, there aren't any stages with ramps. It just doesn't exist. I mean, that's been my experience. And so they face challenges like that. And then, so, um, individually, for example, somebody in a wheelchair has to be put up onto the stage, uh, by my staff. That's not accessibility, you know, it's invasive and, uh, but that's a comedy clubs idea of accessibility. So those are the kinds of challenges I see from my peers face.

But I'm fortunate that I haven't really, I mean, other than, you know, as a dancer, I did tour tremendously and, uh, in many old, old, old theater houses and they're not accessible. I mean, like there's crazy flights of stairs. You gotta go like, you know, five flights of stairs to get to your number. And then I gotta run back up. There's no elevator went back up, do a costume change, you get three minutes and you gotta be back. Well, I don't have that physical ability to fly up and down stairs. You know, I gotta take my time. I gotta hang on. I could barely walk in heels. So it's those kinds of things.

Passionistas: And how, how has the world of standup changed for you during COVID? Is it all virtual? Are you doing virtual shows and everything?

Selene: Yeah, it's all virtual and it's strange. It's weird. It's absolutely not the ideal for a performing artist, a live performer, because especially with comedy, the audience is equally as important as the comics material. It's, it's a bad way we're doing together. If I don't, you can't feel the same kind of human energy that like invisible energy, you can feel in a room like a room that's alive or dead. And you just don't feel that I'm doing, you know, shows on Zoom. So it's been a learning experience. I'm still stumbling through it. I'm still trying to, uh... It takes real finesse.

Because with Zoom, as we addressed earlier, you know, there was a delay. So you deliver a joke. There was a two second delay, uh, for the audience to get the G to receive the joke. And then there's another two second delay for the comic to hear them laugh if they're laughing. So then we're looking at a four second delay. So you just delivered your punchline and you're just sitting there quiet for four minutes and you have no idea if what you said even works. It's very uncomfortable.

Passionistas: What kind of topics do you cover in your, your act? And are you ever concerned about the reaction you're going to get to it from the audience?

Selene: For the most part I mean like 99% of the time. I mean, I should just say all the time, uh, I just cover my own life, experience, my own observation. Uh, I try to make my life experience relatable. I work hard to make it universal because if people are, if people are laughing about my experience as a disabled person, you know, they're laughing with me and if they're relating at the same time, uh, that's huge for me. I feel heard. And so many times people have come up to me after a show. And they'll just say, now I understand, like now I get it. You know?

So being able to craft something where just about anyone can walk in your shoes and just the humor of it, people relate to that. You know, humor is very disarming. It's, it's a real unifier and that's why I gravitate to it. It's not something that's easy for me to execute. I struggle. I am not like this. I'm not like this talented joke writer. I don't write like amazing punchlines. I have to work really, really hard, but that's because it's important for me to be heard. I'm never concerned with anyone's reaction. I haven't been embraced. I'm not embraced all the time. I bomb all the time. And that's just part of the process. I don't care.

I mean, offending somebody, Oh, gee, that's the worst that could happen to me. That's child's play. I don't, I don't care. You know, and I, but I think that's a general kind of comic attitude and look, I'm not looking to offend anyone. And I know I have, and I've learned from it. I don't enjoy that. That's not at all what I'm driven to do, but it happens sometimes with, you know, I, I haven't quite figured out my footing on a concept and I have offended people and I feel horrible because I never want an audience to have a bad experience or to walk away, you know, feeling bad about something. But, um, but there were, so it's a balance of feeling free to speak your mind, but also being inclusive.

Passionistas: Is there a show or a performance that you've had that really stands out to you as like your best night in comedy?

Selene: One show that stands out in my mind is, um, I was lucky enough to open for Margaret show at the Wiltern, which is, um, a very well respected, huge theater here in Los Angeles. And, uh, so I, I was really nervous leading up to it and to speak. There was a lot of pressure. I mean, you know, doing a show in LA is very tough. Uh, it's like everybody's in the business. You know, the first front row is like folding their arms. They're all industry people. It's like, make me laugh, come on. And, uh, you know, I had friends and families, I, everybody came out. And so I was really nervous, but, um, I killed it that night. And so I felt very proud of that.

Passionistas: What's the most rewarding part of your career?

Selene: The most rewarding part of my career, I would have to say, and I hate to keep beating a dead horse, but is, uh, people respecting my narrative. I created a certain image. I've done certain works and have been, uh, respected by my fellow artists and also audiences. And that's been incredibly validating and it's made me feel like a, a whole, a complete person.

Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and Part 1 of our interview with Selene Luna. Check back next week for Part 2. To learn more about Selene, visit her website, SeleneLuna.com.

And find out more about Chronically Funny: A Comedy Revolution, Featuring an All-Disabled Lineup of Women on October 28th at 8:00 PM Eastern | 5:00 PM Pacific at ThePassionistasProject.com.

While you're there, you can learn more about our podcast and subscription box filled with products made by women owned businesses and female artisans to inspire you to follow your passions. Sign up for our mailing list, to get 10% off your first purchase and be sure to subscribe to the passion needs just project podcast. So you don't miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests until next time stay well and stay passionate.

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