“I Still Go To The Kopitiam In T-Shirt, FBT Shorts and Slippers. I’m Not Affected By The Number Of Followers I Have”

Top social media influencer Andrea Chong, with 286,000 Instagram followers and counting, may be famous on the Internet, but the 25-year-old is a down-to-earth girl IRL, albeit one with a lot of clout.

At the end of a fun and candid interview with Andrea Chong, aka @dreachong on Instagram, she reaches over to give me a hug. I told her that I didn’t expect her to be so warm and cheerful in person. She laughs, “It’s all those photos I post where I’m like gazing into the distance, right?”

 Yeah, kinda. It’s also her beautiful IG feed full of perfectly-composed squares where she’s impeccably-dressed and flawlessly-made up, usually indulging in envy-inducing activities like frolicking with sakura blossoms in Tokyo, having breakfast in bed, or looking darn cool in a café. Her life looks picture-perfect to the point of unreal, which is perhaps why it’s refreshing that Andrea is, in fact, as normal as your JC classmate, if your JC classmate went on to become prom queen and then earn a lot of money before hitting 30. She talks loudly and excitably, without any airs, and thankfully, does not have a fake accent like so many millennials these days.

 The influential 25-year-old is one of the faces of jewellery brand Pandora’s Do campaign, which celebrates inspiring women who do things with passion. And Andrea is a do-er, alright. It’s easy to assume that the blogger — who deferred her Literature degree at NTU five years ago ’cos she was getting so many lucrative opportunities on social media — is just a pretty face who looks great in clothes and can pose up a storm. But we’re surprised to discover that the galboss exercises total control over her social media presence. She conceptualises each photo, adjusts lighting and handles other camera technicalities, acts as the model, stylist and make-up artist and edits every pic herself. She laughs, “I just need someone to press the button! The person is basically a human tripod!”

 And it seems that being around her, even for just an hour, is enough to make you more photogenic and social media-savvy too. I took a photo with Andrea for posterity, and with a few deft instructions (“Face this way, the sun is here; oh, turn your body this way”), the photo (taken by her assistant, who’s obviously been trained by her) looks awesome. My arms are slim, my waist looks small, and my face is magically V-shaped. What is this sorcery, @dreachong?

Pretty as a picture: 25-year-old Andrea Chong aka @dreachong boasts 286K followers on Instagram, and is a creative and style force to be reckoned with. 

8 DAYS: The best influencers work very hard. To be successful, you have to be a do-er. How does Pandora’s Do campaign resonate with you?
ANDREA CHONG: It’s pretty much my life. I’m always doing stuff — from the moment I wake up to when I sleep. Sometimes I can’t sleep, ’cos work is bugging me. I always have to be busy; I don’t like it if I’m free. I think if you’re free, you should be panicking. I don’t have off days. I don’t believe in off days. I get a bit offended when people want off days. Offended! (Guffaws) I know the millennial generation wants me-time and work-life balance, but to me, it’s like you don’t have time to have off days when you’re so young. If you have to work on a Saturday, you work on a Saturday. Yes, I feel tired sometimes, but if you don’t work hard now, then when? You’re only young once. These opportunities will never come again.

Do you work so hard also because you believe that this career has a shelf life?
Not really. I worked hard even when I was very young. I’ve worked since I was 15. My parents owned a fashion accessories business, and even at 9 years old, I was already helping them to pack stuff and do stock-taking for an allowance. I moved on to being a receptionist, working as a private tutor and a sales promoter. I crave independence and being in control of my life — that’s what drives me. I will work and scrimp and save if I have to.

Why do you have to scrimp and save? You must get so many free things — holidays, clothes, beauty products…
I want to be financially independent, and to be secure. Like, if sh*t happens, I can handle it.

So you’ve made enough so that if all your endorsements ended tomorrow, you’d be fine.
Yeah. But I hope that doesn’t happen! But — touchwood — if any family member gets into an accident or has to go to hospital, there is not an issue for me to be able to step in and work out a solution. I bought my own car when I was 22. No, I don’t own my own place, but I can afford one if I want. I wanted to get a place, but everyone’s like, “Don’t be stupid. If you can live with your parents, live with your parents!” I want to wait for my boyfriend [who’s a lawyer] and once we are ready, we will get married and buy a place. For now I just stay with my dad lah [her parents are divorced and her mother lives in Tasmania in Australia].

Many of your photos are works of art, probably with more planning and behind-the-scenes prep work than people know. Do you feel offended when people think it’s easy or fun to be an influencer? Or when they say anyone can do it?
Really, anyone can do it. There’s truth in that. But for me, part of my Instagram is still a business, and with every business, there are people you manage. If it’s a video, then there are e-mails from clients, storyboarding, looking for a crew and equipment, then directing, shooting and editing the video, and approvals. It’s a huge process, like with any typical advertising production. Obviously you can take out your phone and just shoot a pic or video, but I prefer shooting with my DSLR camera for video. Even with photos, there is planning involved. Like if you go to Tokyo and want to shoot with the cherry blossoms, you have to do your research, like which area to go to, and what time. You have to decide on the outfits. I always try to match my outfits — if something doesn’t go, I will change my outfit or the location.

Do you bring along a photographer?
No, it’s usually me telling my assistant what to do. My assistant works with me full time. I will take the photos and I will edit them. I pose and frame the shots, get the lighting and colours right, and I just need someone to press the button. I edit all the photos. I feel very attached to my photos — there’s a certain way I edit my photos and I can’t let go yet. I learned over the years what my style is and what works for me.

When you shoot with your phone, what photo-editing apps do you use?
I use Afterlight, Snapseed and Beauty Cam a lot. I don’t think I can live without them. I depend on them to get the colours and the perspectives that I want. I shoot with both my phone and my DSLR. It really depends on the situation. Actually, my phone photos do so much better than my DSLR ones. I think they are more relatable. With a DSLR, if you do too much boke [an effect where certain parts of the photo are blurred in an aesthetic way], or if it looks too professional or too prim and proper, people feel detached. People like candid moments. And the idea that it’s possible for them to [take this photo or have this life], too.

She's richer than you, probably: Top-tier influencers can be paid thousands per social media post, but there is a lot of hard work that goes into a photo, a blog post or a video that people don't see. 

The social media star as a celebrity with their own fans and stalkers a la Hollywood stars. How real is this for you?
No, I don’t face all that. I’m not affected by the number of followers I have. My parents are more bothered than me. (Laughs) They would be like, “Can you please dress up, or put on some make-up, ’cos people will recognise you.” And I’d be like, “Er…” I mean, I’m still a normal person. (Laughs and rolls her eyes at herself) I’m not measured by the number of followers I have. I still go to the kopitiam in my T-shirt, FBT shorts and slippers. I’m not like, “Oh my god, I have how many followers and I must dress up when I go out.” Actually, if you recognise me without make-up, that’s great, because that means I don’t look so different with and without make-up. Yeah, people do recognise me and come up to me and ask for photos.

The idea that an influencer can sell more clothes, skincare, or jewellery than an actress or a singer, that’s becoming very real.
Yes. I think brands turn to certain influencers for certain things. It really depends. An actress may be able to sell certain things or a certain image, but for me, what I think I sell very well is travel. The idea of living in an Airbnb or going to exotic places. We have to play to our strengths.

For influencers, the line between work and play is often blurred. Like, at which point do you stop taking photos and start enjoying yourself? Does it feel like work? And how much of it is real?
It feels like work! But it’s also me using and doing things that I would use and do anyway. So it’s all real. Like recently, I went to Tokyo to shoot for this DBS Visa credit card that allows you to pay in foreign currency without conversion charges. It’s useful and I’d use it anyway. And if Airbnb comes to me and wants to work on a campaign, I’d be like, “Sure!” ’Cos I use it all the time. But you don’t have to mention them, ’cos they don’t pay me. (Laughs) I recently appeared in a Lancome ad and honestly, the cushion is the best cushion I’ve ever tried.

Have you rejected clients or sponsorships?
Yes. Things like fillers and cosmeceutical enhancements — I don’t do those at all. I’m not saying that fillers are bad, but that’s not in my branding. Facials yes, but any invasive stuff, no.

We hear the top tier influencers can make thousands per post.
I’m not comfortable with disclosing the amount I make. But really, if it’s a brand that I really love, and something I use, or an idea I believe in, I don’t mind working for free. Yes, of course I would work for free. Like Air Asia is doing this runway designer search that supports young and budding designers, so I would do that for free. The money can go up to thousands for certain campaigns, or it can be in the hundreds, or it can be free.

A real gem: Andrea is the only Asian who is part of the #PANDORACollective, a group of global ambassadors for jewellery brand PANDORA. She was chosen for her dedication to creating and capturing beautiful content, inspiring followers and empowering women. 

People are starting to get a little disillusioned with influencers. How long more do you think influencers will be, well, influential? And are there just too many influencers now, causing influencer fatigue?
Every year, I always feel like maybe it will be my last year, but [my social media presence] is actually growing stronger. Honestly, I don’t think the influencer market or social media will die anytime soon. There is a fatigue, but Singaporeans are very discerning, so they will continue to follow accounts they like. The unfollow button is just there. If you have fatigue for a certain influencer, just press the unfollow button. If you are consistent in image and content, people will still follow you.

How about ROI? Some brands are realising that their return of investment for spending on influencers isn’t quite there.
I think it takes a village to make a campaign work. You can’t just shove a product at an influencer’s face and get her to take a selfie with it and make it sell. The campaign message has to be great. It’s not just the influencer who has to do his or her part. The brand also has to do the marketing on their end. You can’t rely on one person to do your entire marketing campaign for you. It’s not going to work. There has to be a synergy.

As someone who relies heavily on her phone for work, is losing your phone your biggest fear?
Actually, I’m fine with losing my laptop and phone, ’cos I have everything backed up. If I’m very busy that day, with e-mails and people to respond to, I’d be a little bit jittery, but on days where I’m not in work mode, I’m very happy to not be on my phone. I don’t have this perpetual need to document every single moment of my life. Ironically, I chastise my boyfriend for always being on the phone, like on Soccernet or Facebook or Instagram. I even tell my friends off, like, “Can we not use phones during dinner?” It’s ironic ’cos I do social media for a living. Or maybe it’s ’cos I do it for a living. (Laughs) I have this rule with my boyfriend — when we’re in the car and I’m driving him to work, we don’t use our phones. At all. We spend the time talking to each other and getting in touch. Or I’d feel like a taxi driver. And if he drives, I don’t use the phone either.

You always look beautiful, but in a natural way. Any beauty tips?
I think it’s about your attitude. You can have so much make-up on your face, but if you have a sour face, people are not going to be interested in talking to you. If I’m talking to you, I make sure I’m not slouching. If you have the right attitude, your beauty will shine through, clichéd as it sounds. I can tell you I use this and that make-up or there’s this moisturiser you must try, but if your attitude sucks, make-up is not going to help!

Life in a box: For Andrea, work is play and play is work. She gets fame, recognition and freebies galore, but there's also the question: where does work stop and real life begin? 


Photos: Ealbert Ho
Shot on location at Oakwood Studios, 18 Mount Elizabeth. Special thanks to the staff of Oakwood Studios.

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