When former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Eunice Olsen went to Cambodia for the first time in 2006 to visit a shelter, she met little girls whom she thought were the children of women rescued from the sex trade.
"But no, these were the girls who had been rescued. They were probably six or seven years old. One little girl put her hand in my hand and it just fit into my palm," recalls Olsen, who was ambassador for aid group World Vision at the time. "It was my first time coming across the virginity trade. It's really repulsive and it really affected me, and the whole issue has always been at the back of my mind."
She has now co-produced and acted in a film about it, 3.50. Made with less than $1 million, it premieres at GV VivoCity tomorrow, incidentally the day she turns 36. The movie, directed by Cambodian veteran film-maker Chhay Bora and Singaporean Eysham Ali, is slated for general release in February. In it, she plays a documentary film-maker who investigates the case of a girl who has been abducted from her village in Cambodia.
The idea behind making 3.50 was that rather than presenting people with a barrage of cold statistics and information, a film would better promote awareness about human trafficking through a story that was relatable. It was an idea she had been kicking around for some time. The title refers to the fact that sex with prostitutes in Cambodia can cost as little as $3 to $4.
Eysham Ali and Justin Deimen wrote the story with Olsen contributing research. The film is not based on a true story in particular, but on interviews conducted with social workers who had worked with the girls, through non-governmental organisations in Cambodia.
In an interview with Life! at her HDB home in Ang Mo Kio, Olsen points out: "The girls take a very long time to open up because they have been traumatised. When she is first taken, if she doesn't do what they tell her, they rape her, they beat her, they drug her. The average age of a Cambodian girl who's trafficked is 15.
"What makes me think I have the right to ask her to tell me her story in that space of 10 minutes when she doesn't know who I am and has never met me before. You can't establish trust and respect in 10 minutes."
She believes it worked out for the best as the social workers interviewed had a bird's-eye view of the situation and it also meant that she could get access to the girls' stories while their identities remained protected.
While Olsen's foray into humanitarian work began in 2006 when she was appointed as a goodwill ambassador for World Vision International, she was already actively involved with volunteerism after winning Miss Singapore Universe in 2000.
Subsequently, she delved more deeply into Cambodia to learn about it and what it needed in terms of aid. She sponsors a child there and says the people have made a huge impact on her life.
The connection is now permanently inked in the form of a tattoo running down the right side of her midriff: "Met Katruna", which is Cambodian for compassion, mercy, kindness and love.
She thought the phrase was perfect and says: "I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to live up to those values."
In addition to the film, the other project that Olsen has been deeply involved in in the last two years is the website WomenTalk (www.womentalktv.asia), which was launched on Aug 6.
The idea for it came when a female guest for a lifestyle show she was hosting in September 2011 told her, woman-to- woman, that she lost a lot of weight because her husband was embarrassed by her size and did not want to go out with her.
Olsen says: "My point for this website is for women to come together to build a community and to start conversations. It just grew from there to interviewing women with powerful stories to tell. On one hand, people will look at it and go, 'Oh I'm so inspired by what this woman is doing'. On the other hand, it's like, 'She's experiencing it, I don't feel like I'm alone in this situation.'"
The story of restaurateur Lena Sim, which has been viewed 8,000 times, is the most popular one on the site. The owner of Japanese restaurant chain Ministry of Food was abandoned by her parents at birth.
Olsen says she put her life savings into the project - "quite a bit" - though she declines to reveal how much. WomenTalk and 3.50 are projects under House of Ou Studios, a production company she started in 2011. What helps to pay the bills are the event-hosting and acting jobs that she takes on. She has been on TV since 2002 and made her feature film debut in 2011's Red Numbers.
It is clear listening to her talk that Olsen is passionate about the humanitarian work she does and it is not just an ex-beauty queen's vanity project.
She has a pragmatic approach and she says: "Why not as an individual, since it's easier for me to just say, 'Okay, let's do this', why not be a gap-filler and try to serve immediate needs through small projects that can be done very easily?"
They have included providing 60 bicycles to 60 kids and building 120 toilets for a village and, with each project, she has broadened her circle of contacts in the country from village chiefs to doctors.
Olsen has received accolades for her community and humanitarian work, including getting conferred with the Singapore Youth Award in 2006. Her two stints as NMP from 2004 to 2009 were well received as she spoke up on issues pertaining to youth and volunteerism.
She has also received plenty of attention for her looks as Miss Singapore Universe 2000 and as "Singapore's sexiest woman", according to American magazine Esquire in 2010.
In an unfussy get-up of white T-shirt and jeans, she muses on the latter: "I'm totally indifferent to it, it doesn't make an impact on my work. It's just a label."
You wonder though if men are intimidated by those labels. Olsen, who is single, laughs heartily and says: "There are people who have told me that. But when it comes to that, it's just about finding the right person. And hopefully, there will be the right person who is not intimidated."
3.50 premiered at GV VivoCity on Oct 24. Limited tickets are for sale at $20 each with part of the proceeds going to charity. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to www.facebook.com/350TheMovie?ref=profile
The film is slated for general release in February next year.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 23, 2013
To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/