Getting inside the troubled mind of Michelle Chong

In this week’s Toggle Talk, the multi-hyphenate gets real about love, dealing with depression that “you don’t quit until the day you die” and why she believes she was misled into showbiz

Toggle Talk: Michelle Chong

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.”

Toggle Talk: Michelle Chong

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

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