ee Lin Chin should have plenty of time to chat. One of the reasons she quit presenting the weekend news on SBS is so she could devote more time to the pub and re-reading Shakespeare.surely,then,she could tear herself away from Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet or the like long enough to speak to Stellar? But no. She arrives for our shoot with her own clothes wrapped in tissue, insists that The Beatles are the only music playing in the background,drinks beer throughout and proceeds to inform the photographer that he can take no more than 10 frames per outfit. Were she not so fascinatingly idiosyncratic, she’d be a pint-sized pain in the arse.
Nearly a month later, we’re still trying to pin Chin down for an interview to accompany the pictures. In her transition from venerated news anchor to cult figure-cum-marketing icon, she appears to have forgotten that being the “face” of a product generally means having to endorse it. Bedding company Sheridan has chosen her and other “talented overachievers” to spruik their sheets as part of its latest campaign, so at the very least she needs to offer up her preferred thread count.
However, despite more than five decades as a professional communicator, she won’t meet with Stellar face to face nor will she chat on the phone. In the end, she answers questions via email – and turns out to be so generous and engaging, it’s hard to know whether she’s simply untrusting or a control freak.
What is clear is that Chin has somehow parlayed that most straitlaced and conventional of media careers – the desk-bound newsreader – into the most contemporary and edgy: a social media influencer. With 246,000 Twitter followers, a Gold Logie nomination, a slew of new commercial opportunities and the popular television networks reportedly clamouring to sign her, she has pulled off the greatest reinvention since Kylie Minogue chose singing over acting in Neighbours.
What’s more, she’s loving it. “The benefit of leaving SBS is a freedom I have not experienced in my professional life,” Chin explains. “My desire is to have fun. That could be in commercially driven work or in Mc-ing charity events, or even lampooning our political class on Twitter.”
There’s even an imminent comeback to the small screen, in a role that she teases will “surprise everyone. It will be unexpected, but I think people will like it,” she predicts, refusing to elaborate any further.
Deciphering which elements of Chin are the real person, versus those which are a persona, is challenging. The woman who so distinctively and authoritatively read the news on SBS for 30 years now has a production company, two shows in development and is keen to try podcasting and open a bar. The persona is plastered over trains and buses as part of a campaign for Transport NSW, makes cutting and hilarious comments on Twitter and is being championed alternately as #Primechinister or the next boss of the ABC.
Indeed, actor David Wenham tweeted that she’d be “splendid” in charge of the public broadcaster.
“Ah, Mister Wenham,” Chin tells Stellar. “He and I met last year when we co-hosted an event together and became fast friends. Would you believe we live on the same street and share a favourite pub but had never met before?”
As for the ABC, she’s not pitching for the role. “There’s too many meetings to attend and I can’t stand that whole rigmarole,” Chin says. “I’d be much better suited as a board member. That way I can fight back against the government trying to influence our public broadcasters. I’d also encourage shows to take more risk, be daring.the public broadcasters should be a place of innovation and experimentation.”
And as for those intriguing #Primechinister rumblings, she insists, “It’s obviously a jest. I’m not one for all those political games.”
If politics is off the table, it is still game and gutsy for her to have pivoted at a time when many are retiring and setting off into the distance as greying nomads. Speaking of which, Chin won’t divulge her age and says it’s unimportant. “Being young doesn’t mean you’re innovative and progressive, whilst being old doesn’t mean you’re wise and knowledgeable,” she declares.
In some respects, she’s resolutely teenage, dressing with confidence and abandon and thoroughly enjoying “friendships” cultivated purely in cyberspace. Today show co-host Karl Stefanovic recorded a segment for Chin’s SBS 2 satire show The Feed and she counts him as a friend, even though he tells Stellar he’s never actually met her. “Lee Lin decides who she’s friends with, not the other way around,” Stefanovic says. “Our friendship is based in the ether.what a lovely,non-judgemental place for a friendship.”
He admires her enormously and believes she’s a smart woman and the essence of modern Australia. “Confident, ethnic, smart, irreverent and funny AF,” is how Stefanovic describes her. “Lee Lin dances between two worlds. She remains a strong and credible newsreader in a world that
demands impartiality and then throws it out the window on social media with stinging partiality.”
Network Ten’s Sandra Sully, who featured with Chin and the Seven Network’s Natalie Barr in a memorable segment for The Feed called The Real Newsreaders of Sydney, concurs. “She’s cut her own path and is never afraid to be her authentic self,” Sully tells Stellar. “She’s comfortable in her own skin, has a wicked sense of humour and never submits to the expectations of others.”
But Chin’s determination to set rather than follow the agenda has drawn critics, with one media outlet calling her a “multimedia construct as close to reality as a Kardashian”.
“I’m not entirely sure who the Kardashians are,” she responds when asked by Stellar about the comparison. “I’m assuming that this comes from a story put out a few years ago that my Twitter account was ghostwritten.”
And Chin is happy to clarify the chatter about her widely followed account: “It’s true that I don’t have access to my Twitter account because I don’t know how to use Twitter and have no desire to learn. Chris Leben, who manages me, is my business partner and wrote and directed my comedy sketches, is the only person with access.”
Sometimes they collaborate on jokes; other times she’ll call Leben and dictate a tweet or she’ll say something funny and he’ll ask if he can tweet it.
In any case, Chin’s dexterity switching between traditional and new forms of media saw her receive a nomination for the 2016 Gold Logie. She rocked up to the awards ceremony wearing yellow pants, shirt and suspenders, and lipstick as scarlet as her shoes. Her date was a young man named Charlie, the 10-year-old son of one of her make-up artists – and if she won, she planned to send him up to accept the honour in her place. (She lost to The Project’s Waleed Aly.)
Maintaining credibility as a newsreader while leading a double life as a comic is tricky, according to Stephen Brook, The Australian’s Media Diary editor, although he believes Chin carried it off with aplomb.
“I think Lee Lin’s strength remains as a presenter, so I’d love her to host a documentary series,” Brook suggests. “I think her stature is such that she would bring a lot of people into a topic that they otherwise wouldn’t sample.”
The daughter of Chinese parents, Chin was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, but she was raised in Singapore with her six siblings and schooled there. She recalls her childhood being “loud and naughty” but resented that her brothers were allowed to do things her father banned her from doing – such as riding a bike – as to him they were “unladylike”.“my brothers always looked like they were having a really good time,” Chin says. “I was jealous of that, but it was a different time.”
As the eldest girl, Chin was more favoured than her siblings, although she claims she takes after her mother in being “absolutely useless” around the house. “She was a very lazy woman who never worked a day in her life, didn’t know how to cook or clean and left the raising of her children to the nanny and housekeeper,” Chin remembers. “But she was impeccably dressed.”