MAJULAH, MICHELLE

Fun­ny­woman, en­tre­pre­neur, ac­tress-host and in­cor­ri­gi­ble foodie: Here’s why the multi-tal­ented Michelle Chong is one of Sin­ga­pore’s most-beloved fig­ures

Singapore Women's Weekly (Singapore) - - SETTER STYLE - BY LISA TWANG

Why Michelle Chong con­tin­ues to be one of our most beloved lo­cal icons

Since Michelle Chong be­came syn­ony­mous with the comedic char­ac­ters she plays on The Noose (main­land Chi­nese KTV host­ess Lulu and Sarong Party Girl Bar­barella come to mind), it can be hard to sep­a­rate the real Michelle from her al­ter egos. She ar­rives for our shoot at The St. Regis Sin­ga­pore’s King Cole suite on a rainy Wed­nes­day, and greets the crew brightly with Bar­barella’s sig­na­ture catch­phrase: “Hello ev­ery-birdy!”

Michelle is noth­ing if not can­did. Turn­ing 40 this year, she says, feels no dif­fer­ent from be­ing 39 – “ex­cept I won­der why I still get pim­ples.” We’re kept en­ter­tained as she poses on the couch in her flow­ing red gown (it’s our Na­tional Day is­sue, af­ter all), ham­ming it up for the cam­era by blow­ing air kisses, pout­ing and burst­ing into laugh­ter. “No Lulu, no Bar­bella!” our pho­tog­ra­pher Joel im­plores.

“Oh, I know… you want Lust, Cau­tion,” Michelle replies cheek­ily, set­tling into a sexy pose, while her man­ager snaps photos for her In­sta­gram page (with over 105,000 fol­low­ers, Michelle is one of the most-fol­lowed fe­male celebri­ties in Sin­ga­pore).

It’s hard to imag­ine our lo­cal en­ter­tain­ment scene with­out Michelle, who is un­doubt­edly one of our most iconic Sin­ga­porean tal­ents. Her rise to fame be­gan aptly with tal­ent search Fame Awards in 1998, where she emerged a fi­nal­ist. Ef­fec­tively bilin­gual, Michelle went on to host va­ri­ety pro­grammes and star in both English and Man­darin dra­mas, such as English Per­anakan drama Sayang Sayang, where she won ac­claim for play­ing butcher Beh Li Choo, and Chan­nel 8 drama A Mil­lion

Trea­sures. She was also named one of the Top 10 Most Pop­u­lar Fe­male Artistes at the 2005 and 2011 Star Awards.

Michelle hit the jack­pot star­ring in Chan­nel 5’s Emmy-nom­i­nated satir­i­cal

com­edy se­ries The Noose in 2007, where she showed off her ver­sa­til­ity play­ing mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters each week ( see side­bar). Her per­for­mance earned her nom­i­na­tions for Best Com­edy Per­former at the Asian Tele­vi­sion Awards, and she took home the ti­tle in 2012.

But while Michelle is known for her gung-ho, bub­bly per­son­al­ity, she’s also had to bat­tle per­sonal demons. In 2011, she opened up to the lo­cal me­dia about her bat­tle with de­pres­sion and sui­ci­dal thoughts (she was di­ag­nosed with clin­i­cal de­pres­sion at the age of 17, and ad­mit­ted to feel­ing dis­sat­is­fied de­spite her flour­ish­ing ca­reer).

“I would de­scribe it most ac­cu­rately as an ex­tended pe­riod of griev­ing a loss, ex­cept t hat no­body or noth­ing was lost ,” she says. “I over­came it by quit­ting my job as an artist eat the TV sta­tion and do­ing what I needed to do, which is telling sto­ries and cre­at­ing con­tent .”

START­ING AFRESH

Michelle started her own pro­duc­tion com­pany, Huat Films, in 2011, and an artist man­age­ment agency, Left Pro­file, in 2012. Be­sides her­self, she also man­ages two ac­tor-hosts; Porn­sak Pra­jak­wit and Lee Teng.

Strik­ing out on her own has cer­tainly paid off : With Huat Films, Michelle pro­duced and di­rected Al­ready Fa­mous and Two Peas In A Pod, be­fore writ­ing, pro­duc­ing, di­rect­ing and star­ring in last year’s Lulu The Movie, based on one of her most pop­u­lar per­sonas. It took in $2.1 mil­lion at the lo­cal box of­fice, and won Michelle the Best Direc­tor award at the Canada In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val ear­lier this year. Cur­rently, she’s also the face of OKI Pre­mium Cook­ing Oil, and ASUS mo­bile phones.

De­spite her suc­cess, Michelle says she doesn’t feel like a busi­ness­woman. “I don’t think I’m that en­tre­pre­neur­ial; I’m no Jack Ma or Elon Musk. Start­ing my busi­nesses arose out of a need to be part of the cre­ative process. I needed a pro­duc­tion house to shoot my movies, and to man­age my­self as an artiste.”

As a woman in the male-dom­i­nated me­dia in­dus­try, Michelle ad­mits she faced plenty of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion as a direc­tor in the be­gin­ning. “When I started out in the in­dus­try, older di­rec­tors would just say bluntly, ‘She can’t act’, or ‘She’s just a host or ac­tress, what does she know?’. Peo­ple were sus­pi­cious when I first struck out on my own. But I dealt with it by be­ing pro­lific, and now I get less (dis­crim­i­na­tion). When mak­ing a film, there are lots of prob­lems to solve ev­ery minute – I just had to do it.”

Michelle is known for her tire­less work ethic, some­thing her Left Pro­file artistes can at­test to. “She’s an ex­tremely skilled direc­tor and knows ex­actly what she wants. When she’s di­rect­ing my TVCs, she’s ef­fi­cient and films very fast,” says Porn­sak. “She has a cre­ative mind, knows what the au­di­ence likes and is good at spot­ting oth­ers’ strengths.” Lee Teng also feels in­spired by Michelle. “From her, I have learnt not to be afraid to chase your dreams, and to be 100 per cent ded­i­cated to what­ever you do.”

GOOD KARMA

Michelle’s most Sin­ga­porean trait, she says, is her love for good food. “I feel most Sin­ga­porean when I’m queue­ing for chicken rice,” she de­clares. Dur­ing our shoot’s lunch break, she tucks into her packet of chicken rice with gusto, and whoops for joy when I of­fer her an ex­tra packet of chilli.

“Like most Sin­ga­pore­ans, I live to eat and am al­ways on the look­out for the best hawker food and the

Peo­ple were sus­pi­cious when I first struck out on my own. But I dealt with it by be­ing pro­lific, and now I get less dis­crim­i­na­tion

lat­est restau­rants,” she says. True enough, Michelle’s In­sta­gram feed is a mouth­wa­ter­ing col­lec­tion of de­li­cious food snaps from around the is­land. Asked what she would like to achieve in the next 10 years, she quips: “The abil­ity to eat a lot with­out get­ting fat.”

Our con­ver­sa­tion soon turns philo­soph­i­cal as Michelle pon­ders her great­est achieve­ment in life. Strangely, she says it’s a re­cy­cling bin. “I sug­gested to my for­mer condo man­age­ment that they should put up a re­cy­cling bin for pa­per next to the lift lobby, af­ter I saw so many fly­ers and un­wanted mail be­ing thrown out ev­ery day. I be­lieve I have since saved quite a few trees.

“I con­sider that re­cy­cling bin to be my ju bao pen (trea­sure pot). It’s like a good luck charm; I be­lieve I ac­cu­mu­lated good karma with it, and I feel like what­ever I have now is due to that re­cy­cling bin!”

With her colour­ful lo­cal char­ac­ters and movies, Michelle is fly­ing the Sin­ga­pore flag proudly, but isn’t rest­ing on her lau­rels. She’s con­stantly work­ing on new cre­ative projects, like pro­duc­ing web con­tent for her new YouTube chan­nel, The Michelle Chong Chan­nel.

“While I’m grate­ful for what I have, I never re­ally think of any­thing as a ‘suc­cess’, be­cause my life is an on­go­ing jour­ney where my days are spent work­ing on the next project,” Michelle shares. “My drive and en­ergy come from my sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to give 200 per cent in what­ever I do.”

“I didn’t set out to es­tab­lish my­self as any­thing. It’s that same phi­los­o­phy I live by: Just keep do­ing what you love, and give your best in ev­ery­thing.”

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