There are many people who don’t live up to the meaning of their names. Kate Moss doesn’t thrive in damp areas (we think), Sharon Stone is clearly not made of stone, and Kevin Bacon is certainly not your favourite breakfast side. Arissa Cheo is not one of those people. ‘Cheo’ (which sounds like ‘chio’ or beautiful in Hokkien) is a surname that would be downright unfortunate, cruel even, for someone who is, um, not aesthetically blessed. But for the 34-year-old socialite-turned-social media star-turned-fashion entrepreneur, there is simply no other name that would be as fitting.
People turn their heads to gawk at her when she walks into a room. This is by no means an exaggeration. We first meet for lunch at a café in Palais Renaissance, opposite David Gan’s Passion Hair Salon. (The celeb crimper has since become a mentor of sorts to Arissa, and once told us that he thinks she and local fashion influencer Yoyo Cao are the social media generation’s Zoe and Fann.) When Arissa hurries in, dressed in an impossibly-cool oversized jacket and apologising for her tardiness, a group of twentysomething women shift their gaze to her. Their slack-jawed expressions convey a curious mix of envy and fascination. We don’t blame them.
In person, Arissa looks like someone had taken the best parts of Jolin Tsai, Christy Chung, Gong Li, and Fiona Xie, who happens to be one of Arissa’s pals, and Photoshopped them into an immaculately flawless package. Like Fiona, Arissa speaks in a lilting, honeyed tone that can be both Disney Princess-childlike and Brigitte Bardot-sexy. But unlike the enigmatic Fiona, Arissa doesn’t speak in cryptic sentences — she goes for the jugular each time.
To the wired generation, Arissa is an instantly recognisable celebrity. With 337K Instagram followers, @xarissaxcheox is more popular on social media than Fann Wong, Jeanette Aw or Rebecca Lim. But hers is a celebrity very much unlike that of an actress or a singer. It’s a celebrity borne out of the public’s fascination with her life. And people have been fascinated with her for a long time. Yes, even before Instagram.
When this writer was studying in Anglo-Chinese School, Arissa was already famous among peers (she was then a student in Methodist Girls School) for being “the prettiest girl in Singapore”. And as the Internet grew, so did her fame. Her now-defunct blog from the noughties, which featured quirky haikus (she now jokingly calls her poetry “lame”) and whimsical imagery (“I’m still very proud of it, okay?” she laughs) may not have been as attention-grabbing as Xiaxue’s, but it introduced her to a world wide web of people who had just started embracing the Internet and its celebrity-making possibilities. Discussion boards, forums and blogs sprouted all over the net, obsessing over her style and looks. Guys wanted to date her, girls wanted to be her, and if they couldn’t, they wanted to look like her. We kid you not. Singaporean female bloggers from that generation, who shall remain unnamed, somehow end up looking like Arissa.
Then there was her wedding in 2013 to former F4 member Vanness Wu. It was covered voraciously by the press — news outlets even staked out outside her home, much to her chagrin. But don’t bother probing into her relationship with Vanness — it’s a topic she remains very private about.
Arissa, who majored in communications in the University of Southern California, has since parlayed all the fascination with her into something else: a brand name. And we’re not just talking about how she’s become a force to be reckoned with on social media, where every one of her posts is dissected like Lit essays by her followers and the media, and where major brands fall all over themselves to be associated with her.
In 2009, she launched her first business venture, multi-label accessories and apparel online store Carte Blanche X, which was followed by her own line of basic wear Sacred Hearts X. Last year, she debuted her eponymous fashion label Arissa X at the Singapore Fashion Week. Part-rock n’ roll cool, part-boho chic, the very-wearable, very affordable collection, which she models in these pages (the first time a star is dressed in her own clothes for an 8 DAYS cover shoot) showed what Arissa has been hiding behind her perfect visage: a business acumen sharper than her features. Next up? A make-up line that is set to launch in early 2018.
It would be easy to compare her to Kim Kardashian, an astute businesswoman leading a double life as a wealthy heiress. But unlike Kim K, Arissa never courted fame. So she did dabble in showbiz (with a face like that, why wouldn’t she?), but quickly realised it wasn’t for her. But fame was always meant to find Arissa.
It would also be easy to assume that Arissa’s life is just about fancy Biz-Class flights, famous friends, and front row seats at fashion shows. Sure, all that comes with the territory of being a member of one of Singapore’s richest families – her dad is in the palm oil business. But she’s also really a homebody (“I mostly eat at home,” she says when we ask her to suggest a dinner place) who’s very close and protective of her loved ones. She tells us, rather forcefully we must add, that she had turned down interviews and shoots after she was told that the focus of the story would be about her family background.
She can’t fault people for being curious, though. For those who follow Arissa on Instagram, you would know how impossibly photogenic her family is. Like her James Dean-esque younger brother Elroy, who is a better-looking version of Shawn Yue and Edison Chen combined, and who was rumoured to have dated Taiwanese pop star Elva Hsiao. And her based-in-New York youngest brother, Hubert, a brawny upgrade of Archie Kao aka Mr Zhou Xun.
But while Arissa’s beauty, background, and fashion sense make her sound like a character from Crazy Rich Asians, the international bestseller about super wealthy Singaporeans, it’s really her personality that leaves the deepest impression. [Interestingly, Arissa’s friend is on the production team behind the Hollywood adaptation of the book and has asked her to audition for the movie. She didn’t.] She’s funny, candid, warm, and at times, goofy and self-deprecating.
She had just returned from Tokyo and Taiwan when we meet a month after the photo shoot for dinner at a restaurant on Dempsey Hill. And as she wades through all the foreign currency in her purse (she insisted on getting the bill), the waitress suddenly chirps, “Are you an air stewardess?” Arissa looks up and giggles, “Oh, I could be!”
8 DAYS: What was your reaction when we asked you to be on the cover of 8 DAYS?
ARISSA CHEO: Really? (Laughs) I was quite surprised ’cos 8 DAYS is for celebs, no? And I’ve read 8 DAYS since I was a kid. Mediacorp, Ch 8, Ch 5, it was all part of growing up. I’m Singaporean.
You don’t see yourself a celeb?
No. I’m not one. For me, a celebrity is someone in showbiz doing a specific thing like singing or acting. Right now in our generation ’cos of social media and all, everybody gets their five minutes of fame. But they’re known for things like fashion. I don’t want to be an influencer per se. I know some people call me that but I feel like I’m just a businesswoman who, for some reason, was cast in the limelight.
Do you balk at being called an influencer?
I don’t have anything against that label but it’s because I don’t feel like I fit into that category. Like for Yoyo and Xiaxue, what they do is very specific. Yoyo has her fashion, Xiaxue has her blogging. For me, it’s my lifestyle, I guess, and the things that I’m doing at the moment.
We know people approach you on the streets for photos. Did it surprise you when it first happened?
The first time, yes, but after a few times, it got a bit annoying ’cos I’m not a celebrity. It can get a bit intrusive. I have friends who are celebs and when they’re asked, most of them will say, “Can I take the pic with you after dinner?” But for me, ’cos I had never been in that situation before, it got a bit annoying and I’d always say no. But these days, I don’t care anymore and I’ll go, “Yeah, sure.”
Do you feel like you have a social responsibility to behave in public or to set a good example for kids who see you as a role model?
I don’t think so. I don’t think [people] know who I am.
337K followers on Instagram clearly proves otherwise.
One thing I have to make very clear is that I’m very much about keeping it real. I don’t want to portray to people something that I’m not. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m a nice girl when I actually can be quite feisty. So whatever you see on social media, is who and how I am. And I feel like in doing what I want for myself, my work, trying to be a better person, I guess that would set an example for girls and why some girls would (gestures air quotes) “want to be me”. So, in that sense, yes [I’m seen as a role model]. But look at me, dude. Do I look like I care? I think people think I care, but I don’t. But of course, I also won’t go crazy or whatever in a social setting.
I’m sure you get this a lot but it’s a pity you’re not in showbiz.
I acted in Taiwan before! (Laughs) But I left acting ’cos my parents wanted me to go back to school. They had given me a year to try it out.
Were you disappointed?
No. I did [acting] for fun. And when I was doing it, I couldn’t take it. I realised that I’m not… my personality is not suited [for showbiz]… You cannot say how you feel. And I’m not that kind of person.
What do you remember of your time acting in Taiwan?
I was supposed to play the main role in the first drama but it got reduced to a supporting one ’cos my Mandarin was so bad… and I cannot act (laughs). Then in my second role, I played a spoiled, rich b**** (laughs). That turned out quite good and people said I acted very well. Maybe ’cos I was acting as myself? (Shakes her head and guffaws).
What would have happened if you had hit the big time instantly?
Then I would have stayed? But I think my dad would have still been like “No, don’t do this.” At that time, I hadn’t started college yet and school was my priority. I think that was why I didn’t try my best either. But for the year I was there, I did quite a lot — two dramas and music videos (laughs).
Do people still ask you to be an actress?
Nah… Maybe ’cos I’m old already? (Laughs). But really, no. I think it’s ’cos people know my personality. They know I cannot do this. But honestly, I’ve learnt that just because you have a pretty face, or you can act or sing very well, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make it. It takes a combination of everything and… luck.
What did you learn from your time in showbiz?
That people can be very fake. Everyone has a few faces but people in showbiz, it’s very hard for them to not have different faces. I’m not saying they’re fake, but they have to know how to… act. I didn’t realise all this was going on the time I was there. But now, I realised that a lot of the things you read in the news… were actually told to the reporters [by the stars]. Like they’ll say, “Oh, this is what happened but don’t say I said that. Just write that my friend said it.”
Do you feel like you dodged a bullet?
You know, it wasn’t a matter of my choice. [Showbiz] is not some place where I would necessarily excel in either. I’m not going to be a snob and say I’m too good for this. There are so many good actors and actresses who’ve done so well and are keeping it real still. Like Felicia Chin. She’s someone who’s in showbiz and who’s still so innocent and so untainted.
The media have described you as the daughter of a billionaire.
We’re not billionaires. Sounds good though (guffaws).
Does it bother you how the media has tried to label you?
(Ponders) A magazine had asked to shoot me for their cover some years ago ’cos I was doing Carte Blanche X. I thought it would be a great idea ’cos then I could talk about my business. But then they told me they wanted to talk about my dad. To me, if all they want is to talk about my family background, then I don’t want to do the interview. Please don’t feature me. It’s a bit… Okay, look, I’m not going to act like I’m not happy that I’m in this position. But everyone has advantages and disadvantages in life. I’m lucky to have parents who support me emotionally. And in whichever way I need them to. I’m lucky that I have been blessed with a lot of things in life. But I also want to do things for myself. If I have to be known for something, I’d rather it be things that I have done, rather than what my dad has done.
Being the only daughter, does your dad dote on you the most?
Nope. My dad loves Elroy the most and my mum loves my youngest brother the most (laughs). I actually heard their conversation. I walked in on them and I was like “What about me?!” (Guffaws). And they were like, “You’re the favourite for both of us,” (laughs).
I would have assumed you were daddy’s girl.
I think people usually gravitate towards the ‘weaker’ ones (laughs). Like Elroy, he’s a huge softie like my dad. Very kind, very easily persuaded. And my mum coddles Hubert ’cos he’s the youngest. I just do my own thing. They don’t have to worry about me.
It’s pretty uncommon these days to see someone so close to their family.
That’s why I say I’m very lucky to have my family. I have a lot of friends who are very well-off or whatever but their families are not there for them. But my parents are very together. And they keep the family together. If I don’t have my family, I don’t think I can still be happy.
A lot of people are very curious about your relationship with Vanness.
He’s a celebrity and obviously everyone is interested in everything that revolves around him.
Does it surprise you that your personal life is so talked about?
Nope. Because I’m married to a public figure, first of all. And our relationship is public and I’m not going to answer silly questions like, “Why are people asking?” or “Why are they so interested?” But as much as it is public, at certain points, of course, I would want to draw the line, especially when certain things that the media or fans say tend to cross the line. At the end of the day, I’m not a celebrity and there are certain parts of my life that I do want to keep to myself.
What’s your view on love now?
Honestly, my view on love has changed many times. I think love at different ages has different purposes and meaning. When you’re younger, you’re all about puppy love. Then as you grow older, it becomes “I’m so in love with this person and I can’t imagine life without him” simply because you’re just in ‘love’ at that moment. But as you grow even older, it becomes about responsibility, companionship. My dad has always said that love is not bread — you cannot survive on it. For me, [the idea that you can’t survive just on love] was such a preposterous notion when I was younger. But over time, I realised that it’s true. Love is fragile. It’s not about whether the person is willing to spend quality time with you, or whether he is willing to use his money to support you even though you can afford it. But at least that is one less thing to fight about. Love is something we can talk about forever, but when it’s not a sincere feeling, then it’s just not there. And when it’s not there, what do you have? There’s nothing.
Let’s talk about haters.
There’ll always be haters.
But the more famous you are on social media, the more haters there’ll be.
I actually don’t mind. I’ve dealt with them since my Moonfruit (the site her website was hosted on) days. First of all, they have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re just sitting in front of their computers and seeing things they want to see, thinking things they want to believe. If they just say superficial things, like what I’m wearing is ugly, I’m okay with that. But if it hits on something that is sensitive, like my relationship or my family, that gets me quite upset. I am a fighter to begin with. I’m the oldest in my family, so I have to protect my bothers. My mum is a softie too so I’ll stand up to people who bully her. I’m straightforward and when people attack people around me, I’ll say something. People who say they don’t get affected [by haters] are just lying. Maybe they choose not to deal with it, which is good for them. At the same time, I am kinda public. I choose to put my pics on Instagram for various reasons, like my business. And I know that people are interested which is why they would buy into my brand. I’m not going to be delusional about it, like hey, respect my privacy.
What made you want to start a fashion line?
I’ve always wanted to start a business and I gravitated towards fashion ’cos it made more sense. My cousin and I started Carte Blanche X ’cos when we were young, we’d always pretend that we were running a fashion company (laughs). My cousin is more of the executor so she does the accounts while I come up with the creative ideas.
It’s not easy doing a business these days, especially retail, in this financial climate.
It’s tough but everything is tough. You just have to do it. Of course, people are going to think it’s easy for me. But look, I have a lot of problems too. People think that my dad can easily give me money. But I try not to ask him for money. Even if I do, I have to send him proposals and he declines them. And I would have to come up with a new proposal. It’s the same thing as trying to get an investor. It’s not easy. And there are a lot of other problems like getting rid of stock, how to market the brand… I knew people were going to look at me, and be like, “Hey, she’s not a real designer”. But I am not a designer. I’m not trained. I’m not going to lie and say I am one. But if someone gave you the opportunity to do a show, would you do it? So I went all out. I’m a fashion consumer. I know what I like and what I don’t. There has to be a reason why people would even allow me to have a show, right? I’m not someone who would get insecure about such things. I like being stressed out (laughs). If I’m happy with what I’ve achieved, then I’m fine. Honestly, the person I have to prove the most to is my dad. And if he thinks I did well and he can see my hard work, then yeah.
Ever thought of joining the family business?
My dad doesn’t want me to. I offered many times but my dad, he’s traditional. He feels that girls should do their own thing so, okay... I’m doing my own thing (smiles).
(This story was first published in Issue 1374, Feb 16, 2017)