Stars-turned-talent managers give young hopefuls a boost in showbiz

Having a boss who knows the ins and outs of the entertainment industry is a boon, say artists of talent management agencies

Some local actors parlay their celebrity into starting food businesses. Others prefer to get into another business they know arguably more than food - show business.

A new batch of talent management agencies with famous bosses has set up shop here.

At least four run by artists have emerged over the past four years. Five, if you consider the case of Li Nanxing: He was his own agency LNX Global's only artist for 11 years, till it signed actress Constance Song this year.

Director-comedienne Michelle Chong founded Left Profile in 2012. Top model Sheila Sim opened Nu Models in 2013. Well-known TV host Dasmond Koh became a shareholder of NoonTalk Media last year, but has been actively involved since the firm's inception in 2011.

 
 
 
 

Comedian and host Mark Lee started Galaxy Entertainment in 2011, before which he says that there were few independent artist management agencies. "Besides MediaCorp, there were Fly Entertainment and J Team," says Lee, 47, referring to the two independent agencies started in the 1990s by actress Irene Ang and actor- director Jack Neo respectively.

Neo's artists include his long- time show business colleague Henry Thia and the agency is also the local and Malaysia representative for Taiwanese comedians Nono and Kang Kang. J Team also groomed and represents Ah Boys such as Wang Weiliang and Tosh Zhang.

Fly's chief executive officer Ang, 47, was spurred into action after witnessing many talented freelance actors leave the industry because of pay issues. For instance, freelancers feared being blacklisted by other production houses if they keep chasing for their payment.

Her aim was to form a collective to better negotiate time, engagements and fair pay and to help market the talents. "I didn't like what was happening and I had only two choices: leave the industry or stay and bring about the change I want to see," says Ang, whose stable has grown from its initial five talents in 1999 to 47 artists.

Similarly, Sim was motivated to start an agency to help fellow models. "The cruel reality is that modelling has a short lifespan - it usually comes to an end in one's mid-20s. I wanted to extend the shelf life of models by getting them to explore their other talents such as acting or singing," says the 30-year-old, whose agency has a model and an artist division.

She catwalks the talk, having made a successful transition from model to actress. Her acting resume includes Channel 8 programmes such as medical drama You Can Be An Angel Too (2015) and long-form series 118 (2015).

So far, Sim has nurtured protege Erika Tan to follow in her footsteps. The 27-year-old model is starring in her first television role in Channel 8 drama Crescendo (2015).

Tan says: "I was resistant to acting, but Sheila convinced me to try it. I prefer singing and I'm undergoing vocal training. Whatever it is, Sheila is concerned about our feelings and is always open to discussion."

Host Koh discovered his knack for grooming talents after he was roped in to help run his friend's talent agency NoonTalk Media. The agency was set up to manage actors Aloysius Pang and Xu Bin, who starred in Koh's directorial debut movie Timeless Love (2012).

His business partner had spotted the golden opportunity, says Koh, 43. "He thought that since the movie was going to receive attention, why not sign on the actors and see how they will fare in show business."

With their growing fanbase and string of Channel 8 drama roles, Pang, 25, and Xu, 26, are among the rising stars on TV and are two of the 8 Dukes promoted by MediaCorp. Pang won Best Newcomer at the TV station's annual Star Awards this year.

Koh soon grew attached to his mentoring job and talents. Last year, he decided to invest $300,000 in the company.

He is not resting on his laurels and is on the lookout for new talent to add to his stable of six artists. Others include actress Kimberly Chia, 20, and actor-singer Gavin Teo, 21.

Unlike Koh's desire to discover new talents, Left Profile founder Chong is banking on artists with a ready following. She believes her talents must have an affinity with audiences. Chong, 38, says: "I don't feel the need to sign on 100 artists. I will sign on an artist with a certain level of popularity."

That likeable quality is best personified in Thai-born host Pornsak Prajakwit, 33, who is a favourite among audiences and advertisers. The affable artist has four endorsements, such as Mama Lemon dishwashing detergent and Yeo's Drinks. Six months after joining MediaCorp in 2007, he was entrusted with co-hosting programmes Campus SuperStar and Stars Beat It!.

The trilingual Pornsak - he speaks English, Mandarin and Thai - went on to become a choice host for prime-time Channel 8 variety shows and has helmed all three seasons of popular do-gooder series The Joy Truck (2013-2015).

Already a bona fide star when Chong approached him to join her, Pornsak took a leap of faith to sign on with the smaller company because of their friendship.

Besides, he was impressed by Chong's hit directorial debut Already Famous (2011), which made more than $1 million at the box office. He says: "It's not just blind faith. Everyone knows she is a perfectionist who loves to micro-manage."

The in-demand host could easily go freelance. With his reputation, he would have no lack of job offers and save on the middle-man fee, which ranges from 10 to 40 per cent in the market.

But he says he still needs a manager to oversee his schedule. "I am not very sharp at the negotiation table. Having a manager like Michelle assures me that my best interests are always protected."

Artist-cum-managers rely on their experience and network in show business to market and snag jobs for their talents.

Having been in the industry for close to two decades, Koh gets advertisers asking him to recommend candidates for endorsements.

"Having developed this network, it helps me now... I can recommend my own artists as long as it's a good fit," says Koh, who started out as a radio DJ in the 1990s.

Having modelled for more than a decade, Sim believes her reputation helps instil trust that her fledgling firm is not a fly-by-night venture.

In the initial stages when jobs were scarce, she is grateful to her stylist friends for recommending her models for editorial shoots.

Talents with famous and experienced bosses are also drawn by the flexibility and attention offered by small-scale agencies.

Local host Lee Teng, 31, found himself at home with Left Profile.

There are pros and cons to signing on to a big or boutique agency, says Lee. "A big company offers security in terms of jobs and resources. But it could be hard to reject an unsuitable programme. I prefer the freedom to explore. I don't want to be tied down," says Lee, who will be launching his music career next year.

After signing on to Left Profile in 2012 following six years with MediaCorp and one year of managing himself, he snagged his first endorsement in his show business career this year. He has three endorsements this year that have fetched him a five-figure sum in total.

It is also a case of being a big fish in a small pond for actress Song. In fact, she is the only fish in LNX Global's pond. The agency has secured a shared six-figure endorsement deal with beauty chain Mary Chia for her and Li. Song, 40, says with a glint in her eye: "I'm the only one in the agency, it has to focus all its efforts on me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline 'Boss knows best'. Print Edition | Subscribe