Photos: Lee Lay Na
The Toggle Talk team heard Michelle Chong before we saw her enter the suite.
“Hello, every-birdy!” she chirped in the tone of one of her trademark Noose characters, air-headed SPG (sarong party girl) Barbarella.
Loud (in a good, uplifting way), vivacious and ready to deliver a contagious dose of hearty laughter at any time, the 38-year-old was her usual bubbly self during our two-hour interview - save for a brief moment in-between when the topic steered towards Pauline, a friend of hers who sadly passed away in 2014. The mention alone was enough to make Michelle start tearing up uncontrollably and for the crew to call for a filming break.
Five minutes and a quick touch-up later, we were back on track with our conversation. Before the chat had taken an emotional turn, we were discussing the reasons why she didn’t follow through with her intentions to leave Mediacorp earlier than she did in 2012 (she said she had been considering it “for years”).
“(I was afraid to leave) because I was doing quite well and I was at a comfortable stage where I didn’t have to audition for anything,” she explained. “My parents also told me I’d be crazy to give it all up to make movies and people would ask me to continue staying at Mediacorp, so days became weeks and weeks became years, but I was so miserable I couldn’t take it any longer.”
In hindsight, she shared that she shouldn’t have delayed her departure from the station for as long as she did. “I should have done my own thing a long time ago,” she said.
Read on as the actress/director/host/entrepreneur (the list goes on) gets candid about more topics, from parents who treat her like a child to inner demons she believes can come back any time, and watch the videos for a blow-by-blow account of the interview:
WATCH: Michelle talks about her relationship with her "bossy" mum
She wishes she joined Star Search instead of Fame Awards
Michelle’s journey into the acting world started when she was doing theatre studies at Victoria Junior College. Impressed by her natural talent, her teacher introduced her to Bates College in the United States, where she was enrolled for a year until the Asian financial crisis forced her back to Singapore.
She continued pursuing theatre studies at the National University of Singapore, but once again dropped out in the second year after taking part in TCS’ (now Mediacorp) talent search show Fame Awards in 1998, where she emerged a finalist (Pierre Png was crowned the champion that year).
Looking back, she thinks she “really shouldn’t have joined Fame Awards”, and wishes she participated in Star Search - which has produced big names like Zoe Tay, Christopher Lee, Felicia Chin and Romeo Tan - instead. “It’s not like nothing happened to me after Fame Awards, but the progress was slower than if I had taken part in Star Search,” she said. “At that time I didn’t know that I could join both.”
At the earliest part of her career, Michelle dabbled in a bit of TV, a bit of theatre and a bit of modelling, but it wasn’t until she joined Mediacorp as a full-time artiste in 2004 when her popularity started to rise. Before her breakthrough, she was told to go back to school, get a degree and have a fallback plan, in case showbiz didn’t work out for her. However, “I just couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
She believes she was misled into thinking she wanted to be a star
For nearly a decade, Michelle was a full-time actress and host with Mediacorp until her contract expired in 2012, but she told us that she had thought about leaving “for years”. And although she made it into the coveted Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes rankings twice (in 2005 and in 2011), she frankly stated that she “didn’t really believe” in the Star Awards.
Michelle continued her honest rant by saying that she used to find it a bother to attend the awards ceremony, and never desired a nomination because she didn’t believe she deserved one. “When you have Quan Yi Fong and Guo Liang, who am I to say I’m Best Host? And I never really saw myself as a Channel 8 drama actress,” she said.
But doesn’t that all contradict with what she told us earlier about her showbiz ambitions in her youth? “Today I believe I was misled into thinking I wanted to be a star, just because my teacher thought I was good at acting and making people laugh,” she said. “But that is not what I want - I want to tell stories and create stuff.”
That said, Michelle insisted that she doesn’t need to be remembered, like so many great filmmakers are after their deaths. “It doesn’t matter if I’m forgotten, because when I’m gone, I’m gone.”
3 Peas in a Pod’s lacklustre reception was a disappointment
Making a film is an expensive endeavour, and Michelle, who reportedly sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into each of her previous two directorial efforts (2011’s Already Famous and 2013’s 3 Peas in a Pod) has certainly felt that fact firsthand. She told us that she is once again pumping in a six-digit sum (half of the production’s overall seven-figure budget) for her third flick Lulu the Movie, which follows the adventures of another one of her recognisable Noose characters.
Although the film, which was announced in 2014, was initially slated to be released in the first half of this year, Michelle’s hectic schedule and money issues caused a delay. “Making movies is never an easy job, but it’s even harder in Singapore because the market is so small,” she explained. “I’ve been lucky enough to get quite a few sponsors, but it has been a logistical nightmare.” At the time of the interview, Michelle shared that she was in the midst of editing the movie and that she’s keeping her fingers crossed for a November premiere later this year.
When asked if potential sponsors were worried that her movie would cast a negative light on the Mainland Chinese, Michelle said she assured them it would have a very positive message. She also told us that the Mainland Chinese she has met have no qualms with how she portrays her beloved KTV hostess – in fact, they love her characters.
While Already Famous, Michelle’s directorial debut that starred herself and Taiwanese artiste Alien Huang, was a success (it grossed over S$1 million at the local box office and was submitted as the Singaporean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2013 Oscars), her sophomore effort 3 Peas in a Pod made less of a splash and grossed just about $230,000, despite the presence of heartthrob idols Calvin Chen and Alexander Lee Eusebio.
“Uh, it did okay lah, we didn’t lose money,” she reported. “I was disappointed, but as with everything else, you have to learn to let go very fast - if something bad or unpredictable happens, you have to move on and think about the other 300 things that need to be done.”
For Lulu the Movie, Michelle stated that she doesn’t have a “target” to reach, but is fine as long as they don’t suffer a financial loss.
If it’s so tough, then why does she keep doing it? “I don’t know, I don’t want to do it already!” she joked. “It’s passion, and it’s my creative outlet. I guess it would be easier to do an online channel, but I started with movies and that’s what I know.”
WATCH: Michelle gets candid about her depression
“You don’t really quit depression until the day you die”
Michelle has not been one to shy away from the topic of her depression, which began manifesting when she was 17 years old. “I was crying a lot and my parents got worried, so they brought me to see somebody,” she said.
She went on to say that her issues may be “a chemical thing” instead of the result of a traumatic event. “It’s like a sort of grief, except nothing bad has happened in my life, I’m just so down all the time,” she shared, adding that there are physical symptoms too. “I feel breathlessness, and there’s a constant lump in my throat.”
It gets especially worse when her mind is left to wander, and nothing she has tried to do has helped. “I’ve seen lots of people, from psychiatrists to counsellors to psychologists to hypnotists, and I’ve tried everything from yoga to meditation.” How much has she spent on all this? “I’m sure it’s still cheaper than buying a Birkin bag. (laughs)”
Even success at work could not alleviate the gloominess. “I had a lot of jobs and I was making quite a bit of money, so why was I still so miserable?” she said. “It was really hard to get out of bed every day and whenever I had a quiet moment to myself, like when driving or showering, I was crying all the time - I probably wasn’t a very nice person then!”
Despite her struggles, Michelle could never bring herself to end her own life or commit self-harm. “I couldn’t hurt myself because I still had to go on camera,” she explained. “I’m very pragmatic and realistic - I had demons in my head but I still had to be a responsible employee, daughter and friend.”
Michelle eventually told her managers that she didn’t want to act anymore, and they let her concentrate on hosting, but she soon grew tired of that too. Even The Noose, arguably one of her most well-known works, could not make her happy. “So what did I do? I went back to my roots: when I did my one-woman show in school, I also wrote my own script and directed myself, and I found joy in that creative process.”
While pursuing what she loves - movie-making - is undoubtedly stressful, it is also engaging. “At least a large part of it is in my control,” she said. “I guess (I’m a control freak).”
When we asked if she’s feeling much better these days, she said that she is, but: “Sometimes when I talk about certain things, the lumps (in my throat) will come back. Depression is like smoking - you don’t really quit it until the day you die, it can come back anytime.”
She’s happy with managing just four artistes
When Michelle approached Pornsak and Lee Teng to join her artiste management agency, Left Profile, when it was launched in 2012, she “offered them nothing”, and yet, “They acted like they were honoured and flattered! (laughs) I’m also very grateful they signed on with me because they could have said no.”
Their professional relationship has been a harmonious one so far, with Michelle claiming that they have never clashed over anything, and that they are happy with how she runs things – at least, as far as she knows, she added with a laugh.
She then let on about her plans to do a musical in the future, and for Lee Teng’s hope to release a single at the end of the year. “They’re both very talented - they can host, they can act and they can sing! A lot of people don’t know that,” she said. “I’m the kind of manager who lets their artistes do what they want to do, because only they know what they’re good at, and I can’t force anything on them,” she said.
Unlike most other celebrities who founded entertainment companies, Michelle has no plans to discover and nurture new faces. In addition to Pornsak and Lee Teng, Left Profile also manages the activities of former U-KISS member Alexander Lee Eusebio and Taiwanese singer-actress Chloe Wang in Singapore and Malaysia.
“I don’t want to enlarge (my company) because I’m very hands-on,” she explained. “So the more people I sign on, the busier I’ll be - I don’t want to sign on 100 people and do nothing for them.”
WATCH: Michelle opens about her love life (or lack thereof?)
Her parents treat her like a child sometimes… and she hates it
“Our relationship is good… as long as I don’t tell her (Michelle’s mum) the bad stuff lah,” Michelle said, responding to previous reports that alluded to things being strained between her and her mum. “She used to be very bossy and she still is, but I guess parents just want the best for you.”
When probed for details, she elaborated, “She has an opinion on everything and will talk to you like you’re dumb, or rather, like she’s very smart - I don’t know which is worse!” That said, she and her siblings - two sisters and a brother - respect their parents a lot, and won’t fight back. “I’m vocal but I don’t want them to get upset.”
She then delved into an example of her mum’s unsolicited advice. “I wanted to invest in my first piece of property in 2005,” she recalled. “I brought my parents to view the unit, and straight away my mum went on and on about why I shouldn’t buy it.”
Michelle defied her mother’s suggestion and went on to purchase the lot, and subsequently earned back “200 percent or something”. “She told me it was a good thing I didn’t listen to her, or I wouldn’t have my first pot of gold,” she said. “But it irritates me, you see! It’s not that she puts me down - she just tries to solve your problems, but in doing so, it makes it sound like you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Even her dad has been doing the same thing recently as well. “I was shooting an ad for a mobile phone, and he told me I should go and find out more about the phone and think about how I’m going to film the video,” she said, sounding a bit frustrated. “I was like, are you kidding me? I’ve been doing this for so long but they still think I’m a primary five kid doing a school project. It bothers me because it makes me think I’m not good enough and they don’t trust me, but it’s just part of their nature.”
She may consider doing plastic surgery in the future
Michelle did not hesitate to publicly announce that she had just received Botox injections on her face. She previously underwent the procedure when she was filming Already Famous, but she regretted it as it was “too much”.
“I only did a little bit this time but it’s still so obvious! Man, I forgot how terrible it was,” she lamented. “But I still need to look my best on screen, I get very down when I look at myself and see someone I didn’t use to look like, that’s why I’d rather not appear in front of a camera anymore, but I’m realistic: there’s money to be earned for my movies.”
When we asked if she would ever go under the knife, she replied without hesitation, “Yes, I’m open to it. No, I’m very open to it. I may consider doing it in the future.”
She wants to forget her last relationship
Most of us probably have exes we’d like to forget, and so does Michelle. “My last relationship was a very long time ago, and I want to forget about it - it was so bad!” she complained.
At the moment, she insists she doesn’t have a special someone in her life. “I’ve probably not made enough of an effort to look, but I’m so busy!” she admitted. “I used to want to get married and have kids, but now that I’m older I think it’s okay if I never do that.”
Michelle needed a moment to mull over our next question (“Would you ever give up your career for love?”) before answering, “I won’t say no but it’s not altogether a yes either - I’m as open to it as I am to plastic surgery. (laughs)” However, she soon changed her mind after thinking it through a little more. “What would I do all day - drive and shower? That would be hell,” she shuddered at the thought.
Like Xu Bin mentioned in last week’s Toggle Talk, being the subject of gossip is part and parcel of being a public figure, and Michelle is no exception. In her case, word has been going around that she is not straight, and we got her to address this rumour once and for all.
“No way,” she said, when we broached the topic. “I feel that (love) is about chemistry, fate and meeting the right person.”
She has also been asked the question face-to-face, even by fellow celebs, to which she bluntly responds, “It’s none of your business.”
So does all this speculation bother her? “I don’t like to hear about these things but it’s out there so you can’t do anything about it,” she shrugged. “In this industry you have to learn to let go very fast and learn not to be bothered.”
Special thanks to Sheraton Towers Singapore.