Why is Jeanette Aw Feeling Blue?

Being draped in Smurfs isn’t the only thing that’s making Jeanette Aw blue. Back from an eight-month work stint abroad (where she fended off stalkers), the star opens up about what makes her go blue-hoo. Get your tissues handy. (A version of this article first appeared in Issue 1089, Sept 1, 2011)

If Jeanette Aw were a colour, she’d flit between bright cobalt blue and sombre navy. Certainly, she's not fiery enough a personality to be crimson (we wanna say Cynthia Koh, but we're afraid she'll scold us). Not sunny enough to be yellow (hello, Pornsak!). Not ethereally hippie, peace-loving enough to be Nadya Hutagalung green. Yes, Jeanette's got a chill sort of self-azure-rance (heh heh). In public, she displays a lighter shade of aquamarine, if you will. When she’s alone, she takes on deeper, darker hues as her melancholic side takes over (though we don't think she ever gets as angsty-indigo as, er, Rui En.) In a way, Jeanette’s not that different from your typical emo\ teen battling mood swings. The only difference is she exercises impeccable self-control. In any case, whichever extreme Jeanette swings to, blue just looks good on her. After all, the 32-year-old is a shoo-in for high weep-factor roles like 2008’s tearjerker-orama, The Little Nyonya, and more recently, Breakout, where she went all high-strung and maniacal as a schizophrenic. She’ll also be essaying tragic characters in two upcoming dramas which she spent the past eight months filming in China and Malaysia. And we must say tragedy becomes her — those big peepers were made for crying. Then there are those forlorn ruminations (in both English and Mandarin) that she posts on Facebook and Twitter, an abject showcase of idealism tempered with world- weariness: “How many of us can say ‘I like the way I am and that’s how it’s going to be?’ If you can, good for you…” Why the self-doubt, Jeanette? Were you making New Year’s resolutions? Did someone call you fat? After a fan meet, the introspective Little Nyonya wrote this on her blog in Mandarin: “Actually, I’m not as brave and strong as you all might think. I’ve failed before. I’ve been disillusioned before. And I have thought of giving up.” Is it self-indulgent? Perhaps.

But you also get the distinct feeling that it comes from somewhere genuine. It’s not pretentious or an attention-seeking ruse, which is probably why you don't dismiss it as an OTT melodramatic cry to get noticed. But you do kinda wish she might get out more. Get a drink. Go bowling. Cook curry with friends. “I think a lot,” admits Jeanette, who’s sitting pretty in our studio as stylists fuss over her elfin face. We’re guessing these conversations she has with herself are part of the reason she’s somewhat reserved when speaking to the media. She’s probably played out the scenario so many times in her head that it’s near impossible to catch her off guard. No matter how welcoming her smile is, she still keeps you at a safe distance, but you happily smile back because Jeanette does chirpy so convincingly. She’s just good with people like that. Watching her, you get the impression this spritely lass likes hanging around people, but is just as comfortable being by herself, staring pensively out of a window on a rainy day. Ah.

She cheerily chomps on a jar of pineapple tarts that someone offers her and compares Weibo postings with her make-up artist in a high-pitched voice that’s more endearing than annoying, perhaps because there’s substance to her laughter-peppered prattle. Plus, she e-nun-ci-ates each word with deliberate precision in flawless, unaffected English. With her more sombre hues tucked away, the only thing blue we’re getting from Jeanette is the bathtub-ful of Smurfs she’s frolicking with for our shoot. Yes, those cutesy l'il ’80s version of Na’vis. “I love Smurfs! I used to watch the cartoon as a kid,” she coos. The studio reverberates with her lilting laughter as an assistant frantically scrolls through an iPad for images of Smurf characters — Grouchy, Clumsy, Brainy, Smurfette — for Jeanette to reference facial expressions. Recognising the absurdity of channelling hunched-up Smurf villain Gargamel, she can’t help but break into chuckles in between shots.

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What gets this girl down? How about having to pull 16-hour days filming in Malaysia and China over the past eight months for her upcoming dramas Destiny in Her Hands and Precious? “I’m very independent and I don’t get homesick. Even in Singapore, I stay by myself in my own apartment,” shrugs Jeanette, who spent most of her free-time there holed up in her hotel room. She’s been away so long that she doesn’t know much about the General Elections (“Who’s Tin Pei Ling?”), and she hasn’t heard about Joanne Peh’s water fiasco either (“What happened? Nobody told me anything leh”).

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Then we hit a raw nerve. Prince, her six-year-old Maltese that she left in her friend’s care, recently fell ill and died while Jeanette was overseas. “I feel responsible since he’s my pet and I was never around to take care of him,” she laments, her eyes brimming with tears that can’t be shed lest she ruins her freshly applied make-up. And then there was the death of her beloved godmother years ago. “I mourned her for a year,” says Jeanette, adding: “I didn’t manage to attend her funeral as I was away for work. From now on, if something ever happens to my family and I have to choose between them or my career, I’d give this up at the drop of a dime.” Gosh, it's getting really mellow here, but trust Jeanette to once again lift the mood. She breaks into a laughing fit at the sight of our bath towel-draped stylist. “I get out of feeling blue pretty easily,” she quips. “Blue can also mean a lot of other things besides melancholy, no? Like, blue films mean an entirely different thing altogether!” So have you watched one before, we ask. “No lah, isn’t it more of a guy thing? The Smurfs movie will be my first blue film. Ha!”

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You spent eight months on location. That’s a long time to be away from home. How did you cope?
This is the longest I’ve ever been away from home. Sad to say, I didn’t get out much while I was in Malaysia and China ’cos of the long working hours — we worked seven-day weeks. I had books to read and I bought some DVDs from the local stores to watch in my hotel room. I’m not sure if they’re pirated, but they looked legit (laughs)! Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, so I didn’t go online much. I didn’t feel lonely, though. I like having my own space. As for culture shocks, they smoke a lot in China. And one time, I had seafood with the local crew at a restaurant where the common practice is to throw your prawn shells on the floor. I wasn’t used to it so I left mine on the plate.

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What about foreign fan encounters of the dubious kind?
Believe it or not, two Singaporean stalkers followed me all the way to China! They’re both female and not young. I recognised them ’cos I’ve seen them here many times before. It’s scary. Once, in Singapore, they followed my vehicle in their own cars, and stopped by the road when I entered a petrol kiosk. When my assistant approached them, they sped off. They were tailing me in China for two weeks. I freaked out when we discovered that they were staying in the hotel room next to mine. I have no idea how they found out where I was staying! Thankfully, nothing happened. But I’d see them lurking in the shadows and filming me on theirphones. The production crew always sent someone to accompany me from the hotel to the filming site, but there’s nothing else you can do ’cos they’re not breaking any laws.

Will this deter you from travelling alone in future?
No. I love travelling alone. The last place I went to was India for a meditation retreat. You get really introspective on such trips and I’m the kind of person who likes to think a lot.

We’ve seen some of your posts on Twitter and Facebook. There’s some heavy stuff there.
Yeah, I post a lot of moody stuff, right (laughs)? I wouldn’t say I’m blue by nature. I usually think a lot when I’m on my own, and I’m alone a lot. But most of these posts are observations I make at that moment, that’s all. I’m temperamental. My mood changes with whatever music I’m listening to. I can be high on rock one moment and then I’ll get moody when a slow song comes on. A recent incident that got me feeling blue is the death of my dog.

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We’re sorry to hear that.
(Long pause) His name is Prince. He is a Maltese. I’ve had him since he was a puppy. When I moved out, he stayed with my parents, then I left him with a friend ’cos I was always busy with work. When I was away the past eight months, he came down with a viral infection, suffered seizures and passed away. I guess it’s better for him now that he doesn’t have to suffer. I keep photos of him as a pup — these are all I have since I wasn’t around much when he grew up. I had another dog in uni which was given to me by my then-boyfriend. When we broke up, he took the dog back. I was actually more upset about losing the dog than I was about the break-up (laughs).

Was there a time in your career when you were hit by the blues?
Things were very quiet for me after The Rainbow Connection in 2005. I felt lost ’cos I didn’t know why I wasn’t landing parts. You get a lot of insecurities in this line. But I kept myself occupied by travelling. Thankfully, things picked up after that. The worst point was when my godmother passed away six years ago. It affected me at work so much that I actually considered quitting. I was very close to her and she had Alzheimer’s, which made her forget many things. She’d write them down so she’d remember, but then she’d forget where she kept the notebook she’d written them in. It was heart-breaking to lose her day by day like this. Before she passed away, she sent me two SMSes, but due to faulty networks, I only received them after she died. The first SMS she sent, she wrote: “Baby girl, I love you. I finally remember your number.” The second one was: “Did you get my message? I guess not.” Those were her last words to me. Not being able to reply her in time is my one biggest regret.

Do you channel any of this into the characters you play?
Yeah, [the China drama] Precious is based on The Little Nyonya — the characters are similar and I also play a mother/daughter role. It should air next year, but only after its run in China. My character in Destiny in Her Hands is also very tragic. I play a girl with broken lines on her palm, which some believe signify a life of hardship. But the one character that really drained me emotionally was the schizophrenic Yang Nianqing in Breakout. I still remember my first scene where she breaks down. I was still crying when I got home! Right now, I’m filming Rescue 995, a Ch 8 paramedic drama serial debuting next Feb where I play someone with a sunny personality, so that’s a change.

When you lost the Best Actress award to Rui En at this year’s Star Awards, did it turn you a depressing shade of midnight blue?
(Shrugs) I’m hopeful with every nomination, but I guess I’m still not good enough? I get over it real fast, though. Whenever I’m down, I usually spend some time by myself, and I’ll be okay. Plus, having a short memory helps. I forget what I’m angry or down about easily.

We hear you’re branching out into comedy with what sounds like a Ch 8 version of Beauty and the Beast.
Yes, I’m doing a Ch 8 dramedy called Absolutely Charming which will debut next May. I play a fox spirit who's exiled to Earth. She’s disfigured and the only way she can return to heaven is if she fi nds someone who loves her the way she is. Because I’m so ugly, there’ll be some funny scenes. I don’t know how they’re gonna ‘uglify’ me, but I’m looking forward to it. Everyone is so used to seeing me in tragic roles; this will be a good change. But it’s a challenge for me to do comedy. I laugh very easily, especially when co-stars crack jokes on set, and sometimes I can’t stop. It wouldn’t work for comedy ’cos you have to deliver your lines with a straight face (laughs).

As someone who thinks a lot, do you make for a difficult girlfriend?
No lah! When I’m in a relationship, it’s always long term. My worst break-up was the ‘dog guy’ ’cos he was overbearing and two-timing me. I was fresh out of school and a different person then when I was with him. We fought a lot and I cried every day. It was bad. He’d get angry with me just ’cos I had a car and didn’t have time to pick him up.

Do you think he was the one who spread those terrible rumours about you being a divorcee?
I’m not sure. Maaaaybe (laughs)? I’m in a healthy relationship now. That’s all I have to say about it. And no, it’s not Joshua Ang.

How good is Jeanette’s general knowledge when it comes to all things blue? We put her to the test.

“I wouldn’t even associate blue with food. Oh, blue plates! There’s something about blue plates, isn’t there? Food on blue plates doesn’t look appetising.”

“Superman? It’s correct? Wow, I didn’t know that (laughs). I’m not into superheroes. I haven’t watched any of the new superhero movies. I watched one of the earlier X-Men movies, though, and I liked it.”

“(Chuckles) Pluto? I was never good in science at school. I’m more a theatre student.”
Ans: Earth, because 70 per cent of it is covered in water.

“Oh dear, I’m really bad at this, aren’t I? Am I failing already?”
Ans: Late ’40s crooner Frank Sinatra, who had lovely baby blues.

Q: Who sang the song ‘Blue Eyes Blue’?
“Oh no! Why your quiz so hard one (laughs)?”
Ans: Eric Clapton.

Q: Which football team is known as ‘Les Bleus’?
(Stumped pause before a makeup artist offers the answer — The French national team) “Aiyoh, the name of their team is already in French! How come I didn’t think of it? It’s a trick question, right?”

Q: Why is the sky blue?
“Good question! Something to do with light? Refractions? I was thinking of colours in the rainbow and something about how blue is the most visible due to the air or something. I remember my physics, okay?”

Pity, Jeanette. Just one more and you would’ve graduated from our primary (colours) class.

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