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Omaha Magazine

Redefining Pop Culture for the Next Decade: Making Her Own Way in Hollywood

Oct 29, 2020 04:06PM ● By Carrielle Sedersten
black-and-white, XiXi Yang standing

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

XiXi Yang makes interviewing celebrities like Cher and Lupita Nyong’o on the red carpet look effortless. Never one for salacious gossip, Yang is notorious for asking thoughtful questions—she said even Oprah complimented her on it.

Breaking into entertainment journalism, however, was everything but effortless. 

Born in Nanjing, China, Yang grew up in China and Japan. Her family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, when she was 9 years old. Yang didn’t know any English, so she watched TV shows such as Total Request Live and The Babysitters Club.

A talkative child, Yang didn’t excel at math or science, but she read a lot. Her grandfather sparked her love for reading and writing. “I’ve always been a storyteller at heart,” Yang said. “I believe that the more you read, the more you write, the more you can expand your imagination.”

Her family moved to a Pittsburgh suburb as she was starting middle school. It was only a few years later, as a high school freshman, that Yang knew she wanted to be a TV host.

Her parents tried to change her mind. They come from a traditional background and fully expected her to become a doctor or get a postgraduate degree. That didn’t stop Yang.  

After graduating from high school, she enrolled at NYU and pursued a communications and journalism degree. One night, she and her roommate took the bus to Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where they met her now-fiancé William Puetz. Yang and Puetz talked for hours on the dorm rooftop overlooking the skyline.

Puetz recalled, “She talked about her dreams of coming out to California and wanting to go into media. I talked about my dreams that I wanted to become a dentist.”

Then they didn’t see each other for eight years. After a few years in NYC, Yang transferred to UCLA. She knew breaking into the entertainment industry wouldn’t be easy. “I couldn’t just rely on my degree and knock on Access Hollywood or E! Entertainment’s door[s] and be like here I am, I graduated college,” Yang said.

She sent her headshots and resume to every major network in LA. One agent suggested changing her name to something Americans could pronounce.

“It felt like I was being put in a box,” Yang added. “Back then, people weren’t as outspoken about, you know, owning your individuality…You’re going to make me change my name, and then you’re going to make me study one of the only Asian faces on TV like Connie Chung and wear a turtleneck and do this and that, but that’s not me. That’s not what I want to be.”

Being rejected didn’t deter Yang. She said she was stubborn. “Back then, Hollywood and media just weren’t ready for someone named XiXi Yang looking like this, holding down a show on the red carpet.”

Without knowing anyone in the industry, she made her own way. She worked odd jobs and saved enough money to buy a handheld camcorder and a karaoke microphone. When she wasn’t working, she went around LA interviewing anyone who would let her.

“That’s what I love about XiXi. She’s had that fire since I’ve known her,” Puetz said.

Yang’s determination paid off in September 2010 when she covered her first red-carpet premiere for the Disney movie Secretariat without backing from a major television network.

“I just remember being dead last on the red carpet,” Yang said. “Every time they kept on opening the door to get into the theater, like, the door would hit me in the face.”

Yang’s determination and consistent red-carpet presence did not go unnoticed.

In 2015 she landed a job as a TV host with the Associated Press. Her first assignment: anchoring live from the Oscars red carpet.

“I almost peed my pants because I didn’t understand the magnitude of what I was doing at the time,” Yang shared.

At 27, she was the youngest female to solo anchor an entire livestream show, and the first Asian-American woman to do so. Her grandma was watching at home and called her parents. “She’s bringing so much honor to our family,” she said. 

Yang said her parents finally understood what she was trying to accomplish.

In the following years, Yang gained national recognition as an entertainment journalist and pop culture commentator, appearing on shows such as CNN’s Newsroom and Morning Express with Robin Meade.

In August 2016, as she was living her dream, covering the Suicide Squad movie premiere in New York City, she reconnected with Puetz.

“So that was the beginning,” Yang said. “And then he told me…my number one priority is dental school.” Puetz happened to attend Creighton. Three weeks later, Yang made her first visit to Omaha.

“I’ll be honest, the first time I came to Omaha, I didn’t know what to expect,” Yang said. But, she said, she fell in love with it.

Once her lease in NYC ended, Yang moved to Omaha and quickly connected with local business owners such as Ansar and Robin Khan of Sakoon The Spa, Paul Urban and Jessica Joyce Urban of Block 16, and Kirby Keomysay of Kontempo.

“Getting to know the people in Omaha, I feel like my insights and my horizons have truly broadened,” Yang said. “Because the biggest mistake that people in media make, when it comes to bigger companies operating on either one of the coasts, is that they tend to live inside their own bubble.”

This gap in the media market inspired Yang to build a business that would cement her and Puetz in the Omaha community. Together, they came up with the idea to start a digital marketing company for local businesses called XYZ Media, focusing on video content.

During her time in Omaha, Yang contemplated the future of entertainment news and pop culture. Her take: covering pop culture news from a human-interest angle.

“I believe that entertainment and pop culture is not only the most popular, but the most powerful form of content,” Yang said. “Underneath it all, we’re all interconnected. I’m a firm believer of that. I believe that no matter where you’re from, when you go into the movie theaters, when you sit down to watch a movie, we all want to see a part of ourselves. We all share [our] emotions, right? We may speak different languages…But we all laugh, we all cry, and we all love watching things that make us think twice about our society, our world, and most importantly, who we are.”

Puetz graduated from Creighton in May, and the couple moved to LA. Yang is busy working on her next project: launching Pop News Edition and carving out what the next version of entertainment journalism looks like, focusing on the humanness in all of us.

Though they no longer live here, they have a Nebraska souvenir: their cat, Chester, who they fostered through the Nebraska Humane Society and ended up adopting.

“Even to this day when we’re here in LA, we’re telling people about Omaha, about Nebraska,” Yang said. “There’s something so nostalgic; so homey. Such a strong sense of community that Omaha has, that just can’t be found on either one of the coasts.” 

Visit XiXi’s lifestyle blog, Life With XiXi Yang, to learn more about her.

This article first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.