She cusses in public, sits with one leg propped up on the chair, and has laughter that is best described as hyena-like. The person we’re talking about, dear readers, is He Ying Ying, who despite what we just wrote is possibly the sweetest-faced, doe-est-eyed actress to come out of Mediacorp’s star-making factory in recent years.
There are some people who are just destined to be stars. Consider 23-year-old Ying Ying’s life in the past few years. For someone who readily confesses to being “boorish”, it seems almost fortuitious (and ironic) that in 2014, she would win the title of “Miss Elegance” at a National University of Singapore Arts faculty beauty pageant. She eventually emerged “second or third” in that pageant, but as history has shown, you don’t have to come in first to win.
Fast forward a year later and the Nan Hua High School and Anderson Junior College alum would find herself in another beauty pageant, this time on a much, much bigger scale. The then-second year Communications and New Media student was on her way to class when she was scouted by Ben Yeo and Kate Pang to join Ch 8 varsity beauty contest Hey Gorgeous in 2015. “I remember when they were talking to me, I was just staring at them and thinking, ‘Is this real?’ One day, I get a call from the student union, and the next, I’m filming for some Ch 8 TV show. It was all so sudden,” says Ying Ying. “But at that time, I was like, ‘Okay, just have fun lah ’cos I got nothing to lose.’”
Here’s the backstory: The Hey Gorgeous crew had gone down to NUS for a site recee and spotted Ying Ying’s photo on a school poster (“It was for a student initiative to get arts students to dress up more” she says). They got her contact through the student union and asked her to swing by on the day of their shoot. She did, and the rest is history.
After emerging second runner-up (we’re starting to see a trend here) and bagging the “Audience Choice Best Smile Award” in the contest, Ying Ying made her acting debut in 2016 as the female lead in Toggle web drama Run Rachael Run. Her likeable turn as a bumbling intern in the drama earned her a Best Leading Actress nom at the Bilbao Web Fest 2016 in Spain. The same year, she made her Ch 8 debut on Hero, where she played Aileen Tan’s rebellious daughter. “When I got the [Hero] role, I was like, ‘Okay, I think s*** just got real,’” she laughs. Roles in high-profile Ch 8 dramas The Lead and 118 II soon followed. And in case you didn’t know, her role as a meek, muddle-headed coffeeshop assistant in the latter has earned her a Best Newcomer nom for next month’s Star Awards.
Next, she will get second billing after Zoe Tay in A Million Dollar Dream, and she has been cast as one of the leads in 150-ep drama Reach for the Skies. Which, if you think about it, seems to be just what the up-and-comer is doing.
A week after this cover shoot, we meet the actress again at PS.Cafe at Paragon for drinks. In her tank top, ripped jeans and black stilettos, with a pair of Burberry sunnies perched on her head, she looks more like a fresh grad than a star-in-the-making. The only thing that betrays the fact that she’s not a varsity student is her full face of make-up — she had just come from shooting Reach for the Skies.
The thing that strikes us most about Ying Ying during our two-hour chat is how completely blasé she is about her burgeoning celebrity status. More than once, she stresses how she’s just a “commoner” and doesn’t see herself as a bona-fide actress yet. Though she does admit to getting recognised while out and about.
Today is not one of those days. Then again, it could be that the café’s clientele are mostly ang moh, or that the mall was relatively quiet, given that it was a Friday afternoon. But while the “freedom loving” Ying Ying gets to enjoy her semi-anonymity for now, all that may soon change for the fresh-faced ingénue.
At first blush, Ying Ying comes across as shy and soft-spoken, and oozing enough girlishness to counter a roomful of testosterone-filled NS boys. We had expected her to be all prim and proper — she was after all Miss Elegance 2014. But hang around the actress long enough, and you’ll find her to be quite the vivacious chatterbox. Like how she gets all giddy with excitement when she talks about pineapples.
If you’re one of Ying Ying’s 61.9K followers on IG (@hereisyingying), you may have noticed her obsession with the fruit. “I started with a pineapple phonecase. And from then on, everyone just kept giving me stuff with pineapple designs on them,” she says. To prove her point, she proceeds to pull out a pineapple pouch, a gift from her pal Edwin Goh, who had bought it while on holiday in Bangkok last year. “I like pineapples ’cos the cartoon versions are very cute. And I really like the colour yellow. It’s very vibrant and bright,” she beams.
She is an amalgamation of some of the best parts of our favourite Princesses. Ying Ying, born to an entrepreneur dad and a pre-school teacher mum, comes blessed with Jesseca Liu’s head-turning beauty, Felicia Chin’s girl-next-door charm, and believe it or not, Fiona Xie’s sex kitten vibes, which she radiates during the shoot, pouting and preening in a low-cut Valentino dress.
But more than anything else, the budding star’s journalistic leanings bring to mind a young Joanne Peh. One may recall that before Joanne’s ascent to A-lister, she was an NTU comms grad who majored in journalism and who had interned at, ahem, 8 DAYS. Similarly, Ying Ying is a comms grad who had aspirations to be a journalist. Who knows, if fate hadn’t intervened, she could very well have been writing for this publication, like Joanne did back in 2005. [P/S: May we also remind you that Joanne first burst onto the scene by winning the title of “Miss Elegant” during Miss Singapore Universe pageant 2002?] Though to be fair, Ying Ying comes across far less brash than a young Joanne.
Here’s what we’re trying to say: We have a feeling that He Ying Ying is going to be TV’s Next Big Thing. But before she gets there, she’s still that waif navigating the industry with wide-eyed enthusiasm. It’s so very apparent when she gushes about gracing the cover of 8 DAYS. “When I was young, I used to accompany my dad to the petrol station,” she says. “And when I saw all those cover girls on the magazine racks, I was like, ‘Wah! It should be quite fun to be a cover girl.’ And now, I get to be a cover girl!”
8 DAYS: The Star Awards are next month. Are you excited about being in contention this year?
HE YING YING: Yeah, ’cos when I was younger, I’d watch Star Awards with my family every year to see whose dress is the nicest or who won a lot of awards. So now that I get to join in the fun, so to speak, it’s very surreal. (Laughs) Sometimes, I feel like, “Am I in a dream? Am I going to wake up soon?” ’Cos I get to wear all these nice dresses, and sit next to this or that actress. I don’t see myself as an actress yet. I’m just a lucky citizen. (Guffaws)
You’ve been acting for two years now. Why don’t you see yourself as an actress?
’Cos I’m still a newbie. I don’t yet have the mindset that I’m an actress or a celebrity, or that my fellow actors are my colleagues. I don’t feel like an artiste yet. I still feel like a commoner. (Laughs)
Come on, surely you get recognised when you’re out.
Sometimes. I don’t notice it but my best friend does. When we’re out, she’d go, “Eh, the people there know who you are. They are looking at you.” And I’d be like, “Oh, really?” People would say stuff like, “Eh, is she that actress?” But they won’t approach me.
Does that make you more conscious of how you behave in public now?
Yeah, in the sense that I don’t anyhow sit and I don’t curse.
Like kiao kar (“sitting with one leg up” in Hokkien). And I used to laugh very loudly in public. I’m very boorish one.
We wouldn’t be able to tell from your sweet demeanour.
(Laughs) It’s a façade. I can be super crazy and noisy. Last time, I wouldn’t mind making a din in public. People would be staring at me ’cos I was laughing like damn crazy on the streets of Orchard Road, but I didn’t care.
Before you started acting in Ch 8 dramas, did you watch them?
Yes, I enjoy watching Ch 8 dramas. I’m a loyal viewer. (Laughs) After dinner, I’d sit in front of the TV with my parents to watch the 9pm dramas.
Does it feel surreal to you that you grew up watching Ch 8 dramas and now you’re acting in them?
Yeah! ’Cos I never thought that I’d become an actress. I thought it would be quite difficult to enter the industry ’cos the market in Singapore is very small. I feel very lucky that I stumbled into this industry, and have been getting so many acting opportunities. Sometimes, when I see my own shows on TV, I still feel like, “Wah, that’s me leh.”
Do you get star-struck when you meet Ch 8 stars?
I still remember the first time I saw Ah Jie [Zoe Tay]. It was at the make-up unit. She was doing her make-up, and I wanted to go up to her and say, “Ah Jie, good morning.” I walked over, and I think I was a bit awkward. When she saw me, she turned and smiled at me. I just went, “A-A-A-A-Ah Jie, good morning.” And then I just walked off. (Laughs) After that, I could feel my heart beating very, very, very fast. I also felt starstruck when I first worked with other actors, but never to that extent as when I first saw Ah Jie. (Laughs) She’s very affable, and the fact that she’s Ah Jie but she still smiled at me, even though I’m nobody. I could be the janitor for all she knows. She’s the kind of celebrity I’d aspire to be. I hope to be approachable and humble, even if I [become successful].
And now you’re working alongside Zoe in A Million Dollar Dream.
As a newbie actress, I get very excited when I work with big names, like Ah Jie and [Chen] Han Wei da ge. On the first day of filming, I think Ah Jie knew that I was very nervous around her. So she said, “Ying Ying, are you very afraid of me?” (Laughs) I said, “No lah, I’m just very nervous.” Then she said, “Nervous for what? I won’t scold you leh. You can chat with me.” She treats me very well and she dotes on the newcomers — not just newcomers, but also everyone.
Was it your childhood ambition to be an actress?
I wouldn’t say it was an ambition ’cos being an actress is like a dream. It’s something that I thought about randomly but I didn’t think that I’d be able to achieve it. Being a teacher was my childhood ambition. But I would daydream, like, “If only I were an actress…”
When did you first know you loved acting?
When I was filming Run Rachael Run, I thought it was very fun and that it’s something I don’t mind doing. But if you say love… Before I became a full-time actress, I was acting and studying at the same time. And once I had an exam till 7pm. I had studied the whole night for it, so I didn’t get any sleep. But I had filming for 118 II at 8pm. So after my exam, on my way to the studio, I was so tired, I felt like crying. But the moment I stepped on set, I started smiling and became very energetic. Then after filming wrapped, I texted my best friend, “Eh, I’m actually feeling okay now. Do you want to meet for supper?” And she said, “Eh, you really love acting ah. How come you told me you wanted to cry just now, but now you want to go out for supper?” That was when I realised that I really love acting. Not just acting itself, but also the energy on set and the people that I’m working with — I love every bit of it.
What job did you have in mind before you stumbled into acting?
Either PR or journalism — like you. (Laughs) I like working with people. And I like a job that puts me in different situations. To me, journalism is very exciting ’cos you get to interview different people. And you have a voice — you get to share the views and opinions of yourself or others.
Has showbiz turned out the way you imagined it to be?
Surprisingly, it’s a very supportive industry. In this industry, your colleagues are your competitors, but everyone has been so supportive and friendly to me. It’s really like a family lor. I had always imagined showbiz to be very dark, where everybody is enemies with each other, and that you have to fight tooth and nail for a role. I think I watched too many Hongkong dramas lah. (Laughs)
Do you enjoy all the fame and attention?
Not necessarily ’cos as an artiste, there are certain things that I can’t do and that I have to be mindful of. I’m someone who really likes freedom a lot. So sometimes, I’d feel like, “Why must I choose to be a celebrity?” Also, if someone scolds me, I can’t scold them back even though I feel maligned. People would leave comments online saying things like, “You think you’re all that” and I feel like telling them, “No, I don’t think I’m all that. What makes you think so?” That’s something I don’t really enjoy as much. But apart from that, I really like it when I’m filming at, say, Hougang, and a lot of aunties would say, “Eh, that is Ying Ying” or “Eh, you’re filming 118 II.” That makes me very happy. I like to make people smile. So I’d be like, “Yeah, auntie, I’m that Ding Ding. You got watch our show ah? Eh, thank you for supporting us leh!”
What’s one thing that you can no longer do in public now?
This is something very silly that I impose on myself but when I’m on the MRT, I don’t dare to sit down. (Laughs) I’m afraid that if I were to sit down and use my phone, and someone like an elderly person needs the seat more than me, that I don’t notice them and people would go, “Eh, that artiste, got auntie next to her, she also never give up her seat.” Nobody is going to say that. But I just think too much.
The first time we saw you in Hey Gorgeous 2015, we thought that you really looked like Gillian Chung.
Is it? Thanks for the compliment.
Which other actresses have you been compared to?
Er… Huh?! If I were to say it myself, will it come across a bit like buay paiseh? (Laughs)
No, it wouldn’t.
(Long pause) (Laughs) Very shy leh! My make-up artist always tells me that I look a bit like Fan Bing Bing. I think ’cos the shape of my eyes is very similar to hers lah. But that’s it. The similarities end there. (Laughs)
You used to frequently post snaps of your ex-boyfriend on your social media, but have since deleted them.
It was ’cos I became an actress. I wanted to protect his privacy ’cos in the past, I’d tag him or show his face in my posts. But as more people get to know me, they will go to my Instagram. And what if my ex is currently dating someone else? I don’t want to affect him ’cos of my career.
If you have a boyfriend now, would you go public with your relationship?
(Ponders) It depends also on the other person. And whether the timing is right or not. If the timing is right and he’s okay with it, then I would ’cos I don’t see a point in hiding.
You play the female lead in Toggle romance thriller A Lonely Fish. And Joey Swee, who plays your mum, said that she tried to lose weight ’cos you’re very skinny and she feels like a “dinosaur” standing next to you.
(Laughs) No lah! That’s ’cos she’s very tall!
Have you ever had similar body image concerns?
No leh. Actually, something funny happened when we shot an MV for this drama. On the day of the shoot, I had put in extra effort to make myself look prettier. And I remember the AP asking me, “Ying Ying, why do you look especially good today?” So I told her it was ’cos I put more effort in making myself look prettier. Then, she asked me why I normally don’t do so. And I told her it was ’cos my character is supposed to be the wallflower and very dull, while [my co-star] Chantalle [Ng]’s character is supposed to be the school belle. So it wouldn’t make sense if I put on a lot of make-up to make myself pretty. So to answer your question, I don’t think I have image issues. I do whatever is best for the character.
Have you always been this confident?
Yeah. I’ve been a ballerina since I was young. So I’m very used to performing. In that sense, I’m very confident of myself. But it’s not ’cos I think I’m pretty. In the past, I had Bugs Bunny teeth and I wore braces and specs. It was only after I graduated from JC that I started dolling myself up. Even now, I don’t think I’m pretty. It’s more like I know how to doll myself up lah. I’ve never once felt that I’m a mei nu (“pretty girl” in Mandarin).
I guess it’s ’cos when I see my bare face, I know that I’m not a mei nu lor. (Guffaws)
Who is a mei nu to you?
Of course, I’d say my friends, Bonnie [Loo] and Hong Ling. But I feel like Rebecca [Lim] and Paige [Chua] are like nu shen (goddess) level. They are 10 upon 10.
You were scouted on Hey Gorgeous and you took part in a varsity beauty pageant, surely that must mean something.
I still don’t feel like I’m a mei nu. Maybe I am with make-up on. But without make-up, I’m just normal-looking.
You look very quiet and demure but after chatting with you, I realised that you’re anything but.
Yeah. When people look at me, they will think I’m very girly, very sweet — okay, I’m very sweet lah — and very quiet. But I’m not like that lor. (Laughs) I try to show as much of my personality as I can on my Instagram. I would post unflattering videos of myself where I zoom in on [one part of] my face. (Laughs) So I think people who watch my IG Stories know that I’m not all that demure. Hur hur.
PHOTOS: AIK CHEN
STYLING: MARTIN WONG
HAIR: JUNZ LOKE AT HAIRLOOM
MAKE-UP: VICKY OF MAKEUP ENTOURAGE USING SULWHASOO