SINGAPORE - Desmond Tan may be a household name now, but his journey to the top of the Singaporean entertainment industry did not come easy.
In 2007, fresh out of national service and waiting for university to start, the then 21-year-old was serving a two-week retail stint that made him utterly miserable, when his friends nudged him to join Mediacorp's Mandarin talent contest Star Search.
"I got into the finals and deferred my studies by a semester. When I graduated, I told myself, 'Why not give it two years in the industry? If things don't work out, I can always just go back to what I had studied, which was real estate'," says the National University of Singapore alumnus.
We will never know Desmond Tan the real estate whiz, for things did work out and he has been mesmerising Singaporeans on screen for 14 years now.
Along the way, he has nabbed a Star Awards Best Actor win and five Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes trophies.
"Back then, my priority wasn't so much about the performance - it was about getting onto national TV; chasing fame," he says candidly.
"But over the years, I developed a little more interest and that grew into a love for my work, which then turned into a passion."
These days, passion does not even begin to describe what he feels about acting.
"I'd say it's an addiction, especially this past year when we've been staying home more and working less. I actually had withdrawal symptoms. I felt so happy when I could go back to work, I feel alive when I'm on set."
Although difficult, the enforced timeout allowed Tan, who turns 35 this month, to reflect on what he has done and where he wants to go next.
"The past 10 years, I was just working non-stop and then in 2020, we had two months where we had to stay home. That was when I really reconnected with myself and started to evaluate my priorities," he says.
"In the past, when I was doing project after project, I didn't think any deeper about the work - about how else to do things or the ways in which I can improve.
"During the circuit breaker, I had time to study my past projects more closely and I noticed so many areas that can be improved. I'm clearer now about what I need to do and what I want to achieve."
In addition to thinking deeper, Tan is thinking bigger.
"The challenge for the future," he lets on, "is seeing how much further I can go. In terms of geographical boundaries, can I reach out to a broader South-east Asian market? Am I able to play in the really big leagues like Hollywood and China?
"These are things I've definitely been thinking about more this past year, as I've been watching a lot more international productions. It's ironic because even though I work in the film industry, I've never had time to watch a lot of stuff. And then, with the stay-home period, I just binged and I really got to see new trends and techniques that I want to try in my work."
It is not always hunky-dory, he says.
"We're only human - we feel the flame on some days and lose it on others," he adds. "And when that happens, you start questioning yourself. Is this worth the sacrifice? How do you keep reigniting that flame?"
In moments like these, he focuses on the joy he derives from acting.
"It's an emotional outlet for me. Growing up, I didn't really express myself that much and I didn't really understand my emotions. I was a typical Singaporean whose only expectations were to get a nine-to-five job, get a mortgage, get married, have kids.
"Acting allowed me to think deeper. Being immersed in a role allowed me to be like a mirror - reflecting things back to people - or to play things so much larger than life that it opens up people's minds.
"Even now, I find it amazing. Every few months, I get to explore completely different things. Even when I play villains, it's interesting because I get to explore the dark side of human psychology."
Immersing himself in a diverse array of characters has also helped Tan grow as a person.
"Compared with the person I was 14 years ago, I think I've become more sensitive," he says.
"I was more reckless before - just shooting off my mouth without thinking much about how others would feel. These days, though, there's an additional layer of thinking before I say anything because words do carry weight.
"And I've realised that it's not always about proving a point to win a battle. You can't convince the whole world to think the way you do, so I've just learnt to embrace differences more."
Another thing that he has learnt to embrace is change.
"We can't just keep using the old methods of doing things. We will become obsolete," he says.
Social media is a good case in point.
"When I started, there was only Facebook. I got on Instagram relatively late," he admits, actively posting only since 2012, "because for the longest time, I felt like I didn't want to expose my life.
"Putting yourself on a new boat and learning how to row it is tough, but if you never try, you'll never know."
He brings up a recent interaction with his young niece.
"She came over and I was showing her my sound system. She started to play Blackpink and when I sang along, she was so amazed, 'You know Blackpink?' The moment she realised that I was speaking her language, she looked at me differently.
"That's when I realised that we can't lose touch with changes, especially when it comes to the new generation. It's not just about being passionate, it's also about being relevant. Maybe you have to start wearing more hats, but that can be fun too."
Having been a part of the industry for more than a decade, there are certain changes that Tan would love to see being embraced.
At the top of his wish list is fostering a sense of togetherness.
"Being a small nation, I think the only way to grow our work and take it to a bigger stage is to work together," he says.
"For some strange reason, locals don't really support locals. There's always this sense that you have to leave first, make your name overseas, then come back to be taken seriously. I remember seeing it when I was younger, with singers such as Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin.
"I believe that if we come together and synergise our resources, all six to six million of us as a nation will have a much bigger voice than if we continued staying in our own little bubbles."
* This article first appeared in Harper's BAZAAR Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The August 2021 issue is out on newsstands now.