Vivian Lai's unfulfilled ambitions at 40: A son and hosting award

In this week’s Toggle Talk, we speak to the celeb mum who seems to have it all about how a soothsayer foretold her serendipitous journey into the local entertainment industry, her completely unromantic marriage proposal, and her unaccomplished life and career goals

Vivian Lai's unfulfilled ambitions at 40: A son and hosting award

Photos: Lee Lay Na

Vivian Lai isn’t unlike her onscreen persona — the Taipei-born actress, host and mother of two stayed effervescent and upbeat even when going over some of the tougher episodes in her life, from her strained relationship with her mother when she was a teen to her inability to cry on cue at 2 a.m. with the entire crew of Knotty Liaisons, her acting debut, waiting for her scene to wrap.

The eternal optimist credits her go-with-the-flow attitude and thick skin with seeing her through setbacks. In particular, she developed the latter when she stumbled through presentations done in her choppy English during class at the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (SHATEC), which counts artistes Pierre Png and Ben Yeo among its alumni.

The 39-year-old says she’s content with her life, and rightly so: She’s got the acting roles, hosting gigs, Star Awards trophies, husband (Alan Ong, a director at a beverage company) and children (daughters Vera, 11, and Ariel, 6). But now that the December baby is approaching the four-decade mark, Vivian is looking to broaden her horizons.

“Between 40 and 50, I want to do something that I’d not thought about doing before I’m 40,” she said. And with that, the actress established 3X Media Production with Quan Yi Fong and Addy Lee in August 2014 to focus on shooting and producing advertisements, programme production and directing.

But don’t expect to see Vivian as a leading lady anytime soon. Though she’s never held that coveted title in all her 17 years in the local entertainment industry, she doesn’t want to cast herself as the female lead in a movie produced by her team.

“That’s too great a responsibility, with too much pressure,” she said of the burden of juggling box office expectations with production costs. “I wouldn’t consider it, plus my shareholders would give me an earful!”

So what does Vivian want?

In today’s edition of Toggle Talk, she lets us in on why she pities her husband for being ‘outnumbered’ at home, the twists and turns of her artiste career, and that one Star Awards title that has escaped her grasp for years.

Read on for more and watch the videos for a detailed account of her interview.

WATCH: Vivian Lai opens up about her rebellious teenage years.

A fortune-teller in Taiwan told her she had to head ‘overseas’ to succeed

Though her younger brother had been studying in Singapore since he was in primary 2, Vivian stayed behind in Taiwan — their parents, who had business dealings in the Republic, couldn’t bear to tear her away from her numerous friends at home, she said.

But when maintaining the long-distance relationship became strenuous, the plan to relocate the whole family to Singapore was laid on the table. Vivian, who resisted the proposal, sought divine guidance on whether she should go along with it.

“A roadside fortune-teller said to me, ‘You must venture overseas in your lifetime, if you do that your life will be different,’” Vivian recounted. “I was stunned, and I kept pressing him, ‘What do you mean by different? And what counts as overseas?’ Because Taiwan has outer islands such as Matsu and Kinmen.”

The soothsayer’s cryptic reply? “You have to leave where you’re living now, and then your fate will be altered forever.”

Her defiance got her uprooted from Taiwan at age 16

Vivian confessed to having a rebellious streak as a teen — she picked up mahjong and started gambling, staying out with friends past curfew and returning home at dawn, which incurred the wrath of her parents.

Once, the actress even pulled a Ferris Bueller on her mother: She went to bed early on a Friday night, saying she was going to study the next morning, and then placed a bolster pillow under the bedcovers and snuck out of the house at 1 a.m.

“But of course I got caught,” she said. “Crooks always do.”

Vivian’s mother chased her down and beat her with a bamboo broom that left multiple lashes with each whack on the legs. “I couldn’t take the beatings anymore, so I broke the broom,” Vivian said. “I was covered in wounds, I was even bleeding.”

The ensuing cold war between mother and daughter got so tense that Vivian camped out at a classmate’s house; her father had to play the peacemaker and beg her to return home.

“At that time, my mother was strict with me, so our relationship wasn’t good,” Vivian said. “It only improved when I became a mother myself, when I could understand what she had gone through.”

Vivian Lai's unfulfilled ambitions at 40: A son and hosting award

She wasn’t sure she could last two years in the entertainment industry

The classic tale of artistes getting discovered when they accompanied their friends to auditions or competitions was exactly what happened in Vivian’s case. While a SHATEC tourism student, Vivian heard about Star Search, the Chinese-language talent-scouting programme, from a classmate. Though she considered her Mandarin skills strong enough to let her take part, what really piqued her interest was the promise of a cash award and prizes.

“The prizes were fantastic during my year,” she gushed. “A car and $20,000 cash, so I thought, OK lor, you never try, you never know mah.”

But despite emerging the eventual female champion for Star Search 1999, Vivian struggled acclimatising to the entertainment industry, and her acting debut in Knotty Liaisons in 2000 opposite Chen Hanwei was so poorly received that she got benched for six months.

“I knew absolutely nothing, so I was yelled at all the time on set,” Vivian recalled. And the newbie actress was in for a rude shock: She had no entourage of assistants; she had to settle every detail herself, from checking her rundown to making sure she put on the right costumes for the right scenes (which she often messed up, much to the crew’s annoyance).

“There was this crying scene I had to do at about 2 a.m. and everyone was waiting for me,” Vivian spoke of a particularly difficult episode early in her career. “But I couldn’t — I pinched my thighs, I wanted to pinch my nipples or other sensitive areas, but the tears just wouldn’t flow.”

The feedback and reviews on Vivian’s performance in the anthology series were harsh — her Taiwanese accent was too jarring for local audiences, for one. “I thought to myself, if after (this two-year contract is up) I don’t have much to show for, I’ll change tack,” she said.

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