When Hoku (born Hoku Ho) attended the Legally Blonde premiere in 2001, the energy was magnetic. The red carpet was filled with stars on the brink of becoming household names (Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Coolidge) and the 20-year-old singer was about to watch her song, "Perfect Day," debut in the opening sequence of the film. As soon as Witherspoon's swaying blonde hair appeared and the song started playing ("Sun's up / It's a little after twelve / Make breakfast for myself / Leave the work for someone else")—cue the hairbrush ("People say / They say that it's just a phase") and the french manicure ("They tell me to act my age") and a glimpse of the Tiffany & Co. bracelet ("Well, I am!")—the theater erupted in cheers.
Twenty years later, "Perfect Day" lives on as the song that makes us feel like anything is possible. And, in that moment, Hoku believed it too. As she watched the rest of the film with goosebumps, she realized "Perfect Day" aligned with a larger message Legally Blonde was sending to women—that we deserve to be unapologetically ourselves, and when it comes to doing what we want when we want, well, nothing will stand in our way.
"Before #MeToo, before any of these conversations about equality or women getting a chance to have their voices heard in the arts, you're seeing this girl, [Elle Woods], who is unabashedly embracing her femininity. She's wearing pink and she's achieving everything that everyone tells her she can't do," Hoku tells Marie Claire in an interview ahead of the film's 20th anniversary. "When I left the theater, I was so proud to be a part of the movie for that reason in a time when that was not really something that was done."
But despite the movie (and song's) massive success, Hoku left the music industry shortly thereafter. Here, the singer discusses the making of "Perfect Day" (including what it was like to work with Witherspoon on the music video!), why she went off the grid just as her star was rising, and whether or not she'll pursue music again.
Marie Claire: We can't talk about the 20th anniversary of Legally Blonde without discussing your iconic song, "Perfect Day." How does it feel knowing it's still as beloved as it was 20 years ago?
Hoku: It's amazing. Honestly, it's just really cool to see the shelf life that it's had. I know for a fact that no one anticipated that when we released it. It's really cool that it's taken on the life that it has.
MC: Take me through the making of the song. What was the writing and production process like?
H: This song was written by the girl that wrote all my songs at the time, Antonina [Armato]. (I think I wrote one song on my debut album, Hoku.) This was a time in pop music history when it was not really done that an untried artist was allowed to write any of their songs. Even though I was a songwriter going into my pop career, there was no interest in my music and what I was coming up with. I think that's something that I would have been able to do in album two or three, had those materialized.
"Perfect Day" was intended to be the lead single from my second album. The company that produced the movie was under the same umbrella as my record company. Or they bought the rights to it or something like that. Basically, Interscope/Geffen Records bought the rights to do the Legally Blonde soundtrack. I was who they were really promoting at the time, so they had this song "Perfect Day" and they were like, "Hey, well this is going to be the new single off of her follow-up album. Let's put it on this movie." It was always referred to as, "Oh, this little movie called Legally Blonde." No one had any idea what it was going to become.
Reese Witherspoon wasn't a bankable star and she's headlining this movie, that's got a female lead in it—that was just not done. No one was banking on it being great. So the whole idea was, "We'll put this single on the soundtrack and then we'll get to work recording your follow-up album. Whoever hears it, that's great, but it's just going to kind of bolster things and get excitement ready for your next album," which hadn't been written or produced or sung or anything. Then...it took off like a rocket. And that was really cool for everybody.
MC: Both versions of the music video incorporate scenes from the movie that you reenact. What was it like creating the video?
H: That was honestly one of my favorite memories of my whole pop career. They had a whole set so that it kind of looked like my bedroom, like I'm getting ready and I'm going to go out and have a perfect day. Then Reese was coming in to shoot some scenes. I had seen a lot of the movies that she was in, so I was totally star struck. But she was so sweet. She was all nervous because she's like, "I've never had to lip sync a song before. This is so embarrassing. I don't know how you do this all the time." I'm like, "You'll get the hang of it. It's fun. Just act like you're singing in the shower or something." The minute the camera came on, she was obviously amazing and super professional. We had a really fun day on set.
I think [the music video] was shot over a few days. It was gorgeous weather. You know that scene where me and my band are out there kind of jamming in a big park and I'm flipping my hair all around? That was so much fun. It was a beautiful day and the park is gorgeous. Me and my band members were just having a blast.
MC: Can we talk about the fashion for a sec? The low-rise jeans!
H: It's so funny to me because I'm like, "You guys, you do not know the struggle trying to keep our underwear from showing, always getting our flared long jeans in puddles." This was a different time in history, but hey, it's so fun to see it all coming back!
MC: You alluded to two albums you were supposed to make not coming to fruition. You had this hit song and kind of went off the grid. A lot of people are wondering what you've been up to for the last 20 years.
H: There was definitely some things that were difficult in the music industry. The uglier side of the pre-#MeToo before there were reckonings coming down for these people. There's everything you can imagine and more happening behind the scenes, in terms of unwelcome pressure and unwanted advances and all of that. It was such a bummer because here I was, just having such a great time and really seeing all of my dreams come true. But then there was also this dark side that was really difficult to be dealing with. And it got to the point where I was just really sort of dreading any interactions that I was having with certain people at my record label.
In conjunction with that, Napster had just come out so there was a lot of downloading and not a lot of buying. And the record industry was kind of in turmoil because they didn't understand why my record sales weren't at a certain level. Then they looked at the downloads and they were like, "Oh my gosh, 'Another Dumb Blonde' [my debut single] has been downloaded over a million times, but you've only gone gold." There was talk about doing a second album, but then when Legally Blonde came out and it was such a smash and "Perfect Day" was such a smash, there was no follow-up album to back it up.
Then it was like, "Okay, quick. We got to pull [an album] together." But I think there were some kind of ultimatums that were laid down by my record label. In particular, one executive that was just being really inappropriate with me. It kind of just came down to me turning him down and saying, "I'm not willing to do what it is you're asking of me." There was a lot of pushing, a lot of pressure to be sexual. It just wasn't something I was comfortable with and they just weren't willing to take no for an answer.
There were a lot of ultimatums about what I would have to do in front of the camera, what I would have to do behind the scenes. They were like, "If you think that Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera] haven't done everything that we're asking you to do to get to the top, well, then, you're wrong. If you want your song played on the radio, then you better go along with whatever the radio people will say that you need to do." And then, predictably, these radio people just thought they could get away with whatever. When [they] were sitting in the chair next to you on the air...you didn't stand up to people like that. And certainly not as an 18-year-old, 19-year-old, 20-year-old, 21-year-old. It just wasn't something that I felt I had the power to do when these people had control over my whole career. So I felt my only option at that point, not being willing to meet some of their demands, was to walk away.
[Editor's note: As of press time, Interscope/Geffen Records did not respond to Marie Claire's request for comment.]
MC: And then what?
H: I ended up trying to get into acting for a little bit, but ultimately I was just sort of disillusioned with [the entertainment business]. So I ended up taking what I thought was going to be a short break, but I found that I really enjoyed the anonymity of it all. The paparazzi became kind of a thing shortly after and everyone is being caught in these gotcha moments all over US Magazine, all that stuff. I was like, You know, I just really think I'm done. I don't want to be stopped walking down the street. That break just kind of went on and on.
I ended up doing behind-the-scenes songwriting. I did some session recording. I sang vocals for commercials and random things like that, where you wouldn't know it's Hoku on it. Then I worked with a friend of mine...I ended up starting writing a bunch more music. It was sort of an Alicia Keys, Maroon Five vibe. So my whole dream and vision was that I was going to come back in that vein. I recorded the beginning of an album. I had a whole bunch of other songs ready to record. I opened for Gwen Stefani in Hawaii. I was feeling this momentum gathering for me to get another record deal. But then I got pregnant with my first child, my daughter. At that point I was like, I think I'm just going to bow out again. I just really wanted to be super present for my kids.
I ended up eventually releasing five songs and the EP. The rest of the songs are half-finished somewhere on someone's hard drive. And I just sort of settled into motherhood. I have my three kids now—they're 12, 10, and seven. I've just been enjoying all of the life that anonymity and motherhood bring.
MC: Now you're based in Orange County, California. Do you ever get recognized when you're out in public?
H: Yeah! I pretty much get to live a normal life, except that probably once a month I'll be ordering something from Starbucks and someone will be like, "Hoku? Like, Hoku, Hoku? Like 'Perfect Day'?" Then every time I come in afterwards, they're like, "Hi Hoku, oh my God." Then they put my music on. I have little Starbucks baristas all over Orange County that know who I am.
MC: You briefly mentioned Britney Spears. It's sort of amazing to see today's reexamination of female pop stars of the early 2000s. It really was a dismal time for them.
H: It really was. How ironic, right? Because we're all releasing these bubbly, happy songs. It's taken me a while to sort of go, Oh yeah, that was pretty messed up because at the time, it's just reality. And it's the world that we all lived in. I'd been treated like a piece of meat since I was a kid by all these randos coming into my dad's [Don Ho] show. Certainly when you're playing at that level and you have men at that level of power with that much control over your life that are laying out terms that you don't feel comfortable meeting. All of us made compromises.
MC: A few years ago, you dabbled in faith-based music. Do you ever get the urge to make music again?
H: I would love to. I do cameos and I get to hear from people and they're like, "This song got me through my childhood when I was struggling with my identity as a gay person." "This song was a song that me and my best friend blasted at the top of the volume, windows down when I just got my driver's license." I get these really cool stories about how my music was a part of people's lives. There's a part of me that wants to step back and go, You know what? Let's let the legend of Hoku live. Let's let the nostalgia just be the nostalgia. I don't want to come in and taint people's memories. Because I really hold dearly the role that I got to play in all these people's lives.
I also love that I can do something that brings joy to so many people. My husband's always saying, "How would you feel if your favorite artist from your childhood released a new album? You'd be so excited. You should do it." My kids are like, "Yeah, mom. Do it." It's made me think about it more. And I definitely have plenty of material. I just have to figure out how to navigate all of that in this day and age.
MC: I can't leave this interview without asking: What is your perfect day?
H: I think my perfect day would be waking up to the sound of birds chirping in Hawaii and jumping in the ocean and probably getting a really delicious brunch somewhere. I'm a person who enjoys the simple pleasures. I want to have my family with me. I like my alone time, so maybe I'll have a little alone time, but ultimately I want to end the day with family and friends. That's probably my low-key version.
My other perfect day is like...I had a lot of perfect days playing to stadiums. I'll never ever take for granted how fun that was. I love performing, so maybe there's another version of my perfect day where I get to play in front of a bunch of people and hear a crowd full of people scream my name. I got to do that and I got to have that perfect day. Now, I'm just enjoying the low-key ones.