Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: Michelle Chong is a one-woman showstopper

Actress-director-businesswoman Michelle Chong's life is busy, busy, and she likes it this way because her greatest fear is an idle mind

Michelle Chong is fretting over a pimple.

I can't see it but the actress-director-businesswoman insists that it is there, on her nose.

And, of all things, it is on the left side of her nose, that is, her left profile - which is her better side.

"I'm so angry because I have a pimple today and I squeezed it yesterday and I know Straits Times photographers will not Photoshop," she says.

She volunteers this information 20 minutes into our meal when we're taking photos of our food, she for her Instagram account and me for this story.

I assure her that we use wide-angled shots for this interview. The pimple won't be seen. But she doesn't seem comforted by this.

When the photographer arrives a while later to take pictures of us at the table, she brings up the offending spot again.

"My pimple's huge ass," she says, standing up to dig into her Anteprima bag for her compact. "That's why I don't like being in front of the camera," she says, patting her nose with a powder puff. "You have no control. They're not going to remove this pimple."

Then, giving it one last look, she sighs, straightens up and says: "As Mariah Carey says, it is what it is."

But the pimple continues to make a guest appearance at our lunch, popping up for mention at least four more times.


Michelle Chong's first brush with showbiz was the Fame Awards in 1998. Chong did not win but has been in front of the camera since. She has created a host of fictional characters, the most famous of which is Lulu the KTV hostess from China, who appeared on television and in a movie. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Chong, 40, is an intense, intriguing mix of ambition, intelligence, vulnerability, spikiness and plain kookiness.

Because she has played so many amusing characters - Lulu the KTV hostess from China, Venus Seow the heartland aerobics queen, Leticia the Filipino maid - you half-expect her to be entertaining in person as well. She obliges.

Like when we are doing the video shoot and she says to the videographer, apropos of nothing: "You permed your fringe, right?" (Er, no, the startled videographer says. My hair is naturally like that.)

Or when I place three recorders around her on the table and she coos, "It's like Sensurround. Don't miss anything, even my deep breathing", and grabs one of the recorders to blow into it.

Or when she changes her voice mid-conversation to act out one of her characters.

Or when I ask "Does the weight of being Michelle Chong ever get to you" and she retorts with a snigger: "I worry about my weight all the time. Particularly yesterday. I ate a lot."


Michelle Chong's father Steven Chong stars in the Papa Chong Cooks show on her YouTube channel. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Half the time you can't quite decide if she's joking, serious or taking the mickey out of you.

She's chosen The Famous Kitchen, a seafood restaurant in Sembawang that's a haunt among celebrity types, going by its photo wall of TV artists.

She's there with her sister Diana, 32, who's her manager. They seem to share a close, easy relationship.

Chong's a foodie - "she eats a lot", says Diana, "it's not like a front where she says she eats but doesn't" - and a regular at the restaurant. The table had been booked under my name and the waitresses are flustered to see her. We are given a private room.

"How does this work?" she asks perkily when we're seated at a table big enough for eight people. She's in a short, ruffled maroon dress - on loan from Fendi for the photo shoot, she shares - and black ankle boots.

"Do I order or do you?"

Please, I say, go ahead. She gets the restaurant's famous Sour Vegetables Fish (tiger grouper steamed with pickled vegetables, roast pork and peanuts), salt baked flower crab and char kway teow.

ONE of Chong's newest creations is Chiang Ying Wen, a student from a top girls' school who gives lessons on how to speak English.

  • WHAT WE ATE

  • THE FAMOUS KITCHEN

    54, Sembawang Road
    #01-01 Hong Heng Mansions 


    FISH: $67.50 

    FLOWER CRAB: $32 

    1 NOODLES: $8 

    1 PEANUTS: $2 3 

    CHINESE TEA: $3 

    1 COCA COLA: $2 7 

    TOWELS: $2.10


    TOTAL (WITH TAX): $137.25

In person, Chong speaks a lot like that character, enunciating her words carefully. Her voice is clear and loud, filling the room, and she laughs a great deal when she talks.

She reminds me that we had actually met before, in 1998, when she was 21. I was a judge at Fame Awards, an English-language talent search by the then Television Corporation of Singapore. It was won by Pierre Png.

"You didn't let me win," she says jokingly (I think). "You don't remember me from that? I was a finalist. Yah, I wasn't placed and I was quite upset. I was very young then."

After Dunman High, she did theatre studies at Victoria Junior College before going to Bates College in Maine in the United States to do theatre. She left after a year because of the Asian financial crisis - "my parents ran out of money".

Her parents, Steven and Molly, imported aromatherapy products, among other things. Besides Diana, she has an older sister and a younger brother.

She did theatre studies at the National University of Singapore but left after about a year "because I got busy". With Fame Awards, theatre productions and TV and modelling work, it was tiring to go to classes after a long day's shoot. "And NUS is so hot compared to Bates College in Maine. I didn't want to perspire any more," she adds (seriously?).

She was with Mediacorp from 2005 to 2011. In 2007, The Noose, an English comedy show, started and her depiction of characters like Barbarella the Sarong Party Girl raised her profile. She did The Noose for several seasons.

In 2011, she started Huat Films and has produced, written, directed and starred in two movies - Already Famous and Lulu The Movie. She also produced and directed 3 Peas In A Pod.

Already Famous, about a Malaysian girl dreaming of fame, made $1.4 million while 3 Peas In A Pod, about three friends on a road trip, took in $500,000. Last year's Lulu The Movie was a success. It has made $2.1 million so far and been sold to various markets.

In between, she started Left Profile (her better side, get it?), a talent management company. She has about six staff working out of Midview City in Sin Ming.

NOT JUST CARICATURES

People find them funny because they've come across a Lulu before or definitely know a Chiang Ying Wen. They're not just empty shells with accents.

MICHELLE CHONG, on her fictional characters 

Since the start of this year, Chong, who is single, has been focusing on producing content for her new The Michelle Chong Channel on YouTube. It features videos, talk shows, endorsements and cooking tips from her father .

"Most of our money comes from her," says Diana. "She's our biggest..." Chong interjects with "cash cow" and Diana repeats "cash cow". They both laugh.

Chong regrets that she's come late to monetising social media. "Because I was busy doing movies, TV, TVCs and all that. I didn't know that God invented YouTube and Facebook for me, I didn't know that. I took it for granted. I'm so sorry but I mean, I'm starting now," she says (seriously).

More recently, she did a promotional video trailer for the Netflix hit prison comedy-drama Orange Is The New Black, playing a Singaporean Ah Lian.

 

She creates all her characters and takes inspiration from people around her.

"People find them funny because they've come across a Lulu before or definitely know a Chiang Ying Wen," she says. "They're not just empty shells with accents."

She pays attention to details like their hairstyles, what clothes and shoes they'd wear, "whether they have green faded tattooed eyebrows, what's their everyday vocabulary or what's not in their character to say".

"Even my Ah Lian character... has long nails with diamanté nail art. Even if you can't see them on screen, it helps in the characterisation."

That's why it wasn't difficult for Lulu to transition to the big screen in Lulu The Movie, she says. "People in London and China actually thought Lulu was a real person when she interviewed them. So, in that sense, she's not really a caricature. She's real."

SHE has said in previous interviews that she prefers to be behind the camera doing creative work than in front acting, and she's working towards that goal.

She clearly finds it stressful living up to the polished public image expected of celebrities.

Writers, for example, "don't really have to worry about not looking so bloated today, or this pimple".

"It's not that, oh, I need to be the prettiest or the slimmest or the tallest or whatever, but obviously you don't want to look fat or have a pimple, right, because you're still an yi ren (artist), right?" she says.

"I don't mind looking plain if the character calls for it, but I mean Michelle Chong doesn't call for her looking fat or have a pimple, right? Because I also have beauty sponsors, right? I mean you want to be responsible."

She takes her hat off to artists who make the effort to look good. "They can apply mascara for like five minutes, sit there for an hour with hairstylists... they maybe stop drinking water from 9pm if they have to shoot the next day or they don't really eat a lot of carbs."

When she was in Mediacorp, people in the make-up room would call her "hen mei liao" (very pretty already) because she would fidget a lot while getting her face done. "After 15 minutes, I'd say, oh, hen mei liao, hen mei liao, ke yi le, ke yi le (very nice already, enough)."

Her mind is always thinking about the next project and she doesn't take holidays. She had travelled a lot for work before and looks back with horror at those filming trips. Travelling for sheer pleasure is something she can't fathom because "I'm very scared of an idle mind".

She has battled depression and says things are much better now. But there was a time she couldn't sit still for a facial or watch a play. Even taking a shower was hard because her mind wasn't engaged.

"So now in my new house, I have glass doors so I can watch TV while I shower," she says.

How do you fall asleep then, I wonder. She shrugs: "You just look at the phone until you fall asleep, lor, until you get sleepy. So you're engaged until you're not engaged."

SHE'S hardly eaten but Diana and I are both done. We move on to do the photos and a video. She hams it up in front of the video camera and plugs her YouTube channel.

When we return to the private room, she looks more relaxed because the hard part of the interview is over.

There are still pieces of crab on the plate and she proceeds to dig in. "Don't waste," she says. She ignores the plastic gloves that have been provided and uses her bare hands to break off the shell.

I ask if she has role models and she names Mr Melvin Ang, executive chairman of Catalist-listed mm2 Entertainment, a film production and distribution company behind hits like Ah Boys To Men.

A sudden crunching sound causes Diana and me to look up, shocked. Did she just bite the shell? "Don't use your teeth," Diana says, pointing her to the crab cracker but she carries on using her hands.

She tells me a story about how, as a new TV artist, she pretended to know how to play the piano so that she wouldn't be bullied by directors. She actually knew only two bars of a song which she'd learnt from a friend specially for the show. But the directors were so impressed that they got her to play the piano again for a variety show.

She said sure, and played those two bars, but this time, she got slammed by a magazine for showing off her musical talent.

She seems glad to put all that behind her now that she's her own boss. "I think I have a pretty good life because I'm finally doing what I love doing," she says at one point.

She's finished the crab and seems impatient to leave. I ask what she's doing for the rest of the day and she says there are copyright issues she needs to sort out for Lulu The Movie. There are also many, many ideas for her YouTube channel she needs to chase.

She thanks the waitresses for looking after us, says a quick goodbye to me and then is off, back to work in her midnight blue Porsche Macan.

Twitter@STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 18, 2017, with the headline 'One-woman showstopper'. Print Edition | Subscribe