Zoe Tay reflects on 35 years in showbiz: From Star Search 1988 winner to everyone’s favourite ‘Ah Jie’
On the occasion of her 35th anniversary in television and film, Zoe Tay reveals what her brother said that nudged her into starting out as a teenage model, how she and her fellow Star Search 1988 winners turned the "conservative" industry "upside-down" and who it was who first started calling her “Ah Jie”.
When you’re the Queen of local showbiz, you don’t let things like how long you’ve been in the industry trouble you. But, well, other people do. So, when we brought up how time flies and this year marks her 35th anniversary as an actress, Zoe Tay simply quipped with a smile: “How scary.”
As we chatted about her three-and-a-half decades as Singapore’s most well-known actress, one thing became apparent: She never intended for it to happen.
“The youngsters nowadays, they always ask me about how to stay in this industry for so long, how to sustain a career.” The answer is simple. “I tell them not to think about it,” the 55-year-old said.
“If they’re interested, they will fall in love and find their way. I tell them there’s no right or wrong – when you’re young, you should try everything. If you don’t try, you don't know. Just like me – I never thought I would stay for so long.” After all, she added, with a giggle, “I’m a Capricorn – I had no plan.”
Right from the start, as a teenager famously growing up on a chicken and pig farm in Lim Chu Kang, the idea of acting for television never entered her head. (Much less, we're guessing, the thought that she would one day be immortalised as a Madame Tussauds wax figure.)
Here’s something she’s never revealed to anyone before, she shared: It was actually thanks to her brother that she struck out and got her start in modelling.
“I was 16 or 17,” she recalled. At the time, “I was my brothers’ date when they didn’t have anyone to take to school events. They had to bring a girl, so they brought me. No one believed that I was their sister, because why would anyone bring their sister?” She laughed.
One day, “My brother said to me, ‘You should be more ladylike.’”
Even though “I don’t know why he said that”, she compliantly used her Chinese New Year hongbao money to sign up for an etiquette course. The people who ran the etiquette school also happened to own a newly-opened modelling agency, which they asked her to join.
There, “I learned to catwalk. I did some small shows. It was interesting.” She was never a show opener, though, because she wasn’t the tallest, she said. Still, she was chosen to be on the cover of “one of the top local magazines – I can’t remember if it was Her World or Female” – which was something, because “for someone from an unknown agency to be on the cover was quite unusual.”
In 1988, she entered the TV station’s Star Search talent competition because she was advised that it might open doors for her to work as a model in Hong Kong or Japan.
Recalling the towering “curry puff” hair she was wearing when she received her winner’s trophy, she laughed, “That was the style that was so popular!” In fact, we discovered, she’d styled her hair herself. “I had two hairstyles that night. The first was done at the salon; it was curly hair. The second one, I brushed it and gelled it up. In modelling, we sometimes did our own hair. We had to do a lot of our own makeup, too. When I first started out, my makeup was horrible. It was a good training ground.”
Starting out as an actress in the late 80s, she soon had to do even more things herself, like “carrying clothes and shoes around; remembering my own scene continuity.” Scenes are usually not shot in sequence, and actors then were in charge of keeping track of which outfits they wore for which scene. “I did wear the wrong clothes a few times. The mistake went on air once,” she giggled. “I cannot tell you which show; it’s very paiseh.”
“It totally blew my mind that acting wasn’t that simple after all,” she said. “It’s not just walking around and memorising lines.”
But, even while she was learning the ropes, she was already spearheading a small revolution in the local television scene.
“Our Star Search group” – herself and runners-up Aileen Tan and Jazreel Low, who all starred in the 1988 drama My Fair Ladies – "turned the industry upside down,” she said.
Her seniors were “conservative”. “When we came in, they had to accept our different style and behaviour. There never used to be girls in swimsuits. But we showed cleavage. It blew their minds. To us, it was normal. Aileen used to help organise beauty competitions – she was the one who was very Westernised. And Jazreel and I were models, so it wasn’t an issue for us.”
While filming swimsuit scenes, she remembered, “There were many people on set. If I were them, I would be very excited, too,” she quipped dryly.
But there was one aspect in which she was shy, and that was when it came to her parents watching her on TV. “I was so embarrassed for my family to see me – and it was so weird to see myself,” she cringed. “My acting was so stiff!”
Officially, her breakthrough role was as the brash Bobo in 1991’s Pretty Faces; but personally, she regards the part she played in the series Crime And Passion, released around the same time, as more memorable. “That was when I started to know how to really perform, and enjoy it.”
She had relationships back then, before she married husband Philip Chionh in 2001, but thinks not spending enough time together was a lesson she took from them. Now, she and her husband “have an understanding”, even as they raise their three sons together (she doesn’t, by the way, think her sons would ever be interested in following in her footsteps, although she wouldn’t stop them if they wanted to give it a go).
Does she recall who it was who first started calling her “Ah Jie”? The term of respect means “big sister” in Mandarin but figuratively, something more along the lines of “queen bee”.
“I don’t know – I was so busy, just working nonstop,” she mused. “If I’m not wrong, I think it was during a photo shoot. Maybe it was (makeup artist) Andy Lee or (hair stylist) David Gan. I said, ‘Huh? Why are you calling me Ah Jie? I’m still very young, you know! I should be mei (little sister).’
“Now, when they call me that, it’s fine, because I’m really mature enough for you to address me that way,” she laughed. “I am like a sister. It’s just a name. As long as it’s not something nasty, it’s fine, whatever you want to call me.”
OF BURGERS AND SPACESHIPS
Over the course of these 35 years, what is it like to have spent so much time as someone else, in other characters’ shoes?
“I enjoy it when I’m a different person, in a different profession, with different skills in handling things,” she mused. “This job has made me more open, in a way, in terms of my thinking and character. I started to realise that some of the things I understand, or my point of view, might be different from other people. Along the way, I learn, and I find that so interesting.”
As an example, she said, “I might think this burger is good, but that doesn’t mean everyone thinks it’s good. Maybe a burger could be better than this. Maybe my belief is shaky. Then, I realise that it’s not about whether the burger is good or not, but that everyone has a different view on the burger – which is good. A lot of the time, I think about myself, but I realise I should be more open to understanding things and seeing other people’s problems as well.”
Apart from honing her skills in acting and collecting her fair share of awards along the way, she’s also witnessed how the concept of celebrity has evolved over the years.
“Social media is so common now – showing what you’re eating, what you’re doing. You can promote yourself, if you have a show on. You can share a lot more with your audience and the people who pay attention to you. It’s not good or bad – it’s just a trend. People move on to another phase of life.”
In fact, she continued, waxing philosophical, “Everything changes without you noticing. Tapping on the phone like a computer – that didn’t come into my mind 10 years ago. TVs are no longer fat TVs – they're flat TVs! Cars are electric. People can tour space in a spaceship. Imagine, 10 years ago, people said it was not possible.”
And that’s why she looks ahead – never back – to the next 10 years with the same take-things-as-they-come spirit she always has, since the day the Star Search crown first touched her head, 35 years ago.
“Never say never. If you never try, you never know – as long as it doesn’t hurt you. Whatever comes, just face it. Just go with the flow and enjoy it. Live in the moment.”