From the time our children are born we dream of the great things they will do when they grow up. We study their actions, feeling assured we see the key to their success in the littlest things: The boy tackles the family dog and we decide he will be playing on Sundays, or your little princess sings along with Elsa and we just know she soon will be wowing crowds on the main stage.
We all know these are pipedreams brought on by too little sleep and too much love for our offspring, yet the occasional parent has to be right, right? Someone has to win the lottery eventually. Not every kid will grow up to be an accountant or engineer or, god forbid, a newspaper writer.
This is a story about a mother who did win the Powerball of Parenting, and for Hiromi Nagata, lightning actually struck twice.
Meet the Perri sisters, Jennifer (Fernandez) and Jasmine, born and raised here in Honolulu by their single mother Nagata. Older sister Jennifer has become a pop sensation in Japan, with five albums produced by Columbia Records, and is a star of the stage performing lead roles in revivals of plays including RENT, Sweet Charity and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Meanwhile, baby sister Jasmine is touring the world as a dancer with the biggest pop sensation in the universe, Justin Bieber.
So how did two girls from Oahu reach these heights in time zones half a world away from one another? It started the same way all kids do, just singing and dancing for fun, but soon enough they knew it was more than just a youthful diversion.
“Jenn was a natural-born singer, and dancing came after. Jasmine was a natural-born dancer,” says Nagata, who is a published writer in Japan. “Jenn always was passionate about singing and she could memorize songs after hearing it once or twice. Jasmine was constantly dancing — I mean constantly — in the house, on the street, anywhere. No one could stop her. For Jasmine, memories don’t exist before there was dance in her life.”
“I started dancing at the age of 3,” says Jasmine, from Dublin, Ireland, where she would be performing later that night. “There wasn’t any particular moment that I realized I wanted to dance. I never thought it was just a phase. From the moment I walked into dance, I knew this was my destiny, my dream.
“I’ve been dancing from such a young age that there are many performances that I don’t even remember, but the performance that impacted me most was my ballet solo for Hawaii State Ballet at Ala Moana Center.”
Her inspiration perhaps came even earlier, as she watched her older sister sing, first just entertaining the family but by the time Jasmine could walk, her 7-year-old sibling was performing before crowds.
Her sister’s eureka moment came a few years later when she saw a musical at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.
“I remember always being on stage and always having a mic in my hand. I always loved music — every genre and in any form — but when I was 10, I saw the touring company performance of RENT at the concert hall,” recalls Jennifer, who spoke with us on her way to rehearsal in Tokyo for the lead in Priscilla. “I instantly fell in love with the music and story. There’s a character named Mimi in the story, whom I fell in love with. I dreamed that one day I would play that role.”
For those unfamiliar with RENT, it is a lot of a character to put your arms around at any age, much less as a 10-year-old. You see, Mimi is a drug-addicted, HIV-positive stripper, but as Jennifer is quick to point out, things are not always as they seem.
“I like characters that you can assume from the outside what that character is, but when you get into the story and there are all these layers, like an onion, that you can uncover as the play goes on,” says Jennifer, who will be playing the role in 2017 for the fifth time in Japan. “They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. I like to pick my roles in that sense.
“I fell in love with Mimi’s songs, especially Without You, even though I didn’t understand it as a child, but the way she sang and the expressions on her face really just captured my heart. As I got older I understood the background behind Mimi and her struggles living in such a dark world, but she was such a pure character, it made me fall in love with her even more.”
At 30, Jennifer is moving into the prime of her career, and all the experiences she has had along the way prepared her for this moment. She went to Japan as a young teen and got a crash course in the ways of the stage, and the language of her mother.
“From a young age I wanted to be a singer, but it wasn’t until I came to Japan that I started working in musical theatre along with my music,” says Jennifer, who performs in mostly English-language musicals that have been translated.
“I am half Japanese but didn’t speak very much when I was growing up back home. I could always somewhat understand, but not at the level that I needed to be. Working in an environment where Japanese is the only language anyone speaks kind of forced me to learn.”
Thanks to her hapa roots, she finds herself as a kind of bridge performer who can bring these outlandish American stories to the more staid Japanese community.
“Musical theater is quite popular here in Japan,” says Jennifer. “In my experience, the Japanese audiences love everything from the classics like Les Miserable to the funkiest musicals like RENT and Kinky Boots.
“They experience a story and a world that is very different from their everyday, and it is fun to bring American culture to the stage. I sing and act in Japanese, but I get to bring a little bit of (American) spice to the stage.”
She also brings her Hawaiian roots, as in 2006 she accompanied Jake Shimabukuro on the soundtrack for a movie called Hula Girl about a downtrodden coal-mining town in Japan that looks to turn its fate around by becoming a Hawaii-centered tourist attraction.
“Japan just kept pulling me back here. I love the culture, love the people and I finally know how to speak the language, so it is even more fun!” says Jennifer.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Jasmine has been enjoying a first-class tour of Europe while enthralling crowds on the Justin Bieber Purpose Tour. She got the call to join the tour while in South Africa and made her debut in 2015 during his surprise appearance at the VMA awards, and has been dancing with him ever since. Despite the spates of bad behavior the TMZs of the world like to document, Jasmine has nothing but nice things to say about her frontman.
“Justin is an amazing singer, but he also can play so many different instruments, which is something I never knew until I started working with him,” says Jasmine. “He is a wonderful boss and I’m so thankful to be part of this team. As a road companion, it was really cool to get to know him on a personal level. He really is a great guy.”
While big sister loves the limelight, Jasmine is happy getting to practice her craft while maintaining her anonymity.
“I don’t really care to be in the main spotlight,” says Jasmine. “I love my job and love that it allows me to travel the world. I get to perform for millions of people in huge stadium/arenas, but still get to walk outside and get a cup of coffee like a normal person.”
Jennifer takes the other side. She dreams of the new album she is recording taking off and doing stadium tours of her own, and if she is allowed pie-in-the-sky thoughts, she would love to finish the tour here at Aloha Stadium.
“Hawaii is my home and will always be,” says Jennifer, whose high school sweetheart/husband Lt. Ernest Fernandez still lives here and works at the naval shipyard. “I love Hawaii. All of my family is back home and I miss them terribly! I try to go back as much as I can. One day I would like to move back. I am very lucky I have Hawaii to go back to!”
Two of our own out conquering the world of song and dance, and they both want to encourage young boys and girls of the Islands that, if you can conceive it, you can achieve it.
“Do what you love!” says Jennifer. “If it’s your dream, do whatever it takes to make it come true. Don’t let anything or anyone try to stop you! There is a quote that I love by Audrey Hepburn: ‘Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m Possible.’
“So no dream is too big or small!”