You’d be forgiven for thinking that the picture you see above is of two completely different people. On the left? Some elfin-faced Taiwanese waif who’s the next big singer/actress/host, and on the right, Singapore’s own controversial queen of bloggers, Wendy Cheng aka Xiaxue. But then again, if you follow the 33-year-old personality on Instagram or on her blog, you probably will recognise both faces in the pic above as hers. Yes, ladies and gents, Xiaxue has two ‘faces.’ Actually, make that three. Her real face, the one she was born with, which has since made way for a new and improved plastic surgeried version (the gutsy blogger has documented her various surgeries online to glorious, gory detail). Then there’s her Photoshop face. The one with big, manga-worthy peepers, a chin so sharp it can cut glass, and teeny-tiny nostrils. That’s the one you see on most of her Instagram snaps. Call these digitally-altered images her own sorta idealised version of herself, a more perfect Xiaxue, if you will. When 8 DAYS approached Xiaxue to be in a Photoshop-themed shoot, to explore the idea of what's real and what's fake, the reality star suggested we let her Photoshop her own pics, and we were like, hmm… interesting. Why not?
While at 8 DAYS, we do digitally enhance the celebs we shoot, we’re pretty light-handed. The idea is to erase flaws such as skin imperfections and do a little nipping and tucking here and there. But these pics with Xiaxue are on another level altogether. Let’s just say that when we gave the pink-haired princess of Photoshop free rein to edit her photos, we expected nothing less.
Before you fire off an e-mail to slam us — and her — for fakery, let us just say that, like Xiaxue, we’re being very upfront about the Photoshop thing. The slightly more highbrow road to take here would be to say that, as a media outlet, we are making a point about how prevalent, commonplace and normal digital surgery has become, in an age of overly filtered and Meitu-ed social media pics, by letting a celeb Photoshop her own image. And while we’re not implying that digitally altering photos is a piece of cake (it takes real skillz to Photoshop well, okay? See her special video tutorial for us here), we’re telling you, especially since we are showing the before and after Photoshop photos for this shoot: Look at the possibilities. So in a world of perfect images of celebrities and influencers, don’t believe everything you see.
Because c’mon, everyone wants to look like the best version of themselves in their photos, right? The difference is that, while most of us aren’t above slapping on a flattering filter or three, and erasing a pimple here and an eyebag there, we typically are restrained with the Photoshopping — you still look like you lah, and not like a completely altered anime character. But for Xiaxue, the standards are different. She tells us, “I know a lot of people edit their photos, but it’s not quite so drastic [as what I do]... I don’t care if you know it’s fake, but the end product is pleasing to the eye.”
So there you go. The online and social media powerhouse and mother-of-one knows that most people are aware of what she really looks like, thanks to movie cameos, her own YouTube channel, her long-running web series, Xiaxue’s Guide to Life, (which has spawned such viral videos as the Sun Ho make-up tutorial), and, you know, being seen in real life, and that’s alright. It’s not going to stop her from showing off her Photoshop prowess and creating a more aesthetically-pleasing version of herself, because “the Photoshop is just extra make-up lor.”
But first, real make-up. Xiaxue is perched on a chair doing her own make-up — it was her idea. When we tell her we’re really working her hard for this shoot, she laughs, “Yah lor!” What we didn’t quite expect was that the Blogger Queen known for taking down her online enemies with extreme prejudice would be so… easy-going. And nice. “Your hair is so cute!” she exclaims when we meet. “Feel free to tell me if the make-up is shit, okay?” For the next hour, as she applies her war paint, we chat about her recent trip to the US, her new Toggle show, LifeSpam, and influencers — “Don't even get me started on how stupid influencers are. Unethical and stupid”, then later, somewhat ironically, though we’re sure she’s 80 per cent joking, “You mean being famous counts for nothing?” when we touch on the subject of her son Dash going to primary school in a couple of years and how she might have to volunteer to get him into a good school.
Finally, we’re ready for our first shot. “Everyone, welcome to the sight of my underwear!” Xiaxue says as she emerges from the changing room, self-consciously tugging at a white bodysuit which exposes the edges of her Spanx-like undies. The additional challenge for this shoot is that as we are showing the “before Photoshop” photos (for comparison, so you can witness the full wonders of picture editing), the raw, unedited pics have to be as perfect as possible. As in, no unsexy undies should be visible. Things that we would usually simply flick away with our digital wands — flyaway hairs, a crease in a skirt, a clothes clip sticking out from behind — had to be dealt with during the shoot, and the team does a bang up job. From the camera-perfect make-up and the hair to the clothes styling and the flawless lighting and camera angles, and despite the fact that Xiaxue says, to our incredulous “Sure or not?” looks: “Tell me how to pose leh, I don’t know how to pose one”, we think the before pics turned out pretty damn good.
But still, it ain’t good enough for our cover star. So… behold, everyone, in these pics, the magic of Photoshop.
8 DAYS: Let’s kick things off with LifeSpam, your new Toggle drama. You play a superficial wannabe online influencer.
XIAXUE: (Laughs) I’m so scared you know! I mean, it’s my first time acting! I’ve written articles on my blog about how cringey Mediacorp shows can be sometimes, so it’s like, shit man, the karma’s coming back to me. (Laughs) I think the LifeSpam script has lines that are quite realistic — it’s what people would say. I don’t know if I did a good or bad job in the show. I did tell the director to please give me as much guidance as possible. They’re all professional actors in the show and they’re really good. There were scenes that required more emotion and crying and stuff, and I was trying to cry but I didn’t manage to really tear on screen. It’s very stressful to have a lot of people waiting for you! Everyone was very nice, though. I just hope it turns out alright.
You sort of act on your YouTube shows, though. And your character is not super far off from who you are. Was it a struggle to get into character or did it come naturally?
I wouldn’t say it was a struggle. The character is very easy to get into. She’s very frivolous — like me without the self-awareness. (Laughs) She’s basically all the bad parts of me lah — the love for attention, the obsessiveness about myself, being superficial and vain, but she doesn’t have the consideration for other people. I feel that for me, I fell into this fame thing, whereas she’s actively working towards it. I’d say that acting is drastically different from what I do on an almost daily basis on my reality shows. What I do is reality, so no matter what, it’s my own words and expressions. But being in front of the camera for so many years means that I’m more relaxed. I’ve learned that the most important thing is to not care about how you look when you’re on camera, or you’ll come off very stiff and unnatural. You need to get over this mental hurdle that you look very ugly and stupid. But anyway, I think most people think I’m very mean, so they’d probably think my character is just like me. (Laughs)
Your persona online, where you say people think you are mean, seems different from you in person. Is there always a disconnect between a person in real life and their online personas?
I think this disconnect is pretty common. Sometimes, you can’t blame people. On a platform like Instagram, everyone is trying their hardest to show off the most beautiful parts of their life and look like everything is perfect, ’cos that’s what everyone else is doing. If you post a grainy, ugly pic, no one would give you any likes and I think we’re all addicted to the likes, to that affirmation. It’s a drug; it increases our dopamine levels. If the next pic has fewer likes, you start to think: Is it me? Did I do something wrong? Do people not like me anymore, and are people unfollowing me? Everyone is trying so hard — myself included — and it can come off as fake. What I post is highly filtered, and sometimes I hate myself for doing that. It’s so unauthentic and pretentious but what to do? It’s my livelihood. I can blame the platform all I want, but I don’t have to be on it, right? But everyone is on it and clients would check Instagram to see how many followers you have and that’s an affirmation of how famous you are or how effective your ads would be. I have a lot of thoughts about Instagram. I hate Instagram. (Laughs)
Do you think your online self is that different from your real self?
Most people have told me there’s not much of a disparity. It’s just that my online self may be a bit bitchier but if you do catch me in a real life bitchy moment, I would say the same stuff. In fact, it may even be worse in real life.
Ever thought of quitting social media? Some people have done it.
I do feel a bit depressed when I see my followers dropping. I joined at a time when IG was very popular and I just happened to give birth around that time and Dash is really freaking cute lah — if I was not me, I would also surely follow also. But now, the numbers are dropping and I thought it was just me, like maybe Dash grew up and was not so cute anymore. But I went on socialblade.com, where you can check people’s following and sort of see if they’re buying followers [by checking their follower increase patterns], and I realised a lot of accounts have growth that is slowing down, or their followers are dropping as well. So it’s not just me. IG has been actively deleting bots and inactive accounts, and I guess most Singaporeans are already on IG or are sick of it and have deleted it. But for me, deleting IG is not an option anymore. At my peak, I had about 630K followers and now, every time I check, it falls. I’m now at 606K. By the time this story comes out, it’ll probably be 605K. I’m like WTF!! Stop! Why are you dropping when I’m trying my best here! It’s this love-hate relationship. (Laughs) Other people are buying followers to make up for the drop — that’s how addicted they are.
With everyone checking social media and taking pictures and videos all the time, sometimes I feel we’re not living in the moment. It’s kinda sad.
But I don’t regret taking lots of photos and videos ’cos I have a very bad memory, especially when it comes to my kid. If I’m enjoying the moment, I would forget about it later and there’s nothing that can capture the moment like a video can. It would be good if the video has smell as well. (Laughs) For people who prefer to remember the moment in their minds, that’s good for them lor, until they get dementia.
What are the top three things people say to you when they meet you in person after following you online for a while?
Usually they’d just say, “Oh, you’re pretty in real life.” Maybe they thought my Photoshopping would be so extreme [that I’d look very bad]. Or they’d say “You’re shorter than I thought”, or “You’re so small-sized or petite”. They will also say, “You’re so nice, thanks for taking a picture; I thought you wouldn’t agree.” Maybe it’s ’cos I look like I don’t have a problem rejecting people and asking them to [expletive] off. Why would I do that? It doesn’t make sense to be rude to people who are being nice to you.
Rank these in order of what you think people fake most online:
1. Making themselves look skinnier/better than in real life with photo-editing apps.
2. Making themselves look like they lead happier and more perfect lives than they really do.
3. Pretending to like or be happy for certain people when they actually don't care about or can't stand them.
This is like straight to the heart of the issue, man — I think all three are pretty bad. Number 2, faking the perfect life, is the most severe. It’s very competitive on Instagram to look like your photos are very nice and perfect. The happy photos always get the most likes. Sometimes when I see happy photos, I’m like, it’s fake shit, I won’t like it. Like, oh, another air-jumping shot, shut the [expletive] up. I tend to like the more heartfelt things, like “I’m having a shit day” and stuff. It’s more real. Number 3, pretending to like people, is on par if not as severe. Everyone is following accounts they don’t like. Have you met a friend whose IG you can’t stand, but you’re still friends in real life, so you can’t unfollow them ’cos it’s just rude? Instagram is so stupid — they don’t have a mute function like Twitter. There are people I don’t like in real life, but I’d still occasionally unwillingly like their posts. But I cannot bring myself to do the fake comments thing.
It’s so much agonising about something quite stupid, but it matters, somehow.
Yeah, it really does. It’s already difficult to make friends in the first place and now there’s this added criteria. Last time, you’d pick friends based on people’s morals or sense of humour or how they are similar to you, and now, on top of that, you have to accept their social media persona. If it’s cringey or try-hard or not what they’re like in real life, you’d be like, this is not real! Why are you posting that you like these noodles when you just told me they taste like shit? Sometimes, you like the person in real life, but not their social media self.
Why do you think people are different and pretentious on social?
’Cos they have come to the conclusion that their fake self is more likeable on social media. Maybe there’s also a chance at a second life. They want to have a different life from what they have in real life.
In between photo-editing apps, multiple filters and careful curation of what is posted, social media basically can't be trusted. Discuss.
It depends on the platforms. There are platforms that are more authentic, like Snapchat. Even Insta Stories, I don’t really trust, ’cos you can post an edited pic from your camera roll. IG is getting more and more pretentious and fake. Facebook is still a bit more authentic than IG. Twitter is still authentic — I really love Twitter lah.
Your character in LifeSpam is desperate to succeed at being an influencer. What are your thoughts on influencers?
I hate influencers. They are the worst.
Aren’t you an influencer?
Yes, but I started out being a blogger! At least in the past, you needed a bit more substance to be a blogger. There are very stupid bloggers as well. But at least there was a bit more effort. Not that influencers don’t put in effort — I know there are some that put in a lot of effort, like go to certain locations to take photos. I think a blogger has personality — you’re blogging about your life and people like you for who you are. It’s a curated version of yourself but it’s still you. But on Instagram, it’s very impersonal. You are just a model in a picture. You are not you, you are just there as part of the photo. Your captions are just stupid quotes about life copied from somewhere. I don’t care about these people. They’re just magazine heads, which is ironic, ’cos I’m gonna be in a magazine. (Laughs) At least there is this interview part.
Why do so many people want to be influencers?
Maybe they feel it’s more achievable than being a pop star. You don’t need to have talent, you just need to take vaguely nice pics. You don’t even need to look that good — you just need to take off more clothes and Photoshop yourself.
Oh yes, Photoshop. You’ve just spent the last half hour telling me about how some people are so fake. But you, too, post pictures of yourself where you look quite different from your real self.
Oh, I think the huge difference is that I admit that I Photoshop my pictures. I make it very clear that that’s clearly not what I look like, and sometimes I post a before and after photo. I’m always appearing in videos and everyone can see the real me. I’m not trying to pretend to be 1.8m tall. Everyone knows that I’m freaking short! I’m 148cm. (Laughs) Everyone who knows me knows lah. I don’t think it’s fakery per se — it’s like putting on a nice jacket, except that you know that under the jacket, you’re still fat. (Laughs)
Why do you make yourself look drastically slimmer and taller? Why not post more realistic photos?
To me, aesthetics still matter. Every girl wants to take a photo of herself with nicely-styled hair and make-up. The Photoshop is just extra make-up lor. I think the end product looks nicer. Like, I know my house is very messy, but if you’re gonna come and take a photo of my house, I will clean it up and make it nicer. I don’t care if you know it’s fake, but the end product is pleasing to the eye.
When people see you in real life, they may be like, “Oh, she’s not as good-looking as in her pics leh.” Is that something you get often? And do you mind?
I think because I actually over-emphasise how much I edit my photos — and I’m quite proud of my skills; to me, it’s like an art — people think the real me is really bad-[looking]. So when they meet me, they say I’m prettier than what they expected. (Laughs)
Do you still have one of the top Instagram accounts in Singapore? Even the Ch 8 celebs don’t have nearly as many followers as you.
JJ Lin is the Singapore celeb with the most followers, I think. Oh, he has 1.9 mil! Jamie Chua is catching up [with me]. Fann Wong has 317K. The younger influencers are catching up, people like Naomi Neo (@naomineo_, 375K) and Jianhao (@thejianhaotan, 286K).
How can you stay on top?
I was thinking about all these people whose accounts are growing, and it’s ’cos they all have a niche. Like if you post about make-up, then your whole feed is all beauty stuff. Or if it’s OOTDs, then it’s all OOTDs. These people don’t include random shots of their friends or family ’cos it uglifies their feeds. If your feed is very uniformed-looking and perfect, people will follow you. My page is mixed ’cos it’s about my life. My pics are not always the most beautiful and perfect pics. New people may think it’s messy and won’t follow. For the longest time, I was having this internal struggle, like should I make the account about motherhood, like just about Dash, or should I make it all about beauty and cut Dash out… But I don’t want lah. It’s a reflection of my life and I want the pictures to be memories, and I like my feed the way it is. I don’t want to compromise, but that also stifles my account and doesn’t get me new followers. Also, I feel that nowadays, people don’t really follow personalities on IG. That’s more a YouTube thing. They don’t care who you are [on IG] — they just wanna see beautiful things.
Your YouTube channel is still growing?
Yes, at least it’s still growing. I have 214K subscribers. Have you seen my ISIS make-up tutorial [where she shows how to achieve the look of a bearded ISIS fighter who tried to disguise himself as a woman with hilariously garish make-up]? People are very angry about it. (Laughs) They are annoyed even before they watch it — you go and watch lah. It’s nothing one!
When you make a ‘controversial’ video, do you do it ’cos it’s funny or for effect?
A combination of both, I guess. I knew people would react, but I genuinely didn’t think it would be that controversial. To me, the picture of the guy was really, really funny. I told my friends about my idea to try this look and they were like, “Haha! Do it!” Then after that, they were like, “You’re serious? You’re gonna do it?” I was like, “Dude I’m not gonna mention anything about religion; I’m just gonna say this is the ISIS terrorist, which is what was reported in the news.” After the news went viral, I thought it was more acceptable to talk about it. It’s like pushing the envelope a little bit lah. My friends were like, “Noooo…” People love to give me advice about my reputation. I’m like, “You don’t have to worry about my reputation — it’s in shambles already.” (Laughs) That’s what I’m known for — pushing the envelope. I don’t want to be safe and do vanilla stuff. To me it’s like, if you don’t like it then [expletive] off lah. I try to anticipate what people will say, and have a counter. At most remove and apologise lor, which I’ve basically never done lah. I don’t remember genuinely feeling very sorry about saying something which I’ve had to apologise for.
Some influencers post pictures for free stuff, some only post about stuff they like, while some post only if they're paid. There’s a lot of influencer fatigue these days. How do we know what to trust?
Sometimes I do post for free lah, but only on IG stories, not an IG post. Like if someone sends me make-up or stuff. Yeah, the influencer fatigue is pretty bad — people just don’t really trust influencers anymore. Things got a bit better after the whole Gushcloud expose [in 2014, where she accused the influencer marketing company of inflating revenues and blogger stats, and of pretending that paid posts were not ads]. People got a bit more careful, but then it got way worse, and now, no one even talks about a post being sponsored anymore. I still label my paid posts as sponsored lah — it’s something I believe in. If you don’t do it, then people don’t trust you anymore. It’s an advertising guideline that I think people should follow. If I specify that it’s an ad, you take it with a grain of salt. Like it or not, you know I’m being paid for it. I don’t know how to fix this problem and I think it’s gonna get worse.
What are we supposed to do with the info that a post is sponsored?
Oh, you should be like, “Good job — you’re so ethical.” (Laughs) It’s not that you shouldn’t trust the post when you see that it’s sponsored, but just that you should know it’s a paid ad lor. Just like in your magazine, when you see an advertorial, you don’t automatically think that everything in it can’t be trusted. The things in it could still be real — it’s just that the reason this pic is here is because it’s being paid for. It doesn’t mean the product is shit, just that more care went into taking a nice pic and you won’t say anything bad about it. Pretending that certain things are your true feelings when you’re being paid for it is way worse.
Some magazines get flak for over-Photoshopping models or celebs. The accusation is that they’re propagating some unattainable standard. Do you think mags should stop Photoshopping?
No way! I think magazines appeal to people’s aesthetics. They exist ’cos people want to see beautiful, stylish and fashionable pictures. They should in no way pander to people who say we should just use raw photos with ugly curves bulging out. It’s just stupid. I don’t understand this whole body positivity movement, where people hate on people for posting skinny or perfect pics. You should know that these are models who work very hard on their bodies. They eat freaking celery every day and they are suffering for this. Don’t compare yourself to them. These are beautifully-shot and edited photos with a whole bunch of professionals making sure there is perfect lighting and that every single strand of hair is perfect for you to appreciate. So why are you talking about how fake it is, when you already know that it is fake? I don’t understand what this fuss is. Does it stem from your own low self-esteem? Do you think you are ugly and want to make everybody ugly as well? Seriously, it’s annoying.
Today’s shoot was a little different, as we plan to show the unedited as well as Photoshopped pics. So the raw photos have to look nice as well. Was that a challenge for you?
No, I think it’s even better! As long as I can show the edited version, it’s not that bad.
You also post edited photos, but people know what you really look like. It’s like, this is the beautified version, but here’s the original. And TBH, the original pics look not bad lah.
Oh, thanks thanks! (Beams) I think you guys did a really good job also. When I do a photo shoot with a magazine, they don’t edit as much as I do. I just assume the original pics will be shown. But now, it’s better ’cos I can show an improved version [of myself] in a magazine.
Your hair and make-up already looks great and your waist is actually really small. So why do you need to do all that Photoshopping?
Cannot lah. When I see my own face, I just see all the imperfections. (Laughs) I don’t know leh — it’s like if you see a pimple or a flaw you just want to dot it away, and then you do just a bit more here and there... (Laughs)
Photos: Joel Low
Hair: Leng & Mukhlis/NEXT Salon
Don't miss Xiaxue's exclusive video tutorial for 8 DAYS on how to Photoshop yourself to perfection using phone apps.
Catch Xiaxue on LifeSpam at Toggle.sg. New episodes every Wednesday till September 27.