June 13, 2021
How is Chinese culture different from American culture? For what reasons do Chinese people get plastic surgery, and how do those reasons differ from those of their American counterparts? What is love addiction? Are 12-step programs the only way (or the best way) of overcoming addiction?
Ava King is an international singer, songwriter, and producer based out of LA. She was born and raised in France, spent a decade in China, then decided to move to LA to pursue her passion of music. As a songwriter, Ava co-wrote "I Just" for K-pop group Red Velvet's second album that debuted at #1 on the Billboard World charts and #1 on the Korean Pop Charts. The album has since gone on to become 9X Platinum in Korea and has accumulated over 2.3 million plays on Spotify. Her songs have also been featured on The Ellen Show, Empire, and Crazy Rich Asians. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok; and you can email her at email@example.com.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Ava King about her experience living in China, plastic surgery and beauty standards, love addiction and recovery, and succeeding as an artist. We've also included some of Ava's Music in this episode, which we hope you'll enjoy. And now, here are Spencer and Ava.
SPENCER: So good to have you here!
AVA: Yay! It's so good to be here, I'm so excited!
SPENCER: So the first question I wanted to talk to you about is your experience with China. Do you wanna tell us a little bit about how you, as someone born in France, ended up spending so much time in China?
AVA: Yeah, so it's a bit circuitous, but I was born and raised in France. When I was a teenager, I loved going to Chinatown with my mother because I loved the Chinese characters; I was absolutely fascinated by them. I remember, actually, there was a Valentine's Day in France and the students gave each other Valentine's cards. We had to make a card for each of our classmates. And I thought that there was this paper in the Chinese market that looked so beautiful. So I basically purchased the paper and then made Valentine's cards out of it. But only then after getting to China, did somebody tell me that actually that paper was a "funerary money" [laughs]. It's money you throw in the grave of the dead.
SPENCER: Oh no, this is like people who get a tattoo with a Chinese character that later they discover means "idiot" or something [laughs].
AVA: [laughs] Yeah, I was on a TV show in China, we actually reviewed tattoos by foreigners. And there were lots of foreign men that tattooed the character for eunuch on their arm [laughs]. To continue the story, I had this fascination for China, so when I got to college, I really wanted to learn the Chinese language and part of learning that was me going to China in the summer. That's how I got into Chinese culture. Then after college, I just don't know why I just decided, "You know what, it's time to try something new," and I just moved there, basically.
SPENCER: When I met you, you were basically working on becoming a pop star in China. And that's how I first knew you.
AVA: Yes, I opened a blog in China called, "She wants to become a pop star, can she make it?" [laughs]
SPENCER: Really? [laughs] A reality television show of your life, basically?
AVA: Yeah, basically. "Follow my journey. Will I be able to make it?" I don't know if I became a pop star but I became some kind of TV personality over the next 10 years, which was a crazy ride. I can tell you actually the beginning of my career in China as a TV personality. So originally, I went to China and I wanted to become a pop star (I wanted to become a singer). And then, I had a friend of mine who worked for a TV station that was in the south of China. And he said, "Ava, they're auditioning for singers, you should go and meet with them." And I said, "Okay, when and where?" He said, "At midnight in this hotel room." And me being 21 at the time, I was like, "That sounds like a great idea." So I went, and much to everybody's surprise (when I tell the story), it was actually just a TV producer in a hotel room interviewing people at midnight to be on their TV show. So he pointed to a stack of papers when I walked in, and he said, "Do you have your e-bio with you?" which is a card that TV hosts always have — basically a card with pictures and a little bit about themselves — and I'm like, "No." And he was like, "Well, do you know what you're coming here for?" And I'm like, "Yeah, to be a singer." And he's like, "No, we're only interviewing for TV hosts." And I'm like, "Oh, sorry." And he was like, "Well, do you want to be a TV host?" And I was like, "Well, sure. I guess I'll try anything." [both laugh] And then he said, "Okay, let me give you a call in a couple of days." And in my mind, I was like, it's not possible because there was a stack of 200 other people that had interviewed that same day for the exact same position.
SPENCER: And presumably, they knew what they were actually interviewing for.
AVA: Yeah, they knew what they were interviewing for and they had their bio ready, right. So I thought to myself, "This guy's never gonna call me." Anyway, he did call me and I did go down there and start hosting for that local TV station. It turned out that that local TV station was one of the local TV stations under the umbrella of one of the biggest TV networks in China — a national network — and I got there. And for a few months, I hosted shows in that local station and I did an awful job. Everybody hated me. But somehow, I caught the eye of a producer of the national network [laughs] and he was like, "You have to come and host this show," which then turned out to be the most watched show in China that summer. So in the space of a few months, from a complete nobody who could speak a little Chinese, I became this person that people would actually walk up to on the street and ask for pictures. And I remember my parents coming to China for their first time and seeing their daughter as a bit of a celebrity on the street. [laughs] Really, really weird. I'll say that it wasn't all happy because I got on this national TV show without any experience in hosting — I was awful — so I had so many comments online. [laughs] There was this movement to take off the 'foreign girl' like, "Why is she here? She doesn't even talk, she just stands there." It was such a weird summer and then the aftermath of that was just all very surreal.
SPENCER: You've lived now a lot of time in France, in the United States, and also in China. How would you compare Chinese culture to the culture of the US and France?
AVA: I would say that Chinese culture is actually very close to French culture. I don't exactly know why. I joke around with my friends and tell them it's because China is also a communist country [laughs] and France is a communist country. But there's a very strong emphasis on friendships and there's a very strong emphasis on drinking.
SPENCER: It's work-related drinking, right?
AVA: Exactly, yes. So what I would say is the main difference between Chinese and American culture is, I think, there isn't really a legal system that you can really rely on in China. If you're going into business with somebody in the States, you think, "Okay, I don't want to go into business with a bad person." But if worse comes to worst, if he steals a lot of money, or he or she really screws me over, I can go in front of a judge and get things handled. But in China, you can't really do that. I don't know exactly the reason why, but I want to say it's because of rampant corruption, because everybody has contacts with the police and the judges. And so, the outcome isn't really fair, necessarily. So you don't really have that recourse in mind in China like, "Oh, I have a judicial system to fall back on," so you really have to know the people that you're working with. And the way the Chinese people do that a lot is they drink and they get drunk together. Because when you're drunk, drinking is a bit like in vino veritas. It's a bit of a truth serum. So there's a lot of drinking. I actually remember when [laughs] I [quote] "interviewed" for another TV hosting job, it involved — at the time, they couldn't really hire foreigners to be hosts; there was a bit of a problem with that. Actually, it was a long-standing issue when I was in China because China was constantly having beef with various countries; one time where China was having beef with France, or China was having beef with the US, and then they would restrict foreign hosts or foreign personalities on TV — so I remember sitting down and they told me, "Yeah, we can consider you for the position. But you have to have dinner with the Head of Communications for the entire region." I was like, "Okay, I'll do that." And I understood in my mind, "Alright, I've just got to pound down 10 shots in front of him," basically, because in China, that's a sign of respect.
SPENCER: You have to basically show him that you're sufficiently drunk that you're going to show your true character or something like this?
AVA: I guess so. I guess it's also a sign of respect. In China, when you sit down at a dinner table, and there's a person who you want a favor from, you'll tell them as a sign of respect, "You drink one drink, I'll drink two drinks for every drink you drink."
SPENCER: Oh wow.
AVA: It's basically a way of showing, "I'm younger, I'm less powerful," or, "I need something from you," or not. It could just be, "I'm younger and less powerful, and I want to show you respect so I will drink more than you drink."
SPENCER: But how does karaoke work into this?
AVA: Interesting that you bring that up. Karaoke is another social venue that Chinese people use to socialize and get to know each other better. And there's a lot of drinking involved in karaoke. So I would say that Chinese people don't really have the same kind of job-life division that we do. In the States, when I'm working with people, I can say, "Hey, I can't do this tonight. I have to rest," or, "I have to take some personal time." In the States, you don't expect somebody to work through the evening for you (most of the time) in most companies. But in China, there isn't really that division. If you're an employee and you don't go out to dinner, or you don't go out to these social activities with your company, that's viewed as a problem, like you're not a good employee.
SPENCER: You have a challenge with karaoke, because you're presumably a better singer than almost everyone you're doing karaoke with.
AVA: [laughs] Oh my God, that's so funny. Um, they had a book in China that I read upon first getting there called [Chinese title] it means "deep, dark learning" and it's all about how to carry social status in China. Because with Chinese people, there's an incredibly complex social code. When I would go to these social functions — because I don't enjoy drinking, I don't enjoy getting extremely drunk, I don't enjoy karaoke (I really don't enjoy karaoke) — so when I would go to these things, I knew my goal in mind was to show respect and to be friendly. I knew that I was brought in as an entertainer, so I wasn't brought in to show my vocals. I was brought in because I could make sure that everybody had a good time. So I was kind of playing TV host, and that's still a problem for me now. I have a lot of social anxiety in groups because I feel responsible for everybody having a fun time around me. Because In China for 10 years, every time I went out to do one of these things at the beginning of my career — towards the end of my career, I didn't need to do that anymore — I was there to make sure everybody had a good time, and make jokes and laugh and encourage people to sing. It was basically TV hosting during these events. But it's just the way Chinese society functions. I'm not gonna say it wasn't not fun, there were some times in karaoke that were fun — you got to go out to these really nice dinners, you got to taste this amazing food — but it was also definitely part of the job.
SPENCER: Did you purposely have to sing less well than you really can?
AVA: Well, I wouldn't really do that because sometimes I wanted to actually be on TV shows and be able to sing. So if there was a director or the head of a station there, I would still sing but I would say that I would sing one or two songs and then encourage everybody else to sing more.
[Ava's song plays]
SPENCER: I think you told me about a game that higher status women would play with you about guessing their ages, what was that?
AVA: When people would get drunk in China — but to be honest with you, I think this is everywhere in the world — often a topic of conversation will be guessing each other's age. It was just so ridiculous because, of course, [laughs] it's a test right? "Guess my age," it's a test. And so, of course I have to guess you are at least 20 years younger than you look.
SPENCER: But if you guess too young then they know you're bullshitting.
AVA: Yes, yes, that's a really good point (man, I haven't thought about this in a long time). If you guess too young, they knew I was bullshitting. So it was really a case of taking 10 years off, and then immediately trying to turn the conversation to, "Well, how did you do it? Is it the food you eat? Is it everything?" I'm trying to think of one of the lessons in the deep, dark learning book that I learned. This is an example of a situation that they gave for dealing with a difficult social situation: you have an employee, you have their manager, and you have the boss. The employee breaks something or does something which causes the boss to lose money. So the boss tells the manager, "You have to tell your employee he has to give the money back, or he has to pay me in some form." And so, what do you do as a manager? So you go to the employee, and you don't want to say, "Hey, the boss decided he needs you to pay the money," because that doesn't look good for the boss. It makes the boss look a little stingy. So the way you say it is, "I talked with the boss, and he really cares about you so much that instead of having you pay this amount, he just said, 'Hey, if you just pay this amount, it's totally okay.'" So then, you've made the employee feel comfortable about how the boss feels about him while also getting the money you need out of the employee. I don't know if that makes sense.
SPENCER: That's super interesting. Talking about the way the legal system works there, I was speaking to a friend of mine who started a financial firm in China, and she was telling me that there's actually no real way to find out whether the way you're trading is legal or not.
AVA: Oh wow!
SPENCER: So what you have to do is you have to have a connection, who is connected enough to the government that you can ask them to basically send a personal message to the government explaining what you're doing. And then you'll get kind of an informal message back with a thumbs up or thumbs down. But it's all through these totally informal networks of people because there's no place you can just look up the law and actually know that, if you follow it, you're gonna be safe.
AVA: Yeah, China is all about contacts. and it's insane to me that you will need to have contacts to figure out what you can actually do. But it might also be a tactic on their part, to always be notified of what people are doing. You know what I mean? If you have a law, then you kind of lose the power of making your own decisions as a person who would be making that law, but instead, if a person comes to you, and you can decide, "Oh, is this [inaudible] or not? [inaudible] every single time?" That gives you a lot of power.
SPENCER: Absolutely. So tell me about some of your craziest experiences as a pop singer in China.
AVA: I think definitely my craziest experience was jumping off of the highest Olympic dive board in the Bird's Nest, which is the Olympic Stadium in Beijing.
SPENCER: Oh my God, how many feet is that?
AVA: About 30 feet? And that was completely crazy because in China — of course, we talked about there being no legal system — there are very, very poor safety measures for TV shows. So this show was the Chinese equivalent of the American show Stars in Danger. I was supposed to be one of the [quote] "celebrities" on the show, diving, and the show basically told us, "Okay, we're gonna give you about a month or two months to practice, and then you'll have to start diving." And I was like, "Cool, sign me up. I can do this."
SPENCER: You've never gone diving before, right?
AVA: I have never dived before, but I was like, "You know what I can do this. I feel confident that I could do this." So we started training because the show for me was an opportunity because I got to be with other celebrities in China, but who were way more famous than I was. And I was the only foreigner on the show. So it was automatically elevating my status as a celebrity in China, through how well I dove, and I wasn't a professional diver. So I was like, "Yeah, I can do this. I want to show that I deserve to be on the show." So I worked really hard and it got to the point where I was like, "I think I can do the 10-meter dive board." And the 10-meter dive board is very, very scary, because from the ground up, it doesn't look that high but when you're up there, it looks really, really high. I kind of knew it a little bit — but not as much as after the show — that basically, if you dive wrong from there, you can break your back because the impact of the water is so strong. So I actually learned how to do a front flip off of the high diving board. [laughs] Because I was like, "Man, I've got to do this right." So I learned how to do the front flip and then after that, they told me, "You know, when we're training kids to become professional divers in China, they have to go through two years of training before we even let them go on the 10-meter diving board."
SPENCER: For the TV show, no problem. One month, you're good.
Ava: Like two months, you're good. Like, "We can do this." That was such an insane experience looking back on it because it was so dangerous and so scary. It was so scary, but it was definitely such an experience.
AVA: The other thing that happened was that I actually did break my wrist on a show. I was on this show where you asked questions to celebrities. If you answered the question wrong, they would suspend you on this little piece of foam out in the center of this pit that had all of this dry ice, so it looked really scary. And then if you answered the question wrong, they would basically let you fall. I think the fall was like 10 or 20 feet or something, and you were supposed to fall on a trampoline. I was the only foreigner on the show, so I got all the questions wrong. And so, I immediately fell and I just broke my wrist on their trampoline.
SPENCER: Oh my god [laughs] they just dropped celebrities in this pit.
AVA: I swear, to be honest with you, the diving show that I went on, everybody was okay. But there was this other diving show by a competing TV network — that wanted to compete for that spotlight — they did a diving show, and a celebrity died.
SPENCER: Oh my god, diving?
AVA: No, I think he drowned in the pool.
SPENCER: Oh my gosh.
AVA: So in China there is sort of this culture, where if you're a TV personality or a celebrity, you are compensated way more than American celebrities (even if you account for the money exchange). I think what Leonardo DiCaprio earns is way, way less than what an equivalent Chinese actor earns. Because the market in China is bigger and because celebrities have much more sway over popular opinion. So for example, if you go to the store here and buy water — I know that Jennifer Aniston is sponsoring a water bottle, and she's a big, big celebrity — but in China, literally almost every single water brand has a celebrity on it. Celebrities have a lot of power but they suffer a lot, basically, for that. They have to do a lot of stuff on TV.
SPENCER: Like falling into a pit and things like that.
AVA: Yeah, people have them do this crazy stuff. I was there and I was lucky in terms of — we always say "A-list" — I would joke around with people that I was an "E-list" or an "S-list" [laughs] celebrity there. But being with them and seeing the crazy things they had to do, and doing them with them was pretty intense.
SPENCER: So speaking of that, tell me about surgery that people would get?
AVA: So plastic surgery is extremely common in China, and most of it is informed by white supremacy, unfortunately. So Chinese women, a lot of actresses have plastic surgery to enlarge their eyes, to elevate their nose bridge. So there were a few features of mine that Chinese people were really fascinated about. And one was, they would always say, I have what they call a 高鼻梁 (gāo bíliáng). It means "an elevated nose bridge." So when you see a Chinese person (I don't know how to say) that the bridge of their nose is a little bit closer to their face, and for us, the bridge of our noses a bit further away from our face. So that's something they really love. And they would also be very fascinated by what they call 双眼皮 (shuāng yǎn pí) which means "double-lifted eyes." So when you look in the mirror, you see there's a crease in your eyelid. Chinese people would actually go and have surgery to have that crease implemented in their eye. They would have surgery to make their nose bridge a little higher. They would have surgery to slightly cut open the sides of their eyes to make their eyes bigger. They would have what they call "Mogul surgery" where they would saw down the side of their face because Chinese faces are typically a little more square than our faces. Especially for Chinese women, they would go down and they would saw the jawbone, so their face was more almond-shaped. There was this one picture that actually circulated around China where you had a group of girls taking a picture of themselves in a nightclub, and they all looked exactly the same; you could not differentiate one girl from the other. So surgery there is pretty pervasive. It's not as pervasive, though, as it is in South Korea, where it's like a rite that on their 16th birthdays that parents will give their children plastic surgery.
SPENCER: I think it's really fascinating to think about the benefits and costs of plastic surgery. Because I do know people that have had minor plastic surgery that they felt really improved their life, like they never liked this one part of their face and then they got surgery and then they just felt way better about it and they really seem genuinely happy. Then you also hear about horror stories where someone gets the surgery done and they still feel like they don't look right and they get another done, and another done and they are never satisfied, and it feels like they're chasing something that they will never actually get and there's something unhealthy about it. I'm curious, having had these experiences, where do you land on that?
AVA: To be honest, I feel that beauty culture is extremely hypocritical. I'm not against plastic surgery. I think I am actually for plastic surgery, if it genuinely helps a person feel more confident, then I think I'm for it. I also think that when you have plastic surgery, it's actually the only time that you could be receiving compliments about your beauty that would actually make sense.
SPENCER: Because you actually made a decision to look a certain way, right?
AVA: Yeah, because it's you, you've actually done this. It's like if your dad and mom did your homework, and then I complimented you on your homework. Does that make sense? Whereas if you did your own homework, and I complimented you on your homework, that makes sense to me. So I don't understand why people compliment people on their beauty. And they place such emphasis on complimenting people on their natural beauty when their natural beauty has nothing to do with them. It's just, basically, they won a genetic lottery. But when you compliment somebody who has plastic surgery, you're like, "They went through that pain, they shelled the money," [laughs] It makes more sense to me as a compliment.
SPENCER: That's such an interesting point. And the way our faces look, the basic structure of our face is so arbitrary, and so not up to us. You could say, "Well, we can exercise to get stronger," but you can't exercise to make your nose a slightly different shape or your eyes have a different shape.
SPENCER: It's fascinating the extent to which we all judge each other for these slight variations in our faces that really mean nothing at all.
AVA: Yeah, exactly. And that we have no control over it. My mom, bless her soul, she always used to talk about the aristocracy of the beautiful, that you will be awarded. And to be honest, South Korean parents get it. They get it that if you're more attractive-looking, you'll probably get further on or you'll have more opportunities in life.
SPENCER: It seems like the key differentiator, though, is the surgery actually going to make you feel better or not? And if it is, great. And if not, then maybe there's something else; maybe it's a self-esteem issue, and there's something internal and not something external that needs to be worked on.
AVA: I think you're totally right in saying that, "If you're unhappy with yourself, it doesn't matter how much plastic surgery you will get, you will continue being unhappy with yourself." There is definitely a thin line. I remember... [laughs] I was at one point — because I interviewed for a few acting roles in China — at one point, I interviewed for this acting role, and I remember there was only one role that a foreign woman could have in a Chinese TV production or film production. She was sexy, she was a little bit crazy, and she was a little bit promiscuous, that was the main role (most often) that you would go audition for. And I remember I went to audition for a role, then the director point-blank in the audition said, "Hey, we're going to have a lot of scenes of you in a bikini. So can you take off your shirt and show us what you've got?" [laughs]
AVA: And I don't think he meant it in a sexual harass-y kind of way (there were other people there also) but I think what he meant is like, "I just want to see you in a bra," basically. And I said, "Absolutely not." I left. But that made me feel really bad because, to be honest, I've always been flat chested. And so, for a while, I was thinking about having breast implants. I consulted with a surgeon in New York. And I remember talking with a friend of mine, and he said that a girlfriend of his had been feeling the same way (about feeling not confident enough about the size of her breasts). And so, she did have plastic surgery but then she became insecure in a different way. She thought then that everybody who was into her was only into her because of the size of her breasts. So it was like one insecurity replacing the other insecurity. So then I decided not to get the implants.
SPENCER: That's such an interesting point that you can have the opposite effect of what you want. But that being said, I generally know people who feel like they've been really benefited by it. So I feel like it's such an individual choice, whether it makes your life better.
AVA: Yeah, I definitely don't feel that it's something that women or men should be judged on. I always have this judgmental voice inside of me that I try to dampen if I can, but I think the fact is that some people were born with winning lottery tickets on the beauty end and some people were not. And I think that plastic surgery kind of evens the field.
[Ava's song plays]
SPENCER: So let's switch to another topic — which I'm really interested in discussing with you — which is "love addiction." I've never actually heard of love addiction before. Can you tell us what it is?
AVA: Yeah, sure. So love addiction is a form of addiction, among others, except that it doesn't make use of a substance — like heroin or alcohol — but you're addicted to the feeling of falling in love. So it's that feeling that we all know when we fall in love that we call "limerence" when you're thinking about the person constantly, obsessing over them and elated when you get a text message, (what we call the "honeymoon phase" basically). So for a love addict, the whole point of the relationship is the honeymoon phase. Then at the end of the honeymoon phase, you're kind of bewildered because you start discovering the person and that's when it all starts unraveling. So typically, love addicts will get into relationships extremely, extremely fast, and then leave relationships after. I characterize myself as a love addict: I would stay in relationships a little bit longer, but eventually I would leave the relationship. So basically with love addiction, it's honestly the same as every other addiction I'm finding, which is you're just using something to escape from the dark thoughts, the low self-esteem — just the general feeling of being not enough and of something being wrong that pervades your day. The only release you have from that feeling is those times that you fall in love. But even falling out of love — the drama of crying and the tears — that's also something that takes you out of actually dealing with all the stuff you have beneath. And honestly, it's very, very similar to any other addict.
SPENCER: It makes sense to me that you can become addicted to that because it's such an intense feeling (the intensity of emotion when you first fall in love). So how did you realize that you were a love addict?
AVA: So I had always been in and out of relationships my whole life. I would typically get into relationships really fast. When you're getting into the program, they give you 40 questions to answer, and if you answer yes to more than 12 of them, then you have a little bit of a problem and you should be welcomed to the program. I think I answered yes to like 30 of them [laughs] So the program is actually called "SLAA," it's "Sex and Love Addiction." So I characterize myself more as a love addict. One of the questions is, "Do you get lost in fantasy?" "Do you create a fantasy about the other person very early on and fall in love with that fantasy?" And that's how I would get into relationships so fast. I would be lost in my fantasy about the other person and never actually get to know them.
SPENCER: You're not even falling in love with them, per se, you're falling in love with this sort of idealized form in your mind.
AVA: Yeah, yeah. And I'm falling in love with that idealized form of that person. And there's also a name for that, which is called "fantasy addiction." So my brain is very prone to fantasy addiction. So whenever, for instance, I'm sad, or I'm tired, my brain won't say, "Ava you're sad" or, "You're tired." My brain will say, "Let's think about that guy that we met last week." Even if I have no interest in the person, and even if I don't know the person, my brain will go there. Why? Because it's like a small hit of dopamine that prevents me from being sad or tired. So it's the way my brain has been wired to deal with stress.
SPENCER: So tell me about the program that you're in. How do they approach treating it?
AVA: So this 12-step program is called "Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous." It's based on the original program, which is "Alcoholics Anonymous." And there's a lot of other programs now like, you have "Debtors Anonymous," you have "Workaholics Anonymous," [laughs] which I think I should also go to, you have "Gamblers Anonymous," you have "Narcotics Anonymous," you have "Overeaters Anonymous." So there's a lot of different ways that people deal with their addictions. What we would call my qualification — which is sort of me explaining how what brought me into the program — was sort of all of my life I've been in and out of relationships, and I would get into these relationships extremely fast, stay in a relationship for a couple of years, and then all of a sudden just leave the relationship (which obviously was a really not good move). But it got a little worse over the last year and a half after my mother passed away, and that was really hard on me as it is on everybody. And I noticed that I would be a lot more emotionally affected by everything the other person did. Like if the other person didn't text me, I would lose it. [laughs] I got very, very affected, and I would just get into these like many short-term dating things for a couple of weeks or a month, and then I would have that high. And then it wouldn't work out because of my crazy controlling attitude towards being texted enough or being picked up at the right time or whatever. And I would be completely depressed for like two weeks, just crying and just feeling awful. And at some point, I was like, "This is ridiculous. I have to stop this," basically. And so, I didn't date for a while. I mean, I guess long story short (because it's complicated), I realized that it was these strangers (who I didn't know) affecting my emotions so much that it was unmanageable. "Unmanageable" is the key word in an addiction. Sure, when I talk about love addiction with people, they're like, "Yeah, but everybody feels that way." I'm like, "Yeah, but are you unable to function? Does it take over your life?" So that's the one difference with addiction. The high is so high, and the depression and despair is so low. That's when I realized I had a problem.
SPENCER: I just wanted to compliment you and say that I think it's really wonderful that you're being so honest about this because people almost never get to hear someone talk honestly about these kinds of issues. Thank you for doing that.
AVA: Thank you so much for having me and for letting me talk about these issues. I think this will be helpful. To be honest, the 12-step program (which I'll get into in a little bit) is absolutely amazing. And I'm only on step four, and it's totally changed my life and my outlook on life. I think 12-step programs would be valuable for a lot of people and I think there's still a lot of people suffering out there without knowing they're suffering, I didn't have a very apparent problem. It's not like a meth user where you know a meth user has a problem, or like somebody who takes cocaine every day, they have a little bit of a problem. With love addiction, especially the way society is, where you have love songs that talk about being sad, and it's romanticized in movies as the greatest feeling in the world, I always thought, "Oh, I'm just very emotional." I get involved in things very fast. I didn't understand that the type of suffering that I was experiencing was not something I had to experience.
SPENCER: It's such an interesting point, because, as you're mentioning, with some kind of harder drug, maybe it'd be more obvious to someone that there's an addiction happening. Whereas if it's something that everyone experiences sometimes or almost everyone — like the feeling of falling in love, or another example would be like alcohol because so many people drink just casually — it's a lot harder to actually tell if there's a problem.
AVA: Exactly. I think our society and our media almost promotes love addiction [laughs]. It is very ingrained. A girl friend of mine, I would shoot her ear off about all of the dates that I would go on, about what the guy said, what the guy did. And she said, "You know, I think you've got a little bit of a problem." She had actually heard about SLAA from another friend of hers. And she's like, "You know, why don't you just go and check out SLAA?" And I was initially very offended because I was being very open and vulnerable and sharing all of my dating experiences.
SPENCER: And she's implying, "Oh, you have a problem that you should work on."
AVA: Which is very hard for an addict. Because the reason why you come into the program is to teach you to know your substance use or your love addiction, or your fantasy addiction — fantasy, the love, the heroin, the alcohol — that's not the problem. The problem is how you feel without those things. So how do I feel if I don't have love in my life? I'm also a workaholic addict, so how do I feel when I don't have success in my life? How do I feel when I don't have these things that are kind of keeping me functional, because they're giving my brain the dopamine hit, and they're giving my brain the diversion to not think about what it feels like to actually just be me without anything else attached to myself. So that's the problem. The substance is not the problem. The problem is — and it's very hard to explain — that deep-seated feeling of shame that something's wrong about you if you're not famous. So that was also the reason my addiction got worse because after my mom passed away, I then decided to come to the States. And in China, I had a million followers on social media. People recognize me in the streets, I was doing shows in stadiums. But when I came to the States, I was little miss nobody. It was hard for me even to get one follower a day [laughs] (and it's still hard for me to get 1 follower a day on Instagram). So I lost all of that. I lost the accolades that I had developed in my 20s and started over.
SPENCER: That is such an interesting perspective to go from being recognized and having some fame to now trying to make it as famous from scratch.
AVA: I say the most contrasting memory I had was when I was playing in a stadium in China, and then I came back to the States and I did a show for a little coffee shop and nobody listened [laughs]. Everybody was just talking and sitting.
SPENCER: They're like, "Oh I didn't know there was a singer." [laughs]
AVA: Yeah, "It's just another girl." If life takes that high from love away from you, what do you feel like? And the answer is: You feel like shit. Because there's something deep-seated in the way that your brain was wired when you were growing up, that tells you that you are not deserving of unconditional love, that you are only deserving of love and happiness if you earn it.
SPENCER: So you feel like your success is linked to deserving love?
AVA: Success is linked, whether I have a man in my life is linked. Love addiction is also about control: the feeling of having somebody else fall in love with you. So there's all of these things that my brain chemistry is naturally wired to feel bad about myself. So my brain, instead of saying, "Okay, let's work on feeling better about yourself," my brain says, "You feel bad about yourself, but let's put this stuff on top of it so that you don't focus on how you feel bad about yourself, and you just focus on these things that make you feel good about yourself for like 10 seconds," and then we'll go back to feeling bad about ourselves. So that's kind of the nature of addiction. Before coming on this program, I talked to my sponsor (and asked her permission to talk about this on the podcast), and she said "Just make sure you're not too promote-y," because one of the tendencies of these AA 12-step programs is that we would like our membership to grow based on attraction and not promotion.
SPENCER: That's great. I think that's really nice, because there's so many kinds of self-help programs and such things that just promote so aggressively, and it's really obnoxious. Let me just comment on 12-step programs in general for a moment.
AVA: Yeah, of course.
SPENCER: I feel that they sometimes radically improve people's lives. I know people that have gone through 12 steps, and they just felt like, "This completely changed my life and I'm so much better because of it." But there is something that also bothers me about 12-step programs, which is that they seem like — and tell me if I'm wrong — they take the attitude that there's one way to do this, that you have to go through these specific steps, and they're the steps everyone has to do, whereas the steps are actually extremely specific. And I just don't believe that they could possibly be the right steps for every person. What do you think about that?
AVA: I think seeing it now, I kind of unfortunately disagree. Yes, the steps are very rigid. But it's so incredibly hard to break out of the addict's mentality. You are rewiring your brain. Your brain has been wired for the first most important 15 to 20 years of your life to think in a specific way. You have to completely rewire it. I don't know if I can say that the steps would be the best thing for everybody, but there is a reason why the steps are so rigid.
SPENCER: It makes sense to me that the program steps are clearly not random. These steps exist for a reason. And they've been tried by many, many people, and many people found that helpful. So I don't have any problem with that. I know that they help a lot of people. I think my problem is that I think that they're not the right steps for everyone. But it sometimes seems to me that some of these programs hold themselves up as though these are the only steps that work for people.
AVA: Well, to be honest, when you get into a program, there's a lot of people who are half in. Everybody ends up working it the way they want to work it. There's some people that realize they have a little problem, but they don't really want to face it right now. So they're like, "Okay, I'll go to meetings, I'll become more aware."
SPENCER: So in practice, they're somewhat more flexible?
AVA: In practice, it's very flexible and that's something that my sponsor in the program really stresses: It doesn't matter what you do — if you slip, if you go into fantasy, if you have a one-night stand — you can show up to a meeting the day after. And as long as you're honest, and just say, "Hey, this is what happened," people will welcome you with open arms.
SPENCER: That's wonderful. And that community must be just incredibly valuable to have. Let me just comment on two of the steps that bother me somewhat (even though again, I'm gonna acknowledge it, they're probably very helpful for many people, but they do bother me). One of those steps is — and tell me if I'm saying this wrong — surrendering yourself to a higher power.
SPENCER: I think there are some people that that's a wonderful thing for them to do. But then there are other people that just don't believe in any higher power. And I feel like those people are going to be left out by that stuff. What do you think about that?
AVA: It was interesting because when I got to enter the program — I do believe in God and I have a spiritual past, so that wasn't a problem for me — but the program does account for the fact that most people do not believe in a higher power.
SPENCER: Well, I think most people do believe in a higher power. Don't they?
AVA: Not a lot of the people that I've met in the program [laughs]. A lot of people come into the program where they're like, "What is this God bullshit? What are we talking about?" And that is a lot of the problem of people who come to program. They're like, "Oh, it's so preachy, I hate this, it sounds like a church," so there is a lot of work that sponsors do to find a way to make that relevant to the person. So I've gone to meetings where they've told me that, "Hey, if you don't have a god, that's totally fine, just trust in something that's bigger than you." So for example, because there's some people that come into program that are just super anxious, and a lot of people are suicidal when they come into program (and I definitely had moments when I was suicidal) and you just think you're not going to make it. And they just tell you, "If it's just something as simple as a doorknob, trust the doorknob, that the doorknob will take care of things for the next hour."
SPENCER: [laughs] Well, if you can choose a doorknob as your higher power, I feel like everyone's probably gonna be able to find something.
AVA: Yes, to be honest, it's also because addicts don't tend to grow up in emotionally safe households. People that we call the "normies" (the normal people who are not addicts) don't have that sense of foreboding and fear that something bad is going to happen. But an addict's brain is wired to constantly think that something awful is going to happen. So just the fact of like, it doesn't matter what you trust in but trusting that something has your back, that the next hour and the next day is going to be okay, that you're going to get through it somehow.
SPENCER: Tell me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is they tell you that you're an addict for life. Is that true?
SPENCER: So while I believe that that is true for some people (some people will say they're an alcoholic, I believe that they will be an alcoholic for the rest of their life), I do think it's genuinely possible for some people to fully overcome an addiction and to, for example, start drinking responsibly in small amounts. While I don't know what percentage of addicts are able to overcome it fully, I do think that some are able to, so it bothers me that this kind of view is that you can never overcome it no matter what.
AVA: It's very interesting that you bring that up, because the sex and love addiction program is the hardest program of all. It actually is often the last program that people end up coming into. They say that addiction is like water; it's always going to try to seep through the cracks of your hands when you hold the water. So people will start as a narcotics user, and then they'll get cleaned from that but they'll start drinking. Then they'll get into the beverage program, and then they'll get clean for that. But the last thing is often love and sex addiction because love and sex are part of our lives. There's no way of escaping it. So I often tell this to people, "It's like if I was a heroin user, but I just had to learn to use heroin responsibly." It's a super, super difficult program. So to your question about how it's bothering you that you're an addict for life, obviously, at some point, I am going to have to be able to be in a relationship and [laughs] be physically intimate with somebody. So I will have to start [quote] "using responsibly" so I will in some senses be recovered. I think the reason why they say you're an addict for life is because the addict brain always finds a way of creeping back in. And so it's not telling you, "You can't drink responsibly," or it's not telling you, "You can't learn to use in a responsible way." It's telling you to just always be careful. Like, always make sure that you continue practicing the tools that make you sane as a person.
SPENCER: That makes sense.
AVA: In the narcotics and the beverage program, yes, you are not allowed, technically, to ever drink for the rest of your life. I don't know how I feel about that program. I just know that I'm in a program where I will have to learn to deal with the [quote] "substance" and use it in a responsible way.
SPENCER: It's a great point. And it also suggests that it is possible for some people to [quote] "use" in a responsible way, right? That's what you have to do in your program.
AVA: Yeah, definitely. The reason why they say you're an addict for life is just to always keep that mindset and that awareness that the addict's brain is so ingrained in us and it's always there [laughs] lurking in the background.
SPENCER: The last topic I want to talk to you about is this quest you're on to make it as an artist. And you mentioned how you went from performing in a stadium in China to performing in a coffee shop in LA (where no one's even listening to what you're singing). So tell me about your journey as an artist. Why do you do it? And also I think we have to acknowledge this is one of the hardest careers a person can choose.
AVA: It's interesting when people talk about artists and making music. A lot of people see it as a choice. But I really feel like, with making music, I sometimes call it a curse because I just can't stop creating and making music. It's just always what my mind wants to do. There's some days where I'm like, "Well, it'd be better to have a more stable career. Why don't I go to school and do this or do that?" But my mind is always like, "No, you have to do this." So it's not really, I guess, a choice to be a creator. And I think everybody's creative in their own way.
SPENCER: I can certainly relate to that. But I guess I would ask, why not make it a hobby? Why not just do it when you get back from work (the thing that gives deep meaning to your life)? Why do it as a career, because you just have to create so much all the time that there's just no way to do it as a hobby?
AVA: I don't know how to explain it. I do feel I'm called to it. So I was very blessed in my 20s that my career in China gave me a little bit of financial savings to see me through the first few years of my 30s to kind of set myself up. Now, this money will run out at some point if I don't start making money. And I've told myself, "That's okay, I'll work another job and then save some money and then go back again." I really, really liked the book that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote called "Big Magic" where she says that at six years old (or I don't know what age but I think it was six years old), she took an oath in front of God to be a writer. She said, "I did not take an oath to be a good writer. I just took an oath to be a writer." I feel like this oath, I don't remember it, but it was obviously taken at some point in my life where I took an oath to be [laughs] a musician. I didn't take an oath to be a successful musician. I've tried to study various spiritualities and one of the spiritualities I studied briefly was Kabbalah, which says that we are brought into this world at the elevation of our soul. And so, what path is thrust upon us is all for the elevation of our soul. And I firmly feel that the musician's path, the artist's path, is something that is really forcing me to grow as a person and to grow in confidence of who I am. Because of my addict brain, I'm always very scared and I'm also very codependent so I'm very good at becoming what other people want of me. But this is, I'd say for me, the only profession that forces me to be like, "This is not about what other people want you to become. This is literally, as a musician/artist, this is the profession where you have to tell other people who you are." I'm still in the process of discovering this, but I'm realizing how much the recovery program that we just talked about is also informing me as an artist.
SPENCER: To what extent do you feel like success in something like music or singing is driven by luck versus skill?
AVA: I feel like it's at least half-half.
SPENCER: Because when you went to China, in some sense, you got lucky (you kind of hit on these wonderful opportunities). At the same time, if you weren't skilled, or you didn't develop skill quickly enough, that would have presumably petered out immediately. And now that you're starting again in LA (kind of starting at the bottom again) and you have to build yourself up it's like you're actually much more skilled than you were when you started in China, but you haven't gotten that big burst of luck yet?
AVA: No, no. And I would say honestly, it's about half-half, like you hear of these overnight hit wonders. And there are songs that just go viral.
SPENCER: Honestly, most of the time I hear about someone who just started doing something, but if you look carefully, you realize they've been doing it for 10 years. It's total fiction that they just started.
AVA: Of course, they've been doing it for 10 years, but there are genuinely songs that go viral.
SPENCER: Oh, for sure, for sure. Every once in a while that's true. I'm just saying I think suddenly someone appears and a lot of people underestimate the extent to which they've been honing their craft.
AVA: Yeah, that's totally right. But there are [laugh] songs that go viral, Spencer.
SPENCER: There are and I've seen it happen.
AVA: I would say luck and skill are involved. But I would say it's also one of the things that I think is holding me back. Because I feel like at this point, I have the craft honed down, and I'm very lucky. A couple years ago, I met this person who's called Rob Cavallo (who's a three-time Grammy Award winning producer, he produced Green Day and a lot of other greats). And he's sort of become my mentor, and has really helped me with my craft and with songwriting. And with all that I feel, honestly, that the only piece that's really holding me back is my recovery piece, my self-esteem.
SPENCER: Oh, interesting. Can you talk about that? How does that affect your success?
AVA: Well, it's interesting, cause I've been thinking a lot about the nature of self-esteem recently. And everybody tells you, "Don't attach self-esteem to this, don't attach self-esteem to that." And it's always used to be like, "Yeah, that's all dandy, but what does that actually mean?" I think I finally figured out what it means to me. And that is that anxious and scared feeling that you get when you think that you're not going to get something, that means that you're attaching self-esteem to that. And I've always felt that about my career at all stages of life, and especially about my music career here. I get extreme anxiety about releasing music, I get extreme anxiety about even releasing a picture on social media, because somewhere in my brain it's like, "Will you get a like? Will you not get a like? Will you get 100 people to listen to the song? Will you get 1000 people to listen to the song?" That for me is like I don't have a very strong self-esteem, so I naturally attach my self-esteem to external things. Now, with the program, I'm finally able to hear that voice and say, "You know what, this is work. Like, I'm me and I can be happy without anything, I could be happy without success, I can be happy without having a hit song, I can be happy if I'm a janitor or waitress, I can be happy in any circumstance. All the rest of the stuff is just work." And so, realizing that, now my music is like, "I'll put the work in it," but I'm sort of starting to lose the fear of failure, and that is so freeing.
SPENCER: What do you think the fear of failure was preventing you from doing?
AVA: It's still actually present, and I think it is preventing me from giving it my all.
SPENCER: Because if you give it your all and then you're rejected, it's somehow a deeper rejection.
AVA: Exactly. So I never really gave my music my all. And so when I think about it — because I'm studying a lot about social media marketing strategy at this moment to really get my socials going — and there's still this fear of me posting this and it's very personal, so if people don't like me or follow me after seeing that, that means they don't like me and that means that I'm a bad person. [laughs]
SPENCER: Because they know you now on a deep level after reading or watching an Instagram video for two minutes.
AVA: Yeah, exactly. So I was just never really showing, and I'm still not completely there, where I'm comfortable showing like, "Hey, this is who I am. Take it or leave it."
SPENCER: When do you think you're gonna give it your all? When are you going to be able to try your very hardest and put everything out there?
AVA: I'm on step four of my program, right now. [laughs]
SPENCER: You're getting there.
AVA: Honestly, it's changed a lot. I think I just need to work up to it. It's getting a lot lighter right now. I'm able to be more like, "You know what, if it works out, it works out If it doesn't, it doesn't." Because I know that the people I want to surround myself with are not the people who are going to look up to me because I'm successful or want to be my friends because I'm successful. The people I want to surround myself with and the kind of life I want to lead are having less to do with that success. So I think it's getting better. I'm excited about the next release and thank you so much for having me on your podcast, Spencer. Now, I can talk about my next release [laughs] which will maybe have come out by the time you broadcast.
SPENCER: What's your next release called?
AVA: It's called "Drive it Like You Stole It."
SPENCER: That's awesome. You sent me an insane video of a motorcycle literally flying over your head. I was very concerned for your safety.
AVA: Oh my god, yes. Well, I got a lot of practice concerning safety measures in China. That was such an amazing video to shoot. I do also feel like life is giving me a lot of really amazing breaks. Because during COVID the leases were less expensive, I've got the opportunity to move in with a really good friend of mine, and she's an extremely talented visual artist (her artist name is Lady Beaver) and she just came up with my videographer, Yohalmo, who was just showing her these drone shots that he did have these BMX bikers. And she said, "We have to have that in the video, we have to have a biker flying over your head all the while you're lip-synching the song." [laughs] And I was like, "I don't know how that's gonna happen, but okay," and he was like, "Yo, I'm gonna get in touch with them." And he did. Actually I feel like it's the universe giving me a break because the biker, Vinnie Carbone, he's in these huge videos, he's filmed in Lil Uzi Vert's video, and Marshmello's video [laughs]. It's just so random that Yohalmo (the videographer that I was working with) knew him. And I think as a favor he was like, "Yeah, let's just do it" and quoted me a very, very gracious price. And as I was doing it, I was thinking to myself, "Okay, if this is the last thing I do before I get extremely hurt, or handicapped, is this worth it?" And then I thought to myself, "Yeah, it is. It totally is." [laughs]
SPENCER: What do you think was the probability that that motorcycle ran you over during that video?
AVA: Oh my god. I don't know, man. In my mind, I was like, there's a 50-50% chance I'm gonna die right now. Like there's a 50-50% chance the motorcycle tire is going to go through my head. And of course, because I have my own shoestring budget of nothing, I didn't take out insurance on anybody. [laughs] There's no insurance. We're not even supposed to be filming on that property. Actually, when we finished filming, there was a guy greeting the crew with a shotgun and telling us to get to fuck out. [laughs]
SPENCER: What's amazing about the video is that if anyone saw that they'd be like, "Oh, yeah, they probably were a stunt man and it's probably a green screen." No, it's actually a motorcycle flying way too close to your head.
AVA: To be honest, Vinnie Carbone is a true pro, he's amazing. And the team — another biker was called Noe Ortiz — are true professionals; they're a great team. But it's still funny because I agree with you, when you look at the snapshot, it definitely looks like it's a green screen. But it's not. I have to edit the video myself, and there's so much good footage (so I'm going to be doing that over the next week), but I can't wait to show you and share with everybody.
[Ava's song plays]
SPENCER: That's awesome. The last question I have for you: So suppose that you continue this way of making your music, but you don't ever achieve the great success you had in China. How will you feel about that?
AVA: I think again, thanks to my recovery program, I will still feel really happy and fulfilled.
SPENCER: I think that's the perfect way to be an artist, right? To be like, "Okay, you could appreciate people loving your art, but you don't require it. And you can still feel great about yourself anyway."
AVA: Yeah. And I think also, it's interesting because a lot of people talk about the artist's dream, and coming to LA, and LA being this tinsel town and the cemetery of dreams, and that people talk about actors and musicians coming here and not making it in a very derisive way, like they failed. But no, I think they won. Because, for a few years, they got to be surrounded by this amazing community of people and to really have all of these amazing experiences. So I'm very, very blessed at this moment. Like during COVID, I have more time, again, to work on my artist project. I'm blessed just to have the next couple of years of my life, to be able to work on my own music. And I think it's a memory that I will cherish for the rest of my life. But beyond that, my happiness should never be informed by the external. I should just be happy just because I'm me and it's because you're you.
SPENCER: That's wonderful, and that's a great thing to aspire to. I have to say I really enjoy your music and I've been listening to it constantly lately. I recommended it to someone and now they listen to it everyday when they're running.
AVA: Aw, thanks!
SPENCER: So I definitely recommend checking out her music. What's the best way for them to find you?
AVA: Find me on Instagram and Tiktok at Ava King Music.
SPENCER: That's A-V-A, right? Ava.
AVA: Yes, A-V-A K-I-N-G and you can find me on Spotify under my artist name.
SPENCER: Thanks so much for coming on.
AVA: Thank you, Spencer.
Click here to return to the list of all episodes.
Sign up to receive one helpful idea and one brand-new podcast episode each week!
Subscribe via RSS or through one of these platforms: