Since Michelle Chong became synonymous with the comedic characters she plays on The Noose (mainland Chinese KTV hostess Lulu and Sarong Party Girl Barbarella come to mind), it can be hard to separate the real Michelle from her alter egos. She arrives for our shoot at The St. Regis Singapore’s King Cole suite on a rainy Wednesday, and greets the crew brightly with Barbarella’s signature catchphrase: “Hello every-birdy!”
Michelle is nothing if not candid. Turning 40 this year, she says, feels no different from being 39 – “except I wonder why I still get pimples.” We’re kept entertained as she poses on the couch in her flowing red gown (it’s our National Day issue, after all), hamming it up for the camera by blowing air kisses, pouting and bursting into laughter. “No Lulu, no Barbella!” our photographer Joel implores.
“Oh, I know… you want Lust, Caution,” Michelle replies cheekily, settling into a sexy pose, while her manager snaps photos for her Instagram page (with over 105,000 followers, Michelle is one of the most-followed female celebrities in Singapore).
It’s hard to imagine our local entertainment scene without Michelle, who is undoubtedly one of our most iconic Singaporean talents. Her rise to fame began aptly with talent search Fame Awards in 1998, where she emerged a finalist. Effectively bilingual, Michelle went on to host variety programmes and star in both English and Mandarin dramas, such as English Peranakan drama Sayang Sayang, where she won acclaim for playing butcher Beh Li Choo, and Channel 8 drama A Million Treasures. She was also named one of the Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes at the 2005 and 2011 Star Awards.
Michelle hit the jackpot starring in Channel 5’s Emmy-nominated satirical comedy series The Noose in 2007, where she showed off her versatility playing multiple characters each week (see sidebar). Her performance earned her nominations for Best Comedy Performer at the Asian Television Awards, and she took home the title in 2012.
But while Michelle is known for her gung-ho, bubbly personality, she’s also had to battle personal demons. In 2011, she opened up to the local media about her battle with depression and suicidal thoughts (she was diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of 17, and admitted to feeling dissatisfied despite her flourishing career).
“I would describe it most accurately as an extended period of grieving a loss, except that nobody or nothing was lost,” she says. “I overcame it by quitting my job as an artiste at the TV station and doing what I needed to do, which is telling stories and creating content.”
Michelle started her own production company, Huat Films, in 2011, and an artist management agency, Left Profile, in 2012. Besides herself, she also manages two actor-hosts; Pornsak Prajakwit and Lee Teng.
Striking out on her own has certainly paid off: With Huat Films, Michelle produced and directed Already Famous and Two Peas In A Pod, before writing, producing, directing and starring in last year’s Lulu The Movie, based on one of her most popular personas. It took in $2.1 million at the local box office, and won Michelle the Best Director award at the Canada International Film Festival earlier this year. Currently, she’s also the face of OKI Premium Cooking Oil, and ASUS mobile phones.
“When I started out in the industry, older directors would just say bluntly, ‘She can’t act’, or ‘She’s just a host or actress, what does she know?’.”
Despite her success, Michelle says she doesn’t feel like a businesswoman. “I don’t think I’m that entrepreneurial; I’m no Jack Ma or Elon Musk. Starting my businesses arose out of a need to be part of the creative process. I needed a production house to shoot my movies, and to manage myself as an artiste.”
As a woman in the male-dominated media industry, Michelle admits she faced plenty of gender discrimination as a director in the beginning. “When I started out in the industry, older directors would just say bluntly, ‘She can’t act’, or ‘She’s just a host or actress, what does she know?’. People were suspicious when I first struck out on my own. But I dealt with it by being prolific, and now I get less (discrimination). When making a film, there are lots of problems to solve every minute – I just had to do it.”
SINGAPOREAN TRUE AND TRUE
Michelle is known for her tireless work ethic, something her Left Profile artistes can attest to. “She’s an extremely skilled director and knows exactly what she wants. When she’s directing my TVCs, she’s efficient and films very fast,” says Pornsak. “She has a creative mind, knows what the audience likes and is good at spotting others’ strengths.” Lee Teng also feels inspired by Michelle. “From her, I have learnt not to be afraid to chase your dreams, and to be 100 per cent dedicated to whatever you do.”
Michelle’s most Singaporean trait, she says, is her love for good food. “I feel most Singaporean when I’m queueing for chicken rice,” she declares. During our shoot’s lunch break, she tucks into her packet of chicken rice with gusto, and whoops for joy when I offer her an extra packet of chilli.
“Like most Singaporeans, I live to eat and am always on the lookout for the best hawker food and the latest restaurants,” she says. True enough, Michelle’s Instagram feed is a mouthwatering collection of delicious food snaps from around the island. Asked what she would like to achieve in the next 10 years, she quips: “The ability to eat a lot without getting fat.”
“My drive and energy come from my sense of responsibility to give 200 per cent in whatever I do.”
Our conversation soon turns philosophical as Michelle ponders her greatest achievement in life. Strangely, she says it’s a recycling bin. “I suggested to my former condo management that they should put up a recycling bin for paper next to the lift lobby, after I saw so many flyers and unwanted mail being thrown out every day. I believe I have since saved quite a few trees.
“I consider that recycling bin to be my ju bao pen (treasure pot). It’s like a good luck charm; I believe I accumulated good karma with it, and I feel like whatever I have now is due to that recycling bin!”
With her colourful local characters and movies, Michelle is flying the Singapore flag proudly, but isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s constantly working on new creative projects, like producing web content for her new YouTube channel, The Michelle Chong Channel.
“While I’m grateful for what I have, I never really think of anything as a ‘success’, because my life is an ongoing journey where my days are spent working on the next project,” Michelle shares. “My drive and energy come from my sense of responsibility to give 200 per cent in whatever I do. I didn’t set out to establish myself as anything. It’s that same philosophy I live by: Just keep doing what you love, and give your best in everything.”
Photos: Photos: Joel Low, Assisted by Alfie Pan / Fashion Direction: Janice Pidduck /
Styling: Shaun Chen / Hair: Marc Teng, Atelier using Sebastian Professional / Makeup: Sam Ong, using Sisley / Location: The St. Regis Singapore