Off-Campus Profiles, Profiles

Cheng Channels Life Experiences Into Young Adult Novel

If you lose weight, you’re too skinny. If you gain weight, you’re too fat. Celebrities are under constant surveillance, which means constant scrutiny. Unsurprisingly, such scrutiny often comes at a cost. From Britney Spears to Kanye West, the public eye has taken its toll time and time again. The mental health toll of stardom spurred Jessie Cheng, CSOM ’22, to write her newly published novel Unglamored

Ever since she was little, Cheng has taken an interest in entertainment, she said. While growing up in Fremont, Calif., she loved to sing and would frequently put on concerts with her younger brother.

Rather than pursuing music full time, this interest has found other outlets since Cheng got to Boston College. As a marketing and business analytics student in the Carroll School of Management, Cheng’s career direction might initially seem far-removed from the music industry—but she sees an overlap.

“I want to work in the music industry one day, working directly with artists to promote their music,” Cheng said. “Music is such a universal language, and you can use it to convey a lot of important messages. I hope to use my marketing background to help promote these messages.”

As she has gotten older, Cheng’s perspective of the entertainment industry and the celebrities within it has matured, she said. 

“I have a huge heart for celebrities because they are so openly criticized and are always expected to be perfect idols for the rest of us,” Cheng said. 

This recognition, paired with her love for writing, is exactly what spurred Cheng’s decision to write a novel from the perspective of a famous singer. Unglamored is a young adult novel about 19-year-old singer Rose B.D., a Chinese-American popstar. A story of resilience and recovery, Unglamored chronicles Rose’s secret struggles with an eating disorder in an industry that demands perfection. 

“The more I wrote, the more I understood my characters and could write about how they might respond to certain situations in their lives,” Cheng said. “I enjoyed connecting my characters together or diving more into their childhood and how that upbringing affected their mental well-being.” 

Cheng’s own experiences have also played a big role in her decision to write Unglamored, she said. Her battle with an eating disorder for the past seven years has provided lived experience to the struggles so often faced by celebrities, Cheng said.

Cheng knew that the pandemic was the right time to talk about eating disorders, because COVID-19 only made things harder for those who struggle with eating, she said.

“As many struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating might relate, the quarantine definitely complicated my relationship with food and with my body, since I was stuck at home with food around me all the time,” Cheng said. “Writing Unglamored was a therapeutic way for me to put my emotions on paper, as well as to reflect on my past experiences and write about mental health.”

Before the pandemic, Cheng wanted to first start a podcast about mental health in the entertainment industry, she said. In May 2020, Cheng’s plan changed after speaking with her mentor, SJ Petteruti, BC ’07. 

Petteruti first met Cheng on a Zoom call about his experience being a writer with a degree in English literature. Following the lecture, Cheng came to Petteruti with her interest in writing a novel. 

“I’ve told a lot of people to write a book,” Petteruti said. “Jessie is one of the few people that I’ve met who has actually gone through with it.”

When Cheng talked to Petteruti about starting with a podcast, he pushed her to establish some credibility first. This spurred Cheng to begin writing Unglamored in May 2020—an “overnight idea,” as she called it. 

Recognizing how much work writing a novel takes from his own experience, Petteruti is extremely proud of Cheng’s work, he said. 

“She’s done so much work on her own,” Petteruti said. “She’s a talented writer, and she’s got a great voice. I think we will hear more of it as time passes.”

Another key resource for Cheng as she navigated the novel-writing process presented itself in an unlikely place—an email chain. After reading an email about the Creator Institute, a group of over 200 new authors with similar deadlines and target publication dates, Cheng was immediately fascinated, she said. She scheduled a call with the founder and from there, joined the group. 

As a member, Cheng participated in weekly workshops centered on topics ranging from improving storylines to character development to messaging and more. Despite the structure provided by the group, balancing writing a novel with being a full-time student during the last academic year was no easy feat, Cheng said.

“The Institute gave me a lot of accountability, but it was extremely difficult to hold myself accountable at school,” Cheng said. 

Cheng said that she tried to write at least one chapter each week, and found herself doing most of her writing between 1 and 2 a.m. in her dorm room, when there were few distractions. 

“I had this Post-it Note on my wall, that says, ‘Remember your why. Turn your pain into purpose,’” Cheng said. “Remembering the end goal and the impact of my book gave me a lot of motivation to keep going.”

The difficulty of staying motivated was compounded by the challenging nature of what Cheng was writing about. Since a lot of Rose B.D.’s experiences are taken from Cheng’s own life, writing was a very vulnerable process, she said. 

“It was something that I was willing to share with the world because I knew that people would be comforted by my story and would relate to it,” Cheng said. “The entire writing process, and having to confront my past experiences, was probably one of my biggest challenges.” 

In April of 2021, Cheng started a crowdfunding campaign to cover the $5,000 cost of publishing Unglamored, which she exceeded by over $1,000. She said this allowed her to establish an initial author community. Those who donated to her campaign received a pre-ordered copy of Unglamored and got to help choose the cover of the book. 

Cheng published Unglamored through New Degree Press in August of 2021, a mere 15 months after originally deciding to write the book.

“It was terrifying to put myself out there,” Cheng said. “As for most indie authors, I think marketing is challenging after I’ve published, since most marketing efforts need to be done by myself.”

Cheng has sold over 200 copies of her book so far. Unglamored can be purchased as a paperback or E-Book on Amazon. Despite the difficulty of writing and marketing a novel and the pain of confronting past struggles through her protagonist, Cheng said that writing novels is not something she will stop anytime soon. 

“I hope to continue to advocate for mental health and to write blogs about eating disorders … writing is definitely something I will do for a lifetime,” Cheng said. “I hope that this book encourages the BC community and beyond to seek vulnerability, and also to seek recovery in their lives, whatever that may look like.”

Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau / Heights Editor 

Photos Courtesy of Jessie Cheng 

October 17, 2021