At a local movie premiere a few nights ago, an industry veteran who relocated here from China, pointed an artiste out in the crowd from across the cinema hall at the Capitol Theatre. “It is easy to over or underdress this evening. Her dressing is appropriate for the occasion,” he said. He was referring to Zoe Tay, fresh off winning Best Actress at the Stars Awards, 21 years after her first win.
I took a long hard look at her, almost rediscovering this acting icon. Have we, the entertainment industry and the public, perhaps taken this evergreen actress for granted? I also started thinking – how has she stayed on top through the years? Is she still relevant? Hers is probably the career that most closely mirrors the ever-evolving local media and entertainment scene in the last three decades. Suddenly I wanted to know more.
I made arrangements to meet her. We worked together many years ago, and have not met for a while. When she turned up, she was immediately disarming. We started talking like old friends. The years have been more than kind to her, she looks almost the same, and during our nearly three hours chat, I noticed her English has improved by leaps.
Zoe is quite an unusual name in the 1990s. But this girl from the pig farms of Lim Chu Kang would make it a household name. Now, this country owns the name – Zoe Tay.
Her rise to fame proved, at the time, that Singapore TV could produce its own star to eclipse those from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Today, she still reigns as the Queen of Caldecott. Before Zoe, no TV actress was ever considered a Singapore celebrity. She paved the way for Fann Wong and others after her. She was the celebrity to David Gan so that he could be the celebrity hairdresser and stylist.
She is usually the best dressed at events, and in later years, one of the better spoken ones, always cutting an imposing yet graceful presence. And yes, Ms Tay did have her fair share of tabloid news, gossips and guffaws. One can say while others have moved on, she has stuck around long enough to thrive in a cruel cut-throat industry.
I first asked if she felt Singapore has taken her for granted. She was a little surprised by such a question. However, her answer was swift and considered. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I am grateful. I may not be top-of-mind all the time, but I think people are aware of my presence and my work.” She spoke with a quiet confidence of her place in this industry. But this confidence, she was quick to add, is hard-earned.
In fact, immediately after an early high point in her career, winning best actress at the Star Awards for “Golden Pillow” in 1996, she felt strangely empty and lost. She contemplated quitting but instead decided to enrol in an acting class in New York. This became a transformative experience that planted the seed of hunger to be better in her craft, and instilled in her a deep respect for acting and actors.
An important pillar in her career is the support from her loved ones, from her father to her husband and her closest friends. There was a time, during her lull years, when new and younger artistes emerged on the horizon, journalists would ask her outright if she thought she was over the hill. And during the Star Awards when she was not nominated, she would turn up, only to be ignored for the most part. She had felt depressed as anyone would. But her husband stood by her side, urging her to speak up if she was displeased and to stay the course if she was passionate as an actress. She also found solace in the guiding voices of her fiercely loyal, carefully cultivated friends, most of whom are in the industry or related industries.
Slowly, over time, she has learned to overcome adversity. Last year when she failed to win an award for her role in “The Dream Makers 2”, she gained another insight. “When someone else’s name was called as the winner,” she recalled, “I saw my entire journey, from someone who could not speak proper English or perfect Mandarin, someone who had no interest in acting, no push to be driven in my career, no knowledge of the entertainment world, to someone who is focused on improving my acting, and who can be exemplary to other actors for having made acting my lifelong profession.”
She paused to add, “My career is my win.”
When I asked what she was most proud of in her long career, she took some time before replying: “My focus.” “To stay on course as an actress. The distractions can be overwhelmingly tempting. But I am contented to just be an actress. On TV. In Singapore,” she added. “Focusing on improving myself with each role, with each scene, and with each dialogue. I get this steadfast loyalty from my late father.” Her father also taught her to take her career seriously. Three Chinese words of his have stuck with her through the years – 毅力 or perseverance, 耐力 or endurance , 勇气 or courage. This, along with other aspects of the Chinese culture she learned from him, are life skills she wishes she can pass on to her children.
Towards the end of our session, for a brief moment, I realised something I have always seen in her but never fully recognise. It is her inner strength, which she exudes so effortlessly. It is clear her longevity and enduring appeal are not by chance. Unlike a host of local names trying to make it overseas, she is content to be an actress in Singapore, honing her craft primarily for the TV medium. She had been a model, and had sang the occasional song, but she stayed as an actress.
Beneath the glamour, Zoe is a decent person with a family. She is a model wife and mother. Ultimately, it is this part of her that makes her relatable – a down to earth award-winning actress who is also a fashion icon, an “Ah Jie” Singaporeans have almost nothing to apologise for.
But is she still relevant in today’s borderless world of rapid disruption? One can say Zoe could have been more experimental, that she could be a little more prolific on the big screen, she could have taken to the stage. Or her roles could have been more diverse. I cannot, for example, recall her playing a villainous character. Then it occurred to me – consistency is her salvation. She is a constant in a sea of change. I asked her what will happen to her if her company decides to disband its artiste management unit and she has to be independent. She is grateful, she said, that such a thing has not happened before. She is now confident there will always be a place for good acting, in any medium, online or the traditional platforms.
Like many reigning queens I know in this business, Zoe has learned to create a friendly, calm and still aura. Beneath it, there is a steely determination. She has just clinched the ambassadorship for a prestigious global cosmetic brand actresses half her age would clamour for. She hugged me when she arrived and before she left. It was borderline professional and friendly, yet there was a personal warmth that felt real. In the final analysis, it is perhaps this real side to her that reaches out beyond the screen to connect and resonate with her friends and fans.