William Hung

William Hung: The Real Story (#151)

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Our Guest Today: William Hung

William James Hung is “a Hong Kong-born American former singer who gained fame in early 2004 as a result of his off-key audition performance of Ricky Martin’s hit song “She Bangs” on the third season of the television series American Idol.” – Wikipedia 

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Soon after American Idol ended, William landed a number of gigs as a singer and appeared on some of the top American Shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live!, On Air with Ryan Seacrest, Entertainment Tonight, David Letterman, The Howard Stern Radio Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. 

William has a story left to tell. Here’s what actually happened.

While many people think he put on an act to embarrass himself, the truth was far from it. He wanted to sing and get on stage. This is what our conversation is about. 

Fast forward 14 years, William has released two albums but is looking to try other things in life. He is working to become a coach to help others overcome adversity. He’s still figuring things out – and talking to him was fascinating. 

To learn more about William Hung, find him on Facebook here

Show Notes

  • [06:00] How did you decided to sign up to be a contestant of American Idol?
  • [08:00] Was the elimination/selection process intimidating?
  • [09:00] Why do you think the organizers let you through?
  • [10:00] How old were you and what were you doing at that time?
  • [11:00] What did actually happen? What’s your story?
  • [13:00] What happened after the show? Were you surprised?
  • [14:00] How did your friends and family respond to that? How did other people react?
  • [15:00] What did you say to your parents?
  • [16:00] How did you feel about your own self image, and what did you classmates think?
  • [17:00] What are some of the requests that people sent to you after the show? How many of those interviews did you actually do?
  • [19:00] How long did it take for you to ‘ride the wave of fame’?
  • [22:00] How were your record deals and how many albums did you produce?
  • [23:00] Did you quit school to produce the first album? If so, did you go back to school at some point?
  • [24:00] What are some of the other highlights of those 4 years after American Idol?
  • [25:00] When did you discover that the ‘wave of fame’ was fading and what were some of your actions to react to that?
  • [27:00] Do you have anything you wanted to do but you left out because of American Idol, and because of the persona that was created for you after the show?
  • [29:00] How did you know that you were doing the right thing?
  • [31:00] Your business is about public speaking, what’s your ideal client?
  • [33:00] What are some of the things that you did for your business to be reborn after the American Idol experience?
  • [36:00] Have you thought of creating an online course?
  • [38:00] What’s your podcast about, why did you started it and what are some of your guests?
  • [40:00] What are some of the lessons you’ve learned so far as a podcaster?
  • [41:00] What’s the format of your podcast episodes?
  • [42:00] How can people learn and connect with you?

Favorite Quotes

[18:00] Some of my friends at that time were very supportive, they told me that you only get that opportunity once in a lifetime, so you might as well go for it…

[22:00] I had to move forward with it. I knew that I was going to commit to this record contract, it was a point of no return. I would literally have to give up school, go all way and see what happens. The reason I was able to come to that conclusion was because I really had two choices: (1) I embrace being the she bangs guy, or (2) hide in fear and hope people would forget about it.

[34:00] People gave me some feedback and told me that I really should emphasize something related to having courage or turning fears into courage, because that gives me the most credibility. So now I’m going for something along the lines for helping people find that courageous voice.

[40:00] My angle for having this new podcast is to build relationships with people, it is not about money, it is about learning from the other person and figuring out some of the things that I can use to improve how I connect with other people?


Transcript of Interview With William Hung.

Fei Wu [5:25] William, thank you so much for joining me on Feisworld. We’ve both looked forward to recording this episode for a number of weeks at this point. Welcome.

William [5:36] Thank you, Fei.

Fei Wu [5:38] So I want to say that the way that you introduced yourself to me was actually through Facebook message, which I only learned how to use maybe about a year ago or so. You’re very genuine and introduced me to a podcasting event which immediately made me think that you’re also a podcaster yourself and that it’s a topic we probably want to catch up on and talk about today. But it took a number of weeks for me to still not realize that I may have known you from a previous occasion until my producer Adam showed up in my office and said: “Wait a minute, I think that’s the William Hung from American Idol”. I realized that I was ignorant, and I didn’t quite piece everything together. So I would love for my audience and for people who listen to this know the backstory because you and I caught up briefly, and you know, at the time, I couldn’t believe that it was 15 years ago, that you’re just a student in college, I believe. And you signed up for American Idol, I believe it was the first or even the second season.


What Made You Decide to Sign Up to Be a Contestant on American Idol?

William [6:57] Well, it was season three, back in 2003, like you said, and what happened was that when I was growing up, I was getting good grades in middle school and high school. And my dream at the time was to become a civil engineer. But once I got into it, I felt miserable. So one day, I saw a poster for the school talent show. And I think, I figured, why not? Let’s go for it. But my favorite song was “She bangs” by Ricky Martin, and I wanted to perform it on the talent show. Well, right afterward, one evening, I heard on fox news that American Idol auditions were coming over to San Francisco. So I knew I wanted to audition, but I couldn’t tell my Asian parents because you know what they’re like – they’re going to tell you to be an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, anything but an entertainer. The good news was that I was in San Francisco, so I could just secretly go.

Fei Wu [8:02] And what was the process? I remember secretly, I was really curious too. But after seeing what the judges would say, and what that process was like, it was really intimidating. Was it intimidating for you as well, during the tryout process?

William [8:24] Yeah, this was intense. What people may not know is that I was standing in line among, like, 3000 other people. And in my mind, I thought I had no chance because most of the people that audition, they only got a 15 to 30 seconds to sing before they were told to go home. But somehow they let the American Idol staff members Let me through. Then the next day producers let me through again. And then by the time I got to see Randy, Paula and Simon, there were only about 100 people, and it’s like, why not? There’s nothing to lose at that point.

Fei Wu [9:02] I’m not sure how much of other people’s singing do you get to hear during the tryouts. Did you feel like you were one of the better singers at the time? Or do you think they’re playing a trick on you?

William [9:19] Well, at the time, I didn’t think much of it. I mean, because I already went through multiple rounds, my honest thoughts are that I did not expect to make it. Because most people don’t make it. And to me, if I don’t make it, it’s normal. But I did it, you know, crazy things happen.


How Old Were You When You Were Trying for the American Idol? Where Were You Studying?

William [9:50] Yes, back then I was 20 years old, and I was studying at UC Berkeley.

Fei Wu [9:55] Oh, UC Berkeley. And you were studying? I think you mentioned Civil Engineering at the time.

So, you’re among the hundred people in front of Simon. And I mean, the judges changed so drastically over the years. Tell us about what actually happened. I think what’s really unfair or kind of cruel as part of the story is, all of us had a completely different understanding, in a way manipulated by the media, of how the story was told about you. But tell us what happened among those 100 contestants?

William [10:33] Well, what happened was that I was just standing in line by line. My body was shaking, I was nervous inside. And when I finally got to audition, I didn’t know what to expect. But I could tell that I probably not going to beg it because as soon as I began my audition, Randy giggled throughout the entire audition, the other one, she was smiling and enjoying yourself. And I tried to go on with the song, but silence stopped dead in the middle of my chorus, and then Simon said: “You can’t sing. You can’t dance. So why going to stay?” Yeah, and I said: “I already gave my best. I have no regrets at all”. And I thought that was it.

Fei Wu [11:31] Was it this round where you got eliminated? Or were there additional rounds that you were part of?

William [11:38] No doubt that that was it.

Fei Wu [11:40] Okay. Now, what happened? Did you expect the rest to happen? I mean, when all these almost commercial, sneak peek “behind the scenes” stories about you came out like this, you know, Asian young man trying to sing. And there were not a lot of Asian participants. Granted, singing karaoke is really a thing in Asia. But in terms of American Idol, I didn’t see as many participants.


Were You Surprised When All of These Segments and B-Rolls About You and American Idol Came Out?

William [12:29] Uh, yeah. I mean, at the time, I was shocked when I saw myself. Because the first time I saw myself was like, four months later, it was during a commercial, during New Year’s Cotton Bowl. And then I was thinking to myself about all that’s going to happen to me.

Fei Wu [12:49] This is crazy. They didn’t even ask for your permission but created a story without you knowing at all four months later.

William [12:59] Yeah, I mean, I signed off on it. I knew there’s always a small chance that could happen, but I didn’t expect it. You know, there’s no way to expect that one.

Fei Wu [13:10] Oh, wow. So four months later, it came out.

I want to learn how the people next to you were reacting? And then I want to talk about strangers on the street, other people who didn’t know anything about you, how did they respond to this? Could you give me a sense of that?

William [13:37] Oh, of course. Well, at the time, I tried not to say anything. But when my parents saw it, they were shocked. They gave me a phone call. It’s like, William, what did you just do?

Fei Wu [13:57] Were they calling from outside the country? Where were they living at the time?

William [14:02] Los Angeles.

Fei Wu [14:03] What did you say to them?

William [14:07] Well, I just said I tried the audition and things didn’t work out. And I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I told them, and they said nothing’s going to happen. And that’s why I thought that as well. Just because they broadcast your audition, it doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly go viral. So I didn’t expect that. I just thought people will laugh at it and whatever happens – happens, but I’ll be soon forgotten, like most people.

Fei Wu [14:34] Right, but clearly they didn’t forget you. You became an overnight internet sensation.


How the Strangers and People Who Didn’t Know You Approached You After You Have Gone Viral?

William [14:51] Let me backtrack a little bit. Right after the broadcast of my audition, I was so afraid, I couldn’t go anywhere. I just hide my stuff in a dorm room that night. And afterward, on Fox News, they called me out on it, that William Hung is the worst singer ever. Yeah. And the internet critic started saying that I portrayed the biggest Asian stereotype.

Fei Wu [15:27] How did you feel about it? And also, let’s keep in mind that you were an adult, but you’re only 20 years old, and you’re still in college. How did you feel about your own self-image? And how did your classmates in this case or even professors respond to that?

William [15:44] Yeah, I mean, after hearing that stuff that night, I mean, I was to try not to think about it, I went to sleep. I thought the next day that they can say whatever they want to say. But the weird thing was that I also noticed that I got hundreds of emails for performance and interview opportunities. That was weird.

Fei Wu [16:07] Oh, wow, from where? That’s an interesting twist.

William [16:11] Everything seemed to happen at the same time. And maybe it was meant to be because my Berkeley email was easy for people to guess. So yeah, maybe it’s a good thing because I remember that some of the first interviews I did were like for Ryan Seacrest’s show. I mean, the next day, when I went back to school, what happened was my professor decided to show my audition in front of hundreds of students!

Fei Wu [16:53] Do you recall those emails, what are some other requests? Like, interviews, asking to perform live?


What Were Some of the Requests People Were Sending to You?

William [17:07] One of the first major ones I did was Entertainment Tonight, also there was Ryan Seacrest show, there were a handful of movie opportunities, and then some other smaller interviews. So it was crazy.

Fei Wu [17:24] How many did you respond to and actually appeared on the shows?

William [17:31] I would say, most of them I had to turn down because I just couldn’t do everything. I only did a handful but like all the major ones I did. That’s why I went with the other part, though, was that after my professor showed the audition, the students actually loved me. And they were asking for pictures, autographs. And that’s when I realized that my life couldn’t ever be normal again.

Fei Wu [18:02] Wow. And your classmates knew that you’re a real person, that you are not just some sort of internet prop, someone who’s fake, right, because I think some people did think that you are fake, that you’re just doing it for a one night, or you’re even being put there by the American Idol crew. Actually, personally, I wasn’t even sure whether it was made up or not. But because your classmates knew that, you know, you’ve been studying, you’re a real person, that where’s empathy involved. There’s also that kind of vulnerability involved as well. Do you think so too?

William [18:44] Oh, yes, I agree. I mean, some of those friends at the time, they were very supportive. They told me: “You’re only going to get that opportunity once in a lifetime, so you might as well go for it”.


What Did Your Life Look Like During Those Few Years After the American Idol?

William [19:57] So there was a crazy thing that happened right after I got all these interviews and the opportunities. One of my fans created my website, and somehow it got like 8 million hits in a month. Yeah, it was crazy. It was to the point where the website got crashed. And around a similar time frame, I was invited to perform at a UC Berkeley’s men’s volleyball game. After that, one of the staff members from college records briskly walked up to me and gave me a $25,000 check for the record contract. I wanted to think, and then I ultimately decided that I had to move forward with it. I felt like it wasn’t as easy as people thought. I felt like if I were to commit to this record contract, it was a point of no return: I would literally have to give up a school, I would literally have to just go all in and see what happens. And the reason I was able to come to that conclusion was that I really had two choices, the way I look at it. One is that I embrace being the “She bangs” guy, and the other one is to just hide in fear and hope people will forget about me. But I feel that in my life I need to stand up for myself. I want people to know my story. I want people to know who I am.

Fei Wu [22:00] Right. So you accepted the record deal. And you actually produced a record?

William [22:06] Yeah, it’s actually three albums.

Fei Wu [22:08] Oh, my God. three albums. Over the course of how many years?

William [22:10] Yeah, so wrong, like, two or three years, maybe. The first album, “inspiration”, I don’t know how it happened, but it was the number one independent album on Billboard.


What Was the Approach for the Songs From Your Albums? Were They Originally Written for You?

William [22:36] Mostly cover songs, just a few original songs here and there. To be honest, the approach for the record company is to just get the album’s out as soon as possible.

Fei Wu [22:53] And when the first album went out? How long after the American Idol?

William [23:01] Maybe two to three months. I remember it was like March, April. Real quick.

Fei Wu [23:09] Did you end up quitting school at the time for the album to release?

William [23:13] Yes, I did. I talked to my counselor at Berkeley, he totally understood my situation. He totally supported me. And he said that If I ever want to go back to school, I have an unconditional letter to go back anytime.

Fei Wu [23:28] Did you end up going back to school? Or no?

William [23:32] I thought about it, but no because I started to ride that “wave”. And I rode that wave for about four years – traveling, performing everywhere.


What Are Some of the Highlights That You Remember From That Time When You Were “Riding the Wave”?

William [23:55] I met so many celebrities. Some of the shows I’ve been on, like Ellen and Jay Leno. And yeah, the coolest thing is that I got to travel around the world. I’ve been to places that I would never think myself I would go: Iceland, Malaysia, Singapore. I even shot a movie in Hong Kong!

Fei Wu [24:24] Wow! So you travel around the world and enjoy that experience very much. Do you recall what Jay Leno and Ellen were asking about you on the show? What was their focal point? Where they still focusing on American Idol? Were they asking more questions about what you were doing at that moment in time?

William [24:47] It was definitely focused on American Idol. I don’t remember because it was such a long time ago, but I remember the interview was very, very short because of the timing.


How Did You Feel When Things Started Slowing Down After That Rush of Fame? How Did You Notice It? What Were Some of the Actions That You’ve Taken Since Then?

William [25:20] Well, I knew that I was getting fewer opportunities as I went along. I never gave up, but I knew that I couldn’t sustain myself if I were to just keep going in that direction. So that’s why I decided to finish school, got my math degree from Cal State Northridge. I got my day job, and I just thought that was it, you know. Because I thought for many years that it’s okay and I’m financially stable. Like, I don’t have to chase the dream anymore. I just thought I was settled. But then last year, towards the beginning of last year, somehow, I don’t know why, something hit me in my heart, and I was like “Oh, I should go for it because I’m capable of so much more”.

Fei Wu [26:12] So getting the timeline is very intriguing to me.

American Idol happened when you were 20. It was around the age of 24-25 when you went back to school and then got a full-time job.

And then last year, another five to six years after things felt like that they have wrapped up a bit, you’ve got your full-time job and all that.


What Were Some of the Ideas You Had and Things That You Wanted to Do When You Had a Full-Time Job?

William [26:56] When I do my day job, I don’t feel like I’m myself. Yeah, I mean, I’m solving problems for people and making a difference, but I don’t feel that I’m making a huge impact, you know, by being the average typical guy.

Fei Wu [27:12] So you started building out your own business a little over a year ago.


What Are Some of the Areas for Your Own Business That You’re Looking Into to Explore?

William [27:25] Well, I was definitely committed to professional speaking. I have that vision in my head, that I want to inspire the world again. And despite sharing my American Idol story, like, telling people to never give up their dreams, I had that vision. And I’ve been working on that vision. So I’ve been traveling everywhere, speaking everywhere a lot last year, but one major problem was that it’s not easy to make a living as a professional speaker. At the time, I didn’t have any coaching program. And I just started working on that at the beginning of this year. So last year, it was a good learning experience. I mean, I got paid here and there. But I’m not really coming out way ahead. You know, I cannot be a successful entrepreneur if I follow that same direction as last year.

Fei Wu [28:20] What are some of the things you did last year that you thought were the right things to do? Or, on the other hand, some of the things that wasted your time and weren’t as effective? As an entrepreneur or freelancer, those questions sound easy, but the answers are rather difficult because it’s hard to know precisely if you’re doing the right or the wrong things, or somewhere in between that. How did you assess all that?

William [28:59] Well, I just knew that towards the end of last year, I wasn’t getting anywhere close to where I need to be to sustain myself over the long term as an entrepreneur. And then I look back at it, that things that went right, was that I got a lot of exposure: I spoke on some very nice stages, I got paid here and there for keynotes. But I look at the math, and the math doesn’t make sense. Because I when I look back at it, it’s like, even if I were to get 10 speaking engagements, and was getting paid $5,000 each, that’s only 50,000. That’s not a great life, you know.

We can really focus on money. First, I have to be honest, in terms of how can we have a lifestyle that makes sense, that’s enjoyable, that gives us freedom – I could tell right away, that wasn’t working. That’s when I decided to start making some changes. Another thing that I have felt I need to make changes for this year, moving forward, was that last year, I took every single opportunity we got, free or paid. I just wanted to get the word out there. This year, I feel that it’s not necessary, I feel that I can do less and still achieve more, so I should be more selective.

Fei Wu [30:38] So definitely, that’s very helpful. I think that’s a common struggle. And honestly, something I’m also trying to work on for myself is finding more ideal clients, and then how to spend less time marketing and selling yourselves and more – focusing on client work. Because when you work for yourself, you’re essentially doing everything, and time feels so limited. Compared to having a full -time job where you feel like you’re mentally there nine to five – if you have your own business, it’s 24/7.


Who Is Your Ideal Client?

William [32:15] I think it’s a great question. Because my ideal client is kind of who I really want to serve. So I feel that the honest answer is it’s a work in progress. But now I would say I’m much more clear compared to the beginning of this year when I really wanted to go for the coaching as well. And I would say as for right now, I want to focus on helping people find a courageous voice so that they could have a prosperous, fulfilling life.

Fei Wu [32:47] Sounds like you’re targeting more individuals than companies. Am I correct?

William [32:51] Yes.

Fei Wu [32:52] I think you have a very interesting backstory because of American Idol. When I think about you, I think about, yes, reinvention, as well as rebranding yourself.

What you have gone through is, in a way, much more difficult, I must say, because there was a persona forced upon you. Granted, there a lot of good things that came out of it, but still, the fact that you have to take an image out of what’s in people’s head and rewrite it, I think it’s harder than for someone who was never really known in the world before. And instead of reinventing themselves, they can pretty much paint any picture they want.


What Was Your Own Rebranding and Reinvention Process Like? What Did You Do to Be Reborn?

William [33:58] Oh, that’s a great question. Because initially, when I thought about my vision for helping people transform lives, I came up with helping coaches and consultants become courageous leaders. And then I amended another idea in terms of helping people build their own coaching programs, based on all the stuff I’ve been studying from other people, from other solo entrepreneurs, things like that. But then people gave me some feedback, and they told me that I really should emphasize having courage, something like “20 years into courage” because that gives me the most credibility. So now I really bring on something along the lines of helping people find that courageous voice because I feel that I want to walk with people who want to build their own business using speaking. So I want to capture that.

Fei Wu [34:59] So you want to help individuals also become speakers like yourself?

William [35:04] Yes. I mean, speaking is hard to define, sometimes. I mean, the picture I have, it’s not necessarily someone who just speaks at live events and makes this huge offers. I mean, of course, anybody that wants to build their own program and doesn’t have anything in place, I feel that I can be a valuable resource. Because I’ve been through it, and now I have something in place.

Fei Wu [35:39] I see. Interesting. So one of the things that I find challenging, which you did point out is the fact that when you are an entrepreneur, and you’re trying to help individuals rather than companies, I find that also number one challenge is the financial gains. So if money is not important to you for whatever reason, then you can help anybody in the world and charge any amount you want.  But like I said, if it’s an engagement, $5,000 is actually a lot for companies to hire a speaker. Therefore, as you said, in the best-case scenario, 10 of them make only $50,000.


If You Were to Help Individuals Achieve Their Dreams, Would It Be Challenging Moving Forward From a Financial Standpoint? Or Do You Think About Creating an Online Course or Mastermind Group Where You Don’t Have to Work for Every Dollar, but Instead, It’s More of a Passive Income?

William [36:58] Well, my plan is to run a group coaching program and mastermind. And the reasoning behind that one is because I feel that’s the best model to make it scalable, to make it easy for everybody to have access to. With group coaching, I could just do it on the phone. I could run six- to eight-week program. And the structure, it’s very simple, so it’s not too hard to run. That’s what I want to go with.

In terms of additional passive income – online courses. I’ll definitely have it in place as well, but a little bit further down the road. I would say that’s not my highest priority, I feel that I should just get the group coaching started, get some clients I can help. And then as I’m progressing through that, I’ll have my material together, and then I can do the online course. There’s definitely a lot of people that made it work for them in terms of having online course models. But for me, personally, I’m not a big fan of it. And the reason is that I feel that, you know, even for me, when I buy online course, I need so much hands-on, I need so much support, the feedback in order to implement it correctly. I would say, for people who want to join my program, I don’t mind just giving it to them for free, so that they have a point of reference and tools they can use. But I don’t know about relying on online courses to pay for everything.

Fei Wu [38:26] Right? I mean, you’re not the only person who has shared this sort of perspective. I remember, Margot Aaron from an earlier episode said the exact same thing, and other entrepreneurs who I have spoken with did too.


Why Did You Start Your Own Podcast? Who Are Some of the People That You Want to See as Guests on Your Show?

William [38:53] Of course. So my podcast, I just started it earlier this month, and it is called From Fear To Courage. My first episode is just on iTunes.

And the people I wanted it to be my on my show – I would say there could be all walks of life, very diverse. I want people who have overcome their fears and turned their fears into courage. So it could be nonprofit missionaries, it could be other entrepreneurs, other leaders. I want to give people a diverse perspective. And then they could get a lot of value out of the conversations with people from different fields, whether it’s health or financial.


What Are Some of the Lessons You’ve Learned So Far From Starting Out in Podcasting?

William [40:21] I would say that for podcasting you need to know what your angle is. So my angle for having this new podcast is to build relationships with people. It’s not about money, it’s about learning from the other person, and then figuring out those two: what are some things that I can use to improve my business and improve how I connect with other people. But if your primary purpose is to get millions of downloads, that’s a very different story.

Fei Wu [41:00] Um, in terms of your format – are you asking the same set of questions? Or are you articulating different questions for different guests?

William [41:08] My format is very loose, I generally focus on their backend stories, their vision, their accomplishments, as well as the challenges. But the way I do it is that I intentionally make it loose. And that’s because I want to dig deep based on what I’m getting. So the thing I learned about podcasting (even though I have only one episode, I already have like six or seven in editing), is that I don’t like the idea of having preset questions, because then it restricts my ability to go deeper into something that’s interesting. So that’s my preference and that’s how I approach it in terms of improving my podcast.

Fei Wu [41:55] That’s great. I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you so much for sharing your stories, William.


If People Want to Find You and Learn More About the Things That You’re Working On, What Is the Best Way for Them to Connect?

William [42:09] Just go to my website, it’s willhung.com.

Fei Wu [42:17] Fantastic. And you’re on social media as well. Where are you?

William [42:21] Yes, now the most active I’m on Facebook. But the posts from there automatically go to Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram. So I am on all the major platforms.

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