From loser to A-lister: How Shaun Chen survived the fall

This week’s Toggle Talk tête-à-tête explores the new father’s bumpy road, from odd-job worker to disgraced actor to top star winning in both his professional and personal lives

Toggle Talk Shaun Chen

Photos: Terence Tay

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and as far as local entertainment ones go, Shaun Chen’s rags again, riches again tale is one that stands out the most in recent years.

The 37-year-old has been through various trials and tribulations ever since he entered the industry 14 years ago. At the very beginning, he made a less-than-stellar impression while filming his debut drama True Heroes in 2003, where he racked up an astonishing 50 to 60 NG’s (no-good takes).

“I was filming a breakup scene with Phyllis Quek, but I don’t know if I was being angry or if I was about to cry!” he recalled during our interview, held in a posh suite at Royal Plaza on Scotts. “I was scolded by the director half to death, and it made me question whether I had the talent to become an actor.”

Things appeared to look up when he took on his second role as Yu Hong Zhi (a.k.a. Xiao Xin), a wealthy businessman who is struck with temporary memory loss, in long-form drama Holland V that same year. People started recognising him on the streets, even when he went back to Malaysia, as the programme was broadcasted on the local cable network there.

“That time I really felt (fame) came so quickly, (but) I don’t know why – perhaps because of luck,” Shaun mused.

However, as they say, “easy come, easy go”. In 2005, Shaun’s third year in showbiz, SPH MediaWorks, the TV station he was signed to, merged with Mediacorp. While many artistes, including his then-girlfriend Michelle Chia, got to move over to the new company, Shaun was tragically axed.

Fast forward a decade, and the Malaysian-born actor was finally picking up his very first trophy, the Rocket Award, at the 2015 Star Awards. Then, the very weekend after that, he was crowned Best Actor – the undisputed crème de la crème of all accolades for male thespians. That wasn’t the last of the good news: later that year, it was revealed that Shaun had secretly married his girlfriend Celine in July, and their daughter Nellie was born in December.

“I’ve become happier and more satisfied,” the new dad declared. “My career is going well, and I have a wife and a daughter. I’m satisfied with that.”

Indeed, life has been very good to him recently, but it was not always this way. In this week’s Toggle Talk, we explore Shaun’s tough past, how he dealt with it, and how he’s revelling in the sweet present:

WATCH: Shaun Chen recalls his disastrous first acting audition

He cheated his way to a college diploma

Shaun made no secret of his less-than-impressive academic past, even going so far as to claim his results were the worst among his six siblings (five sisters and one brother, all older than him). “In primary school I always got last place or second last place,” he admitted. “I remember the female student whom I always ‘competed’ for last place with, and she has since gone on to become a famous photographer.”

Things didn’t get any better when he went on to secondary school, and he failed his Malay subject for SPM (the Malaysian Certificate of Education), which meant that he could not obtain the certificate. Unable to enter into a university, Shaun enrolled in an electronic and electrical engineering course at a private college in Kuala Lumpur, but he did not enjoy the subject.

He would have been done for in the final exams if not for his lecturer’s dishonest behaviour. “During the test, the lecturer looked at me and asked, ‘You don’t know how to do (this question)?’, asked for a pen, and wrote down the formula for me! So I passed,” he recounted. “I think the school was afraid that if their students fail, they would get into trouble.”

Thankfully, the fraudulent academy has since closed down, leaving Shaun to wonder if the diploma he received is of any use (not that he needs it now, anyway).

He gave stardom a shot in a talent competition and male beauty pageant

In order to earn money while he was studying, Shaun took on modelling gigs. “I had a very, very old motorcycle that I bought for RM500 (about S$168),” he recalled, claiming that the vehicle was so shabby that it would never be stolen even if it were left on the side of the road. “Whenever I rode it to casting calls or went for a show, I would park the bike far away because I felt embarrassed by it.”

One day, a friend of his, who was also a model, asked if Shaun would be interested in joining a Manhunt-like male beauty pageant. The then-19-year-old agreed, but he did not expect to be strutting down a catwalk in swimming trunks.

“I was totally not prepared and I looked really terrible!” he recounted with a shudder, quipping that he didn’t even get to shave. To make matters worse, his third sister, who had come to support him, took pictures. “I don’t know if those photos still exist, and if they are, I will faint,” he said. 

So did he win? “Of course not, my body was not good enough,” he said. But there was a silver lining: “I realised that I'm not camera-shy.”

Toggle Talk Shaun Chen

His first acting audition was a disaster

Armed with the new revelation about his potential in front of the camera, Shaun and a few of his friends decided to join a talent competition in Malaysia. During auditions, he chose to sing for the judges, but did not even manage to pass the first round.

It wasn’t until 2002 – after working a myriad of jobs, from a cable technician to a car painter to a bank salesman to an eyewear distributor – when Shaun, who was also still modelling part-time, was talent-spotted and negotiated a one-year contract with Mediacorp. He came to Singapore to attend a simple audition where he had to act out a one-page script, but he messed it up so badly he was expecting to kiss his contract goodbye.

To his surprise, his contract was still valid, and he was told that he could start filming dramas. After packing his car full of his belongings – including his mattress – he embarked on the long drive from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, and thus his 14-year stay in the Lion City began.

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