We’ve just chatted for an hour with Ya Hui, straight after a three-hour cover shoot at Hotel Mono, a so-minimalist-chic-it-hurts boutique hotel nestled in Chinatown. Just before we part ways, Ya Hui earnestly reiterates — again — to “call me if you need anything else, okay?” Sure, everyone from artistes to business acquaintances say that, but the 30-year-old star looks like she genuinely means it. Flanked by her manager and the crew for today’s shoot, she slinks off for dinner at a Japanese restaurant, looking a tad tentative. Despite our interview with her earlier, she looks as if there are still things left unspoken.
And truly, there are. “Shall we catch up again to continue the interview?” she texts the very next morning.
This is, after all, Ya Hui’s first 8 DAYS cover, which has been 10 years in the making — or should we say, 10 years in the waiting for the 118 star. “I used to wonder when it’d be my turn to be on the cover of 8 DAYS,” she opines. “To be honest, I waited until I decided I would keep calm and let it go. And right after that, this cover came along.” As she says it, it’s difficult to miss that glint in her eye.
After all, the former Serangoon JC prom queen (“I looked so bad with green eye make-up on. I don’t know how I became prom queen”) has been waiting for her time to shine for a long, long time. From the age of five, she’d made up her mind to go into showbiz. To that end, she’s joined numerous contests, including The New Paper New Face contest and Miss Singapore Universe (“I had to wear a bikini for the second round of auditions and I regret it. I kept the bikini until now — it was $120. Very expensive, okay!”). But she finally found her way into the industry competing alongside Desmond Tan and Andie Chen in Star Search in 2007.
Since landing a Mediacorp contract that year, the girl’s been toiling tirelessly at her craft, with an average of three dramas a year (on par with Rui En, mind you) for 10 years. She’s found herself typecast as Ch 8’s go-to girl-next-door. Random aunties call her Jinzhi, the name of her wanton mee seller character in 118, when they see her on the streets.
Surely, that beats being mistaken for another celeb. ”I was at a café recently and the waiter asked me if I was Paige [Chua]. It’s okay lah — she’s a goddess, so looking like her is a good thing,” she quips, her voice tinged with envy and resignation. You know what they say about being always the bridesmaid, never the bride? Ya Hui knows it only too well. Asked to sum up her showbiz journey so far, she muses: “My career has been an exciting rollercoaster ride so far, with more downs than ups.”
Fast forward to a weekend later. We meet Ya Hui again, this time at a bustling café where tables of lunching mums and their bubs and office workers on their break are too busy to notice us.
“The other day at the shoot, it was like I couldn’t breathe and I was feeling like I was tied up. Didn’t you hear my voice getting softer and softer?” she says chirpily, decidedly more at ease as we slip incognito into a corner booth. “Even until today, when there are other people staring at me while I’m doing an interview, I’ll feel very awkward and get stage fright. If it’s one-to-one, you can have deeper conversations.”
We don’t know if it’s the time she had to ponder over the weekend, or if she’s liberated by the pseudo-anonymity today, but Ya Hui is ready for catharsis. “Don’t judge me by my image right now, but I used to be very naughty when I was in school…” she starts from the top, without any prompting.
The floor’s all yours, Miss Koh.
8 DAYS: Why do you say your career has had more downs than ups?
YA HUI: I’m always acting the same kind of role. I don’t understand why I don’t have a chance to try out different roles. I’m still waiting for an exciting role. It’s very tiring to keep playing the same character. You can’t explore and test your abilities to go further or do better.
You seem very down-to-earth IRL. Maybe that’s working against you.
I’ve tried changing my personal image. People always told me that I look very ‘xiao mei mei’. A few years ago, to prove that I can look more mature, I wore work clothes like an OL and even a watch for a more formal look. Then I went through another phase when I tried to look cool and I didn’t smile in pictures. But fail lah! Forget it. I’ll just be myself. At the end of the day, if you’re confident and feel comfortable with yourself, you don’t have to care what others say about you.
What were your parents’ reactions when you fulfilled your childhood showbiz dream?
I’ve never really asked how they feel about my job, even now. We’ve never really opened up or talked about it. They’re very traditional, so they won’t sit down and have heart-to-heart talks. My mum’s a housewife and my dad is a retired private bus driver. He’s driven Mediacorp artistes before. When I was young, I used to tag along to see stars. I saw Chew Chor Meng and I remember telling my dad on the bus, “Chu Ming means very popular in Teochew.” Chu Ming da-ge heard and turned around to ask, “Mei mei, are you gossiping about me?” I also have autograph books signed by Zoe Tay, Fann Wong, Terence Cao and [erstwhile Ch 8 actress] Tracer Huang.
It must’ve been surreal on your first day of work as an artiste then.
I was very excited. My first show was Love Blossoms and Ivy Lee played my sister. She was walking around on set in slippers, and I remember being so surprised and shocked. Like, artistes actually wear slippers? I’d thought artistes were very glam — if not heels, then you have to at least wear covered shoes.
At one point, you felt like quitting. Why?
Yeah, I told my boss that I didn’t want to carry on. That was during the filming of Served H.O.T. After I had that conversation, I was on location filming in Tanjong Pagar. There were so many office people walking around and I was just standing in the middle of it all, like I was in my own world and everyone’s just passing you by. It’s very dramatic, but it felt very weird. Like the end of the world.
In what sense?
Like, is that going to be my life if I quiz showbiz?
You say you were mischievous in school and used to bully your classmates. We can’t imagine that what that version of Ya Hui would be like in showbiz, though.
Did you see what I looked like when I first joined the industry? I had no double eyelids. I even went to Korea for double eyelid surgery. That was when I was going to put on weight to film Marry Me. I thought that was my chance [to look different] ’cos people will just think I [look different from the weight gain]. But when I went for a consultation in a clinic in Gangnam, the doctor told me that I looked very natural and pretty the way I am, and if I did anything, it’d look unnatural so he advised against it. I was so shocked ’cos I really wanted to do it. But I came back feeling very confident. Like, if a plastic surgeon tells you that you don’t need surgery… (Laughs) I admit I’m not super pretty, and maybe that’s why I felt inferior when I first joined the industry — everyone else is so pretty! But I think I used to be very full of myself in the past, especially during school days. When I was in secondary school, my juniors and even aunties at the bus stop would tell me that I’m very pretty. But when I came here, my head always hung very low and my confidence level dropped tremendously — until this plastic surgery consultation.
So how did your double eyelids eventually form?
When I went to Malaysia for filming for about four months, the make-up artist helped me do my lashes every day and used a hairpin to create the crease for me. But make-up artists have always encouraged me to do plastic surgery. [Scrutinises an old pic of herself that she’s just Googled] But then again, I actually did sort of have double eyelids last time. Maybe it was because I was chubby last time and I plucked my eyebrows really thin so they weren’t so obvious. [A producer] even told me not to pluck my brows so that my lids won’t look so swollen.
You were saying that you mellowed after you joined showbiz. What caused that change?
I mellowed like, 100 per cent. I don’t know what happened. Even up until JC, I had many groups of friends. When I became an artiste, I became less talkative. Maybe because it’s my very first serious job. Everything’s very different from school. Maybe it was culture shock. During Star Search when I’d just been shortlisted as one of the 20 finalists, I remember walking into the meeting room where everyone was. I was struck by how talented everyone was. Some could host, some knew ballet. Everyone had different skills. I just sat there, not knowing how to deal with my feelings. I had no talent at all — I can’t act, can’t host, and only know Chinese dance. My performance was very lousy at every rehearsal and I was very demoralised. Ever since then, my self-esteem was affected. I’m still the same Ya Hui in front of my old friends, but at work, I keep to myself. Maybe I’m afraid of getting hurt and I’m just protecting myself. When I was very down and not popular — I still don’t think I’m popular now — I could feel that people looked down on you, just because you don’t have branded things. It took me by surprise. Why are humans like that? I couldn’t accept it. Some people can be fake until it’s very real.
When did you learn to differentiate who’s real and who’s not?
Only quite recently. I was very naïve last time. I just knew that I love acting and went about my work. I didn’t know how to read people. I trust people very easily, and can easily pour out my feelings. But whether the person is as sincere [as I was] is another story. As time passed, I got to see the reality and it made me do a lot of reflection.
The 118 cast seems to be quite tight, though. Do you hang out?
I’ll join their gatherings sometimes. During Chinese New Year, we went to Chu Ming da-ge’s house.
What do you talk about in your 118 group chat?
We have a general one, but I think [some of them] have their own personal one. Who? Another group lah, their own gang.
Do you get FOMO?
It’s the fear of missing out.
F what? This is new to me! I only know YOLO. I don’t have FOMO but I get quite turned off when people say to me, “You mean you have friends?” Once, I was texting someone on set and someone saw and asked me that. I flared up. I replied, “What do you mean — saying I have no friends. Just because I don’t hang out with my colleagues doesn’t mean I don’t hang out with my outside friends.” I can’t tell you who it is!
Does it worry you that you’ve earned a reputation among colleagues for having no friends?
I’m not afraid. At the end of the day, even if I can’t be fake with you, I use my heart to work with you [on a professional level]. I expect that it’s the same for everyone. And I do have fun on set. Not going out with them doesn’t make me a scary person. It just means that I have my own personal life, or that I’m tired and need to go home and sleep.
You said that your career has more downs than ups. When would you say was the lowest point?
Actually, my lows are not when there are no dramas to film. In fact, I exceed my show quota every year. The downs that I was referring to is just… (Pauses) I’m always just there. People will always want to move up [the ranks] but I’m always stuck there at this certain point. And for a very, very long time.
When you were a newbie, did you imagine that in 10 years’ time, you’d be like Zoe or Fann?
I just wanted to act and be on TV. These things are out of your control and there are too many external factors that affect [your career progression]. So I work according to what comes my way, and I make the decisions along the way. I really hate making decisions, though. It’s the toughest part of being an adult. Ten years from now, I just hope to be very healthy, and to be involved in movies and roles I haven’t tried. I really wish to be the producers’ first choice. Even now when I hear people saying that I wasn’t the first choice for a role, I’ll be very disappointed. I mean, please don’t doubt my ability anymore. I’m not who I was a few years back when my acting sucked. I’ve grown up and experienced things in life. I think I can handle any role given to me. I really hate it when people doubt what I can do. I’m more than what I appear to be.
What are these things you’re referring to that made you grow up?
My dad had first stage cancer a few years back. Luckily we discovered it early. I had to help my dad decide if he should go for the operation. The day of his op, I was filming Gonna Make It at United Square, very close to Tan Tock Seng Hospital where he was having the op. So near, yet so far. I used to be very scared to take leave, so I didn’t accompany my dad. But I felt so bad that I couldn’t be there. People [in the industry] always say no matter what happens, you have to stay on set for filming. I’m sorry, I may have been able to do that in the past, but I won’t do that now. It’s your family. If you’re so professional and stay on set, you may be successful at work, but you haven’t succeeded as a daughter. My dad is fine now, and now I know the importance of life and how fragile it is.
Do you get the same sense of urgency about your personal life, like finding the right guy?
I’m not seeing anyone, but I don’t want to think about that. The more you think about it, the more it won’t happen. I’ve always wanted to have a boyfriend. I’ve had a few boyfriends before — my last relationship was a few years ago — and I used to have a lot of suitors in school. I have a few friends who are still single and available too, and we’re always like, ‘We’re all left on the shelf already!” This is unexpected. Totally unexpected.
Photos: Aik Chen