Momona Tamada remembers looking up to the fictional Japanese American teen Claudia Kishi from "The Baby-Sitters Club" as a kid. The stylish, art-loving character transcended many of the reductive, two-dimensional depictions of Asians throughout American pop culture, and Momona says that spoke volumes to her.
"Growing up, I read the books in elementary school, and there weren't many Asian representations, on screen or even in books, so when I read about Claudia, she was definitely an inspiration to me," Momona, 13, told NBC Asian America.
Fast forward a few years and the up-and-coming star now portrays the trailblazing fashion maven in the critically acclaimed Netflix series "The Baby-Sitters Club," based on Ann A. Martin's books. The significance of her role isn't lost on Momona, who described the experience as "pretty crazy.
Claudia, who serves as the club's vice president and hosts meetings in her room, has achieved a sort of cult status among Asian Americans. Girls in the community have long related to the character, who didn't ignore her Japanese heritage but also wasn't solely defined by it, making for a more authentic depiction of many growing up in the West.
The character's relatively sensitive depiction, particularly from a white author, has led to her own coming documentary, "The Claudia Kishi Club," and even a snarky series of alternative "Baby-Sitters Club" covers depicting how the teen must have felt as one of the few Asian Americans in a white town.
"She was Japanese American, but she was lousy at school, super artistic, and you have to consider that the author did conceive of her as someone who was trying to buck stereotypes," Phil Yu, who's behind the popular blog Angry Asian Man, as well as the reimagined Claudia-focused covers, has said of the character.
Momona, whose parents are Japanese immigrants, considers herself one of those who saw herself in the character. The actress, who says she grew up around many other Japanese families and has always felt deeply connected to her heritage, said that much like her character, she's got an artsy side, having danced professionally for years. She also has a taste for sweets, occasionally engaging in some late-night baking to satisfy her sugary cravings. But one of their biggest similarities is their love for their grandmothers.
"She has always said I look like her when she was younger, and she's always giving me good advice and sending me packages from Japan," Momona said. "Like Claudia, I have a very strong connection with my grandma."
She said it didn't take long to feel as though she was meant for the role.
"I do relate to her a lot, which is why I thought it was so cool to read the script, because it was almost like seeing yourself in a TV show," she said.
Momona said that outside the fictional world, she has been lucky to identify Asian Americans who are good examples of how to navigate an industry that hasn't always normalized fully developed Asian characters. Lana Condor, in particular, Momona said, has been a role model, and the pair have gotten to work together on the series "To All The Boys I've Loved Before." Momona portrayed the younger version of Condor's Lara Jean Covey.
Although she's a newbie in the industry, Momona said she feels things are looking up. She said she sees evidence in her casting experiences.
"Personally, I've seen a change in the industry," she said. "Usually, the character description isn't specific to race, which is something that is amazing."
Momona acknowledged that while she believes Asian actors have made strides in Hollywood, the environment has been difficult for Asian Americans. Tensions are already high because of monthslong nationwide coronavirus lockdowns, and a rise in hate incidents has compounded anxieties, with more than 800 of them reported in California alone in the last three months. She said that for the time being, she's looking inward.
"It's a hard time for everybody. And, personally, I've been taking the time self-reflect and think about what I can do to help make an impact," she said.