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.”
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.
She wants the Best Programme Host award more than a lead actress role
Vivian didn’t stay in a rut forever. She credits Huang Biren and Aileen Tan, her co-stars in the 2001 drama Three Women and a Half, with igniting her passion for and interest in acting. After she received a contract renewal, she went on to star in two local longform drama series, Holland V and Double Happiness, which kept her occupied for about three years.
By chance, Vivian moved into the same apartment building as actor–host Mark Lee and actress Pan Lingling. “Mark told me, ‘Wow, you’re quick-witted, why haven’t you tried your hand at variety shows?’” Vivian said.
What followed was a string of gigs hosting Chinese variety programmes, starting with 2006’s Property Classified alongside her neighbour Mark. Stints in multiple seasons of On the Beat, Ladies Nite and Say It earned her recognition for her hosting talents, but the Star Awards Best Programme Host award has so far eluded her.
“I’ve won Best Supporting Actress (for 2011 drama Love Thy Neighbour), I’ve snagged the All-Time Favourite Artiste Award (in 2015), but my biggest regret is that I’ve still not earned an award for hosting,” she said. “There are plenty of things I don’t mind, but to be honest, this one does bother me.”
When it was pointed out that she has never helmed her own variety programme (or drama series), while industry juniors including Pornsak and Lee Teng have, Vivian became pensive. “I’m curious about that too,” she said. “Perhaps I don’t have the gravitas or I don’t pull strong ratings, I really don’t know.”
But if she had to choose between finally being cast as the female lead in a drama and winning the Best Programme Host award, which would it be? “I would want the hosting award, for sure,” she said.
WATCH: Vivian Lai reveals why she really wants the Best Variety Show Host award.
She was no way as demure as she looked
Vivian’s long hair, which she has maintained since her schooling days, led her image to be fixed early on as an actress with a sophisticated air, but that was a far cry from her own personality.
“There was definitely a clash,” she said, agreeing that she wasn’t the goddess type, but loud, brash and bochap (can’t be bothered). “Those who know me all know that my appearance on television in recent years is much closer to who I really am in private.”
Despite the incongruity, Vivian didn’t reject her assigned image. “Which young person doesn’t want to be an idol?” she said when asked if she thought she had been pigeonholed.
“Who starts out wanting to be a comedian? The company styled me nicely, so why would I have gone against that? I’m not Ru Hua!” she said, referring to Hong Kong actor Lee Kin-yan’s cross-dressing, nose-picking alter ego.
She would limit her ‘investment’ in a Top 10 award to $3,000
Since winning her first Star Awards Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes award in 2001, Vivian has been fending off rumours that her husband poured massive funds into ensuring she bagged that trophy all 10 times she was nominated.
“A husband ought to support his wife — there’s no issue with that,” she said. “If my daughters were up for such an award, as a mother I’d call (their telepoll numbers) repeatedly without pause.”
The actress doesn’t believe in “investing” in the Top 10 award without any limits. “A few hundred dollars, up to $2,000 or $3,000, I think that’s acceptable,” she said. “But any more than that, I don’t think it’s worth it.”
She flatly denies rumours that her husband signed her for endorsement deals
You might have seen Vivian (and sometimes her daughters) appearing in ads for products that run the gamut from beverages to sanitising handwash — the actress once held five or six endorsement deals at her busiest.
Her 8-year working relationship with a Japanese beverage company, for which her husband works, has raised a few eyebrows, but Vivian denied that she was signed as their ambassador through his connection.
“When I started endorsing this brand, my husband had only been working at the company for a little more than a year, and he was a junior employee,” she explained. And even more ludicrous was gossip that she was married to the boss of the company behind the sanitising handwash she endorsed. “That boss was a woman!” Vivian cried. “People started pairing me up with everyone.”
The rumours do get her down, but she stays upbeat about it. “As an artiste, you’re subjected to public opinion,” she said. “So as long as I’m happy with my life, that’s enough.”
She received the most pragmatic Singaporean marriage proposal
Another cliche in Vivian’s life was how her husband asked if she wanted to buy a house together as a way of proposing marriage, instead of getting down on bended knee and presenting her with a ring and roses.
The couple, who met at a friend’s birthday party and dated for 3 years before they eventually wed, found themselves viewing apartments together over the weekends because Vivian was looking to invest in property. An executive condominium caught their eye, but potential buyers had to have registered for marriage.
“We were waiting for the lift when he said, ‘In that case, we have to go apply to get married,’” Vivian recounted. “And I was like, ‘OK then.’”
She won’t rule out undergoing IVF to conceive a third child, preferably a boy
Calling her household an estrogen-fueled environment — “When the wife, two children, domestic helper and family dog are all female, wouldn’t you be sian (frustrated)?” — Vivian said she pities her husband for putting up with it without complaint. The actress plans to spend the next two to three years trying for a boy.
“I think my husband craves a son,” she explained, though having a daughter had always been her dream. But with their two daughters insisting on co-sleeping, there’s little chance for couple time. And now that she’s pushing 40, fertility treatments might be in the works.
“I’ll start thinking about IVF this year, but friends who’ve done it tell me it isn’t easy, you need to persist,” Vivian said. “And you have to be brave — the higher your expectations, the deeper your disappointment.”
WATCH: Vivian Lai confesses that she wants a third child and why she won't rule out IVF.
Special thanks to Sheraton Towers Singapore.