March 2013. That, folks, was the last time Michelle Chia was on the cover of this magazine. Five whole years ago. It’s a lifetime and a half for a woman who used to be a regular fixture in our pages. Michelle has appeared on the cover of 8 DAYS no less than 20 times (mostly solo, sometimes with other stars) in 10 years (her first cover was in 2003, Issue #661; her last, in 2013, #1170) The second last time she fronted an issue of 8 DAYS, in June 2012, she declared, “This may be the last time you see me on 8 DAYS.” That was the year she announced that she was quitting full-time showbiz. While that “last time on 8 DAYS prediction” didn’t come true, ’cos we shot her again for our cover the following year, I think we can safely say that this magazine you are holding in your hands, dear readers, Issue #1447, will be the last time you see Michelle Chia on the cover of 8 DAYS Magazine. It’s not ’cos we don’t love her anymore, ’cos we do, but ’cos the last print issue of this mag will hit newsstands in the final week of September, after which we will embrace our fresh status as a fully-digital content provider. That leaves us with a few precious issues left. Nostalgia set in, a little. Who else to grace one of our last few covers than a gal whose brilliant smile and expressive peepers have launched thousands of issues of this magazine, and whose face we miss on these pages, very much? It was a beautiful coincidence that after being largely absent from our screens for the past six years (her last acting gig was a supporting role in 2016 drama The Queen, and her last lead role was in 2012’s Pillow Talk), we’ll be seeing her in new Ch 8 drama, Gifted, which starts airing this week.
When we texted Michelle about the shoot, she replied cheerily, “I’d be honoured!” And the day we walked in on her doing her hair and make-up in a cute little room in The Great Madras, a tiny boutique hotel in the heart of Little India that’s more hipster than a tattooed millennial with a carefully-cultivated beard drinking a flat white, was the day we realised: Dammit, life is really unfair. The 43-year-old looks as fresh and athletically lithe as the day we last saw her, in 2013, when she did her last 8 DAYS cover shoot. Her mane is as luscious and wildly sexy as ever, and her megawatt smile and tinkly laugh can still power up a battery-flat handphone. She’s so babelicious (now that’s a Noughties term if we ever saw one, since we’re on a bit of a #throwback rant), it hurts. But while she was always a goddess (the “nu shen” term so readily bandied around the likes of Rebecca Lim and Paige Chua these days must surely have originated with her), she does seem more earth goddess these days than glamazon queen. There’s a worldly and contented crinkliness around her eyes, and a definite laid-back vibe. One of the things she said a lot in her last few interviews was that she didn’t want to answer to anyone anymore, which is why she left to traipse around the world and do whatever she pleases. And yet, when she works, she’s the consummate professional, nailing shot after shot with alarming ease. Guess it’s true what they say — when you’ve done something for so long (she’s been in showbiz since she was six, and worked as a full-time artiste for 16 years), it’s like riding a bicycle. Like being totally gorgeous, some things are just in your blood.
If you want to try to fill in Michelle Chia’s ‘missing years’ by looking at her Instagram, which is basically what people do these days when you want to find out what someone’s been up to, don’t bother. Her IG @michellechiaofficial doesn’t do her life justice. There are things she doesn’t need to share with her 40.8K followers, and her measly 436 posts over the last two years will leave you thirsty for more. She laughs when she tells us, “I’m so late to the game! I remember asking Michelle Chong, ‘What is hashtag? Hashtag for what? When you hashtag, where do the pictures go?’ She was like, ‘What do you mean where do the pictures go?’ She just found me so ridiculous!” Basically, on Michelle’s Instagram, you won’t see the polished and ultra-curated feed full of sponsored posts you’ve come to expect from most celebs. Her Insta-squares are filled with pics of her hanging out with friends and family, and travel pics, lots of them. The babelicious Miss Chia has been to all kinds of exotic locales, and this is what we gather from a quick kaypoh through her feed: Tangier and Chefchaouen in Morocco (most recently), Swaziland, Mozambique, Moscow, Okinawa, Madrid, Munich, Tasmania… we stopped scrolling after a while. A most impressive list, and if you’re an Instagram addict, you’d have a treasure trove of photos and like, never stop posting. But Michelle only does sporadic pics here and there, and let us tell you, that list of cities is the tip of the iceberg.
If you really want to fill in the blanks in Michelle’s life, let us help — here’s the list she sends us when we ask for the places she’s been in the last two to three years, either for work or personal travels: Tangier and Chefchaouen in Morocco, Mozambique, eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland; yes, we had to Google this ’cos we thought she had misspelled something in her text to us), Munich, Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Heidelberg and Mainz in Germany, Rome, Florence, Venice and Merano in Italy, Paris and Loire Valley in France, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Segovia, Extremadura, Vejer and Salamanca in Spain, Moscow and Kaduy in Russia, Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung in Taiwan, Shanghai and Kunshan in China, a camper van drive from North to South Island in New Zealand, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Tasmania, Kolkata, Seoul, Okinawa, Hongkong, Macau, KL, Malacca, Bali and Bangkok. Pheeeeeww.
Some of these were for work — you’ve probably realised Michelle hasn’t been completely absent from showbiz. She has picked her projects carefully in the six years she’s been a ‘freelancer’, and many of these are to host travel programs or lifestyle shows which allow the self-professed wanderluster to hit up interesting, off-the-beaten-track locales. Her two most recent hosting gigs, Ch U’s Taste From Home, which also airs this week, and I Eat Therefore I Am, which will air on Ch 8 in November, took her to Morocco and Okinawa, among other locations.
And for today, we travelled with Michelle to ‘Madras’, via an adorbs hotel replete with muted Wes Anderson colours (Millennial pink! Mint green! Pale orange!) that will drive an Instagram addict into a wild frenzy (picture-worthy spots in every corner!!! Gaaaah!!!). Michelle did not take any pics of her own. In fact, we had to cajole her into behind the scenes pics, which we later sent to her (she did end up posting a boomerang we forced her into taking, lol). Later on, we journeyed to ‘Japan’, by having lunch and an interview in a Japanese restaurant. It’s not quite Chefchaouen or eSwatini, but we’ll take it. Michelle Chia is always worth the trip.
8 DAYS: Thanks for doing this shoot with us! So happy to have you on the cover of 8 DAYS again. Six years ago, you left full-time acting and hosting. Can you remind us again why?
MICHELLE CHIA: I thought it was a good time for me to have my own time back in my hands. There were so many things I wanted to do and experience, and so many ideas I had, but with my work schedule, it was difficult to plan. Everything was very last minute. Even when I wanted to travel, I could only do max three to four days. I couldn’t commit to long term things like learning the piano and even voluntary work. I wanted to travel more, spend more time with my friends and family and kinda have a normal life. I wanted to choose what I wanted to do. I must say I’m very lucky that I could. I started planning and building my foundation for that.
How did you prep your exit from full-time showbiz?
I’ve always been a saver. I was lucky enough to tap into investments, and I have my own businesses. I thought, “Okay, even if I don’t have this full-time job, it’s fine.” Even when I was acting, I had businesses — I’m one of the partners for Monsoon Hair Salon, and it’s pretty good income. I also have my own investment company. I don’t want to give too many details, but it’s me and a group of investors, and we invest… in things lah. (Laughs)
So with Monsoon and these investments, you don’t have to worry much about money.
Not just not worry so much, but in fact, not have to worry at all. That is my income already. And it’s passive income — I don’t have to do anything. It’s all about planning and starting early. Of course, it’s never too late, but I managed to start early. I’ve always been told not to depend on anyone; to be independent. Especially as a girl, if I wanted to have a good life, to not depend on anybody else, and make sure you can do everything on your own. And if anyone comes in who can provide for you, that’s a bonus, and you can enjoy yourself. (Smiles)
It must feel great to be ‘retired.’
Retired from full-time working, I guess! (Laughs) Now, work is very enjoyable. I have fun and it’s like a hobby for me, and I really enjoy what I’m doing. I have the luxury of being able to choose what I want to do.
How do you choose your projects? Is it about much fun you can have, how much you can travel, or the timing?
Everything. Timing is very important. I still prioritise my own time. If I have planned my own trips and they clash with the filming of the show, most of the time, they can adjust according to my schedule. Of course the content of the program is important too — it’s only worth doing if it’s good and it’s something I enjoy. Anything involving travelling is great lah. Also, meaningful stuff is good, like [cable travel show] Let’s Go Gai Gai, where we brought people who are underprivileged overseas, to fulfill their travel wishes, or Taste From Home, where we bring Singapore cooking to Singaporeans living overseas. I like content where I can give back to society and help to create some awareness.
When you gave up full-time showbiz work, were you worried that people would forget who you are?
No. I knew it was possible, and I was already prepared. It’s kinda like, been there, done that. I started so young, since I was six. This fame thing didn’t come suddenly to me and I don’t feel like I was suddenly famous and then I had to let it go. This fame game doesn’t affect me somehow. It’s not important to me.
I guess as a host, rather than an actor, people got to see more of the real you on TV, so maybe the fame wasn’t such a big deal, as you were more ‘real’.
Yeah, I think that makes a huge difference. When you are an actor, people see you as an idol, and they don’t know who you are. But for hosts, we are just being ourselves, so when we go out, there’s no difference. I don’t feel like I need to be someone else.
Do people still recognise you on the streets now?
Definitely. Aunties and uncles, and 30-somethings know me. Those below 20 years old may not know me, but maybe they’ve seen my pic somewhere or heard about me. It’s cute when I meet the young ones and they’re like, “My mum loves you!” I’m not offended!
Any plans to get back to that level of “Everyone knows me”?
No, I’m quite happy with where I am right now. I think there are different phases in life. At this stage, I’m very happy doing what I want to do and being able to control my time. With these new projects with Mediacorp, people may think that maybe I’m “coming back”, ’cos suddenly I have three projects (Gifted, Taste From Home and and I Eat Therefore I Am), but it’s just a coincidence. I wouldn’t say it’s because I want to get back that status. It’s more like, it’s time to have some fun and get busy again.
How about going back to doing a drama again after so long? What was it like filming Gifted? You guys filmed in KL.
It was like a holiday! My role isn’t exactly huge, and I was flown to KL when I was needed. I was so happy ’cos I get to eat there and there’s so much good food — I love durian! I keep bugging them to bring me out for durian. Everyone on the show was so fun. Somehow, working as a non-full-timer is a lot more enjoyable. There’s no stress, although I put in all I can and gave my best. It feels like I don’t have to answer to anyone except myself. It’s self-satisfying and fulfilling. It’s all about enjoyment.
How come you eat so much and don’t grow fat?
(Laughs) I eat everything! I think eating everything is key. I don’t eliminate anything from my diet, and I just love to eat lah. I have been very active since I was young; I’ve been swimming and dancing since I was four, and I also do yoga, wakeboard and cycling. In recent years, I stopped doing everything and got a bit lazy — I have to get back to getting fit.
So you eat everything including durian and don’t exercise. You’re just genetically blessed or what?!
I think so… (Laughs) Keeping yourself active is very important. I was active for so many years, and I think that helped. I don’t advocate not exercising though, just like I don’t advocate dieting. You just have to stay active. When I travel, I eat a lot but lose weight, ’cos I walk so much. I think my metabolism is good. (Laughs)
And why don’t you seem to age?
(Laughs) I’m quite lazy. I only started taking care of my skin in my mid-30s.
I never used skincare or sunblock till my mid-30s. (Laughs) I was crazy about wakeboarding and I was so tanned, and I never wore sunblock. (Laughs) And now I have a bit of freckles.
Life is just unfair.
(Laughs) I started my beauty regimen a few years ago and going for treatments — I think it helps. And I never used to put on masks. Everyone was like, it is the best thing. So I started a few months ago and it really helps! And now I use moisturiser and serums.
Travelling takes a toll on skin, with dry airplanes and harsh climates overseas. And you never used sunblock and skincare till not that long ago and you look like this? I guess what we’re saying is, what is your secret!? Is it to be happy?
Yes! I was gonna go into that.
(Laughs) I think the main thing is that you really cannot be angry all the time. Be happy. Be gracious. I think it all comes from inside. This is self-adjustment and a conscious effort. I think that maybe I’m more of a happy-go-lucky person, and maybe it’s ’cos of my upbringing, ’cos my parents are like that too. I’m also quite a forgetful person. Anything that is unhappy, I forget easily. I’d be angry with someone, and the next day I’d forget and be like, “Oh hello!” to that person and then I’d be like, “Aiyah, sh**, I’m supposed to be angry!” (Laughs) I get stressed easily with work, but it also goes away very easily. I worry before that and then it’s gone. I don’t bring it with me and I don’t get upset easily or keep it for long.
That’s a good way to go through life.
There’s so much to life. Why get upset for so long and let it bring you down? Some people might say, “But I’m going through many challenges”, but I think it’s still about the mindset. I’ve met people who are less fortunate — I’ve travelled with mums with disabled kids for my travel shows and they are so positive and so happy. People say, “Don’t compare” but you should compare, with people who are less fortunate. They have their problems, so are mine so big?
It’s all about perspective, I guess.
I don’t wanna say until like life is so easy for everyone, but I believe it’s your mindset. Most of the time, when you meet someone who is so beautiful with glowy skin, they usually exude positive vibes. So, happy people are beautiful people. (Smiles)
Yeah, being a b**** ages you.
I think so too! (Laughs) When you’re b****ing, your facial expressions are negative and it gives you wrinkles. (Laughs)
You’ve had your fair share of setbacks in life too [such as your divorce from Shaun Chen in 2012], and some business setbacks. You had a kids’ language school, YOU Station. We understand it’s no more?
No, no more. It was difficult. I designed the syllabus to instill a love for the Chinese language first, to bring the stress and the wall down, and help children have a good relationship with the language. I was very strict about having no homework and no writing, to let the kids play first. The parents told us that their kids were suddenly very interested in the language, but unfortunately it’s hard to convince parents when you have no homework. Of course, I could have had a better sales and marketing team, but basically we didn’t want to back down on the no homework thing. Parents would rather go to those schools with papers and drills. You get results, but the kids get scared of the language. Yah, so it was quite painful. I didn’t want to change, so I thought, maybe it’s not time yet. So… pause. Anyway, we still have all the materials, so we’ll see.
So, your love life. You’ve been dating someone for a while.
To keep it simple, I’m happy. That’s it. (Laughs)
No plans to go to the next step?
It’s a bit late, I think.
Not really lah, still possible.
It’s not just that. It’s late as in, when my kid is 20, I’ll be 60-something, you know. I love love love children, but maybe it’s just not meant to be? So it’s okay. I’m kinda used to my life now. But it’s like, when my friends get pregnant, I’m like, I want one too! (Laughs) but then I think, the weekends when I nuah at home… like if I have a kid now, I can’t do this. I can’t just fly off somewhere. I guess it didn’t happen, or it hasn’t happened. I don’t have a fixed plan — I think life is full of surprises. I’ll just take things as they come.
Has your philosophy to life changed since you’ve gone freelance?
With a full-time job, time passes so quickly. My life would already be planned till the end of the year with jobs and projects, and the days just fly past. Now, it’s slower. I can breathe. I can think of what I want to do, taste what I’m eating, and have a nice conversation with people. I really like that. But my character has always been the same — seize the day. Life is too short, enjoy as much as you can and just be happy.
So you’ve been busy with some hosting jobs, and you mentioned you wanted to learn and try new things. What else have you been up to?
Mmmm... nothing? (Cheeky laugh) I’ve been travelling both for work and for myself, a lot. I’ve learned pottery, piano, and I even took horseriding and motorbike lessons.
Are you going to get a bike?
Eh, don’t tell my parents! (Laughs) I’ll say I won’t buy a bike. But they know I’ll ride overseas. Every lesson is like going to a theme park. (Laughs) I’m a thrill seeker! I’ve always wanted to go on the dirt tracks in Bali. I’m not afraid of getting dirty! But with the new hosting and acting projects I take on, all these other plans get put on hold. But never mind, I can do it any time.
Work just ruins everything.
You like collecting experiences, right? Like one badge for this, one badge for that.
Totally! (Laughs) It’s my Girl Guide background. I was a Girl Guide, you know! I like that I know one more thing.
Let’s talk about social media. You don’t seem awfully active.
I’m so late to the game, oh my god. (Laughs) I hardly take pics of myself. Even when I travel! I guess I feel like I already take photos all the time for work, so on my free time, I don’t wanna take more pics. (Laughs) The reason I [re-started] my Instagram two years ago was ’cos I was helping my girlfriend’s social enterprise. I designed some dresses for her clothing brand, Baliza, and I didn’t know where to put my pics, so I put them on my Instagram. The brand empowers women in India by teaching them how to sew so they have work and don’t have to depend on their husbands for money, and so they can feed themselves and send their children to school.
I also volunteered with SPD, and did reading therapy with children. I went there every week and had one-to-one reading classes with a child, who may have learning disabilities or ADHD.
Sounds like you’ve been doing really wonderful things.
But with work, doing that becomes a little more difficult, as it has to be a regular thing.
With social media, many celebs see it as a way to connect with their fans or as a sweet side income. How about for you?
Yeah, my friends are like, why not try? I’m trying lah... (Laughs) I think there are people with fewer followers then me, but they have a lot of partnerships. Maybe [sponsors] don’t know where to find me.
We’ll let them know you are at @michellechiaofficial, okay?
You never have a desire to photo log your travels?
I have the photos in my phone photo album! (Laughs) If I travel on my own, it’s kinda difficult to take full shots of myself — they are always selfies or close-ups.
You travel on your own a lot? Not with your boyfriend or friends?
I do travel alone, and also with friends, and sometimes, alone to where my friends are, or where my friends’ friends and family are. I realised that taking photos and posting them on social media takes up so much time. I want to spend my time looking around, enjoying the moment and breathing in everything I see, instead of spending so much time looking for good angles and taking pictures. You don’t experience the place as much, and in the end, you forget about where you’ve been. Unless I have someone to help me take photos. But even then, I have trouble posing.
What? That’s ridiculous, considering you just nailed our photo shoot pretty much in record time.
It’s strange — for work or professionally, I can do it. My friends always laugh at me. They’d say, “Come, take photo, post on your Instagram, I help you take!” But then they’d be like, “Why you always stand like that!” (Laughs) I feel very unnatural and awkward — I don’t know what to do. (Laughs) But for work, I don’t have to be natural. The situation of a photo shoot is already unnatural, so that’s fine! (Laughs) I really admire the influencers who are all so good at posing!
Do you think the industry has changed a lot since you left full-time work?
I didn’t work with a lot of the younger ones with Gifted, but I can sense that the industry is different. With social media, and competition from other forms of media… things seem to be faster. The younger ones are so active on social media, and it takes a lot more to keep up, for them. I guess they grew up with all this, so they’re used to it. It’s like my nieces, it takes a lot to keep them entertained!
Yeah, the world has become full of instant gratification and attention spans are short.
When I bring my nieces out to do normal things, they are like, “Oh, boring.” I thought, “Hey, very fun already what!” I bring them to escape rooms, indoor playgrounds, did slime experiments at home… I’m like, “Okay, one activity a day and the rest of the time we just chill, okay?” And they’re like, “I’m bored, what are we doing next?” (Laughs)
Your life seems fantastic now. No plans to get back into the full-time fray, right?
It’s quite fun when I don’t have to chase [the fame]. I enjoy seeing it from afar. Now it’s like I have one foot in, but I can take it out any time. (Laughs) I can play with the water, and I can go and splash, splash, splash, but I’m not in there in the deep end! (Laughs)