“People call me ‘goddess’. I have no idea why they do that,” said Paige Chua through lowered lashes, a touch of sheepishness flitting across her lightly-coloured cheeks.
Her fellow artistes have also nicknamed her Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Both are sobriquets that baffle her. “What’s the definition of ‘goddess’, anyway?” she begged to know.
Erm, we suspect it has something to do with the uncanny ability to look effortlessly poised, serene and beautiful even on a muddy archery range on a boiling hot day, wearing an impractical dress and making a 10kg bow look weightless.
But she isn’t just channelling Artemis or Diana, the Greek and Roman goddess of the hunt, for the sake of these photos. The 34-year-old actually practises the sport of archery (and has the arms to show for it). It has been one of her hobbies for the past three years. She enjoys it because “it’s not just physical. You need to build strength to hold the bow, draw and eventually shoot — but it’s also about mental focus. That helps me in my work as well”.
You see, this goddess isn’t an airy dream of unreachable perfection. This goddess is an independent fighter made of stuff as steely as her bow, who isn’t afraid to confront her demons and knows how to turn weaknesses into strengths.
HALO FROM THE OTHER SIDE
The nickname first surfaced in 2011, she recalled, when her Code Of Honour co-star Andie Chen started calling her that. “It’s because I’m quiet on set,” she surmised. “I don’t socialise that much, so if I’m not in a scene, I’ll be sitting in a corner, maybe gazing at the sky or in my own world, daydreaming. I guess they think I’m meditating or conceptualising theories about life.” On top of that, “I tend to get quite serious when I’m having a heart-to-heart conversation. I don’t gossip or talk about fashion — I know very little about those. Maybe that’s why they think I’m kind of out-of-this-world — the showbiz world, lah.”
Of course, there’s her indisputable beauty — several young male artistes publicly count themselves among her admirers, we pointed out. “They probably say that about every girl, so I’m not very impressed,” she demurred, laughing.
In fact, the idea of prettiness doesn’t impress her, either. “Of course, in the industry, it’s all about being pretty. Most of the roles are damsels in distress,” she said. That’s not her. “As a female sportsperson, I’m more masculine in some ways ... Pride motivates me to be as tough as I can when I’m in a sport. Prior to injury, I was one of the top netball players, and I was proud of that.”
She’s at her most aggressive on the netball court, she said, calling herself a “rough player” — and the other physical activities she enjoys include tennis and horseback riding.
But there’s a girly-girl side to her, too. After a torn ligament cut short her time as a national netball player at the age of 19, she stunned all her friends by embarking on a four-year modelling career. “I actually told them, ‘It’s because I’m vain’,” she recounted. “They were taken aback: ‘You’re vain? You’re in slippers all the time.’ But there is a part of me that is vain. There’s a part of me that thinks, ‘I can look like that, too’, when I flip through the pages of a magazine,” she said, adding that vanity is balanced out by respect for how the industry works together as a whole.
Still, being deified makes her uncomfortable. “Besides the fact that I don’t think I can live up to it — I don’t think I’m as merciful or compassionate as Guanyin or as graceful as a goddess — I’m just afraid it could limit how people see me. As an actress, I wish to take on diverse roles and be able to change and transform like a chameleon. I’m afraid that if people see me as a goody-two-shoes, producers won’t give me opportunities to try out different roles. If they keep hearing that Paige Chua is a goddess, they’ll have the impression that she’s always waiting to be saved, or contemplating something in a corner, being gentle and demure. That will put me in a box I can’t get out of.”
She’s looking forward to hopefully playing a spy, an assassin, a military officer, or anything with lots of action — and she isn’t averse to cropping her hair, either. For now, her spanking new challenge is playing a “bitchy and bimbotic” character in the drama Hero, for which she is currently filming.
She’s excited about that because she has spent much of her career playing tragic roles — and the show that’s currently airing, If Only I Could, is no exception. “I don’t think there’s a drama in which I haven’t cried,” she sighed. “When I go out, people say, ‘Hey, you’re always crying. So sad. Are you okay? You’re so poor-thing, I’ll add more soup to your noodles, or something.” She laughed. “But as an actress, I want to change, do something different and hopefully garner an award for it someday.”
ANGELS AND DEMONS: WAR WITHIN THE WARRIOR
That said, being able to cry shows how strong you really are, she opined. “We are so used to being strong, pushing ourselves or being seen as winners that we stop allowing ourselves to let go,” she said. “I know it’s kind of an oxymoron, but being unafraid to show that you are vulnerable and having the courage to show when you are weak are strengths in themselves.”
What’s more, “I’m determined and when I want certain things, I pursue them. But at the same time, my strength lies in knowing how to back off when it’s hurting people or myself. People always think that strength is about pushing on. But knowing how to rein in at the right moment is a strength in itself.”
Turning to us, Chua wanted to know how we would define “goddess”. Someone lofty and unapproachable, adored from afar, to whom you will never be close, we offered. “Perhaps. Maybe because I can’t get close to myself, either,” she mused. “I have so many alter egos. I’m separated inside me. Sometimes, there are so many voices inside my head that I just want to shut them out.” She paused, worrying: “Sh*t. That sounds so schizo.”
What are her alter egos like? “Some of them are quite bitchy; some compassionate; some ambitious; some zen,” she said. “It’s like those movies where you have this angel and this devil inside. Some personalities are clashing and they offer different views about which path you should take.”
For instance, sometimes at work, “I want to show the sexy part of me, but without being exploited. The good girl syndrome sometimes comes into play. Like, ‘I cannot kiss too many guys. I can only give them a peck on the cheek. My mother will scold me’”. She laughed. “Actually, my mother is the one who says I’m conservative. But I’m still not comfortable (with overly explicit scenes) because I care about how my friends view me ... It will be difficult for me to fit in again with them if they think that I’ve changed.”
But, she continued: “Once you ask them to shut up and be in silence, the heart will lead you to the right path. I’m not being abstract; I’m not being supernatural here. Once you’re in the zone, you’ll know what to do, and the voices cease. It sounds very scary, right? But I’m serious.”
Finding balance is important, which is why she counters strenuous physical activities such as archery with learning the guzheng and the dizi, on top of practising yoga religiously. She would also like to take up pottery and calligraphy.
“Learning to calm down is something I want to do. People see me as zen, but I know I’m not zen enough. I would like to be more peaceful inside.”
Catch If Only I Could on weekdays at 9pm on Mediacorp TV Channel 8.
Photography: Chua Hong Yin
Makeup: Clarence Lee, using Hourglass Cosmetics at Sephora
Hair: Ken Wong, Duo
Styling: May Seah
On Paige: Runway sleeveless maxi dress and runway low cut ankle booties, both from DKNY.
Special thanks to the Archery Club Of Singapore.
This story first appeared on TODAY.