Zoe Tay’s rocky start in showbiz

Queen of Caldecott Hill admits that acting is not something she took to immediately, and was so unsatisfied with her job that she requested to be transferred to another department

Zoe Tay’s rocky start in showbiz

When you think of Zoe Tay, the image of a self-assured big sister figure whose acting chops are acknowledged comes to mind. In short, she’s the Queen of Caldecott Hill (or should we say, Stars Avenue?)

She celebrated her 30th year in showbiz earlier this year, and at the time, she admitted that she “never imagined myself spending 30 years in showbiz back then (…)somehow, with all the help of everyone around me, I managed to make it this far. It’s a blessing.”

In this week’s episode of Dennis Uncovers, we delve into the early days of Zoe’s career – including how she requested that the company transfer her to another department so that she wouldn’t have to act (read: she didn’t like acting), and the three most important men in her career.

Scroll down to watch the latest episode of Toggle’s Dennis Uncovers featuring Zoe Tay, or read on for our five biggest takeaways from her heart-to-heart sharing session. Stay tuned next week for the second episode!

WATCH: How did Zoe Tay end up joining Star Search in 1988?


Ah Jie’s rocky start in showbiz

We all know that Zoe kick-started her showbiz career with her Star Search 1988 win, but did you know how it all began? She shared that she had no self-confidence when she was younger, and that joining the competition was a way for her to gain experience and become more confident in front of the camera.

“I was intending to bring my portfolio to Hong Kong and Japan to start my career there. I didn’t quite understand why I kept being picked to advance to the next round,” the 50-year-old smiled. “When we were at the finals, I ended up on the headlines and I started panicking because my family knew about it from the papers. I didn’t tell them that I was participating in the contest.”

She recalled her older brother flipping open the English papers and asking her if the Zoe Tay that they were talking about in the news was her. “I really wanted to find a hole to hide myself in. My classmates called me and asked the same question,” she mused.

Just as she was about to hide from embarrassment, her father, who is a man of few words, spoke the words that could have changed her fate.

“He mentioned that the winner would receive a car as part of the prize, so he asked me to win the car,” she chuckled. “To me, I didn’t feel like I was the best among the contestants, neither did I think I was looked upon particularly fondly. That’s why I told him that it was impossible, and that I was in it for fun. My brother replied, ‘Please win that car. Daddy will like it very much.’”

The younger Zoe had no expectations towards the results of this contest, but after that simple declaration from her father, she started to think about doing something that would make her dad happy.

She explained, “I had never done anything to make him feel particularly proud of me when I was younger, so on the day that I was announced as the winner, I was in disbelief. The stage was pretty small, and the moment the results were announced, I looked at my dad who was sitting in the audience.”

Zoe Tay’s rocky start in showbiz
Zoe Tay during the Star Search competition

But that was just the start of the very rocky road that Zoe would have to walk on, because the real work started after she won the contest.

“When I signed the contract, I felt like I was in trouble because I had to start acting. I started to worry and regret – and I couldn’t not sign the contract, because to me, the prize was not only very generous, but also my father’s wish that I wanted to fulfill. Hanwei was offered a one-year contract, but mine was a three-year one,” she shared.

Actors back then, she said, had it much tougher than the newer generation of talents, as she recalled, “When I first started filming, I felt like it was really tough (…) acting requires you to pull all-nighters, redo things countless times and manage your own outfits and belongings. Basically, you had to do everything yourself. On top of that, you had to go through your script. I couldn’t adapt to it overnight. I didn’t feel like acting was a job that I was suited for.”

This was when she realised that there was a job that she felt she would thrive in – but it was behind the scenes.

“The AP’s (assistant producer) job of running about all the time felt like something that was more me. I requested to be transferred but my boss said no. I said that I was willing to have my salary cut to match theirs, but he still said no. I was really perplexed,” she said. “I didn’t like acting, and yet I still had to do it. I was wasting others’ time, along with my youth. Honestly, when I was filming My Fair Ladies, I didn’t like acting.”

In her first three years in showbiz, not only did she get scolded all the time, we also found out that it went as far as her getting blacklisted while she was filming a drama. “For a few days, I would get up bright and early to get my hair and makeup done, put on my outfit and head to the film set. I’d wait there for the entire day, only to go back at the end of the filming day without any scenes filmed. Only on the last day did they film my scene,” she let on. “They hurriedly finished my scene and called it a day.”

While the crew was filming behind the scenes shots, she was joking around with the crew but also got told off for doing so. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

She grinned, “There was also another instance where I was napping because I was really tired. They coloured my toes and drew on my face, and I threw a tantrum when I woke up. I got scolded by the director for that.”

“There was also a period of time where I felt like I was stuck – my roles were pretty similar, and so I talked to the company and they sent me for a summer camp. It was there where I realised that I should be thankful for every single opportunity that I am given,” she mused. “Regardless of how tired I was, I told myself that I had to treasure the moment. If I didn’t respect my job, it was the equivalent of disrespecting myself. In that case, I shouldn’t be in this industry (if I couldn’t even get this right).”

With all that said and done, Zoe has taken all these experiences in her stride. She said, “Now that I look back on everything I’ve gone through, I realise that the people I’ve met and the things I’ve gone through have helped me grow up. The actors these days have it much easier than we did back in the past.”

(Continued on next page: The three most important men in Zoe Tay’s career)

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