BENJAMIN KHENG doesn’t think he’s a star. He’s also allergic to the whole idea of ‘celebrity’, which he says is a “disgusting word”. “It’s awkward ’cos I’m still trying to get used to this… lifestyle,” the 25-year-old says, shifting uneasily in his seat. He’s clearly uncomfortable talking about, urgh, stardom. It’s not that the (well, let’s face it) most popular member of local indie-folk band
The Sam Willows isn’t grateful about his relatively newfound *gag* fame and its perks, he just doesn’t want to come across like a… “douche”. Which kind of makes what we’ve got planned for him today a tad ironic.
A week before our meeting, we convinced Ben to enlist his fans to be part of this cover story. “I’m going to be on a cover shoot for 8 DAYS soon, but instead of standing alone... I GET TO BRING YOU ALONG. How exciting is that!” he wrote to his 134,000 Instagram followers. Within hours, hundreds of Ben’s fans ( Ben-addicts? Benmembers?), most of who were born after 1995, dropped us DMs, begging for a chance to meet their idol. But there was also a substantial number of applicants who wrote in ’cos a) “It’s always been my dream to be on the cover of a magazine” b) “I think this will be good for my modelling career” and c) “I want to know what it’s like to work for 8DAYS”. Sorry people, but we’re looking for genuine fans of Ben. (Or should we say Kheng-kias? We’ll work on that, we promise).
Together with Ben’s manager, we narrowed the list down to 10. The motley crew includes Jean, a cool chick who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ben, and who wrote in saying she should be selected “Because I’m Ben Kheng” (um, okay). There’s also Victoria, a vivacious NUS student with the energy level of a puppy greeting its family after a long vacation, and Thaddeus, a skateboarder, who exclaimed at the end of the shoot, “This is the best day ever!”
We tell Ben, who has just arrived from rehearsals for his new musical, The Emperor’s New Clothes, that one of the photos will involve him getting chased by his fans. A colleague of ours had seen him getting mobbed at a Kodaline concert at Scape in August so we’re pretty sure it’s a scenario he’s used to. “Oh, really? They have to do that?” he frowns. Looking embarrassed, he psychs his fans (but mostly himself) up by cracking jokes, like “Don’t chase after me, I didn’t steal your money!”
Back in the 8 DAYS studio, Ben’s standing on a makeshift stage while his fans circle around him. He starts strumming his guitar and hums a tune which causes the um, fan pit, to stir with excitement. But Laneway this is not. “Okay, raise your hands and wave at Ben!” says our photographer to the fans. “Okay, don’t raise your hands,” he says almost immediately when he realises it looks like we’re part of a cult anointing Ben as the Second Coming.
“Gosh this is really weird!” laughs Ben nervously. Though his fans are lapping up every minute of this faux-concert, he’s close to wigging out. His manager shuffl es nervously over to tell us that he thinks Ben’s uncomfortable with this set-up. “I think he’s feeling very embarrassed by all the attention,” he tells us.
Suddenly Ben breaks into Walk the Moon’s ‘Shut Up and Dance’, his voice joyously pure, his smile confident. The fans are singing along, and of course, recording this moment on their phones. Not since Singapore Idol have we had a spontaneous singalong session at a cover shoot. Only this time, it’s cooler. “Okay, we got it! That’s a wrap!” says our photog. Everyone beams.
Benjamin Kheng, despite his resistance to the term, is clearly a star. He’s talented (he acts, sings, writes his own songs, and is a whiz on the guitar), incredibly photogenic (don’t you follow him on Instagram?), and is highly self-aware, well-spoken, and has a salty sense of humour. Apart from rehearsing for Emperor’s, he’s also in the midst of promoting his band’s debut album Take Heart, which was released two weeks ago. In other words, he’s busy busy busy. Another sign of how red-hot a commodity Ben is now: He’s accompanied by not one, not two, but four minders today — three of them from Fly Entertainment, and the last one, a PR exec from the musical. Only Fann Wong has an entourage that big.
“Hey, what are you guys doing after this?” he says to his fans near the end of the shoot. “I think we should all go out for a drink.” They nod coolly while typing excitedly on their phones, probably telling their friends that they — OH.MY.GOD. — have plans with Benjamin Kheng. “I feel like it’s the least I can do ’cos they took time out to do this,” he tells us. They head down to Holland Village where he takes them for a round of fries and milkshakes at Everything With Fries. The fans, despite spending hours with him earlier, are shy and star-struck so Ben does most of the question asking. For over an hour, they chat about movies, music, life, you know, stuff friends do when they hang out.
We can’t think of any other star who would do this. So maybe it’s true. Maybe Benjamin Kheng is not a star. Not yet, at least. And we have a feeling he wants it to stay this way.
8 DAYS: What did your parents say when you told them you were going into the arts?
BENJAMIN: Well, they’re pretty unconventional. They were never like, “Oh, you've got to be a doctor.” My parents were musicians too — my mum played the piano and my dad, the guitar, and they met through music. My dad’s living vicariously through me now (laughs) but three years ago, when I told him I was going to pursue this full-time, he was like, “Sure, but you’re not getting an allowance anymore. And you’re going to start paying rent.” I checked my bank account and I had like $120. How am I going to pay rent?! But he gave me a ‘start-up’, asked me to be frugal and just do the prodigal son thing. And it all worked out. I’d like to think I’m lucky, but I worked for it.
Your new musical, The Emperor’s New Clothes, has a lot to do with social hypocrisy. Is this something you see often in showbiz?
It’s a microcosm of society at large, dude. It’s always about the façade you’re creating for yourself. And people live with it even though it’s not the truth.
Have you met a lot of people like that?
You get a lot people who are there to leverage off you. People who were never really close to you but are suddenly close to you now. But you forgive them ’cos it’s part of the job. It’s not their fault. Everyone’s going through a battle internally.
Do you think you could ever be a Ch 8 actor?
No lah. I would be terrible! Unless I’m the token kentang lah.
So it’s not something that excites you?
No, I would love to one day. But I need to be comfortable in Mandarin first. I don’t want to put out substandard stuff.
Are you worried about losing street cred?
Screw street cred, man! To be able to ham it up and go “Wo bu she de!” (“I can’t bear to!"), you know, super Ch 8 stuff? I would love to do that.
If you were cast in a Ch 8 drama, who would you want to act opposite?
Zheng Geping, Chen Tianwen… I acted with Liu Qianyi for the Ah Boys to Men musical and I got slapped by him every night. One night, he asked me (switches to Mandarin), “When is your father coming? I give you [an] extra hard [slap].” And that night, he recoiled even further and slapped me so hard my mic came off. And Dennis Chew, who played my mum, was like “Why liddat?” as he tried to fi x the mic back on for me. It was the funniest thing.
The Sam Willows just released their debut album, Take Heart. With the record industry declining at such a fast rate, how much of a risk is releasing an album these days?
Albums are still feasible if you have a lot of clout. But I would say if your goal is to increase your listenership, then release singles. We know we’re going against the market, but we really wanted to put out at least one album. It’s on our bucket list.
How tough is it to make money as a musician now?
Based on purely music, it’s nearly impossible. No one makes money off [music] streams. You can still make decent money if you do gigs and sell merchandise but most of what we earn comes from client work like doing corporate shows.
Do you think about getting a “real job”?
You know, I slid into this industry at a time when I didn’t have to make an executive decision yet ’cos I was still in the army. But I gave myself a buffer period. If I couldn’t make a sustainable living within three years, I’d get a real job.
And that would be?
Probably doing musical theatre full-time or a photojournalist. I love writing and taking photos.
Have you thought of doing Mandopop?
(Ponders) I don’t mind but, again, I need to get to a point where I’m super fl uent.
How bad is your Mandarin?
I never had a chance to speak Mandarin growing up. For years I would go “Auntie, give me one nai cha (pronounces 'milk tea' as 'durable tea'). No one ever corrected me!
There were a lot of fans who wrote in saying that they want to dress like you.
How does that feel?
(Laughs). It’s cool, I guess? I’ve never thought of myself as a 'style icon'. I’ve always thought I was awkwardly dressed. Here’s the funny thing. Long before I grew my hair out or started wearing hats, people were already wearing wide-brimmed hats and sporting undercuts. So, for people to say “Hey you’re wearing the Ben Kheng hat” or “You have the Ben Kheng hair”... (Shakes his head). It’s not mine, man. I’m more like the guy ripping off styles. It’s surreal.
Do your friends give you flak for it?
All the time. My dad just messaged me that day, “You’ve been photographed too many times in the same pair of ripped jeans. Please get more.” (Guffaws)
Your fans call you a heartthrob…
(Smiles, shakes his head and mumbles something unintelligible)
You do know it’s a compliment, right?
(Laughs) Yeah, but I’m not one of the Dukes of MediaCorp. I was a very awkward kid growing up so this is all very cathartic for me.
I’m not your traditional guy. I don’t fi t into the guy jigsaw puzzle. I don’t like the stuff most guys like. I like literature and music and so, growing up in a sports environment... it just makes you the pussy. There was a lot of machismo going around and it was something I couldn’t deal with. I had my fair share of bullies, so to be, um, celebrated for who I am now… It’s a testament to the fact that you just have to be true to yourself. I’m thankful that we can live in an age where people are celebrated for their uniqueness and diversity.
Do you still see your bullies around?
Interestingly, there was this kid in primary school who would bully me every time I took the school bus. Like, he would physically hit me. My mum was sick then and he would make fun of her wig. I recently saw him in the middle of Orchard Road and he was like, “Hey bro, what’s up?” I was like, okay…. We talked and he didn’t bring any of that up. He was all “Good times bro, good times”. So much of me wanted to stick it in his face, but then he looked at me and said, “Cool to see you where you are now. I’m happy for you.” And then we parted ways. And somehow it felt really good.
Did your mum’s passing change the way you looked at life?
It made me very angry for a long time. I just couldn’t fathom…I grew up in a religious household. So when she passed, the natural reaction was to be very upset, to the point where I questioned God and his existence. But I also realised how transient life is and that it’s a waste if you don’t chase your dreams.
Do you think you grew up much faster than other kids?
Yeah… you don’t mess around too much after that. I was very close to my mum. And I would constantly search for that motherly figure in other people. But you never really get over it.
Is there something she told you that you’ll always remember?
She harboured a lot of negative thoughts and she let the stress get to her, which was a big catalyst for the cancer. Before she died she wrote something for my sis and I. One thing she said was to be positive ’cos you have no idea what negativity does to you and your health. So as stressed as I am about life, I just have to love the crap out of it. I love the intensity, I love the pressure. I’m living my dream now.
Do you think most of your fans know you through social media instead or through your work?
I would say half-half. There are those who know me ’cos of my Instagram feed. And then there are those who of course know what I do. So I try to integrate both. Shockingly, even my uncle would be like, “Oh, I see you went there that day.” (Laughs) That’s so creepy!
You add your relatives to social media?
I do… My dad is crazy about Facebook now. He posted this joke about Manchester United the other day ’cos he’s a big fan. They lost a match and so he went “Haha but #hurtinginside”. It was the fi rst time he used a hashtag! He’s in his 50s and he’s cool, but yeah, hashtags are not cool anymore (laughs).
If there wasn’t social media, do you think you’d be where you are now?
We [The Sam Willows] owe a big thank you to social media. We started out on YouTube, that’s how we got our momentum. I think it’s silly to want to do music now and not utilise social media. Plus, I really enjoy being on social media ’cos it’s really an extension of your personality.
Can you live without it?
In terms of career? Not right now ’cos a lot of it, to be truthful, centres on your online presence and the upkeep of which makes you relevant. I was talking to Sezairi about this. He rose to fame when social media wasn’t as big yet. But he’s a household name — all the makciks know him. It may not refl ect as such on social media but that’s a lie. It blows my mind when my favourite overseas artistes have fewer followers than I do. Like I follow (American Idol Season 7 winner) David Cook and he has 7,000 followers. So, I don’t think fame on social media is congruent to who you are. Likewise, you get social media-famous people who put out music that doesn’t do well.
Has fame made you more cautious of what you say online now?
I won’t say I’m cautious. But I realise that I can’t just tweet my thoughts anymore. Yes, you’re being watched more. And there’s this social anxiety that comes along with it… I’m paranoid about getting recognised. I know it’s really uncool to talk about it, but I have a phobia of taking the bus. It’s almost like, come on lah… don’t be a douche about it and just deal with it.
What happened on the bus?
(Laughs) A couple of months back, I had just fi nished Reservist and I was super tired and there’s this bus that takes me from camp all the way home. It’s a two-hour journey so I went all the way to the back of the bus and fell asleep. And when I say fell asleep I mean head cocked back, mouth wide open. Halfway through, there was a bump and I woke up and I saw these kids just... (Mimics them hiding behind the seat and taking photos). And sure enough, it was posted on Twitter (laughs).
This story originally appeared in Issue 1308, Nov 12, 2015