Photos: Lee Lay Na
Our two-hour hangout with Dennis Chew was just as we imagined it’d be: full of colourful tales, quick quips (mostly not-so-PG-rated ones) and earth-shaking laughter from the witty Love 97.2FM deejay.
We were seated at the windy Re!Wine Retro Bar at Hotel Re! @ Pearl's Hill, which, until 2001, was the site for Pearl’s Hill Primary School. It was here that alumnus Dennis discovered his flair for speech and storytelling, which eventually developed into a passion for the performing arts. After he graduated and moved on to secondary school, his involvement in the field intensified, and he participated in everything from debates to essay-writing to poetry-reciting.
His early teen years were also when he took on his first acting gigs, most notably in a commercial for Yakult (which subsequently had his schoolmates calling him the name of the probiotic beverage for a while) and TV drama The Future is Mine in 1990. In 1993, he could finally add “radio deejay” to his resume when he kicked off his illustrious 20-year tenure at YES 933, after a stint at 95.8 Capital FM.
Now, that’s about his professional life – before our chat, there wasn’t much that was officially known about Dennis’ personal one, particularly in the area of romance. But as it turns out, there is someone in the 41-year-old’s life right now, and there was another one a long time ago whom Dennis was engaged to briefly. Yes, the famed Aunty Lucy has not been the only woman in his life.
And speaking of the curly-haired, matronly character from Paris and Milan, did you know that “she” had a part to play in bringing Dennis and his father, whom he shared a strained relationship with, closer together?
“I’ve never told any of these things to anyone before ah,” Dennis claimed as he delved into all the details. Read on to find out what we discovered, and watch the videos for a blow-by-blow account of his interview:
WATCH: Dennis gets candid about his rocky childhood
He was almost set to marry an older woman…
At the tender age of 21, Dennis had been seeing an older woman whom he met at work for three years. They were even supposed to register for marriage, but it did not happen.
“I really loved her, but things happened, and now we have our own lives,” he said. “I think it was my mother’s fault: she kept pushing her to propose instead of me, and she might not have liked that. Of course, I didn’t just irresponsibly disappear – we talked about it and I gave her a very good explanation.”
…but he has someone else in his life right now
“Of course I have a partner – it’s just a matter of how often I change them!” joked Dennis, bursting into another one of his glass-shattering chortles before becoming serious again, “Yes, there is someone that I love very much, but we’re like family, and the relationship has deepened to a stage where we no longer need to say ‘I love you’.”
Surprisingly, none of his relatives have been bugging him about tying the knot. “But even if they did, I wouldn’t be annoyed with them, I’ll just say that everything is going well now. Honestly, if I could get married, I definitely would, but I’m also at the age where I’m like, forget it, it’s just a formality.”
He’s even “Daddy” to an 18-year-old boy
Out of his many godchildren, Dennis is especially close to one named Jacob, who is studying film at Temasek Polytechnic. In fact, they are so tight that Dennis even sought permission from Jacob’s real parents for the boy to call him “Daddy” or “Baba”, and he considers him a real son, bringing him on set with him and letting thespian pals like Shaun Chen review his work (oh, the perks of having a relative in the industry you’re pursuing).
He once got a beating for showing affection to his dad
To give you an idea of how stern his father was, here’s a heart-wrenching tale from Dennis himself: “My relationship with my father wasn’t very good because of his drinking problem, plus he is a very traditional man who doesn’t like to express himself.
When I was in primary five or six, I mailed New Year cards to my family, but my dad, instead of being happy, beat me, asking why I’d do such a girly, nauseating thing. I will admit, that affected me a lot, and I never imagined I’d get such a response.”
Dennis also revealed that if he scolded his younger sister Jane, even if she was at fault, Dennis would be the one getting whacked by their father. However, the forgiving son doesn’t hold a grudge against these uncalled-for actions. “I suspect he was touched, but didn’t want me to become too sentimental, so I don’t blame him,” he said, regarding the card incident. “If I get beaten, then I get beaten lor. (laughs)”
And “Aunty Lucy” eventually helped to mend things between them
With such a history, we don’t blame Dennis for not daring to think how his dad would react to his iconic cross-dressing role as Aunty Lucy. However, he was in for a very pleasant surprise.
“One day he called me and told me that he was very proud to be able to say that he is Aunty Lucy’s father – I was so touched, I cried!” he said, adding that he gave his dad a stack of autographed Aunty Lucy pictures to distribute to his friends.
Dennis observed his dad’s approval of the role again during a visit to the hospital, where his dad had been admitted to for a stroke. “He noticed how the doctors and nurses would recognise me, and I think that made him very happy. I knew from that moment that he had finally begun to accept me.”
More evidence of their softened ties popped up over one Chinese New Year dinner, when, out of the blue, Dennis’ father asked him to take care of his funeral arrangements and scatter his ashes into the sea. Although it was a morbid and random conversation, Dennis took it as a sign of trust and love from his father, and was so moved that he feigned a stomach ache, locked himself in the bathroom, and sobbed his eyes out.
He endured plenty of physical pain at school
How many of us can say we’ve been slapped in the face, spanked in public and ruthlessly burned during our days as students?
Poor Dennis can.
The slapping: “When I was in primary one, I went up to a girl I liked and kissed her on the cheek because a friend dared me to. I got slapped, but I was so happy! I went around declaring, ‘Hey, she slapped me leh!’ (guffaws)”
The public spanking: “In primary six, I had to go up on stage to receive an award for ‘Best Subject’ for my Chinese, and in front of me was another student. When they called him, ‘Lao Lan’, I burst out laughing and made fun of his name. One moment I was receiving an award, and the next, I was being spanked on stage in front of everyone.”
The ruthless bullying: “I was frequently bullied in secondary school. Students would heat up a metal ruler on the ground and poke me with it – I have a scar to this day. They did it for fun; after all, I was small-sized and an easy target.” (Thankfully, the mistreatment diminished when Dennis started acting because older students would recognise him and offer their protection.)
His path to showbiz started with a textbook reading
While most students dread being singled out to stand up and read a passage in class, Dennis felt like he had struck gold in a lucky draw when, after constantly being overlooked (“Perhaps I just don’t attract attention!” he chuckled), his name was finally called to do so during Chinese lessons one day.
The primary four student’s good enunciation impressed his teacher, who suggested he join the school’s storytelling competition. Thus began his two-year reign as the academy’s pride and joy in the speech contest world, losing only once in primary five.
He continued to excel in similar activities through to secondary school, where he made a name for himself as a shoo-in champion in all the tournaments (“Students would see me and go, ‘Here he comes – we have no chance’”). At 13, he made his musical debut on Chinese Idioms 50, was scouted for a Yakult commercial, took on the TV world, and the rest is history.
WATCH: Dennis opens up about his love life for the first time
The road to radio was a long and winding one
If you think Dennis’ name-making gig as one of YES 933’s most popular jockeys was handed to him on a silver platter, think again.
“No one knows how difficult it was for me to get my job as deejay in the first place,” Dennis revealed, before elaborating that his many applications for a position were turned down by the station because he hadn’t completed his National Service, and then later, because he had no formal certification. “It was only after I got a diploma that YES 933 accepted me.”
Because of this, he feels fiercely attached to his role in radio. “Many people have asked me why I don’t want to further develop my acting career, but I find a lot of satisfaction and freedom in being a deejay. Honestly, I’ve contemplated giving it up before, but I just can’t let it go.”
He left YES 933 (before they could ask him to leave)
Although Dennis switched from YES 933 to Love 97.2FM in early 2013, he had already been pushing to make the transition as early as three to four years ago, once every six months.
But what’s the reason behind his persistence? “I was about to turn 40, and I did not want to suddenly be told by my bosses that I might not be suitable (read: too old) for the station anymore, that’d be so embarrassing!”
He knew he had made the right decision when he finally joined Love 97.2FM. “Immediately, I felt like I had become more mature, especially since my colleagues are older too – the sense of responsibility is different, our conversations are different, the way we distribute and discuss our work is also different. The thing is, I had more friends at YES 933 and there aren’t as many people who are willing to teach you new things, but I’m not unhappy.”
He hates being called “baby-faced” or “cute”
Note to all the aunties out there: whatever you do, don’t pinch Dennis Chew’s cheeks and squeal about how adorable he is. He may smile and thank you on the outside, but inside, he’s uttering language we can’t type out here.
“From the ages of 10 to 30, I’ve had the exact same face, which limited the kinds of characters I could play: I could never be someone’s big brother, boyfriend or husband,” he lamented. “That’s why I was really looking forward to turning 40. Some people may like being called ‘baby-faced’ or ‘cute’, but I don’t.”
WATCH: Dennis explains why he left YES 933
Special thanks to Hotel Re! @ Pearl's Hill.