By Natalia Winkelman
When Selinda Zhou received a call from Michael Bay’s production team scouting her for Transformers: The Age of Extinction, she thought it was a scam. “I heard ‘Congratulations!’ and just hung up on them,” Zhou explains with a laugh. “I thought it was one of those things like, ‘you’ve just won a million dollars!’” Zhou had submitted an online audition for the role after seeing the opportunity advertised, but she had never dreamed of hearing back.
When the producers couldn’t reach her by phone, Zhou received a congratulatory email notifying her that she had been selected out of 100,000 applicants as one of 100 finalists under consideration. Skeptical yet excited, Zhou flew to China straight away to take part in the final round: a nationally broadcast Chinese reality show, the winner of which would land a bit part in the fourth installment of the notorious Transformers franchise. The risky move paid off, and soon after, Zhou found herself making her big-screen debut in one of the most popular blockbusters in the world. Featured largely in the Chinese final cut of the film, Zhou cameos as a television reporter pestering Chinese officials for a quote as they march through the lobby of the iconic Pangu 7 Star Hotel in Beijing.
At the time, Zhou, a recent graduate of York University, was working as a performer and bilingual television host in Toronto. Born in China, Zhou immigrated to Canada with her parents when she was 16. Zhou spent much of her childhood immersed in the arts and entertainment world; her father was an accomplished filmmaker and painter, while her mother worked in television.
Zhou felt a magnetic pull to the art world from a young age, eventually discovering that her singular passion lay in singing and live performance. It was through this pursuit that Zhou landed her bilingual TV host position—a Fairchild Media executive discovered footage of Zhou performing at a Canadian voice competition in high school and offered her the gig, which she maintained on a part-time basis while attending University.
By the time she won the part in Transformers, Zhou was a natural in front of the camera. On set, her charisma caught the attention of none other than Michael Bay, who asked her to return to China the following year to perform at the Transformers premiere. “He was very funny,” she recalls. “He was so excited to show me all of the selfies he had taken in China. He was still using [an] iPhone 4—like a tiny, small phone.” She adds, “I know he doesn’t have a very good reputation in the industry, but he was very nice to me.”
Fresh off of her Transformers fame, Zhou was recruited to compete on China’s Got Talent: Star Avenue, a primetime Chinese cable series. Winning round after round, Zhou steadily gained notoriety through her live performances on the show and rocketed to stardom within the Chinese pop music sphere. “Everywhere I went, people recognized me on the street. I might’ve had a little bit of an ego,” Zhou admits.“When I came back to America, I had to swallow it.”
In video footage of her performances, Zhou appears onstage in full costume, singing and dancing amid splashy sets and farcically stone-faced back-up dancers. Imbued with theatricality, the productions radiate an infectious energy, like a bubbly twist on a Lady Gaga concert. When asked if she ever gets nervous before performing, Zhou turns to astrology: “If you meet me in person, I am very, very shy. But I’m a Gemini, so I have two sides: a shy one and a brave one.” In performance mode, Zhou appears as a paragon of fearlessness. “You’re up there in the spotlight and you just fall in love with the atmosphere, [fall] in love with the music.”
After finishing the year long talent show, Chinese producers tried to coax Zhou into signing a 15-year contract which would have installed her as a national pop icon–as long as she remained in China. Zhou faced a difficult choice: Cement her celebrity but remain tethered to the Chinese pop scene? Or preserve her freedom as an independent artist? Ultimately, she rejected the offer, flying home to her family in Toronto.
Nevertheless, Zhou didn’t hesitate to make her next creative move. Pivoting away from music for the meantime, she enrolled as a graduate student at the prestigious American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where she has just finished her first year in the program. In partnership with fellow students, Zhou’s current in-development projects include a biracial romance and a coming-of-age drama centered on a transgender protagonist. “I do miss performing a lot of the time, but I am so excited about learning to be a filmmaker with these stories,” Zhou says. After years spent in the spotlight, this year marks Zhou’s first foray behind the camera. Yet it is easy to imagine her finding just as much success in the filmmaking sphere. Whether on the blockbuster big screen or the pop star podium, Zhou has never had trouble finding her audience.★