Rebecca Lim wants to be the future Queen of TV. Okay, technically, it’s ’cos we asked her point blank if she thinks she has what it takes to be Queen. And Becks, looking almost regal with her crown of voluminous hair, pauses for a bit and avers, “I would like to think so.”
It’s a rare moment of self-possession for the actress, so famously down-to-earth and humble that she probably thinks a simple pat on the back is an act of hubris. “I think if you keep saying ‘No, no, no’, it’s really never going to happen,” she continues. “Or you’re never going to go anywhere. If you aim for the top, maybe you can come in second or third, which is good enough. So there’s no point being not confident all the time.”
Well, Becks has every right to be confident. With the Seven Princesses busy doing their own thing these days, like being a mother (Joanne Peh), taking a break (Rui En), gallivanting all over the world (Fiona Xie), and falling in love (Felicia Chin), Becks has become the biggest, most in-demand star on TV. Seriously, turn on the telly and she’s there. (You Can Be An Angel 2, her new drama with OG Queen Zoe Tay, is airing on Ch 8 now). This is, without a doubt, the era of Rebecca Lim.
She’s now as popular among tweens and millennials (though the hipsters may be reluctant to admit it), as she is with Gen X-ers, who’ve watched her since her Miss Singapore Universe days in 2005. She has won almost every acting award she’s been in contention for in the region — Best Actress and Supporting Actress at the Star Awards, Best Actress at the Asian Television Awards, Asian Star Prize at the Seoul Drama Awards — but is still surprised that people think she can act. (Oh come on, Rebecca!) This May, she’ll headline her first blockbuster, The Lead, where she plays, ironically, an actress who cannot act in a decades-spanning drama about local showbiz. Becks is also the reigning queen of celeb endorsements, fronting campaigns for everything from cars and clothes to skincare and insurance companies.
The latter featured Becks in now-infamous campaign about her ‘retirement’. It went viral, igniting a nation-wide uproar and debate about semantics and social media. It also showed that Becks’ appeal is also her burden. What makes her so special is that she’s a star who’s not just genuinely nice, she’s also genuinely herself. Her authenticity, more than her beauty, is what people connect with. So damned if she does anything people deem to be even slightly inauthentic.
And let's face it: she was never meant to be a princess.
8 DAYS: You started in showbiz just when the era of the Seven Princesses (Rui En, Jeanette Aw, Felicia Chin, Joanne Peh, Jesseca Liu, Fiona Xie and Dawn Yeoh) came into being. What was that like?
REBECCA LIM: I was in my third year of uni. And I remember this very clearly. There was an 8 DAYS cover where the faces of the Princesses were in boxes and when you flip open the cover, it was a photo of someone… [Ed: It was Elvin Ng]. I was studying with my friends in the library and they started talking about it, and one of them said, “Eh Rebecca where are you?” Very. No. Tact. We’re not friends anymore (laughs). And they started cracking jokes like, “Oh, I guess MediaCorp needs someone to play the maid… or the eunuch since they are princesses.” It was pretty hurtful. Everyone has an ego, but I had to laugh it off ’cos, in some way, I knew [their comments were] half true. I wasn’t doing much but there were people like Joanne Peh who was also half-studying, half-working and she was doing so well. I had to accept that I was s*** (laughs).
Why do you think you weren’t chosen to be part of the Seven Princesses?
I think it was pretty obvious. I didn’t have many jobs. I wasn’t on Ch 8 — I was mostly on Ch 5 and bit parts at that. Like on Incredible Tales, Crime Watch...
You were on Crime Watch?
(Laughs) Yeah, like one episode. It was a re-enactment of how a girl got her bag stolen. I remember it was a holiday season special and so the message was about being careful of your belongings in crowded places (giggles).
You turned 30 on September 26. Was this how you imagined life at 30 to be when you were younger?
Oh, no. I thought I would be a mother of three by now. In secondary school, my best friend and I had the same dream and now she’s a mother of three. She really fulfilled it (laughs). But I also didn’t think I would still be in showbiz. In my early twenties, [showbiz] wasn’t working out. That’s why I took a double degree so I would have something to fall back on. [Ed: She majored in accountancy and law. Whoa.]
We don’t think those degrees will be coming in handy any time soon. Zoe Tay has always been very generous with her praise for you. How does it feel listening to praise from the Queen herself?
The first time I heard it, I was very shocked. We didn’t have many scenes together in The Dream Makers. And off-screen, we didn’t chit chat or hang out. So to hear something like that from her was very shocking. I didn’t know she was silently observing us. And not everyone gets compliments from her. I was also very happy because it made my parents and grandparents very happy. They are huge fans of her so her words carry a lot more weight.
How did they react?
There was once when Zoe was on this Ch U show called ePuff and she said some very nice things about me. And my mum, who was watching it, started tearing. It was like “Oh, my daughter… Zoe is praising her…” She’s very dramatic (laughs). It’s also ’cos a lot of the things Zoe said had to do with my upbringing.
Other actors like Tay Ping Hui and Zheng Geping have also showered a lot of praise on you. Does it all ever get to your head?
I wouldn’t deny that it has made me more confident. Also ’cos I started out being very self-conscious and had very low morale.
Everyone starts out like that…
Well, most. I know some people who are new and they’re like “Bam!” Like, who are you…. (guffaws). But I make a conscious effort not to let it get to me. ’Cos it’s so easy, when magazines write nice things about you, to think, ‘Yeah, I’m all that”. You see it happen to so many people. It’s always good to gain confidence and I wouldn’t deny that I’ve improved over the years, but don’t think you are the s*** lah (laughs).
You had a tough time in the early part of your career. When did it first hit you that things were picking up?
You know, even after winning the Asian Television award, it wasn’t apparent to me. My morale was so low then. But it was after Fighting Spiders that I started getting some positive feedback. Before that it was just negative feedback, like “I turn on the TV [and I see her] and I want to puke.”
From the crew?
Oh, no, from netizens. The crew didn’t say anything but they would show it through their actions. Like a camera man would just leave his camera running and say, “After you’re done with your line, just press the stop button here. I’ll go drink some water.”
Yeah. It’s so embarrassing. But that cameraman and I are now on good terms (laughs). Truth is, I was really terrible then. There was in scene in Poetic Justice where I took more than two hours to cry. And it was past midnight already. I’m not someone who cries easily and the people around were helping me get in the mood. But from the corner of my eye, I could see other people touching their tummies ’cos they’re hungry, or mouthing “Why she cannot cry?!” to each other. I finally cried ’cos I was stressed (laughs).
And now you’re acting in five dramas a year.
You know, if I were my boss, I would have terminated my contact then ’cos this girl was not going anywhere! Now I look at the newbies and they’re so intelligent and savvy. I’m pretty envious ’cos when I was new, I was like a clueless headless chicken.
No wonder it still fascinates you that people think you can act.
Yes, yes, yes (chuckles.) It’s still very surreal to be nominated for awards. I’m not even talking about winning ’cos I never thought that would happen. I was so not involved during my first few years attending the Star Awards. The year that it was held at St James Power House, I was squeezed right at the back, behind a pillar. I couldn’t see anything on stage. There were also times I had to run to the front to fill seats when an artiste went to the toilet. My experiences then were all like that.
So your career trajectory is based on which row you’re sitting at during the Star Awards.
(Laughs) Yeah. I still remember the year when I sat in the second row for the first time. I was like “Oh my gawd!” I took a pic of the chair and sent it to my mum (laughs). It was the first time I made it to the Top 10 and my name was the first to be called. I was in a mess. Literally. My hair was in a mess ’cos I had no time to touch up. And when you’re up there, all nerves take over. Even now, I still get emo on stage. Maybe something is wrong with me (laughs).
Everyone knows that this year started not too well for you.
It seems like it happened very long ago for some reason.
What did you learn from the whole ‘retirement’ saga?
A lot of things, actually. Firstly, that when something crops up, I should sit down, digest it and face it. At that point in time, I was busy filming The Dream Job and my grandfather was very sick in the hospital. So when reporters were calling, I really wasn’t avoiding their calls. There wasn’t time for me to sit down and digest and understand what was going on and the magnitude of the situation.
Has it made you more cautious with what you post now?
I’ve always been very cautious so maybe that’s why everyone took my post very seriously. It became a much bigger thing that anyone had expected.
Do you have an aversion to the word ‘retirement’ now?
(Laughs) Actually, no. But it opened my eyes to a lot of things like who my true friends are. Who really cares about you. Who are the ones who would take the opportunity to stab you in the back, just to make things worse. And I think everyone, not just I, learned something from what happened.
Do people make jokes about it now?
Only after a while, but not the day after [it happened] (laughs). But I was filming with Ian [Fang] then and he cracked jokes, I can’t remember what they were about. But he did it only to make the atmosphere less tense. It helped that Aileen Tan was there too and she’s someone who’s very cheerful and positive.
Speaking of Ian...
When I interviewed Jeffrey Xu and Felicia Chin for their coming out story…
I read that. I read 8 DAYS, you know.
Jeffrey said that Ian likes you a lot…
(Laughs) Really as a friend, you know.
I do like him a lot as well, but it’s not…
Is it going to be like Feli and Jeff, where you guys suddenly reveal you’re a couple…
Like 10 months later? (Laughs) Maybe 10 years later. We’ll have a cover that says we’ve been together for 10 years (laughs). I must say he’s a very special friend. It’s very strange ’cos a lot of people find it amusing that we’re friends in the first place. [I guess it’s ’cos of] our appearance, our characters. But… how do I say this. He’s a very trustworthy person. He’s very loyal.
You know he’s into you right?
That I don’t know lah. He hasn’t expressed it (laughs).
But Jeffrey said…
Okay, Jeffrey only has a few close friends in the industry. It’s either Ian or (Zhang) Zhenhuan. And Ian’s the guy who gets all the crap from his friends. Actually, I met Jeffrey and he told me that he talked about Ian during the interview, but not about me (laughs). But Jeffrey is in a world of his own now, he’s just so in love. So whatever he wants to say, he can say it. We just need him to buy drinks later (laughs).
This story first appeared in Issue 1360, November 2016