The truth behind Desmond Tan’s failures and “friend zone” story

In this week’s Toggle Talk, the duke dishes on his difficult early years in showbiz, his philosophy on an ideal marriage, and reveals a candid confession about BFF Rebecca Lim

The truth behind Desmond Tan’s failures and “friend zone” story

Photos: Don Lee

Back in late March, we came across an interview where Desmond Tan and Rebecca Lim openly expressed their wish for folks to quit asking the duo about their friendship.

Well, thankfully for us (and you, the dear reader), that declaration happened after our session with Desmond in February for today’s Toggle Talk tête-à-tête. If not, we probably would not have been unable to unearth the juicy titbits we did regarding the real state of the beloved BFFs’ relationship – information you too will be privy to after you’re done with our write-up and videos.

We also addressed his tough first years in showbiz, especially before a certain shirtless rickshaw puller named Luo Xiaoxiao came along. “I think audiences started to know me better from Together, but my real breakthrough was in A Song to Remember,” Desmond recalled during our chat at Sheraton Towers Singapore.

Before that, however, were three years of darkness. “It was depressing to see my peers like Andie Chen and Ya Hui making it big and nabbing endorsement deals, while people would ignore me on the streets!” he candidly shared. “I wondered why they were achieving so much more despite entering showbiz at around the same time as me.”

It didn’t help that many of his characters ended up getting killed off. “My friends would jokingly ask if my next character would die again, and it didn’t make me very happy,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why is the company doing this to me?’ I became the laughing stock of everyone.”

We don’t think anyone’s laughing now. Desmond has come a long way since his Star Search finalist days (and the not-so-golden period that came after it), with two Star Awards trophies, sweet endorsement deals and a prominent spot in the 8 dukes, a gang comprising of the finest young hunks on the Hill.

Read on for more, and watch the videos for a blow-by-blow account of his interview:

WATCH: Desmond recalls the not-so-good ol’ days when people didn’t recognise him in public


He didn’t take acting seriously at first.

We had to admire Desmond’s honesty when he said that when he took part in Star Search in 2007, he “wasn’t in it to win it”. “I never really put my heart into it,” he said. “I didn’t expect to make it all the way to the finals.”

His frivolous attitude changed in his third year in the industry, when he took up a theatre studies course at the National University of Singapore (where he also obtained his degree in Real Estate in 2011). “The more I got into my research, the more I realised how much I love film and understood why directors have been telling me to do certain things all this time. I slowly began to have more confidence in myself and my acting improved.”

It’s safe to say that his old, insincere side is dead and gone. What else could explain his willingness to dabble in method acting for his role as an opium addict in The Journey: A Voyage, where he got into character by locking himself in a room with alcohol for three days to experience a similar drug high? “I had a responsibility towards my character and wanted to play him well,” he proclaimed.

An hour of “NG” once nearly brought him to tears.

As someone who is more comfortable with the English language, it’s no surprise that Desmond once struggled with a script that contained complicated Chinese idioms for one whole hour.

“I had 20 to 30 ‘NG’ (no good) takes for this one line,” he recalled. “In the end, I had no mood to eat and was so ashamed I went to sit alone in a café, where I almost cried. The director was very patient, but I could tell that everyone else was unhappy because they were waiting to break for their meal.”

Desmond hasn’t always gotten to work with such tolerant filmmakers, but he maintains that he has never received a huge telling-off from anyone either. “Most of the time they’ll just nag at you or scoff, ‘Aiyah, can you act or not?’ When I was newer I would take their remarks personally so it was hard.”

He wants to be known for his acting, not his abs.

After flaunting his chiselled frame in A Song to Remember, it’s no surprise that subsequent projects had him stripping down as well (even if it didn’t quite make sense for the show).

“At first I didn’t have a problem with it. I thought, since I have a good body, just strip lor,” he shrugged. “But after a few dramas I wondered why I had to keep doing it, and I started to not feel like it anymore. I wanted people to concentrate on my craft instead of my body. If you’re only going to be famous for your physique, then you’d might as well be a model.”

WATCH: Desmond gets real about his relationship with pal Rebecca Lim

He has thought about going after Rebecca Lim before.

With their chemistry, camaraderie and “They look so cute together!” charm, fans can’t be blamed for wishing the two celebrated BFFs to take their relationship to the next level (as Desmond himself has seen from pleas on social media).

However, it looks like he is staying put in the “friend zone” – by his own will. “Just being friends is very comfortable, and I don’t want to spoil that,” he declared.

So does that mean they’ve never had a crush on each other?

“Of course I’ve had good feelings towards Rebecca before, but people tend to have good feelings towards those who have characteristics that they like. Whether or not you choose to go further is another thing,” was his very diplomatic response. “The risk (of ruining a friendship) is higher if you suddenly want to take it to another level and the other party doesn’t.”

After more probing, Desmond granted us another interesting admission: “I’ve thought about (pursuing Rebecca) before, but I never did. Maybe there has been ambiguity between us before, but we never went anywhere with it, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt interest from her before because men are very stupid when it comes to this. (laughs)”

There you have it, guys.

He believes in establishing a good career before getting married.

“I love my dog” was Desmond’s very off-topic and unexpected remark when we tried to bring up his relationship of five years with a mysterious flight attendant, even though we are no strangers to his reluctance to delve into details about his love life. “I don’t need to talk about my personal life because many things and thoughts will change.”

That’s not to say he and his beloved deliberately go into hiding all the time. “It’s hard to avoid things like people secretly taking pictures when we’re eating outside, because we are in the public eye. If people see us, then they see us.”

More prying ensued, only to be met with, “I thought we wouldn’t be talking about this. (laughs)”

He’s a little bit more open with his philosophy on tying the knot. “I believe that a good career is an important foundation of any relationship,” he stated matter-of-factly. “If you want to get married in Singapore, you need money. If you can’t give yourself security, then you can’t give it to anyone else.”

This wasn’t always the mind-set he had, however. The soon-to-be 29-year-old revealed that he used to think he would be married with kids by the time he was 30 or 32, but he no longer believes in these age goals.

“I tell people not to create a ‘deadline’ because it’s like setting an expiry date on your relationship,” he said. “Imagine telling your other half that you will marry them by 30, but not being ready when you’re 29 and having to take a step back?”

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