From loser to A-lister: How Shaun Chen survived the fall

This week’s Toggle Talk tête-à-tête explores the new father’s bumpy road, from odd-job worker to disgraced actor to top star winning in both his professional and personal lives

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Photos: Terence Tay

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and as far as local entertainment ones go, Shaun Chen’s rags again, riches again tale is one that stands out the most in recent years.

The 37-year-old has been through various trials and tribulations ever since he entered the industry 14 years ago. At the very beginning, he made a less-than-stellar impression while filming his debut drama True Heroes in 2003, where he racked up an astonishing 50 to 60 NG’s (no-good takes).

“I was filming a breakup scene with Phyllis Quek, but I don’t know if I was being angry or if I was about to cry!” he recalled during our interview, held in a posh suite at Royal Plaza on Scotts. “I was scolded by the director half to death, and it made me question whether I had the talent to become an actor.”

Things appeared to look up when he took on his second role as Yu Hong Zhi (a.k.a. Xiao Xin), a wealthy businessman who is struck with temporary memory loss, in long-form drama Holland V that same year. People started recognising him on the streets, even when he went back to Malaysia, as the programme was broadcasted on the local cable network there.

“That time I really felt (fame) came so quickly, (but) I don’t know why – perhaps because of luck,” Shaun mused.

However, as they say, “easy come, easy go”. In 2005, Shaun’s third year in showbiz, SPH MediaWorks, the TV station he was signed to, merged with Mediacorp. While many artistes, including his then-girlfriend Michelle Chia, got to move over to the new company, Shaun was tragically axed.

Fast forward a decade, and the Malaysian-born actor was finally picking up his very first trophy, the Rocket Award, at the 2015 Star Awards. Then, the very weekend after that, he was crowned Best Actor – the undisputed crème de la crème of all accolades for male thespians. That wasn’t the last of the good news: later that year, it was revealed that Shaun had secretly married his girlfriend Celine in July, and their daughter Nellie was born in December.

“I’ve become happier and more satisfied,” the new dad declared. “My career is going well, and I have a wife and a daughter. I’m satisfied with that.”

Indeed, life has been very good to him recently, but it was not always this way. In this week’s Toggle Talk, we explore Shaun’s tough past, how he dealt with it, and how he’s revelling in the sweet present:

WATCH: Shaun Chen recalls his disastrous first acting audition


He cheated his way to a college diploma

Shaun made no secret of his less-than-impressive academic past, even going so far as to claim his results were the worst among his six siblings (five sisters and one brother, all older than him). “In primary school I always got last place or second last place,” he admitted. “I remember the female student whom I always ‘competed’ for last place with, and she has since gone on to become a famous photographer.”

Things didn’t get any better when he went on to secondary school, and he failed his Malay subject for SPM (the Malaysian Certificate of Education), which meant that he could not obtain the certificate. Unable to enter into a university, Shaun enrolled in an electronic and electrical engineering course at a private college in Kuala Lumpur, but he did not enjoy the subject.

He would have been done for in the final exams if not for his lecturer’s dishonest behaviour. “During the test, the lecturer looked at me and asked, ‘You don’t know how to do (this question)?’, asked for a pen, and wrote down the formula for me! So I passed,” he recounted. “I think the school was afraid that if their students fail, they would get into trouble.”

Thankfully, the fraudulent academy has since closed down, leaving Shaun to wonder if the diploma he received is of any use (not that he needs it now, anyway).

He gave stardom a shot in a talent competition and male beauty pageant

In order to earn money while he was studying, Shaun took on modelling gigs. “I had a very, very old motorcycle that I bought for RM500 (about S$168),” he recalled, claiming that the vehicle was so shabby that it would never be stolen even if it were left on the side of the road. “Whenever I rode it to casting calls or went for a show, I would park the bike far away because I felt embarrassed by it.”

One day, a friend of his, who was also a model, asked if Shaun would be interested in joining a Manhunt-like male beauty pageant. The then-19-year-old agreed, but he did not expect to be strutting down a catwalk in swimming trunks.

“I was totally not prepared and I looked really terrible!” he recounted with a shudder, quipping that he didn’t even get to shave. To make matters worse, his third sister, who had come to support him, took pictures. “I don’t know if those photos still exist, and if they are, I will faint,” he said. 

So did he win? “Of course not, my body was not good enough,” he said. But there was a silver lining: “I realised that I'm not camera-shy.”

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His first acting audition was a disaster

Armed with the new revelation about his potential in front of the camera, Shaun and a few of his friends decided to join a talent competition in Malaysia. During auditions, he chose to sing for the judges, but did not even manage to pass the first round.

It wasn’t until 2002 – after working a myriad of jobs, from a cable technician to a car painter to a bank salesman to an eyewear distributor – when Shaun, who was also still modelling part-time, was talent-spotted and negotiated a one-year contract with Mediacorp. He came to Singapore to attend a simple audition where he had to act out a one-page script, but he messed it up so badly he was expecting to kiss his contract goodbye.

To his surprise, his contract was still valid, and he was told that he could start filming dramas. After packing his car full of his belongings – including his mattress – he embarked on the long drive from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, and thus his 14-year stay in the Lion City began.

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He once considered the possibility of never acting again

Shaun’s young career was on the rise as early as his second year in the industry. He had filmed four dramas and a variety programme, and was soon asked to join Channel U at SPH MediaWorks in 2003. Enticed by the high salary and the “sincere offer” of the boss who headhunted him, Shaun moved there and enjoyed good opportunities and good pay. He even had the chance to star in Yummy Yummy, a joint production between Hong Kong’s TVB and MediaWorks.

“I felt like, wow, my road to stardom is smooth-sailing, and I hoped to be able to work in other countries such as Hong Kong, China or Taiwan,” he said. “My second year (in showbiz) went well.”

Unfortunately, the complacency made him careless with his finances, and he did not think of saving money. This backfired on him when SPH MediaWorks merged with Mediacorp in 2005, leaving Shaun without a job.

“I never expected such a thing to happen,” he said. “I received a letter saying that I was fired. I will always remember crouching in a stairwell and crying together with my then-girlfriend (Michelle Chia), who was transferred over (to the new company).”

The next few years were tough for Shaun. He was forced to sell his precious BMW (at a loss), swallow his pride, and return to his old job hawking spectacles to optical stores. “I was prepared for the possibility that, even if I never act again, I can always sell glasses or something else,” he said, adding that he did consider rebooting his showbiz career in Malaysia, but at that time, the industry there wasn’t mature enough.

There was a time when he couldn’t even afford to eat

Without a proper job (and certainly not one that was as lucrative as his showbiz one), Shaun struggled financially. “I honestly couldn’t even afford to eat,” he disclosed, saying that this period lasted up to three years. But instead of seeking help from his friends, family or Michelle (who admirably stuck by him through this crisis), he depended on the bank.

“I didn’t want to ask for money from others because I value friendship more, so I didn’t want to make any enemies,” he said. His family was not even aware of his situation. “Telling them wouldn’t have made a difference, I could only rely on myself to get back on my feet,” he explained.

In hindsight, however, he believes his endless swiping of credit cards was a poor decision. “It would have been better to borrow from someone and pay them back little by little.” It took him a year or two to pay off his debt of $10,000 to $20,000.

WATCH: Shaun Chen recalls the time he was fired


He’s still not sure if the infamous incident (where he was accused of inappropriately touching a co-star) really happened

In 2003, there were reports that Jeanette Aw, Shaun’s onscreen girlfriend in Holland V, slapped him for touching her inappropriately during filming.

“Until now, I also don’t know when I ever touched her, and there is no evidence – there were so many people on set, if it really happened, then they would say something,” he said. “If I really did it, I am very sorry to you; if I didn’t, then you shouldn’t go around hurting others. If I am innocent, then I have nothing to be afraid of, and God is my witness. I really don’t know where or how I did such a thing.”

Despite the accusation (which, as expected, stained his reputation), Shaun never harboured any hate. “Why should I let such a small thing hurt me? Even when something serious happens, I’ll go think about it: why is this happening? Maybe I really did something that made her unhappy, maybe it’s my problem.”

He also explained his silence following the incident. “There was no use refuting the rumours because what was done was done, so I couldn’t do anything about it. It’s a small thing that has already passed, there is no need to bring it up again.” He added that he and Jeanette have since put the past behind them and get along well (something we personally witnessed when we tagged along for the filming of The Dream Job in Perth).

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He accepted the pay of a fresh grad when he returned to acting

A glimmer of hope for Shaun’s entertainment career came about when Kenneth Liang, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Dream Forest Productions, offered to help him negotiate a simple contract with Mediacorp. Although the pay wasn’t particularly high – Shaun says it was around the level of a fresh graduate’s starting income – he grabbed the chance to return to acting and to have a stable job.

“I think I’m pretty resilient, and can be as flexible as I need to be,” Shaun said, when asked if he was able to swallow his pride and go back to the basics after he had already experienced success in the past. “Perhaps I just love acting too much and couldn’t give it up.”

Determine to slog his way back to the top, Shaun took on every single role that was offered to him, no matter how unexceptional. His hard work paid off when he eventually started gaining the attention and approval of viewers, producers, and his bosses.

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He turned down a paid invitation to a dinner in Taiwan

Viewers of 2013’s The Dream Makers and 2014’s Blessings would have noticed a subtle yet unmistakable improvement in Shaun’s overall appearance: all of a sudden, he seemed more charming, more debonair, and was exuding a more potent aura of leading man material.

According to Shaun, the turning point came before he began filming for 2012’s Game Plan. “I wanted to do something about my flabby body and dispirited appearance, so I looked for a fitness coach and started working out more,” he said. “I lost weight and felt more energetic, and the producer and director noticed that I looked sharper on camera.”

He continued his healthier habit when he went to Taiwan for two years to further his career overseas in 2012. “I see myself as a product, and a product needs to be packaged well, or else it would be hard to sell.”

Speaking of his stint in Taiwan, Shaun touched on the time he was offered TWD100,000 (about S$4,233) to attend a dinner. However, he rejected the invitation on the spot after mulling it over for a few seconds. “It just didn’t sound right – I’m not stupid!” he laughed. “I didn’t think relying on connections would get me anywhere. Even if the dinner went well and I was offered a good role, I would not dare to take it if I wasn’t ready for it.”

He is still friends with his ex-wife and ex-in-laws

Two years after their star-studded, high-profile wedding, which was broadcast live on Channel 8 in May 2009, Shaun and Michelle ended their marriage. The pair began dating while filming 2004’s Power of Love together.

“Failure is a part of life. I always tell myself that we will encounter disappointments in life, but we should only let them make us stronger,” he shared. “Instead of worrying too much after my divorce, I focused on other areas like my fitness and my career.”

When prompted for the reason for the ex-couple’s split, all he answered was, “I don’t know, I really don’t know. I can’t think of what went wrong, and I don’t see the need to bring this up again.”

While things did not work out romantically, Shaun maintained that he and Michelle (whom he did not mention by name at all throughout the interview) remain friends, although they have not met up in a long time. In fact, her mother still sends him text messages, such as “You’re getting more handsome” or “Congratulations on the birth of your child”.

“I’m very fortunate not to have fallen out with them,” he said, adding that he used to go out for meals with his ex-parents-in-law, but they have not seen each other in years. “We are still friends, but I did not specially inform them when my daughter was born, and neither have I found out if (Michelle) has been seeing someone new. It’s not necessary.”

Shaun took the opportunity to request for the public to refrain from bringing up the past. “Some viewers still tell me, ‘That day I saw your ex-wife’, and my response would be, ‘Oh, okay’. I don’t know if they’re doing it on purpose, but I don’t know how to react, and it’s awkward,” he said.

WATCH: Shaun Chen gets candid about his divorce from Michelle Chia


He likes that his wife is “simple” and “doesn’t talk much”

Four years after his failed marriage with Michelle, Shaun plucked up the courage to tie the knot a second time, this time to a Kedah-born former beautician named Celine. “I’m a fighter. (laughs) I don’t give up easily,” he said. “I’m also a very traditional man who needs a family to support him. It’s completely different from being single.”

When asked how his wife won his heart, Shaun said, “She’s a simple girl who doesn’t talk much, she doesn’t nag, and she’s also not bad-looking.” He then reiterated that spectacular beauty was never a factor when picking his partner. “I’m fine as long as she isn’t too ugly, she doesn’t need to be overly (beautiful).”

With their relationship being kept under wraps for so long, even while Celine was pregnant, it wasn’t surprising before rumours started circling around. But Shaun assured her that keeping their marriage a secret was for her own good, and would give her more time to get used to his world. They eventually came to an understanding on the matter.

People doubted that his wife was married to a celebrity

Although Shaun still refrains from revealing too much about his wife (he has even yet to share any pictures of her), he doesn’t go out of his way to hide his family when going on public outings with them. “There is no way to stop people from taking photos, so I just let them be. I’ve already prepared her for this situation,” he said.

Unfortunately, Celine has already had a taste of unpleasant comments from strangers: once, while helping out at her mother’s well-known noodles stall in Alor Setar, a customer remarked, “She can’t be the wife of a celebrity – celebrities’ wives don’t sell noodles!”

“(My wife) was puzzled; why couldn’t she sell noodles? People assume that celebrities live in big houses and drive fancy cars, but that’s not true – a celebrity’s life is tough!” Shaun clarified. “She felt a little bothered by the incident, which is why I told her that she needs to be prepared for such things.”

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He wants four children (but his wife does not)

While other famous parents like Fann Wong and Andie Chen have been very open about showing their children’s faces on social media, Shaun is a lot more protective with Nellie, and has only shared a few shots of her with her face covered (this will change if he’s ever approached to endorse a product with her).

At just six months old, it is still a bit too early to tell whether his daughter resembles him or his wife more, but he believes she “probably looks a bit like the both of us”. The proud papa also revealed that it is very easy to get her to laugh. “It’s great but also strange at the same time,” he said, after mimicking the delighted chortles of his infant.

Now that he has a little girl, Shaun would love to add a son to his young brood. “Ideally, I would like to have four kids, but two is good enough,” he said. “I don’t think my wife wants any more children after looking after our firstborn! (laughs) It’s because I wasn’t there, but she might have changed her mind after she moved here and I started helping out.”

As someone who didn’t excel at school, Shaun said he will not pressure his daughter too much when it comes to her education. “It’s all right if she doesn’t excel in her studies, what’s important is that she enjoys her childhood and has a good upbringing – good grades won’t matter if you don’t have a good upbringing,” he reasoned.

He also won’t object to Nellie expressing an interest to follow his footsteps into the entertainment industry, despite the many hardships he faced in earlier years. “Kids these days are very smart and have their own way of thinking,” he said. “I may not be able to control her when she grows up.”

Special thanks to Royal Plaza on Scotts.

More from Toggle Talk season 2:
Of making babies and marrying Andie: Kate Pang
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