The Life Interview With Danny Yeo

The Life Interview with Danny Yeo: Danny of all trades

Radio DJ, child actor, media lecturer, theatre director, author, emcee - Danny Yeo enjoys wearing many hats

In the Chinatown shophouse where he is working on his newest production for theatre troupe Drama Box, former radio deejay and current television host Danny Yeo neatly places six books in English and Chinese on a wooden table.

He clasps his hands politely while this journalist goes through his published collections of columns and interviews.

The latest is Yang Sheng Tang (which roughly translates to Speaker's Hall), a collection of his writings for lifestyle magazines that was published last month.

Yeo bears it for 15 minutes while the stack of tomes is fanned out and flipped through, individual volumes picked up and replaced in random order. Then he says, hands still clasped: "I used to be quite obsessive, but I'm better now. I'm okay with the books being spread out like that."

Hurried apologies make him laugh and his shoulders relax. He takes over the task of re-establishing order.

To this day, my father still asks me what I do for a living.

DANNY YEO

Carefully aligning book spines, he says: "Once I was talking to Liu Xiaoyi," fellow theatre director and a friend, "and I had books and pencils aligned perfectly. He tilted a pencil a bit and I had to tilt it back."

His stationery has to be arranged in a straight line on the desk and every hour of the day accounted for in a notebook, but Yeo, 44, has good reason to be obsessed with order. He has so many projects going on that only deep attention to detail allows him to keep his jobs straight.

His parents still cannot pinpoint what their son does. "To this day, my father still asks me what I do for a living," he says.

Call him Danny of all trades.

As the founder of Pure Talents agency, Yeo's main job today is hosting events. If he heads out for lunch at a hawker centre, people recognise him from radio and TV in the 1990s and early noughties, when he hosted morning drivetime shows on Mediacorp's 93.3FM Mandarin pop music channel and variety shows on Channel 8. From 2001 to 2004, he helped start up Singapore Press Holdings' Mandarin radio station UFM 1003.

He then taught at institutions such as Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Singapore Management University, before returning to regular TV spots last year for Channel U's popular talk show Face Off! and a documentary about child labour, Innocence Lost.

He will deny being "that radio DJ" from the 1990s, but is happy when people say they enjoy the TV discussions about reckless driving or cosmetic surgery.

"I feel media can't just be about entertainment and music and making people feel good. It has to be more than that.

"If people come up to me and ask for my autograph, I don't know how to act, but if they say: 'I like the issue you were discussing,' I like that."

He has had fans since he was 10 and a child actor in the Channel 8 series Young And Innocent.

His career started when his mother Low Yin Fong, a retired staff nurse, sent the older of her two sons to holiday acting classes conducted by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now Mediacorp).

Yeo did so well that he landed a role as a crippled schoolboy in the Channel 8 series, then more gigs hosting children's TV programmes.

"Bilingualism gave me opportunities," says Yeo, whose parents, both 70 now, spoke only Mandarin or dialect to him at home, but sent him to Anglo-Chinese Primary School and later ACS (Barker Road) and Anglo-Chinese Junior College.

He now refuses to speak English to his two nephews aged six and four.

In 2010, when the Ministry of Education floated the idea of reducing the weighting of mother tongue in the Primary School Leaving Examination, Yeo was one of the organisers of a Hong Lim Park protest that gathered 2,500 signatures against the motion and nipped the idea in the bud.

Yet, back in the day, he was an awkward boy who spoke so infrequently that his on-camera success surprised his family.

His father, retired businessman Yeo See Ann, still wonders why his son can say so much in front of the camera and is so quiet otherwise.

"On camera, on air, I'm one person. Take that away and I'm another," Danny Yeo says. "I never did drama in school. I was even hesitant to try out for the ACJC choir because it required me to be on stage."

He might have faded into a quiet, science-related job, but a few days before his national service began, he woke with a sharp, paralysing pain in his back.

His mother had to carry him to the hospital.

He had a slipped disc caused by a recent fall. It benched him as a clerk in the public affairs department and led to him being Mindef's voice on air, reading out news alerts and other programmes.

Rather than attend university after his national service stint, he became a radio and TV host.

A different person off-stage

Actress and director Li Xie, 44, was one of his co-hosts at Mediacorp - they both prefer the term "partners in crime".

She says: "As we were young, inquisitive and rebellious, we were always in cahoots, creating radio programmes that got us into trouble with the authorities."

On April Fool's Day in 1994, when the goods and services tax was just being implemented, the two asked listeners to call in with their own take on what the letters GST meant.

Yeo says: "Listeners came up with Government Sure Tax, Good Stereo Transmission, Go Squeeze Them. We received a call from a minister subsequently, questioning why we were causing alarm and confusion when public response to GST was still unclear."

Listeners loved them, though, and they both won Most Creative DJ awards at Mediacorp's Golden Mike Awards.

Yeo also hosted Entertainment News and i-Entertainment at Channel 8, impressing the likes of Hong Kong entertainment doyenne Liza Wang, who has a reputation for cutting her hosts down to size if they are ill-prepared.

That was the only time he had stage fright, he says.

"It went well, she praised me and she left. Then I had to do my out-takes and I had 20 NG (no good takes) because I was so shaken."

He was doing so well there was even talk of a singing contract. Then an old schoolmate commented on Yeo's new, more aggressive personality and that made him decide to pursue a degree in mass communications and journalism at California State University, Fresno.

His superiors and colleagues thought he was throwing away his career by leaving at its height, but Yeo wanted time to breathe. Media had become a mill continuously churning out the same entertainment stories for him.

Fresno helped him realise he wanted to make a difference and not just sensationalise. He learnt that he did not have many opinions of his own.

An essay he submitted came back with the comment that he needed to do more than list pros and cons, that he needed to get off the fence and decide what he wanted to say.

On his return to Singapore, when Singapore Press Holdings offered him the chance to shape a radio channel from scratch, he jumped at the offer.

It was a heady time. He could programme what he wanted as long as listeners kept tuning in in larger numbers. He started an on-air book club, late night call-in shows for troubled listeners and in-depth entertainment interviews where he became counsellor to celebrities.

Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai revealed on air that she kept her diary in code lest it be leaked. Local singer Kit Chan gave him not one, but three hours of her time.

Chan, 43, says that was because they forged a rapport when she gave her first TV interview - Yeo was the equally "green and nervous" host.

"There was natural bonding there. I told him in private once that if he weren't in the media, we would be friends."

They did become friends after he left radio in 2004 and became a lecturer.

He had to leave radio to save his sanity. While counselling teens on late-night call-in shows he, ironically, developed severe depression. The pressure to perform had become too much. He could not sleep at night or eat well and it was increasingly hard to retain his composure during the day.

His minor in psychology at Fresno meant he understood his symptoms. But there was nothing he could do to help himself.

"I knew the signs, but when you're in it, you can't climb out. There were a lot of messy things in my brain that I wished I could take out with my fingers and rearrange nicely, but I couldn't."

He regrets not seeking profes- sional help at the time, but was lucky to be supported by his church and his loved ones, including his partner of 18 years, who is also in the media industry.

"Because of this experience, I have more empathy and sympathy. It helped me to be more sensitive to people, otherwise I might just brush them off."

Yeo went on to do his master's degree in counselling with the University of South Australia. He has done forum theatre workshops with Drama Box to help secondary school students with issues such as bullying and molestation.

He returned to TV last year because Face Off! and Innocence Lost allowed him to start discussions on a large scale. He values media as a tool for creating social awareness and discourse.

"I don't feel that when you raise questions, you're being overly rebellious. Society has to understand that constant conversation has to happen for real understanding.

"What I like about Face Off! is that the host is not impartial. I get the studio audience to argue and I can have my say, I can voice my emotion as well. That's what I feel a host should do."

At the same time, he describes media and events hosting as "what sustains my body". He adds: "There's nourishing the body and there's filling the soul."

Theatre is what fills his soul. He is passionate about creating good theatre for children - for the sake of his young nephews - and helmed a Mandarin adaptation of The Three Little Pigs for the Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Little Company. This year, he resurrected a stylish English version of French playwright Yasmin Reza's comic play Art.

His longest partnership has been with award-winning troupe Drama Box, where he began as an actor in the 1990s. He helped Drama Box's artistic director Kok Heng Leun experiment with forum theatre on the radio in 2000. Listeners called in to take part in plays based on topical issues such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In 2009, he co-wrote Drama Box's triple bill of plays about Geylang's history, Ignorland Of Its Desires, and helmed a quirky play about a sadomasochistic policeman, Bon- dage. It won him a best director nomination at the Life Theatre Awards a year later.

He is also directing the troupe's upcoming experiential murder mystery, Body X, for the Singapore Writers Festival late next month.

Kok, 50, has known him for 20 years, since he was "a young, earnest-looking man who can sprout intellectual discourse convincingly on stage".

Today, Yeo is a member of the troupe's board and valued for his input on how Drama Box can expand its outreach and make its work accessible without losing its integrity and complexity.

The artistic director adds: "He was serious. Hardworking. Meticulous. He is still like that. He takes the task given to him seriously. You should see the way he writes on his notebook, you would almost think that he has OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). But that is how organised he is."

Pressed, Yeo pulls out his black notebook, pages covered in dense, neat writing. There are tables of finances, time-sheets, calendars, notes about rehearsals, ticket stubs and programme folders for movies and plays he has watched.

"Every year, I have to have a diary. If I lose that notebook, I would lose an entire year of memory. I don't have a very good memory," he says. "I'm quite a control freak. I know the number of movies I've watched in a year, the number of books I've read in a year. I'll keep ticket stubs and write reviews of shows."

Also in the book are the holidays he schedules to go scuba-diving in Thailand or Greece or Australia. He counts his happiness by the number of days he can sink into the seas and cocoon himself in a bubble of silence, surrounded by only fish.

For every hour of exposure on TV or on the emcee stage, he needs an hour or two to himself being absolutely quiet. Otherwise, it all gets too much for him.

"For those hours you're on stage, you're giving 100 per cent of yourself every single time. I won't talk the entire day before an event and, afterwards, I'll be totally drained."

He begins every morning at his city-area condominium with a swim, blanking out the demands of the day by moving through water and breathing steadily.

"It's like being on stage. Just breathe and act," he says, inhaling and exhaling slowly to demonstrate. "It's like my theatre training, you have to focus on breathing and nothing else. If you focus on breathing, then you're grounded."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline 'Danny of all trades'. Print Edition | Subscribe