How Zoe Tay Became This Year (& Next Year & Next Year's) Break-out Star

'Cos she's the greatest of all time.

The year was 1996. The Star Awards was held at the now-defunct Harbour Pavilion at the World Trade Centre, which is known these days as HarbourFront Centre. Zoe Tay, eschewing her trademark glamazon style, was buttoned-up to her neck in a stuffy, checkered Vivienne Westwood pantsuit, her hair cropped short like an NS boy growing out his buzz cut. She was named Best Actress for playing a lovelorn country girl in The Golden Pillow, and in her speech, apologised to Zeng Huifen for usurping her Best Actress award. Zoe, for the first time ever, also publicly acknowledged her new hubby Philip — the couple’s secret trip to the ROM the year before had been exposed, paparazzi-style, by the press just months earlier.

When Zoe was named Best Actress in 1996.

It was only the second time the Best Actress award had been given out — Fann Wong had received the inaugural award the previous year. And while the trophy vacuum-sealed Zoe’s status as the Queen of Caldecott Hill, the next day’s headlines focused mostly on Fann’s iconic lime green shorts and Ann Kok’s boner-rific diaphanous top. A travesty, one might think now. But back then, no one gave it any more thought ’cos it was easy to assume that for TV’s biggest star, winning another Best Actress award would be a yearly occurrence, you know, like filing one’s income tax.

Oh, how wrong were we.

Who knew that it would take another 21 years and 10 nominations (not to mention three kids) before Zoe would be named Best Actress again?

To put into perspective how long 21 years is, think about this: A kid that was born the year Zoe Tay won her first Best Actress award would have taken both his PSLE and O-levels, completed his National Service (if he were a boy and had enlisted at age 18), be able to watch an R(21) movie in the cinema, and be of legal age to vote by the time Zoe won her second award. (Here’s an idea for a movie: A Boyhood-like coming-of-age film about a kid from infancy to age 21 set against the backdrop of Zoe’s quest for a second Best Actress award.)

Or how about this: When Zoe Tay first won Best Actress, her fellow nominee Rebecca Lim was only nine.

If you watch the replay of Zoe’s Best Actress-winning moment at this year’s Star Awards, you can almost see the years of anticipation vanishing from the Ah Jie’s face when presenter Kai Ko announces her name. She appears expressionless for a second, as if trying to take in what had just transpired. The realisation that she had won only hits her when Pan Lingling bear hugs her from behind while Huang Biren, Aileen Tan and Jeanette Aw all paw at her like excited puppies.

You could also tell she was amped because at this point, Zoe’s right hand, which had been covering her slack-jawed mouth, balls itself into a fist, which she then, ever so subtly, pumps in the air in triumph. [When we told Zoe about her fist pump backstage shortly after the win, she didn’t even realise she had done that.]

When Zoe was named Best Actress in 2017. 

That moment lasted just 15 seconds, which was about the same amount of time it took us to type the words ‘career resurgence’ on our laptop… before hitting the delete button. Because to say that the award signals Zoe’s return to the top would be to suggest that she had gone somewhere. You see, even though TV viewing habits have changed and anyone armed with a camera, handphone filters and Internet access can become a celebrity, what those 15 seconds really symbolised is this: The only constant throughout the past two decades is that Zoe Tay is still Singapore’s most-loved star.

We could talk about how, even after 29 years in the business, the 49-year-old is still one of Ch 8’s most bankable stars — she has no lack of endorsements and is the face of brands like POSB Cashless and L’Oreal Age Perfect, whose tag line ‘Because you’re worth it’ she cleverly quoted in her Best Actress acceptance speech. We can also talk about how her fans are still rabid for her — she recently won 8 DAYS’ Favourite-est All-Time Favourite Poll, where we pitted the 20 stars who have ascended the All-Time Favourite Artiste pedestal against each other, beating even Rui En, who normally sweeps the popularity polls.

But listing out her recent achievements would be, to quote Madonna, regressive. 

Surely the deafening cheers that erupted from the media corner at the MES Theatre when Zoe Tay was named Best Actress is an indication of something more. After all, cynical journos don’t just cheer for anyone. FYI, Zoe Tay isn’t just anyone.

Or the hawker who specially opened shop earlier to prepare his famous salted vegetable fish soup upon hearing from celeb crimper David Gan — who was tapow-ing food for the crew for today’s shoot —  that Zoe Tay would be having it for lunch. And it wasn’t even like a kind of barter trade where he expected her to Instagram the dish to her 111K followers or something. He was, simply, a fan.

“Like it makes a difference [saying my name]…” she laughs, shaking her head, when David tells us that the owner had asked who he was cooking for.

“He opened the shop earlier lor and that makes a big difference, okay,” David replies.

There’s an extra spring in her step today and we suspect it’s ’cos she’s still feeling the high from the win. Or maybe it’s the yoga classes that she’s been obsessed with lately. At the same time, she’s never seemed so relaxed. (Okay, maybe it’s really the yoga.) A decade of interviewing stars for this magazine, and this writer has still not seen any other star who’s as natural in front of the camera and who photographs as well as Zoe. And while so many other stars would huddle around the computer to see how the photos turn out, Zoe doesn’t. 

“I no need to see lah, I trust you, okay?” she says to our photog.

That, dear readers, has nothing to do with staying power. That’s star power.

 

Silk chiffon printed dress, printed silk headpiece and sequined heels all from Dolce & Gabanna

IF SHOWBIZ WERE A HOSPITAL, YOU WON’T SEE A LOT OF PATIENCE. WHICH IS WHY YOU GOTTA BE, UM, PATIENT

8 DAYS: There’s been a lot of talk recently about how much importance an actor should place on winning an award. For someone who waited 21 years…

ZOE TAY: I honestly didn’t even remember it being this long (laughs). 

Do you think winning shouldn’t be taken too seriously?
(Ponders) This is an issue that’s very hard to jaga (Malay for ‘manage’)…

’Cos as an artiste you want….
… To be recognised for your efforts. But things like awards can only come by and are not to be sought. I think Meryl Streep is a flawless actress. She’s always nominated but she doesn’t win all the time. Look at Emma Stone [beating Meryl Streep to the Best Actress Oscar this year]. No one can compare to Meryl but sometimes judges look for different things. You can’t think that you’re the best. I’m sure Meryl Streep gives her all to every role and that’s the type of attitude one should have when you want to chase your passion.

In an interview with 8 DAYS after the Awards, Andie Chen expressed his disappointment at going home empty-handed and how it may affect his decision to act on Ch 8. What do you think of that?
I didn’t read the story. I don’t know what he’s been through but I should think this is part of… life. I think he’s trying to say that he’s not being appreciated. Everyone has such moments, so, as advice, I think he should take this time to think that [not winning] might not have been a bad thing. It will only make you better and stronger in the future. A lot of people face the same problem but they just don’t talk about it. But Andie is a very modern guy. He says what feels, and to me, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Do you think that there are things that one shouldn’t be so explicit about? 
Yah lah should not but he’s a young guy. He just wants to express his thoughts. He had such high hopes and so many people picked him [to be the winner]. But with every competition, you’ll never know until the day itself. He shouldn’t be discouraged. He should pick himself up and work even harder ’cos another opportunity will come again.

Were there times when you felt like you might never win Best Actress again?
I’ve definitely felt like [Andie] before but I never said it out. I also felt that I was good, that I was good enough to be recognised, so what more should I do? But this is when you should prove to everyone, and to yourself, that you love your job. You don’t get approval all the time, you don’t get a good script all the time, but when you really do your job well and you get nominated again, you’ll feel good and excited again. I do get disappointed but sometimes it’s these people (points to her manager and her stylist) who feel more disappointed when I don’t win (laughs).

Is it enough of a consolation to have everyone throw their support behind you when you don’t win? 
It’s pretty [much] enough. I have faced that many times. It feels very good to have your peers and colleagues acknowledge your work.

As someone who’s stuck to her job for 30 years, do you think patience is a virtue that’s lacking in the younger generation of stars?
I think ‘patience’ is a very good word (laughs). This is a social problem. Young people now feel like they have other choices. They don’t want to waste time. They think that if they don’t do this, they can do something else. It can be good or bad. Maybe the job really doesn’t suit them? Or maybe they are just not fighting for it hard enough. They are hungry [for the job] but if they don’t [do well], they move on.

What’s your motivation to stay at a job for 30 years then?
I’ve been through ups and downs. You have to think if this is what you really want to do. A lot of things don’t come your way. Actually, most of the time, things don’t come your way. When people tell me, “Oh, you have nothing to worry about”… that’s not true. When you’re faced with failure, you have to move on. Even if I didn’t win that night, I’ll still be happy (laughs). I’m always happy when I go to the Star Awards. I respect the event. I know it’s a national event. I respect the audience, I respect [the stars] ourselves. If we don’t, who will want to respect you?

Do you think you can rest on your laurels for a while now that you’ve won?
I don’t think it has made a difference. The award has not changed how I look at my job. Winning is a very happy thing for me. It’s a bonus. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember the feeling of winning (laughs). So now when I hear people complaining about not winning, I’ll say, “Why complain? I waited 21 years leh!” When I talk like that to the youngsters, it motivates them. Your motivation shouldn’t be about winning awards. It’s about doing your job. If you give up, you’ll never have a chance to win. If you don’t give up, you’ll always have chance.

There’s this online theory that you need to have at least cheek-length hair in the role you play to be nominated for Best Actress. Have you heard of it?
Really meh? (Laughs) I won when I had short hair what.

Your character in Golden Pillow had long hair!
Oh yah... (laughs) I’ve never heard of [this theory]. My fans think of everything.

It’s quite accurate though. [We rattle out a list of the roles she received nominations for and those she didn’t and the theory was pretty spot-on.]
(Guffaws) I was just going to say that I need to cut my hair short ’cos I’ve always preferred short hair. But it’s not happening... only ’cos my next role needs me to have long hair.

What if you have to wait another 21 years to win Best Actress?
Yah hor (smiles). Like I said, win or don’t win, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t stop me from putting in my 100 per cent. I told Carrie [Wong] when she congratulated me that she must do the same thing [and win] next year. And she said she can’t, so I told her, “You can! I waited 21 years leh!” (Laughs) It’s a good thing to use to encourage people.

Silk printed blouse wool blazer and silk satin pants from Gucci. Silk scarf and leather shoes also from Gucci

YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE NICE TO EVERYONE. JUST DON'T BE NASTY TO ANYONE

8 DAYS: We’ve heard a lot of stories from younger stars about how nurturing you’ve been
ZOE: Is it? Did a lot of people say I give them advice about their work? No, right? (Laughs)

Oh, no… it’s mostly about how nice and kind you are.
But it’s common for seniors to treat their juniors that way, no? Or maybe I’m just kaypoh (laughs)

Who helped you when you were starting out?
No one really sat me down to help me. But I remember during Star Search, I had to introduce myself to the audience and I was really scared ’cos it was the first time I had to do something like that. Xiang Yun and Huang Wenyong were at the rehearsal, and you know how approachable Xiang Yun is, so I went to her for advice. She was very helpful and she told me not to be nervous and to just be myself. A lot of things I learnt in my job was from observing my seniors. There were those who were very kind and patient and would offer help along the way. But of course there were those who were sour grapes and would say stuff like, “Star Search winner, so what?” I’ve been through that point in life so I know how important it is when someone gives you a positive message. So now, when I see all these youngsters who show passion in their job, I’ll tell them “Good job” or “You did well in this scene”. But you know how us Chinese can be very stingy when it comes to giving compliments. It’s hard to say it out. I’m also a bit scared to go to someone and tell him how he should do things. I don’t want to come across as naggy. But if they seek my advice, I’ll tell them.

What’s the most common thing newbies seek help for?
How do you just cry like that? To me, it’s the same as learning how to hold a spoon to eat. You just know it. That’s why you have to be hungry. Hungry to learn.  Don’t be so easily affected when things don’t go your way. Don’t think that you have to do everything in one take. There’ll definitely be No Good (NG) takes. And you will only do better after. 

Showbiz is an industry that can make you very insecure. What’s the most important lesson one should learn about how to treat people people in showbiz?
Be real. In this line, we are all acting but it’s easy to tell who is real and who is not.

Is it important to treat everyone the same?
If you can do that, sure. But it’s hard. You try to be nice to everyone. Actually, what you should do is to try not to be nasty. You don’t have to be nice to everyone but you shouldn’t be nasty to anyone.

A particular star has been in the news a lot recently for bad behaviour.
(Smiles and shakes her head) You’re very bad [to ask me to comment on this]. You want to get me in trouble ah?

What I’m going to ask is how you’ve managed to avoid negative press for so many years?
(Ponders) I can only say it’s because the media is everywhere now, so everything you do is magnified. So sometimes, when things happen, it becomes magnified and everyone will be watching you. I can only say it’s bad luck. When things like that happen, you have to take this chance to learn what really happened. Is the way I do things right or wrong? Should I adjust the way I handle things? If I think what I did is correct, then I should stick to what I did. If I think what I did is not right and everyone thinks that way too, then maybe I really am in the wrong. Sometimes, some people think that what they did is right and even though other people disagree with them, they insist that they are right and they don’t listen. So they continue being that way. But if you keep having setbacks, surely what you think is right… needs to be adjusted. That’s all [I have to say].

So you’re very aware of what you do in public?
Definitely. We are public figures. We have to answer to society. We may not be model citizens but there are people who are affected by what we do, and that’s why we have to be responsible for our actions. We shouldn’t do things that make people uncomfortable. Have to try lah even if it’s difficult.

You’re also known to be very respectful to the veteran actors. Is there any one you think deserves to be recognised but hasn’t had the luck yet?
No, not really. But I do feel a bit sad for them whenever it comes to the Top 10 [popularity awards]. But that’s the way the game is played. I think I wouldn’t be nominated for the Top 10 now either if I were still in the running.

But you won our Favourite-est All-Time Favourite Poll!
I got a shock from that really. (Laughs) I bet you all were surprised too, right?

Not really. Okay, back to the veterans.
Yes, that part of the competition is tough for them ’cos they don’t feel like they are being recognised [by the public]. But it’s tough to change the rules of the game. So you can only overcome it and look at the awards differently. I was sitting next to Jeanette and I told her, “You may think that you don’t have anything to do this year but you still have a chance to go on stage [’cos you’re nominated for Best Actress]. There have been years when after walking the red carpet, I’d just be sitting in the audience the whole night. Sometimes the camera doesn’t even pan to you.” If you can overcome this, you’ll be happy to go to the awards, even if you don’t get nominated for anything. You do it for the people who support you because they want to see you on that day.

Cotton oversized shirt from Jil Sander

YOU HAVE TO EMBRACE YOUR FEARS IF YOU WANT TO STAY RELEVANT. LIKE SERIOUSLY 

When we last spoke, you were really against social media. 
Yeah. I remember 8 DAYS asked me to do a cover story where you all would start an Instagram account for me. But I didn’t want to do it (laughs).

Things are very different now.
In the beginning, I was freaking out. I remember being on holiday when my manager messaged me, “Eh, you no need to update one ah?” I was like, “Update what ah?” (Laughs) I wanted to stop after the first few months. It’s a lot of pressure ’cos you can see everything on social media. You can tell someone’s personality from what he posts. It’s scary.

So what does your Instagram say about you? 
It shows the real Zoe more. People used to think I’m glam, but now they know I’m a bit ding dong (laughs).

Being on social media also keeps you in the public’s consciousness.
I don’t know about that. It’s not something I obsess about. But social media is where I get a lot of information now. A lot of first hand news. I love travelling so I follow a lot of travel accounts. I’m also very tam chiak (Hokkien for ‘greedy’) so I follow a lot food accounts too.

I think Elvin Ng once said that you may be more up-to-date about social media than he is these days.
(Laughs) It’s not that I’m better. It’s that he is slow (laughs). You know when I started Instagram, he told me, “Ah Jie, Instagram passé already.” I told him, “I know lah. I’m old-school.” (Laughs)

Would you say you are obsessed with social media now?
(Shakes her head) It’s become like a habit already.

Did you think two, three years ago you would be Instagramming?
No. No way. I used to see Xiang Yun doing it and I would be like, “What are you doing?!” She was always so busy but now I’m also busy (laughs). 

Are you ever tempted to post pictures of your sons?
(Shakes her head)

You can do a Joanne Peh and snap pics of the back of their heads.
I did. That time when we went skiing. But you couldn’t really see them ’cos they were in their skiing gear. Actually, I thought about [whether to post] that pic for a long time. I didn’t want to do it but I found that it was too cute not to.

Why were you so hesitant? We couldn’t see their faces anyway.
’Cos I need to respect my husband’s privacy. We had an agreement that when it comes to family things, I would go through him. He has to see the photo and read what I write. We actually agree that we shouldn’t post family things. But my intention from the start was not to have Instagram, so [not posting about them] is better lah.

How long did it take you to get the hang of social media?
It took me about a year before I finally understood it. For the longest time, Paige Chua also didn’t have Instagram. She would send photos to her fan club, who would in turn post it on to their Instagram. Once, we were all on a work trip and Elvin and I were teasing her about not being on Instagram. On the flight, I shared with her my own worries at the beginning and how I slowly got used to it. I told her that if I were one of her fans, I would want to follow her and read what she writes. I want to hear her voice. And just the other day, she told me that she had taken over her fan club’s Instagram and she’s the one managing it now (beams).

That’s amazing. You went from being so resistant to social media to being an advocate for Instagram.
(Guffaws) Very funny right? I laugh when I think about it too. 

Silk cotton gown with leather belt from Bottega Veneta

PHOTOS: JOEL LOW
Assisted by Alfie Pan
Styling by Jeremy Tan
Hair by David Gan/Passion Hair Salon 
Makeup by Andy Lee using Chanel Colors


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