Dim Sum Dollies' Denise Tan juggles stage and radio

“Although everything I do is a nod and tribute to Emma, I can’t be her. You walk the linebetween those two things.” Denise Tan ( left) on people who might expect her to say she hasbig shoes to fill after the death of actress Emma Yong, who was
“Although everything I do is a nod and tribute to Emma, I can’t be her. You walk the linebetween those two things.” Denise Tan ( left) on people who might expect her to say she hasbig shoes to fill after the death of actress Emma Yong, who was part of the Dim Sum Dollies.The other members are Selena Tan (centre) and Pam Oei -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY

It is a hectic schedule for Denise Tan, who has to juggle deejaying and acting, but she is loving every minute of it

Actress-deejay Denise Tan, 39, who is best known for being part of cabaret trio the Dim Sum Dollies, says acting has helped her perform better on air.

"Deejaying and acting are just different aspects of performance. Like how the Dim Sum Dollies are larger- than-life versions of us, it's still me on radio, but with a bigger personality," she adds.

Tan was speaking to Life! during a rehearsal break for the Dollies' latest production, Dim Sum Dollies - The History Of Singapore Part 1, which presents events in Singapore's history from the days of Sang Nila Utama until 1965 with generous doses of humour. The other members are Selena Tan and Pam Oei.

Denise Tan's personality is indeed not a far cry from the Dollies'. She speaks and gestures animatedly throughout the interview, despite being visibly tired from a long day's work. Her weekdays are now spent hosting a radio show on Gold 90.5FM from 10am to 2pm and then it is rehearsals from 3 to 10pm.

"I've cut out sugar and oil from my diet because this production requires so much stamina. I'm a bit of a masochist," she says with a laugh.

The daughter of a general practitioner and a housewife, both 70, read English literature and theatre studies at the University of Leeds in England, but got into radio to pay the bills. Her brother, 43, is a lawyer.

She says: "In the 1990s, it was quite difficult to do theatre full time unless you had a lot of money. Many of my friends in theatre were also teachers and hosts."

However, it has worked out well for her - she loves being on stage and on air.

Describing radio as "theatre of the mind", she explains: "People can only hear your voice on air, so you have to create a landscape in their heads through your tone and words. At the moment, I'm cherishing the opportunity to be on air and act."

1 How has being a Dim Sum Dolly been for you?

It has been fun, scary and challenging, but ultimately very rewarding. Pam, Selena and Hossan Leong are a nurturing bunch, so easing into the role wasn't difficult. Although coordinating with one another - like in singing - can be challenging, I love that our performances aren't solo efforts.

People might expect me to say I've got big shoes to fill from Emma (veteran theatre actress Emma Yong died of stomach cancer in 2012). Although everything I do is a nod and tribute to Emma, I can't be her. You walk the line between those two things.

The wonderful thing which the Dim Sum Dollies have always stood for, even when Emma was around, is how everyone has a Dim Sum Dolly in them - in daring to speak your mind and having fun. It's just whether you tap into it.

2 How is this production different from Dim Sum Dollies - The History Of Singapore Part 2?

This time, we're luckier because the show was done before in 2007, unlike Part 2 when we had to do everything from scratch - there was no music or script.

That said, a lot has changed in eight years, so we want to put in a few current jokes - little zingers to keep the production relatable and make the audience laugh.

3 What is your dream role?

My dream role is my next one - whatever's coming next.

To me, being able to act and to be paid for it is already living the dream. So if I get another role, hurrah. It means people still like me and I'm still in demand as an actress.

4 Could you share some funny moments at rehearsals?

It'd be how challenging we find the choreography. We'll learn the melody first, then break it into three parts. Just when we sing nicely and think we've got it - then comes the dancing.

There's always that awkward moment when you're trying to coordinate everything, but there are too many things for your brain to process. We'll say things like, "I forgot the lyrics because my legs are moving" or sing but not move.

There are also surreal moments. In one scene, I play a ginger root - the production also covers the spice trade - but I'm also prancing around in high heels and we're pulling around a suitcase which represents the cinnamon spice.

We have out-of-body moments when we look at one another and say, "What are we doing? This is ridiculous."

5 What are some memorable things theatre practitioners have said to you?

David Shrubsole, composer and musical director for the Singapore Repertory Theatre's Pinnochio - The Musical, told me five years ago that he once met a woman with the most beautiful voice, who never seemed to have any problems with singing.

He asked her what her secret was and she replied: "I know that when I open my mouth and sing, God hears me."

I don't know why, but that relaxed me.

The first time I received direct affirmation from a director was at an audition for the musical Beauty World about seven years back, when Ivan Heng told me: "Good. Really good. You must act more."

I'd planned to audition for Ivy Chan Poh Choo, the young, innocent girl from Malaysia - because everyone sees me as the girl-next-door - but he gave me a script for the conniving cabaret queen, Lulu. It was recognition that I could act.

6 What kind of music do you like?

I really love music, although I don't like death metal. In particular, I always go back to singer-songwriters Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.

Joplin's voice - my goodness, she's such a powerhouse. I also love how raw and emotional Mitchell's music is and how poetic her lyrics are.

My love for music came from my father, who's a great fan of Elvis Presley and The Beatles.

When I was in kindergarten, my daily after-school ritual would be to play his cassettes of their songs and dance to the music in front of a full-length mirror in my parents' room.

Even now, his music's always playing at home and he watches MTV too.

7 What kind of man would you be attracted to?

One with a pulse. Seriously though, I think it'd take someone who's pretty understanding and tolerant of my unusual working hours.

One of my favourite T-shirts reads, "I can't, I have rehearsal" - I find myself saying that ever so often.

I think he'd have to handle that graciously and good-naturedly and love me despite my not always being available.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I would like people to remember me as an actress, a deejay and someone who loves French fries.

On a deeper level, I'd like to be remembered as someone who loves life and people, who was loved and who made the world a better place.

sarahgyx@sph.com.sg