Though Judy Z. Jiao ’14 did not know it at the time, her life was completely transformed by a trip to the mall. She was approached, at the age of 13, by a talent scout who invited her to attend a commercial acting convention.
Before the chance meeting, Jiao viewed herself as an extremely shy girl and had never considered acting. Nevertheless, she seized the opportunity. At the convention, Jiao was paired with an agent and soon began taking acting lessons. Three years later, she was asked to star on a Canadian-produced television show called “Degrassi: The Next Generation.”
Jiao portrayed Leia Chang, a teenage ballet dancer and student at Degrassi Community School, for three seasons. Yet since coming to Harvard, she has decided to leave acting aside to pursue her other interests.
“Being at Harvard is such an incredible experience,” she said. “I would never give that up for anything.”
Jiao’s parents emigrated from China to Toronto, Ontario, where her mother is an engineering professor at the University of Toronto. Acting was an unlikely path for Jiao to take.
“To be doing something in the entertainment industry is definitely non-traditional,” she said.
Yet according to Jiao, her parents did not deter her from acting and were willing to pay for her acting lessons on the condition that she stayed on top of her schoolwork.
“They were strict in the sense that school came first, but they were just as excited as I was,” Jiao said. “They drove me to all my classes and auditions and they were just incredibly supportive.”
Jiao recounts memories of her mother helping her rehearse before auditions, as Jiao practiced her lines while her mother read the rest of the script.“I was extremely lucky in that sense,” Jiao said.
Jiao took lessons at Armstrong Acting Studios in Toronto, where Miley Cyrus had also studied a few years earlier. The workshops focused on preparing her for auditions, but she was unsuccessful for the first two years.
Then came Degrassi. Jiao advanced through several callbacks and was asked to do a screen test—the final round of the audition process where she performed her lines with makeup and costume. Going into the screen test, Jiao knew the decision was down to her and one other individual.
“My agent called me and told me she had terrible news, and it was the hardest thing she’d ever had to tell anyone,” Jiao said. “I was freaking out. And then she told me that I had booked Degrassi.”
ON THE SET
When Jiao landed the role, the producers reworked her character from Leia Bince, the character she had originally auditioned for, to Leia Chang. Jiao joined “Degrassi: The Next Generation” in its eighth season, which began filming in April 2008.