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William was on American Idol

We’ve all experienced embarrassment at some point. It’s not something anyone enjoys or wants to go through.

But there’s another level of embarrassment: humiliation. I think it’s safe to say to say that very few people have experienced the level of embarrassment or humiliation that William has.

Imagine being on the most popular talent show in the country – American Idol – and failing badly. The judges laugh at you and send you home. One of them even calls your singing “grotesque”. Then the video of that terrible audition gets broadcast on television, and ends up going viral worldwide. So your huge failure is seen by millions of people everywhere, and your name becomes synonymous with that bad performance.

That’s what happened to William.

What I just described is what most people know about William Hung. But there’s a lot more to his story, which you’re about to find out. Part of his income now comes from playing poker professionally, he is a keynote speaker, and he has written a book.

 

William Hung playing poker
William Hung playing poker
William Hung's book, Champion by Choice
William Hung’s book, Champion by Choice

If you’d like to join the other listeners who support this podcast, you can do that at WhatWasThatLike.com/support, and I thank you.

William Hung links:

Website

Facebook

Instagram

Twitter

Champion by Choice (Amazon affiliate link)

Episode transcript (download transcript PDF):

We’ve all experienced embarrassment at some point. It’s not something anyone enjoys or wants to go through.

 

But there’s another level of embarrassment: humiliation. I think it’s safe to say that very few people have experienced the level of embarrassment or humiliation that William has.

 

Imagine being on the most popular talent show in the country – American Idol – and failing badly. The judges laugh at you and send you home. One of them even calls your singing “grotesque”. Then the video of that terrible audition gets broadcast on television, and ends up going viral worldwide. So your huge failure is seen by millions of people everywhere, and your name becomes synonymous with that bad performance.

 

That’s what happened to William.

 

What I just described is what most people know about William Hung. But there’s a lot more to his story, which you’re about to find out.

 

If you’d like to join the other listeners who support this podcast, you can do that at WhatWasThatLike.com/support, and I thank you.

 

And I hope you enjoy my conversation with William.

 

 

Scott

You are from Hong Kong. I understand. Is it true that you are a descendant of Confucius?

 

William 

Yeah, I couldn’t believe it. My aunts and uncles told me that I am – that’s how I know – like, in the family line.

 

Scott 

So they did the research and found out that it’s, like, the 73rd generation or something?

 

William

Yes.

 

Scott

That is pretty cool. Not many people can say that. All right. We know what happened with you, but a lot of people may not know about it. Let’s take go back a little bit to your life situation in 2003. Can you describe what your life was like at that time before all this happened to you?

 

William 

Well, I was just a normal student studying civil engineering at Berkeley. I thought that I liked math and science but, somehow, I wasn’t really into civil engineering. I couldn’t get the support I need. I was just struggling with classes. I wasn’t happy. So, I thought something had to change in my life. One day, I saw this poster for a talent show in school. That’s when I started watching and studying music videos from Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs”.

 

Scott 

You really like that song, don’t you?

 

William 

Yeah. I just thought that it’s gonna be fun. To my surprise, I won the talent show. That’s what gave me the confidence to audition for American Idol.

 

Scott 

That is pretty cool. So, you went on a talent show before you went on the big talent show.

 

William

Yeah.

 

Scott

How long did that happen before American Idol?

 

William 

It was about maybe 4-5 months? I would say that the actual broadcast is about 4 months from the audition.

 

Scott 

You actually saw a commercial for the audition that was being held. Can you just take us through that process?

 

William 

Yes. When I found out there was an audition for American Idol on Fox News in the San Francisco Bay Area, I just thought was, “There’s nothing to lose. All I had to do is show up, line up, and see what happens. If I don’t make it to Hollywood or get something out of it, I would just go back to school and be a normal student. No big deal.” So that’s my whole attitude. That’s why I was able to maintain that positive and somewhat carefree attitude compared to other people.

 

Scott 

What did your parents think of that? I mean, you had to skip classes, right?

 

William 

Yeah. I didn’t tell anybody because I just thought that, if I told my parents, they would always say “No. You don’t have the talent. Why are you on American Idol?” So, that’s why I didn’t want to tell them.

 

Scott 

What’s the actual process like, from the time you got there the first day? Can you just take us through what happened?

 

William 

Yes. What happened was I showed up with 3,000 other people at a huge baseball park. Then, I got there in the morning at 7 o clock. I waited for 2-3 hours before it was my turn to audition. When I first auditioned, it was in front of the staff members. Many people before me only got 15 to 30 seconds to sing before they were told to go home. Somehow, I got over a minute to sing and they let me through. They gave me an orange ticket and they told me to come back the next day.

 

Scott 

Why do you think you got more time than the other people?

 

William 

I had no idea. I mean, as a 20-year-old kid showing up like other people, I don’t know. I don’t know what compelled them to let me through. I just thought that if they give me a chance, I’m going to make the most of it.

 

Scott 

So, there were 3000 people to start with that day. I think only 180 made it through to the next day.

 

William 

That’s right. I got that from Fox News on the same night, so I was hearing all about it and I was “Oh really? I’m one of the lucky 180 people out of 3000?”

 

Scott 

At that point, did you tell anyone that you had gone?

 

William 

No. Because making it to the next day doesn’t mean anything yet. I just showed up the next day dressed a little bit nicer with a blue Hawaiian shirt with the shoes on it. I just picked something nice from the closet – I thought it was – and then I went for it. The next day, what happened was I showed up at the hotel, I auditioned in front of the producers and, somehow, they let me through again – I was singing “She Bangs”. Then, by the time I got to see Randy, Paula and Simon, I noticed that there is less than 100 people. I was like, “Wow, could this be it? Could I really make it to Hollywood?” I was so nervous. That’s why I was so, like, jerky with my movements when I sang in front of Randy, Paula and Simon.

 

Scott 

Yeah, that was Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. Of course, everybody knows that those were the 3 main people back in the early days of American Idol, and they all had their reputations, especially Simon, of course. Why did you choose that song, “She Bangs”?

 

William 

I thought it was a unique song. At that time, it has a very catchy tune. I like how Ricky Martin is dancing with a bunch of beautiful girls. I just liked the whole idea. It feels like a great song to have at my own party.

 

Scott 

How much did you rehearse for this?

 

William 

I rehearse a little bit. It’s not like I put in many, many hours a day. I just thought that it’s something entertaining and fun. I wasn’t thinking, like, “Oh, I need to make it to Hollywood. I need to win American Idol.”

 

Scott 

I would just be nervous and forget the words but, obviously, you didn’t forget any words.

 

William 

No. At that point, I got it down.

 

Scott 

Let’s take a minute and listen to your appearance on American Idol.

 

 

William 

I grew up in Los Angeles, California. I was originally born in Hong Kong. I’ve been in the United States for 10 years. I am currently studying at UC Berkeley right now. It’s kind of odd why I chose to even audition in the first place because my major is civil engineering, which is not totally related to music. I really liked music. I want to make music my living.

 

Paula

Hello. How are you?

 

William

Hi.

 

Paula

William?

 

William

Yes.

 

Paula

How are you doing?

 

William

Oh, great. Thank you. Great to see you guys.

 

Paula

Well, thank you. It’s great for us to be seen by you.

 

Simon

Why are you here?

 

William 

I’m here to sing to America. I’m here for the opportunity to sing to America.

 

Paula

Because you think you could be the next–

 

William

–American Idol.

 

Simon

Why?

 

William

Because I sing from my heart. I might not be the best singer around the world, but I know that I sing from my heart and I put every bit of energy into it.

 

Paul

Really?

 

William

Yes.

 

Randy

Willie, what is your last name?

 

William

Hung. H-U-N-G.

 

Randy

Hung?

 

William 

Yes.

 

Paula

Do you have brothers and sisters?

 

William

No, I don’t. I’m the only child.

 

Paula

You’re the only child… Do your parents tell you that you have a great voice?

 

William 

No, they don’t realize that actually. When I was young, my parents like to sing karaoke. I was there with them and sing with them as as a hobby.

 

Paula

What do they do when you sing with them?

 

William

They thought I’m okay. They thought that I have a chance of making it to the next level.

 

Paula

Great. Are they excited for you that you’re here?

 

William

Actually, they would not like it if they hear that I’m missing school 2 days in a row.

 

Simon

So they wouldn’t be happy if you got through?

 

William 

No, they wouldn’t be happy if I go through. They wouldn’t be happy if I don’t go to school. That’s a big sacrifice. I love singing. I prefer singing over a lot of activities.

 

Simon

What are you going to sing?

 

William

I would like to sing Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs”. I hope you all enjoy it.

 

Simon

All right, let’s go.

 

William

All right. (Sings Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs”)

 

Simon

Thank you.

 

Paula

William, you did put everything you had into that and I love that.

 

Simon

I didn’t.

 

Paula

I do. I love it. He put every bit he had into it.

 

Simon

Well, I didn’t. William, it’s one of actually the worst auditions we’ve had this year, if I’m being honest. Seriously, I mean, everything about it was grotesque.

 

Paula

Oh, stop it.

 

Randy

Oh, it’s not grotesque. Come on.

 

Simon

It was. You can’t sing. You can’t dance. What do you want me to say?

 

William 

I already gave my best and I have no regrets at all.

 

Paula

Good for you. That’s the best attitude yet.

 

Randy

That’s good.

 

Paula

All right. Randy, yes or no?

 

Randy

No. Well, you’re not good enough for this dude but, at least, you came here. You had a good time. You had fun, right?

 

William

Yes.

 

Paula

And we had fun watching you. Thank you so much for coming down.

 

Simon

William, go and do some homework.

 

William 

Okay.

 

Paula

We won’t tell your parents that you missed two days of school.

 

William

I have no professional training of singing

 

Simon

No. That’s a surprise of the century.

 

Paula

William, you’re the best. Thank you so much.

 

Simon & Randy

Thank you, William.

 

William

Thank you.

 

Simon

But on a more serious note, you’re not serious about this – are you?

 

William 

Wait a minute, I missed 2 days of school for this. I work very hard for this. So, I gave my best, I believe, at this point. I can do better. I know that.

 

Simon

That’s for sure. Okay, thank you, William.

 

Paula

Thank you so much, William. Have a good one.

 

 

Scott 

Partway through that performance, you kind of knew that it wasn’t going to happen, right? How did that go? What were you thinking while you were singing?

 

William 

Well, as soon as I began my audition, I already knew that I’m not going to make it when Randy held that white sheet of paper to cough and giggled throughout. I knew I’m not going to make it. Simon was frightening right from the beginning. Paula had that reaction, like, she was intently staring at me. I could tell they already prepared in advance. So, yeah, I knew I wasn’t gonna make it but I will see what they say. Simon being Simon said, like, “You can’t sing. You can’t dance. What are you gonna say?” So, that definitely put me on the backfoot. I just remind myself to stay positive because my mom taught me since I was young – that’s part of where it came from – that it’s okay to fail as long as you tried your best.

 

Scott 

Yeah. I think that’s what impressed them – maybe, not Simon. Your response was, “I gave my best. I have no regrets at all.” – Paula loved that. Other contestants get angry when they get booted.

 

William

That’s true.

 

Scott

Why were you not like that?

 

William 

Because I just thought in my head that there are many people auditioning every single year. There are over 100,000 auditions for American Idol every single year, and there’s only one winner, so my chance of winning – regardless of my actual talent – is going to be very low. Why should I be so upset when I don’t get it?

 

Scott 

I think a lot of them feel that they have more talent than they really do and they think that they are entitled to it, sort of.

 

William 

Yeah.

 

Scott 

Was that audition the lowest point in your life?

 

William 

Not really. I would say that I expected those responses because I knew the judges were just playing their roles. Simon plays the mean guy, Randy plays the cool guy – somewhere in the middle – and Paul is being a nice lady.

 

Scott 

That day, you went home and you thought, “Well, that’s over – nothing lost, nothing gain – but it was fun.” You thought that was the end of the whole story.

 

William

Oh, yeah.

 

Scott

Then, 4 months later, when you saw the preview of that show coming up, what did you think?

 

William 

Wow, it was very surprising. Four months later, I saw my clip of my audition during a Cotton Bowl commercial. I never forget it because it was the first time I saw it and I was like, “What? Why did they choose my audition?”

 

Scott 

Obviously, they thought it was entertaining.

 

William 

Yeah. Even then, I didn’t think much of it because – they broadcast most of the American Idol auditions – it doesn’t mean anything. People might get a laugh or two, but that’s usually it. Nothing usually happens to most people, which is why I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t expect that crazy response right after they broadcasted my audition.

 

Scott 

What was the crazy response? What happened?

 

William 

After they broadcasted my audition, I got hundreds of emails. Some of them came from Entertainment Tonight and Ryan Seacrest’s show. It was unbelievable. They wanted me to be a guest. That’s how the whole entertainment training started.

 

Scott 

So you became a pretty well-known name, like, overnight, practically.

 

William 

Yeah, it’s crazy. The next day, when I went back to class, I’ve gotten bombed by students for pictures and autographs.

 

Scott

Did you like that?

 

William

I was pleasantly surprised, yeah. I thought that people were nice to me. They were very supportive. They said, “Oh, you have so much courage. You inspired me.” I got a lot of fans supporting me.

 

Scott 

So you were on a lot of national shows – the Ellen show. What other appearances did you make?

 

William  

I was on Jay Leno. I was on Jimmy Kimmel and Larry King Live. I also performed for many big stages like Wango Tango at Rosebowl.

 

Scott 

Of course, each time you entertain, it’s that same song, right?

 

William 

Yes, it’s usually that same song plus a few other songs.

 

Scott 

What happened from there? You were, kind of, faced with the decision of “Do you go back to school or do you go into the entertainment industry?” How did that work out?

 

William 

Here’s how everything started. Initially, I got those emails to go on some of the TV shows. Then, one of my fans, Dong Chin, created a website called “WilliamHung.net”. Somehow, it got over 8 million hits in less than a month. Then, Coach Records reached out to me and offered me a $25,000 record contract. That’s when I realized that my life could change forever.

 

Scott 

This was the part that I find a little confusing is that your sudden fame wasn’t because you were an extremely talented singer, but it was because it was kind of a funny audition. You even ended up selling a lot of records. If you don’t have real singing talent, how did that all happen?

 

William 

Well, to this day, I am still wondering why I got that crazy fan base and reaction. Perhaps, I represent something that’s beyond the music itself. Some people say that I inspire them. Maybe, I’m their inspirational icon. It’s not surprising that the record company chose my first album name to be “Inspiration”.

 

Scott 

I don’t have that album. I understand that, in between the music tracks, you had some kind of an inspirational quote or something – right? Is that what that was?

 

William 

Yeah, that’s what stood out to people actually.

 

Scott  

People really liked that, obviously.

 

William 

Yeah. Somehow, it sold over a quarter million copies and it became the number one independent album on billboards.

 

Scott 

That is pretty incredible. You never would have predicted that, would you?

 

William

No way.

 

Scott

So what happened in your life after that when you started selling all these records?

 

William 

Well, I got more and more life performance opportunities and some other commercial offers. I was on the commercials for AT&T, Jack in the Box, askjeeves.com, and many, many big commercials. So, that’s how I was able to live this dream life for about 4 years.

 

Scott  

Four years. So you, kind of, knew that it wasn’t going to be forever?

 

William 

Of course not. I mean, 4 years was already longer than I thought. Even after that, I never really retired from the entertainment industry. It’s just that I got few opportunities and I have to just do it on the side, but it was still very substantial income.

 

Scott 

So what happened after that?

 

William 

After about 4 years, I decided that maybe it’s time to get a stable job and finish school, so I did that. Then, I started working for the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

 

Scott 

That seems like quite a switch. Your position there was a statistical analyst. What is that? What were you doing for the Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles?

 

William 

Initially, I thought it would be something like crime scene investigation – CSI – like on TV where you get to investigate the evidence, the crime scenes, and run the numbers on that stuff, but it wasn’t that exciting. Instead, I was extracting crime data by going through the different kinds of police reports about murder, burglaries, and rape. So yeah, it’s not exactly what I signed up for. That’s why I wanted to move on to something else. A couple of years later, I got promoted to work for a public health department. That was more challenging and more fun. My colleagues and I created a new contract database for the Public Health Department, so that was more challenging. But then, as the years went on, I felt that it was not fulfilling enough because I still feel like I’m hiding behind a cubicle. I’m just one of the many people. I want to do something more. That’s why I got into speaking. Eventually, I decided to leave my job couple months ago.

 

Scott 

As part of that transformation into a speaker, you found Toastmasters, the International Organization. Can you talk a little bit about that? I know some people are familiar with that. What is Toastmasters?

 

William 

Yeah. Toastmasters is, like, an education platform for you to practice your speaking so that you can improve your speaking and leadership skills. It’s the only safe platform I know where you could practice your speech and get feedback from a live audience. So, that’s what it is. Initially, I started the Toastmasters around the same time I took the job at the sheriff’s department because I felt like it was kind of depressing – just imagine reading about the stats every single day. It’s kind of depressing, so I wanted to do something different outside of my job. That’s why I joined and thought that, maybe, I could have that performance stage. Every time you speak, it feels like it could be a performance. I thought about it that way for a while. Then, three years ago, I realized that I could do something more because I went through a lot in my life. One of my friends told me like, “Maybe you should look back at your success from the “Inspiration” album.” That’s why I thought about speaking instead of just singing.

 

Scott 

You ended up speaking quite a bit. You still do keynote speeches, right?

 

William

Yes, I do.

 

Scott

Then, every time you make a switch, it’s something totally unrelated to what was previously there. In 2017, you started getting serious about playing professional poker. How did you come across that?

 

William  

Well, so here’s how everything went down. I only started playing professional poker last year, literally, in 2019. I’ve been playing poker for over 15 years because it’s one of those hobbies that I haven’t revealed to a lot of people before. I thought I needed something fun and different to do on the side during my downtime. That’s why I played I enjoy poker. The beginning of last year is when I took it really seriously. I study a lot of training material, I track everything, every time I play. It turns out that may be the new path for me because I was doing really well to the point where I’m making more money than speaking and coaching combined.

 

Scott 

Do you play poker in person or online? Actually, here in America, we can’t even play online poker for money anymore. They made that illegal a few years ago.

 

William 

It’s actually possible to play online on offshore sites without getting into trouble. But, yeah, the main sites like PokerStars did get shut down. So, it’s still possible. Just to put it out there and be really transparent about this, some states do have laws saying that you cannot gamble online, but California is not one of them. There’s nothing that says you cannot gamble online in California. So, for now, it’s still okay. Mostly, I play live because I’m a people person. I enjoy playing live much more than online.

 

Scott 

I can tell you’re a people person, obviously. Also, when you’re playing online, you can’t read the person very well other than the pattern of the hands that they play – you don’t have a lot of the body language to read from.

 

William 

No. So, I suppose it’s actually much harder.

 

Scott 

Your life today is a combination of playing poker and speaking, as well as coaching. Can you talk about your coaching business?

 

William 

Yeah. I also started going in the coaching direction around last year. The idea behind it is that I’ve been mentoring people and Toastmasters for over eight years. People told me, “William, you’re such a great speech evaluator.” It’s not just people that tell me. What people might not know is that I usually get voted as the best evaluator, so I get all these ribbons for the best evaluator award – like, stacks of them. That’s why I feel like, maybe, I have a special talent there. That’s why I went for it. So far, it’s a slow journey, I feel like we’re starting to turn the corner because I just got a few paying clients now. So, yeah, everybody starts somewhere. What’s interesting about that is it’s great that I’m helping some of the people to spread their really cool ideas to the world. Otherwise, it’s hard for them to be heard.

 

Scott 

It seems like you’re constantly discovering new talents that you have, which is great. You can find out what they are and take advantage of that. You have a new book out now.

 

William 

Yeah. I’ve also been working on a book called “Champion by Choice”. It finally came out October last year. It was a long one-and-a-half-year journey. I wrote this book because I want to share the true complete version of my life, and it’s very hard to do that through any individual speech or social media posts because it would be just too long. So, that’s why I wanted to write a book to leave the written word – more like a legacy. The name of the book is called “Champion By Choice”. I feel that everybody can choose to be a champion right now. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. You have that choice. So, I want to empower people that way.

 

Scott 

I just read the book last week and there are a couple of things about you that I just find pretty fascinating. The first one is you don’t just accept failure – you actually embrace it. Like, it’s part of the whole process and it’s a necessary part. How did you learn to do that?

 

William 

Well, it all started with my initial American Idol audition. Technically, I failed. I got booted off. I didn’t have a real singing talent. Somehow, I was able to have an entertainment business. I never expected it in my life. So, that’s, that’s how it all started. Then, as time went along, the same thing can be said for poker, speaking, and coaching. I never thought those things were possible for me but, now, it’s just like anything else. When you put enough time and effort into it, eventually, you’ll see the light of the tunnel.

 

Scott 

Most people give up too soon…

 

William

Yeah.

 

Scott

The other thing that struck me about you is, you seem to have absolutely no fear of rejection at all. Many people’s biggest fear is public speaking, but you just kind of jumped into that. Have you ever experienced any fear of rejection at all?

 

William 

Well, I’m human too, so I wouldn’t say that I have zero fear of rejection. My mindset is that I expect rejection is going to happen. It’s more like, “What can I learn from that rejection?”

 

Scott  

So that it’s not wasted…

 

William

Yeah.

 

Scott

Well, your book is great. I recommend people to get it. I kind of feel that, even though you’ve written your book about your life, it’s just half over – you still have a lot to write in that story. I’m sure you’ll see a lot of things from it. How can people get in touch with you if they wanted to?

 

William 

Yes. People can find me on social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

 

Scott 

So, we’ll have links to all of that on the show notes for this episode, as well as a link to the book on Amazon. Will, I appreciate your time. Thanks for telling your story.

 

William

You’re welcome.

 

You could probably tell, I really enjoyed that conversation. William is an interesting combination – he is not afraid of taking on a challenge at all. He just jumps right in. But on the other hand, he also has a very analytical mind – he is able to parse out the important factors in a situation and come up with the best course of action. And of course that’s a huge talent to have when you’re playing poker.

 

I hope you are hanging in there while we go through this crazy time with the COVID-19 virus and all that’s going on. As I record this, we’ve just now gone over 1 million confirmed cases worldwide, and of course by the time this episode goes live that number will be way higher. Here in Florida, right now we’ve had well over 11,000 cases and around 200 people have died.

 

Did you ever think you’d see something like this. For the people who didn’t lose their jobs, a lot of them are now working from home. I already work from home for the most part, so this was not a huge transition for me. I have clients all over the country, and I’m able to remote in and fix their computer when something goes wrong. If you need help with your computer, get in touch with me. But for the most part, we’re staying home as much as possible and just hoping we make it through this without getting that stupid virus. I hope you’re doing okay. We’ll get through it together.

 

And I’ll see you again, in two weeks.

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