The Bag Page

Bobby Tonelli went from baseball jock to well-groomed actor

HIS BAG: Isn’t this backpack from French brand Cote&Ciel cool? It’s like a big sack.
HIS BAG: Isn’t this backpack from French brand Cote&Ciel cool? It’s like a big sack.

Just because Robert Tonelli Junior, 39, was born and bred in Las Vegas, Nevada, does not mean that he cannot differentiate between his kopi-o's and his kopi-siu-dai's.

When he arrives for his Urban interview, Tonelli asks if we can chat at the canteen because he had skipped breakfast that morning. He orders fried eggs for himself and takes everyone's drink order like a bona fide coffeeshop native.

"When I first came here as a model in 1997, Singapore was not as cosmopolitan as it is now. I had to learn the lingo or I would not be able to get by," reflects the FLY entertainment artiste, who is single.

Since starting work full-time in Singapore eight years ago, Tonelli has acted in a number of local productions such as the television series The Little Nyonya (2008) and, more recently, in the Chinese film, Wayang Boy (2014).

These Singapore-specific productions have allowed the actor to assimilate into local culture.

"It's been two years since I went back to the United States. When I do go back, I often feel like more of a tourist than when I am in Asia," the actor notes.

"In fact, I was just in Johor Baru for an upcoming film, Lost In The Pacific, and when I worked with the American actors, it was actually a bit of a culture shock."

This news would certainly have come as a surprise to teenage Tonelli - an all-American high-schooler who spent his halcyon days "living and breathing" baseball.

However, a serious rotator cuff injury in 1996 dashed his hopes of becoming a professional athlete. He waited tables until he was finally persuaded to try modelling.

"When my friend told me to go to an agency, my initial response was, 'no way'," recounts the 1.86m actor with a laugh. "Back then, I was a burly sort of guy; a real jock who was not so sure about modelling."

Looking at Tonelli today, with his sharply-trimmed beard and designer outfit from Italian menswear specialist, Boggi Milano, it is hard to imagine that he was once long-haired and ran around with boys who were "sweaty and grimy half the time".

The actor admits that grooming was never much of a concern until he entered the entertainment industry - though he did dabble with style. "In high school, I was one of those biker guys. I never rode a motorcycle, but I loved the aura of a leather jacket," says the actor.

After he began modelling, he learnt more about cuts and fabrics, gradually evolving his style into what he now describes as "European classic".

Tonelli may have taken a while to look the part, but his underlying instinct for creativity was always there. "My mum owned an antique and craft store, and also painted a lot so I was around art from a young age," he explains.

Apart from acting and modelling, he has worked extensively as an events host and a radio DJ. Of these multiple roles, he prefers acting the most.

He concedes that there are undesirable parts of the job, such as the pressure to look camera-ready all the time, but he shrugs these off as "realities of the industry".

Baseball may have been his first love, but Bobby Tonelli is an actor now. He concludes: "I would not go back to sports even if I had the chance. It has all been a journey, and I am very happy to be doing the work that I am doing."


7 THINGS IN HIS BAG

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1. OAKLEY PRESCRIPTION SUNGLASSES

Cycling became my outlet after I stopped playing baseball. I need these when I cycle at night or early in the morning.


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2. SALOMON SHOES

These are light, good quality shoes. I use them when I go to the gym, which is about five or six times a week.


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3. SAMSUNG SMARTWATCH

I can answer phone calls with this but I tend not to because it looks quite silly.


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4. APPLE IPAD MINI

I use this to read scripts and some of my favourite cycling magazines.


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5. CRABTREE AND EVELYN HAND CREAM

I try to use this once a day. I also go for facials when I can because the entertainment industry is very visual.


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6. CUTLER AND GROSS PRESCRIPTION GLASSES

I have short-sightedness with slight astigmatism.


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7. BOSE BLUETOOTH HEADPHONES

Definitely need these in the gym.