Photos: Lee Lay Na
Love it, hate it, want it, need it: Fame is like a waiting game. A lucky handful rocket to super stardom overnight with the help of one role, one show, or one song, but for some, they toil hard and wait decades—or even a lifetime—before climbing up the ranks, landing meatier roles and maybe, finally, bagging their first acting recognition – or none at all. Some don’t even make it to the big leagues after dedicating their lives to the business. And that’s the way the fame game goes.
Today’s Toggle Talk guest is best remembered for humming to the Star Awards opening tune to represent her seven-year-long wait, when she won her first Top 10 popularity award at the Star Awards ceremony in 2014. But that’s the only “official” award to Ya Hui’s name so far, save for being crowned Miss Telegenic in Star Search 2007, after spending close to 10 years in the industry.
While she is determined to prove her mettle and feels the heat from the intense competition posed by younger peers who are rising - fast - she is adamant and hasn’t spent a single cent voting for herself at the popularity polls, said Ya Hui.
Likening awards to that of “bonuses” and “stars” on a report card, this year’s Best Actress nominee admitted, “Winning awards is something every artiste hopes for, but you can’t force such things” – as if talking about how she failed to make the top 10 ranks for the second year running.
Que Sera Sera, what will be, will be.
These losses only serve to motivate her to work even harder, as she did, during her career slump, when she played nothing but “xiao mei mei” (or someone’s younger sister) roles on TV. Often called Caldecott Hill’s ‘little sister’, this very title may be a celebrated one for actresses like Moon Geun Young in Korea, but in Singapore, it’s nothing but a thorn in her heart.
Hear it from the actress herself in our story and videos below. Read and watch to find out just how badly she struggled with playing archetype ‘bubbly and optimistic’ roles for nine years (and counting), how she was inches away from leaving the glitzy world of show business behind for a more realistic job in life, and why she seriously needs help finding Mr. Right.
WATCH: Ya Hui talks about her past intentions to quit showbiz
Getting trapped in the ‘little sister’ rut
Ya Hui didn’t exactly play ‘little sister’ roles all the time. The 28-year-old had the chance to try a variety of challenging characters, especially during her two overseas filming stints in Malaysia for Tribulations of Life and Model a la Mode in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The 28-year-old played a druggie in Tribulations and finally scored a meatier lead role in Model, but went back to square one - that is, her ‘little sister’ roles - after that.
In an attempt to present a more mature side of herself, she even heeded the advice of helpful colleagues who told her to come to work in formal attire and to accessorise with a watch – to look like she has proper time management.
“I gave up after trying it for a period of time,” she shared, pondering out loud, “Why can’t I be myself? I mean, acting is a job, but it doesn’t mean that what I wear when I’m not on camera will affect the kind of roles I get.”
Love it or hate it, she finally came to terms with always playing “someone’s sisters” after a wise man (Thomas Ong) and woman (Ng Hui) told her to enjoy it while it lasts because you don’t stay young, or rather, look 21, forever.
Staying or quitting?
She may have acquiesced to her fate of playing little sister, but Ya Hui tells us there was one time – not too long ago, she was dangerously close to walking away from her life as an actress. Having a career that “went nowhere” with little to no growth, chances and “insurance” was the main reason why she toyed with the idea of quitting when she was filming Channel 8 drama Served H.O.T., which was, ironically, her first female lead role.
Coupled with a paycheck that was just “not enough” to match the rising standards of living in Singapore, the “unhappy” and “compulsive person” in her just couldn’t take it anymore.
“You don’t know how long the company would want you for, you don’t know if there will be more opportunities lined up if you continued to renew your contract. Everything is a question mark,” she honestly remarked, “It’s like the great unknown. I wanted to let it all go and start from scratch again.”
When she looked back on her impulsive decision made two years ago, which she, thankfully, did not “double confirm” with the company, during her contract renewal discussions, she expressed nothing but regret about being a quitter (albeit, temporarily) today.
“My emotions were in a complete state of flux then, when I thought about how that would be my last drama. I couldn’t bear to let go,” she admitted ruefully, “I’ve yet to do a variety of roles, but it was just [a decision I made] in the spur of the moment – I don’t know where I found the strength or courage from [to decide that I wanted to quit].”
Ultimately, it was her passion and genuine love for acting that made her stay on.
To be, or not to be – a PR Queen, that is
The entertainment industry in Singapore is relatively safe and sanitised, as compared to those in Asian countries like Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, which are populated by horror stories about prostitution or actors and actresses sleeping their way to the top. Things are not as dire here, but having a healthy network of contacts always helps with opening up new windows of opportunities.
That being said, Ya Hui firmly believes that a “professional working attitude” is all she needs, and maintaining PR (public relations)-like relationships with producers, directors and her co-stars are not things she’d concern herself with. “I’m actually someone who needs to go home every day and look over my scripts for the next day of filming,” she frankly replied, when asked if she hangs out with her co-stars after work.
“I seldom take sick leave during filming and I’ve never been late for work too. I think this is enough. It’s more important to be a good person – even if it means I’m somebody that nobody likes—as long as I don’t do anything that betrays my conscience [at work]. I can’t do anything about it if people just don’t like me [for being myself].”
Her laissez faire attitude towards keeping up a good “PR” front may have earned her the “spoil sport” nickname, but she reasoned, “Who cares? As an actress, we just need to do our job. But, of course, it’s important to have a harmonious relationship [with your co-stars] on set – that’s the most important, too.”
On the next page: Ya Hui lets in on her fame-hungry days and why she has problems finding a guy.
Are colleagues friends or foes?
For reasons unbeknownst to even Ya Hui herself, she tends to “connect” better with people who are at least 10 years older than her. She reckons it might be due to her upbringing at home, with two older brothers who are 39 and 41 years old this year.
Perhaps that’s why she had an instant connection with Chen Liping, 51, whom she counts as a mentor and friend – on top of coming from the same dialect clan (“Teochew sisters,” she proudly proclaimed). The two share a tight relationship despite their 20-year age gap and can be seen celebrating birthdays, special occasions and even going abroad together.
So, how does she view up-and-coming actresses such as Carrie Wong and Julie Tan, who are seen as her closest competitors in showbiz?
“I used to take it (the rivalry) more seriously in the past, but now, it doesn’t bother me as much. I don’t know why… Now, I’d rather channel my energy to do everything to the best of my capabilities [instead of focusing on the competition] and show the audience what I’m capable of.”
And that’s about as far as the comparisons go, she tells us. “I think we all look different… I think every actress has different interpretations of different roles; I think it’s a healthy form of competition.”
If anything, she’s more envious than jealous of her peers’ ability to act from the get-go, the moment they enter the industry. “I don’t think that I’m at a ‘senior’ level or that I am more superior just because I have been in the industry for a longer time. Every time I act, I ask myself: ‘Why are you so stupid? When will you be able to gain enlightenment?’
“Sometimes I look at them (her peers) and I get the impression that they have been acting for so many years!” she wryly mused.
Being remembered as an actress or for a TV character?
After years of waiting and playing the same roles, Ya Hui finally had the chance to prove her worth in her breakout role as Jinzhi, the affable wanton mee seller in long-form drama series, 118, which will be returning in September this year. Instead of being seen as another pedestrian (aka regular actor) on TV, people started remembering her name and recognised her as “Jinzhi”, quipped the actress.
“I think it’s very contradictory to be an artiste (chuckles). Although you don’t have privacy, but you don’t want people to not be able to recognise you, too. When I used to go out, people know me as the person who acts or the-one-who-acts-in-the-TV-station. And when they don’t know you by name, it can be slightly hurtful.”
So does it bother her that people call her Jinzhi instead of Ya Hui now?
“But Jinzhi is played by Ya Hui,” she replied, “And hearing that makes me feel happy too because people remember what I’ve done.”
WATCH: Ya Hui is no "PR queen" at work
How far will she go for fame?
Her desire to be more than just a regular girl next door can be seen in her efforts to get talent-spotted during her schooling years. She tried not once - but twice - to be scouted at two different variety programme shoots that was on the hunt for new faces in the heartland areas. Unfortunately, her attempts to walk in front of the camera a few times to try to catch the attention of the hosts came to naught and left her with a bruised ego for a long time, Ya Hui recounted.
“I was most confident about my smile back then so I went there in high spirits, thinking I’d be selected. I searched high and low for the hosts and when I finally found them and confidently walked in front of them a few times, flashing my smile, I was ignored. Wah, [I felt so] hurt,” she said in embarrassment.
Bent on pursuing her starry ambitions, she eventually decided to “secretly join” the Star Search competition in 2007, without informing her parents beforehand, and the rest - as they say - is history.
Love or pride?
You may find it hard to believe but this eligible bachelorette has been single since joining showbiz. She has gone on a few dates and even attended matchmaking sessions organised by her friends, but has yet to find the guy who’d make her feel giddy and lightheaded.
“I can’t help it if I can’t find anyone. I have friends who can’t find anyone too and we’d discuss: ‘We’re turning 30 soon, what should we do?!’ We’re just helpless,” Ya Hui lamented, “Hello, where are you, my prince charming?!”
For someone who used to be a “social butterfly” and diehard romantic during her schooling days, she credits her current non-existent love life to be the work of “karma”, having toyed with the feelings of several suitors during her younger days.
“I’d text a few guys at the same time… I really enjoyed the ambiguous feeling of being in a relationship and it is retribution that I am being left on the shelf now,” she wisecracked.
If fate doesn’t come knocking on her door, will she buck traditions then and take the initiative to proactively pursue a guy she fancies? The answer is no.
“It’s very embarrassing one. Can you imagine an artiste going up to a guy to get to know him or ask for his number? It’s very lame, right? What if someone says they are not interested or if they are gay? You never know… It’d be very hard to avoid humiliation.”
“If I find someone I fancy, I might make the first move,” she adamantly added, in between pauses, “Maybe I’d just drop hints, but I won’t directly ask him out.”
But there are some exceptions.
“Let’s say, one day someone like Lee Min Ho appears in Mediacorp. I’d immediately go up to him, call him ‘oppa’ and ask for his telephone number. (Laughs)”
WATCH: Why Ya Hui cannot find Mr. Right
Special thanks to W Hotel Singapore.