Reinventing Her Success

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

Demet Tuncer Tanriover fondly remembers growing up in Istanbul. Her family’s apartment nestled in the quiet suburb of Levent, she walked to an  elementary school nearby while holding her big sister’s hand. Her parents’ law office sat atop a cobblestone rise in Old Istanbul, overlooking the waters of the Golden Horn inlet and Bosphorus Strait.

“Back then it was beautiful. The water was clearer. It was calm and quiet,” she says. “But I did not value those things back then.”

Born on March 18, 1975, Tuncer paved an early (if sometimes crafty) path toward the success that has led her first to a rewarding acting career and then to a large following on YouTube. 

During her brief kindergarten stint, Tuncer’s accomplishments were measured by how fast she dashed across the street before oncoming buses or how many times she sneaked out of school during naptime.

Her personal triumphs only proliferated once she entered elementary school at age five, the reason being that she was just too much for the kindergarten to handle.

In elementary school, she gained recognition from her older classmates by being heavily involved in theater, sports and other extracurriculars.

“Everybody saw me and everybody knew me,” Tuncer says.

At 15, she won a United World Colleges scholarship that sent her to a two-year International Baccalaureate school in Las Vegas, New Mexico, as the premier Turkish student representative.

At the school, Tuncer became “best friends” with her future husband, Cagri Tanriover, who was chosen as the Turkish student representative in the class before her. 

After Cagri graduated and returned home, Tuncer was unfazed, because she didn’t find him attractive at the time.

“He was just this guy with his chewing gum and his MC Hammer pants, and fixing speakers so we could have loud, big Friday night dances for everyone,” she says.

In the movie “Vlad The Impaler” (2018), Demet played Roza, pictured above. Roza is an Ottoman spy, covert as the leader of the Balkan Gypsies. A decorated actor and musical talent, Tuncer won two musical theater awards in Turkey—the equivalent in prestige to a Tony Award in the U.S.—during the height of her fame in Turkey. Photocredit: Tuncer Family Archive

When Tuncer was chosen to study in the U.S., her father was elated. He hoped this would be a step towards Tuncer’s future career as a diplomat for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She, on the other hand, was not so sure.

“I wanted to pursue my calling,” Tuncer says. “I knew it when I was five. That’s what brings me joy, being onstage, making sure that I touch people, make them happy, make them smile, make them cry, take them on an emotional journey, make them lighter, empowered. That’s what I wanted.”

After finishing the two-year school, Tuncer enrolled in New Mexico Highlands University, where she studied political science, sociology and, most importantly for her, musical theater. When her father would inquire about the musical theater classes he saw on her transcript, she tried to pass the classes off as necessary to become a diplomat. He didn’t buy it.

After transferring to the University of New Mexico, at a college career fair her international security professor offered her a position in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

“He comes up to me and says, ‘Demet, would you want to work for the agency?’” she remembers. “I thought he was talking about modeling.”

She turned down the offer after realizing she’d likely be placed as a spy in her home country.

After graduating, Tuncer returned to Turkey. Much to her father’s dismay, she decided not to work in foreign service once she learned that she’d have to sacrifice any music and theater careers for the position. 

She asked her parents for two years to break into the entertainment industry before resigning herself to a corporate job.

Tuncer spent part of those two years networking with a comedy writer of the TV series “Çocuklar Duymasin” — the Turkish equivalent of “Friends” — and shortly thereafter became a cast member.

On the show she was Mary Smith, an American whose work transferred her to Turkey. She was a cast member on the show from 2002 to 2017, appearing in 148 episodes. Tuncer became famous almost immediately and played the role so convincingly that no one knew she actually spoke — and was — Turkish. During that time, she also booked jobs outside the show to hone her singing and public speaking talents.

Amid all the bustling from one job to the next — acting for the show, touring nationally to perform and emceeing at events (including Davos World Economic summit) — Tuncer still found time for a private life, as she and Cagri were married in England in 2008. And in 2011, Tuncer gave birth to her daughter, Ayza.

Even though Cagri, left, and Demet Tuncer were friends since 1991, it took over 15 years for them to foster their relationship, discover it wasn’t platonic and ultimately marry. Photocredit: Tuncer Family Archive

Then, in 2017, Cagri’s work at Intel moved the couple from Turkey to Beaverton, Oregon. Tuncer, for her part, was utterly rudderless for the first three years of their relocation.

“I wasn’t expecting a red carpet. I knew people would not ask for autographs and people would not know me … But here, not being able to be who I was, I didn’t change continents, I changed identities,” she explains.

Going from a full-slated schedule of acting on sets, emceeing for events and touring for her singing career in Turkey, Tuncer struggled to adjust to a new chapter of her life in the Portland Metro Area. She felt “worthless” not being able to make money anymore from her various creative endeavors.

Nevertheless, Tuncer did again what she had always done: she fostered success in her own way.

Once Tuncer realized she could combine her speaking, acting and on-camera experience with her education and multilingualism, she learned how to edit video and became an “edutainment” Youtuber, teaching English words and phrases to an online Turkish audience. Her videos are also accessible to English speakers who want to learn Turkish, and with the help of the Covid-19 shutdown in 2020, her channel grew from 1 to over 260,000 subscribers.

Demet, from left, her daughter Ayza and Cagri Tuncer, Demet’s husband, reside in Beaverton. Demet works as a performance coach for The Immigrant Story and maintains an entrepreneurial spirit.

Now, Tuncer sings in a Portland-based band called “Demet Tuncer and The United Thracians.” In addition, she’s garnered a following of over 131,000 followers on Instagram.

Although she is still figuring out what the future holds, Tuncer was able to pull herself out of such a dark place where her self confidence was “shot.”

“I know there is a reason why I’m back in the U.S.,” she says. “I’m so grateful that I went through those hellish years.”

Tuncer says that, in part, her family’s move to the U.S. was also for the benefit of Ayza, and that being a mother and being distanced from the whirlwind entertainment industry gives her time to reflect on her purpose and future.

“I’m discovering more and more of myself. Back home, it was, ‘pack your bag, we’re going on a tour’ …  I didn’t have time to stop and think about these things.” she says. “But now, the universe is like, ‘You don’t get the point, you don’t get the message. So, I’m going to pick you up from Istanbul and throw you in Beaverton, where you can just stop and reinvent yourself.’”