Remember When Zoe Tay Was Unpopular?

Believe it or not, our Ah Jie wasn’t all that well-liked in the ’90s.

To say the ’90s were good to Zoe Tay is like saying Titanic was a kinda well-liked movie. So much has been said about the meteoric rise of the pig farmer’s daughter to Queen of Caldecott Hill. But did you know she was once nicknamed Chap Ban (Hokkien for $100,000 — her prize money from winning Star Search in 1988)? Initially, Ms Tay erroneously recalls that people used to call her Jit Pa Ban, which would make it ‘one million’, but we forgive her because we suspect she was thinking of how much she had in her bank account instead. See, there are things we don’t know about the Queen. The actress, seen here with her fellow big in the ’90s stars Desmond Shen and Jazreel Low for a cover shoot in 2008, chats with us about her life during the decade of tamagotchis and laser discs. (This is an excerpt from an article that first appeared in Issue 945, Nov 27, 2008)

She started out as a... Most Unpopular Female Artiste
“My starting pay was $1,200, which was considered quite high then. A lot of my seniors only got $800. When I was competing in Star Search, the company was also at the same time conducting a full-time acting class. When the competition ended, we were given priority over those students — My Fair Ladies was tailored for us [Star Search winners, Zoe, Aileen Tan and Jazreel Low]. Graduates from that acting class like Pan Lingling and Madeline Chu, all equally talented, were neglected. Some of the girls were so jealous and angry with us, you know. (Laughs) When I stood next to them, they would look at me like (rolls her eyes). I’m sure I felt that from Lingling (Laughs). Plus we were more trendy — we wore swimming costumes for our first show, something that had never been done before because actresses then were very conservative. Somehow, they always wore tracksuits.”

zoe 90s 2
Zoe, Jazreel and Aileen Tan on the set of My Fair Ladies in 1988.

She wasn’t so fond of Li Nanxing
“I remember he drove a Lamborghini in My Fair Ladies and I thought he was so hao lian (arrogant)! He didn’t talk to us but he would laugh to himself in front of us when he saw us act. He kept a lot to himself and was very distant. But we realise he’s like that. He doesn’t warm up easily to strangers. Now he’s better, and happier too.”

She was also the Worst Actress. Gee.
“When I filmed Navy Series in 1990, the director wanted me to make a facial expression which I just couldn’t do! Even the crew tried to show me how to do it and I still couldn’t. I was so paiseh because it was filmed in a military camp and everyone was watching. The director didn’t know how to teach us, yet we didn’t think we were that bad. We just kept laughing and eating and everyone seemed to enjoy our company because we were so much fun. But actually, they were talking about how jialat we were.”

Did we mention she was Most Unpopular?
“After Pretty Faces, people really started to think I wasa material girl. I did an interview and someone asked me what I liked and I said diamonds. Was it wrong to say that? All girls like diamonds, what. And I did the Lux commercial at the same time and it gave the impression that I was very high maintenance. (Laughs) I was very sad because some of my colleagues avoided me. The girls didn’t like me, and even though they didn’t say it I felt it. The guys too. They thought I was materialistic and that I had an ulterior motive for everything I did. I tried explaining myself but no one bought it.”

She had a huge crush on Huang Yiliang (until she met him).
“On screen he was so attractive, but after working  him to be more charming... but he’s very fun to be around. I should thank him. Because of him I started to enjoy coming to work. He scolded the director for scolding us newcomers, even though he told us he wanted to ‘vomit blood’ acting with us because we were so bad. He would take [Chen] Hanwei and I out after work to go bowling, for supper or to parties. He was such a party animal! But I didn’t party all the time. Some days I would go to work in the morning and find that he had just finished partying and was sleeping it off in the artistes’ room.”

And she almost quit...
“I was so busy, so tired all the time. After Pretty Faces, I was so busy it felt like I worked non-stop for the rest of the decade. I once filmed a rain scene and after that, I told them to let me just lie there in between takes. I was too tired to move and I was wet anyway. I’d also slap myself to wake up when I was driving and I would cry because I was so tired. My dad was the one who kept forcing me to go to work. He would give me a lift and people thought he was my sugar daddy (laughs)!

Luckily, she fell in love
“I started going out with Philip [Chionh] around the time when The Unbeatables (1993) was being filmed and we got engaged in 1995. He taught me how to assert myself and fight for the things I wanted so I didn’t have to be so tired all the time. He was outstation a lot and at some point I didn’t want him to go. I even contemplated quitting and moving overseas with him. But after a while, I realised it was my insecurity showing. He was also the one who helped to answer my fan mail because I was too busy. It was only polite to reply to mail, he said. That was when I knew I could marry this guy!”

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