The moment Le Yao enters the wardrobe unit, where she’s getting fitted for her role in the year-end Ch 8 blockbuster, My Friends From Afar, she gets inundated with compliments about her newly slimmed-down physique. Amidst the love fest, she tells the show’s executive producer, “I lost weight ’cos you told me I was going to play a young girl.” Meanwhile, Shaun Chen, her co-star in the same drama, mutters something about how her weight gain is inevitable given that she’s given birth to two kids. Later on, Brandon Wong tells Le Yao she’s lost weight, to which she replies, “I was dieting mah. If you saw me three months ago, I was still very fat.”
All that flab-fighting is for a different kind of fighting the 34-year-old actress will be displaying in My Friends From Afar. In the drama, she plays the bold and overbearing secret society boss Sha Yu Jie (loosely translated as “Shark Sister” in Mandarin). Le Yao, who also teaches young kids at her own education company (more on this later), tells us that while she’s open to trying out new roles, she did have a ground rule about breaking bad onscreen. “I was afraid of what kind of scenes I would be asked to film," she said. "So I did tell them that I cannot film any scenes of me torturing kids due to the nature of my work!"
8 DAYS: Since you left full-time acting about a decade ago, you’ve gotten married, had kids, and two years ago, you set up your own education centre, A-Star Speech, where you’re a Chinese and drama teacher. Tell us more about it.
LE YAO: After filming a few local dramas and movies, I felt like learning something new. So in 2010, I took up a Diploma in Teaching Chinese Language course at NTU. It’s targeted at people like Chinese teachers of primary and secondary schools who want to upgrade themselves. Now at my education centre, I teach Mandarin to adults and some foreign teenage students. I also have some students from local schools. For those students, we focus on helping them get the best grades (laughs).
Why did you decide to set up your own company?
After I finished my course in NTU, I applied to be a teacher at an international school. I was offered the position but had to turn it down ’cos at that time, I was filming [2013 Ch 8 drama] The Dream Makers. After that, I worked in an education company where I taught speech and drama. When I learnt that I had to teach children below the age of seven, I wasn’t sure if I was suitable for the role. I wanted to teach children between the ages of 8 and above ’cos I had learnt so much from my diploma course and my results were also not bad (laughs). The good thing was that the people in that company were open to my ideas. So I worked there to learn and hone my skills. But after about three years, I realised that my former bosses and I had very different views towards education. They didn’t place priority on education but on other areas. There’s nothing wrong or right; it’s just that it’s not what I want. Everybody also wants to earn money, but I want education to be the main focus. At my education centre, we have enrichment classes for children and also adult language classes. For adults, we teach English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay and Cantonese. As for kids, we offer yoga, drama, English and Mandarin classes.
In 2010, you tied the knot with your now 36-year-old Singaporean husband, who owns his own property company. And now you’re a mother to two kids. How has motherhood changed you?
I’m more emotional, which is a good thing ’cos I’m a drama teacher. So I can better understand children’s emotions, including teenagers. Sometimes, children are in the mood, and other times, they are not. If a child’s not in the mood but he’s close to you, he’ll share his feelings with you. In that way, it can alleviate his stress and he can better focus on his studies. Once, I attended an event organized by MOE and the MOE department head asked, “Do you know what a good teacher must be like?” Some said a good teacher must be like a mountain, others said he or she must be a good role model. But the answer in my heart was, “A magician.” And that was what he said. You must be a magician and always come up with new things. You must be interesting and humorous. So after becoming a mother, I have more ideas for my children enrichment programs and I’ll find many ways to let them express themselves, like through dancing. Some parents keep telling their kids that they must dare to speak up, which is why they send their kids to speech and drama classes. But sometimes, it’s not just about daring to speak up ’cos their confidence could be built through other ways, like taking dancing classes.
You gave birth to your second son nine months ago.
My second son was unplanned. On my last day of filming [2016 Ch 8 drama] My First School, I was re-shooting a scene that was shot one and a half months ago. And my clothing felt a bit tight. So I thought, “Have I put on weight?” After that, I went home, and my mother said, “Wah, luckily, you only have one child! It’s enough to keep us busy! If you’ve a second one, I think I’ll need to bring him back to Shanghai.” I felt like something was amiss. So I went to Watsons and and bought a pregnancy test kit. Then, I found out that I was pregnant. I came out of the toilet and told my mum, “I think you have to bring one kid back to Shanghai.” (Laughs)
You’ve been trying very hard to lose weight after giving birth.
Yeah, that’s all thanks to my straight-talking friend who told me, “Wah, after six months, you’re still so fat ah.” (Laughs) That hurt my feelings. So I wanted to lose weight. Actually, my husband also told me the same thing. That time, I was still fat. But no choice, ’cos I had just given birth. And I was still breast-feeding, so I couldn’t diet. But after breast-feeding for five months, I also didn’t control my diet. My friends kept teasing me about my weight. I have friends who would post my old photos in our group chat and tell me things like, “Actually, you have very beautiful legs. It’s just that they’re a bit meaty.” Then one of my friends asked me to download the app Runkeeper. So that whenever I ran, she would know. She said that if I didn’t run, she would fine me $50. I lost 6kg in three months. But not from running. I didn’t run a lot even though she wanted to fine me. If you’re fat now, and you try to lose weight by running, how long will it take you? You should cut the fats before working out. So I tried many methods to lose weight. I even considered taking diet pills, but didn’t do so in the end. Instead, I took the Biscuit Diet. I made sure that it has passed local food safety checks ’cos I’m scared also mah. I used that to replace my meals to reduce my carb intake.
You also have your own prenatal and postnatal web series Le Yao’s Baby Diary in China. How’s it like filming that show?
It’s very hard. The show is run by a very professional team of five girls. They’ve a script for me to follow. And there are so many lines! The editor will go through the lines with me. And the director would tell me that I’ve to shoot the whole chunk of lines in one take. In a day, I must record four episodes. Each episode is five to six minutes long, and contains a lot of information. It was so difficult! At first, I had a lot of NGs (No Good takes). But later on, I realised what the problem was. It wasn’t that I’m bad at memorising the script. It was ’cos I was still breast-feeding then. So I’d like to tell all the mummies out there: Giving birth won’t make you stupid. But when you’re breastfeeding, you’ll become stupid. Your memory will become very poor (laughs). So, at that time, I didn’t perform well. But after weaning my baby, I went back to recording and I could memorise my lines very quickly.
Do you have any other projects lined up in China?
I’ve a three-year contract with [China-based online video platform] iQiyi [the creator of my show Le Yao’s Baby Diary] so I’ll follow their plans. They’re an app owned by Baidu. It’s the first time I’m signed on to a technology company (laughs). My show is in Shanghai. So in future, whatever promo activities or recordings for the show will be in Shanghai. Next year, iQiyi will be building a very big office in Shanghai, so my recordings will be done there. Now it’s also in Shanghai, but we do our recordings at a rented studio.
Are you planning for a third kid?
I’ll wait a little while first. Now, I take more precautions. I won’t let another accident take place so soon, at least in the next two years. I need to spend more time with my two sons first. Plus, I just slimmed down (laughs).
PHOTOS: KELVIN CHIA/LE YAO