In June, Nathan Hartono exhorted his 116k Instagram followers to catch the new season of Sing! China. "Who knows, maybe Singapore will have a new contestant out there to fly our flag?" the singer wrote. Enter Joanna Dong, 2017’s answer to Nathan Hartono and Singapore’s newest singing ambassador.
During a blind audition on the first episode of this season's popular reality TV show, the 35-year-old jazz singer impressed the judges — Jay Chou, Eason Chan, Na Ying and Chinese songwriter Liu Huan — with not only her nuanced jazzy rendition of '80s Chinese classic ‘Love Song 1990’ but also a vocal trumpet solo. Three out of four of them — Jay, Eason and Liu Huan — came forward for her. We must mention that Jay was the first to hit the buzzer and slide forward, merely a minute into Joanna’s performance. No wonder, just like Nathan, who emerged first runner-up in the previous season, Joanna choose to be on #TeamJayChou. Since a cut featuring Joanna’s performance was uploaded on YouTube on July 14, it has garnered close to 300k views.
Joanna, who is also a theatre actress and TV host, has been singing jazz for over a decade now and has performed at countless local festivals. She’s married to theatre practitioner, Zachary Ho.
This isn’t the first time Joanna is in a reality singing competition. The erstwhile Singapore Idol won a spot on the first season of the show (the year Taufik Batisah won), but the experience didn’t go down too well. During her audition, the then 23-year-old was roasted for her sartorial sense — or lack thereof — by judges Dick Lee, Florence Lien and Ken Lim. “Ditch the auntie get-up,” Florence ordered while Dick mused “You’re dressing like your mother.” Ken declared that “a complete makeover is vital”. Well, we're happy to report that she’s since ditched that headmistress-y look (she wore a brown blouse paired with a long black skirt and had her hair tied up). The new and improved Joanna comes with better vocals… and better dress sense to boot.
8 DAYS: Congrats on getting through the audition of Sing! China. How do you feel about all the media attention that you’ve been getting?
JOANNA DONG: I’m very flattered, and pleasantly overwhelmed by the attention!
You said that you decided to take part in Sing! China after being inspired by Nathan Hartono’s success on the show.
I was honestly pretty envious when Nathan got to treat his fans to Milo peng. The boy knows his music and his Milo! (Laughs) Jesting aside, I've been trying to encourage interest in jazz music to Mandarin-speaking audiences for years. Seeing how the first season of Sing! China was so welcoming of singers across a wide range of genres, I felt it was a great platform to further the cause. Also for the past two years, I have spent most of my time working as an infotainment host. And as much as I cherish and enjoy the experience gained through hosting, I had a deep yearning to sing and was anxious over losing my identity as a singer.
How do you feel about being picked by three out of the four judges?
I was elated! The whole experience went by in a blur ’cos I was almost in a state of shock. I know I appeared fairly composed, but I was shaking under that big skirt of mine! I really wasn’t sure anyone would choose me. And I’ve experienced auditions where I was paralysed by anxiety. So all I was trying to focus on was to sing the song as best as I could.
You choose Jay Chou as your mentor in the end.
Jay chose me before I even got to the showy parts of the song. He could never have anticipated what I was going to do next. No vocal trumpet, no high notes, no scatting, yet he chose me. I cannot begin to tell you how much that moved me.
We spotted Eason whispering in your ear when he hugged you on stage. What was he saying?
I don't remember exactly what ’cos I was so excited my mind was pretty much a blank. But it was something encouraging, which was very sweet of him! I think I said something silly like “Can we still be friends?” (Laughs)
You auditioned for Singapore Idol when you were 23, and your outfit was criticized by the judges.
At that point, I was pretty indignant. But in retrospect, I deserved those comments! I was always the kind of kid who cared a lot about others’ expectations of me. I had gotten it into my head that for something as important as a TV competition show, I should “dress up”. So instead of wearing my usual streetwear which was the style I was into at the time, I picked a modest skirt, and later [on in the competition], a glamorous dress. It came off looking so awkward!
How did you feel about Florence Lien's "auntie" comment?
I became really self-conscious and defensive about my dressing after being labeled “auntie”. And in the decade that followed, it’s remained a constant struggle to reconcile my personal style with what I imagine people expect me to wear whenever I perform. Even now, my personal style is more minimalist, structural, and mostly monochromatic. But when I sing for weddings or corporate functions, I am often obliged to wear a formal gown and more cheerful colours. I regret letting the “auntie” comment affect me the way it did in my youth. Now that I've reached the age where I’m literally an auntie to my nephew and friends’ children, I embrace being called “auntie”! Being an auntie is cool. Auntie cares for you even though she isn’t your mother. Auntie talks a lot but also listens. Auntie isn’t a pushover and stands up to bullies. Auntie doesn’t care that you don’t like what she’s wearing. Be like Auntie!
What has your past experience on Idol taught you?
Any attention you get, positive or negative, is fleeting.