A rising star in the entertainment industry, Glenn Yong is passionate about acting, and is currently in the midst of filming Singapore director Jack Neo’s new film The King Of Musang King, which is slated to hit theatres next year. Energetic, friendly and animated, Glenn is also The Singapore Cancer Society’s Youngest Goodwill Ambassador, and while the actor has never had such a health scare himself, much of his life has been touched by it.
Here he tells us why it’s a topic close to his heart and why he’s taken on this role.
Glenn Yong was four years old when he had his first brush with the C-word. His grandfather, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“I was very close to my grandfather. The funny thing is, I can’t remember anything else from [my toddler years] except for the times that I spent with him,” the 26-year- old actor and singer recalls. His grandfather doted on him and would often take him to the playground, parks, as well as neighbourhood mamak (sundry) shops.
Following the cancer diagnosis, his grandfather passed away shortly after removing one lung. “I can’t remember much from [his funeral], but I remember thinking he was asleep,” he says, describing a moment where he stared at his grandfather’s body and tried to call out to him to awaken. “After a while, I realised that he was gone, and that’s when I started to feel sad.”
Then, when he was 15, a close mentor at church was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. “She’s a strong figure in my life, somebody that I look up to a lot,” shares Glenn.
He was shocked to see how cancer can eat away an individual. “When I saw her going through cancer, I didn’t know it could take up so much of the person. It was tough, because when she went through chemo, she lost her hair, and looked really weak and fragile.” Thankfully, he says, she recovered after a year of treatment, and 2022 marks her tenth year as a survivor.
In 2021, a close childhood friend was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Glenn shares that it was his “first time seeing someone [his] age go through cancer and it was shocking”. Prior to his friend’s diagnosis, cancer in young adults had seemed like a distant reality, and it was difficult seeing his friend lose his strength during chemotherapy.
He recalls how despite battling cancer, his friend was present during Glenn’s performance at the National Stadium for Singapore Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraising event in March 2022. “That performance felt extra special for me.” His friend has since recovered, and is now cancer-free.
Performing at the fundraiser ignited a spark in Glenn, one that spurred him to become an advocate for cancer awareness. In May this year, he was officially appointed the Singapore Cancer Society’s youngest goodwill ambassador.
“It ties in with why I wanted to be in the industry in the first place.” He shares that being an activist has always been a childhood dream of his. “Acting and music are my passions, but being an activist is a calling. Beyond finding success, I want to find significance in the things that I do. It’s different when I can make real change in a person’s life, and actively participate in a cause that I believe in.”
Part of his responsibilities as ambassador include embarking on school tours to raise awareness about cancer and the importance of sticking to a healthy lifestyle. He would usually perform a couple of songs, accompanied by a talk that encourages the students not to smoke and drink, and to exercise.
“I’ll invite the students up on stage and we’ll do push-ups together – here, let me show you,” he excitedly picks up his phone and pulls up a video of a recent school tour. Screams and cheers resonate from his phone, and I watch as excited students jump up on their feet to catch a glimpse of the actor doing push-ups.
“It’s so funny because they’re always freaking out as though they have never seen push-ups! I won’t tell them to go to the gym, because they’re so young, but I share such simple exercises that they can do at home,” he says.
On the topic of childhood, the actor shared that he was a “rather naughty kid who loved gaming”. When he was in primary school, he watched Singapore film director Jack Neo’s film I Not Stupid (2002) and swore to himself that he would never drop to the EM3 academic stream, where “weaker” students in primary schools were banded in Singapore’s former education system.
“The funny thing is, when I was 10 years old in Primary 4, I was in the best class. And after telling myself I’ll never be in EM3, I found myself in EM3 the very next year in Primary 5, after I developed an addiction to MapleStory,” he says with a chuckle.
Besides serving as (ineffective) motivation, the film left a deep impression on him – it was the first time he ever cried during a movie. “It left a deep impression as I realised that movies can move people’s hearts.”
The clincher, however, came when he watched crime-comedy film Catch Me If You Can (2002). It was then that he knew he wanted to be an actor. “I saw how Leonardo DiCaprio could play so many different roles, and it made me realise that as an actor, you can play out different lives. I think it’s so exciting compared to living one life in itself.”
And he has since lived many fictional lives, in his various acting roles. He made his acting debut in a supporting role in 2019 television drama The Good Fight, followed by an appearance in television series Victory Lap in 2020. Those two years were difficult as he was pursuing a university degree in marketing at the same time.
“I would film my takes, and then during my breaks, I would be working on group projects on set,” he recalls. He also paid for his university tuition fees himself, so he took up odd jobs including ushering and waitering. He recalls the awkwardness of waiting on celebrity friends at an event, but he says that the experience galvanised him to work even harder and succeed.
His big break came when he was unexpectedly cast as the male lead for director Jack Neo’s Ah Girls Go Army movie in 2021. He had auditioned for a smaller role, but to his surprise, the director called the next day and offered him the male lead. “I was over the moon and screaming on the phone,” he recalls, laughing. “It’s surreal to work with Jack. All I can say is that it’s a dream come true. I would have never expected it as an 11-year-old watching [his film] I Not Stupid.”
Glenn may be one of Singapore’s hottest young talents now, but he had his fair share of detractors as an aspiring actor and singer. “Reality is harsh, and not everything is a bed of roses. The [entertainment] industry isn’t all glitz and glamour,” he says.
In an interview with online news site The Mothership, he revealed how he had been back- stabbed and gossiped about. A well-publicised dispute with actress Eleanor Lee had also made local headlines, which he declined to elaborate on during this interview.
Instead, Glenn has shifted his focus on one of his biggest sources of motivation: his family. He wants to be able to support his parents financially – his father is a tour guide and his mother a home baker – and offer them a more comfortable life.
In the whirlwind of the past couple of years, he has barely had time to take a break. These days, he tells me, he has been thinking a lot about mental health. “I wouldn’t say I have depression, but I do feel depressed from time to time. There are nights that I can’t sleep because I have so many negative thoughts. I remember there was once when I just woke up and I suddenly teared,” he sighs. “This has never happened to me before.”
Is it the stress that’s getting to him? “Yes, and also the expectations. I feel like I have to succeed in everything I do, or else I’ll disappoint [everyone].” He gestures to his phone. “With social media, everything looks so perfect, right? There will be times when I think: What if I meet a fan or a person and I don’t meet up to their expectations of who I am? What if they feel disappointed after meeting me?”
I ask how he has been learning to get past this hurdle, and he takes a quiet moment to contemplate his answer. “I guess, well, what I usually do is to convince myself that I don’t have to please everyone. For every one person who doesn’t like me, I have 10 others that maybe do. So I should just be confident in myself.” A strong support system, consisting of his family, close friends, as well as his manager and team, also helps.
Through the different endeavours he undertakes, he seeks to address mental health issues and raise awareness. Glenn’s first English single Up Up was released earlier this year, and the hip-hop track encapsulates his experiences in the industry so far. The lyrics describe being betrayed by those he considered his close friends, and convey a bold defiance against those who scoffed at his dreams. It’s a song meant to encourage one to keep moving up despite the odds.
He shares that he’s working on a couple of new songs right now, and though he’s tight-lipped on the details, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the songs tie in with his advocacy work.
He explains: “As Steve Jobs once said, the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Joel Low, assisted by Eddie Teo
CREATIVE DIRECTION & STYLING Windy Aulia, assisted by Joanzine Lee, Jeon Jae Won & Elrica Tan
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay
HAIR Edward Chong/ Evolve Salon, using Oribe & Manisa Tan, using
MAKEUP Toni Tan, using MAC Cosmetics & Zoel Tee, using Dior Beaut
Text: Cheryl Lai-Lim/HerWorld