We first met Desmond Tan in 2007. He was a skinny 21-year-old Star Search contestant with J-pop hair. He was shy yet eager to please, and told us, rather bashfully, that what made him stand out from the rest of the competition was that he “looks like Louis Koo.” We quoted him in our story, adding, rather cattily, that we were “thinking further down the celeb ladder, like Timothy Nga.”
Fast-forward five years and the now 26-year-old still looks nothing like the Hongkong heartthrob. Not that it matters anymore. With his fitness-model physique and slicked back hair, Desmond now resembles a darker, hotter Qi Yuwu — how’s that for climbing the celeb ladder? He has also muscled his way into Ch 8’s elite club of twenty-something leading men mature enough to romance the likes of Jeanette Aw and Joanne Peh. It’s a group so exclusive (or should we say elusive) that its current membership totals two: Dai Yangtian and Elvin Ng. Well, three now, since Desmond is romancing Rui En in his next drama, Fair/Unfair, which starts filming this month.
Much of the NUS real estate graduate’s current hotshot status has to do with his breakout role as Luo Xiaoxiao — the rickshaw puller by- day, crime-fighting vigilante by- night character he played in Ch 8’s A Song to Remember last year. Viewers liked the former Jurong Junior College boy’s breezy chemistry with this week’s cover girl Julie Tan, as well as his über-buff physique and natural, unaffected acting. We called him the best thing to emerge from the lackluster production — a statement we still stand by. Who knew Desmond, who had been languishing in bit roles, had it in him?
We’re not the only ones who think that Desmond, who stars as a playboy in the upcoming drama, The Enchanted, and who has been dating an air stewardess for three years in real life, is ready for the big time. Winning the Rocket Award (given to the artiste who’s made the most improvement the past year) at April’s Star Awards proves that the powers that be have decided to smile on him.
Desmond (whose dad owns a fire protection company and mum is a homemaker) recently signed a new two-year contract with MediaCorp, which, he tells us, comes with a “not too bad” pay raise. It’s just a matter of time before young, slick-haired actor-hopefuls will brag to unamused reporters that they look like Desmond Tan.
8 Days: Your breakout role in A Song to Remember was also your first major role on TV. Not bad for someone who, for the past four years, had been relegated to the sidelines.
Desmond Tan: I was like “whoa!” when I first saw the number of scenes I had. It was more than what my past nine dramas had added together! (Laughs) I had promised my parents as well as my bosses that I would finish my degree first before fully committing to acting. It was sad to see actors getting good reviews for roles that could’ve been mine. It was only after I graduated that I had time to take on bigger roles and really focus on acting.
Do you regret going to NUS after Star Search, instead of joining showbiz immediately?
It was a real dilemma. Producers strongly encouraged me to hold my studies ’cos there was a lack of male artistes then. But people like Zheng Geping advised me to finish my studies first. I’m glad I went to school. I wouldn’t have grown as a person otherwise. Balancing work and school was tough, but it filled me with life experiences.
The roles you had in shows like The Ultimatum, Breakout and Together were forgettable, to say the least.
I think I died after a few episodes in half of them. (Laughs) I kept telling myself that the next role would be better but it was always the same. My friends would mock, “Eh when you dying ah?” I played along but I felt really sad inside.
Did you think of quitting?
Many times. I thought of joining the corporate world but I couldn’t see myself doing that yet. I remember filming a scene for Reunion Dinner, where I had to deliver three lines with two idioms. A simple scene like that usually takes 10 minutes to shoot, but I took an hour. I kept stumbling over the words ’cos my Mandarin was really bad. I almost cried.
Were you envious of Dai Yangtian, who shot to fame as one of Ch 8’s marquee names despite entering the industry a year after you?
I did think, “Would that have been me?” But we’ll never know. I may not have done as well as him even if I were in his shoes. I guess I’m fated to take the long route, but it also means I won’t get big headed when I start to achieve something. I know what it’s like not to be famous.
Part of your newfound popularity has to do with your image change. Was it a conscious effort?
Yeah. Back then, I was very into the whole J-pop, Asian hip-hop look, which didn’t suit me. A producer told me early on that what people want in a male star is manliness. She then told me to surprise her with change. At that time I was like, “Who cares? I am who I am!” But then I realised that no one knows who I am. I was a non-existent actor! I analysed my behaviour and I told myself to grow up, to stop being a little boy and get fit.
And now you and DYT share male lead status opposite Rui En and Rebecca Lim in a new drama.
It will be my first time acting with Rebecca. We promised each other that we won’t leave the industry until we work together. (Laughs) I’ve known her since our inter-Junior College pageant days.
Looking back, what do you remember of your Star Search days?
I try to forget everything. (Laughs) I looked horrible. I had just come back from a three-week home stay in Japan so I was very into the whole Japanese look. I stayed with a very stylish Japanese guy called Eiji who went everywhere with hairspray, hair wax and a crimper. He taught me how to style my hair and we spent a lot of time preening. (Laughs) You know, I honestly hope no one remembers how I looked then.