“Today is going to be so noisy!” exclaims Vivian Lai to Marcus Chin when he strolls into the room. She’s right. If you’ve ever been around the vivacious host, you would know that with Vivian, what you see is what you get. This means that if you’re in the same room with the 41-year-old host, you can forget about getting a moment’s peace. You are also likely to LOL at her humorous, off-the-cuff quips. “Why are you looking at me? Are you lusting after my beauty?” Vivian asks the program’s producer, while cupping her chin in her hands, after she catches the latter casually glancing at her. It’s that same lightning-quick wit that made Mark Lee take a shine to her during her early showbiz days (but more on this later).
We’re chilling in a studio at the Mediacorp Campus with Vivian who’s guesting on the second season of variety show The Love 97.2 Breakfast Quartet Season 2 aka the spin-off of mega-popular radio show featuring Marcus, Mark Lee, Dennis Chew and Chen Biyu. The goofy host is her usual rambunctious, joke-cracking self, brightening up the room with her loud, incessant chatter and larger-than-life personality. In other words, it’s business as usual for Vivian Lai.
Who would have guessed then, that just a few days ago, her 43-year-old husband, Alain Ong, who’s the CEO of Pokka International, had been suspended from his duties at work? According to Shin Min Daily News, who broke the news, the change was part of a major shake-up in the company which saw up to eight top executives also suspended from their duties. The Chinese daily had received an anonymous tip-off a few days ago and approached Pokka who confirmed the news. The company stated that while Alain remains an employee with the company, all his duties have been taken over by the company’s Group CEO, and that an internal audit is being carried out.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if this will affect Vivian’s lucrative endorsement deal with the beverage giant. In 2012, it was reported that the actress was paid a million dollars to continue endorsing the brand. Will this spell the end of the actress’ decade-long run as Pokka ambassador (and our days of seeing Viv grace our TV screens sipping on green tea while standing in fields of green)? We tried reaching out to the actress for comment, but she didn’t pick up our call or respond to our Whatsapp messages.
In light of the recent turn in events, which came a day after we spoke to Vivian, we recalled something she told us during our 30-min chat. We had posed this question to the host: Given that she radiates contagious cheer all the time, what was the last thing that got her feeling really, really down? “I rarely feel down,” she chirped. “I always think that if your path doesn’t change, then you need to change your mind. There are no dead ends in life.” Let's hope Vivian's spunky optimism will help her weather this storm.
8 DAYS: You’re the special guest for the finale episode of the second season of The Love 97.2 Breakfast Quartet Season 2. Part of your segment in today’s show was a throwback to your Star Search days. What memories do you have from that period of your life?
VIVIAN LAI: At that time, I had arrived in Singapore [from Taiwan] not too long ago, so I wasn’t aware that there was such a competition. I just followed my classmate to join it. One thing led to another, and I ended up winning the title in the female category of Star Search [in 1999]. Everyone had the mentality that those who came out of Star Search would go into acting in dramas. But acting is something that requires experience and training. And I didn’t know how to act. But they immediately pushed me to take on the supporting role of a drama. My first drama was with Chen Hanwei [in 2000 Ch 8 drama Knotty Liaison]. The Hanwei of that era was like Elvin Ng now [Ed: We guess she means Ch 8's resident heartthrob?], so of course, I felt tremendous pressure. I remember when that drama aired, I was scolded so badly by viewers. Firstly, they had an issue with my [Taiwanese] accent. Secondly, I wasn’t local enough. And nobody knew who I was, so they weren’t able to accept me. And thirdly, my acting wasn’t good enough. So after that drama, for the next six to eight months, I didn’t have any acting projects. It was a very low moment in my career. But at that time, I wasn’t feeling despondent. I just thought that if I didn’t have any acting projects, I could just go and do the things I liked. The highlight of my career was when I made the switch from acting in dramas to hosting variety shows instead.
Interesting, it was Mark Lee, one of your co-hosts for today, who helped you make the switch.
Yes. At that time, we were neighbours. And we frequently hung out together. I’m very close to his wife too. So whenever I cooked, I’d ask the both of them over to eat. They didn’t have any kids then. And while eating, we would tell jokes and exchange barbs. My off-screen persona is exactly the same as the Vivian Lai you see on variety shows. So I loved to rebut and argue with him. And one day, his wife said, “Actually, your banter with each other is very funny and natural.” And Mark said, “Yeah, why don’t you join variety shows?” I said, “Okay, I can try lor.” Then I asked, “But if I go into variety, what am I supposed to do?” And he said, “You don’t have to do anything. Just talk like how we normally do.” I said, “Just like that? Don’t I have to act?” I kept thinking that if I go on a programme, I have to be somebody else, just like when I’m acting. But when I did variety, I could be myself, which was what I wanted.
Recently, many second-gen stars have made their showbiz debut. Do your two daughters plan to go into acting or hosting too?
My daughters are no strangers to the limelight. When my older one was just two-and-half-years old, she shot an ad for [Japanese hand soap] Kirei Kirei with me. And after that, my younger daughter joined in too. And us three sisters (laughs) filmed a Kirei Kirei commercial. And we have also been on many variety shows. So it all boils down to whether or not they enjoy being in this environment. But since young, they have grown up in this environment with me. So they won’t be like those young people who dream of being in showbiz ’cos it seems very glamorous. They are used to seeing one whole bunch of celebs every day. When they see Zoe Tay or Elvin Ng, they wouldn’t go like, “Wah!” My younger daughter still doesn’t know what she wants to do. But my older daughter said that she wants to be a dentist in future. But she’s not against the idea of working with mummy when it comes to shooting commercials and variety shows, or doing magazine shoots.
You seem so bubbly and cheerful all the time. What was the last thing that got you feeling really down?
I very seldom feel down. I always think that if your path doesn’t change, then you need to change your mind. There are no dead ends in life. It’s just whether or not you’re willing to try out new things. Even if today, I’m not in this industry, or I lose my job ’cos the audience no longer likes me, I also won’t blame anyone ’cos the problem might lie with myself. And if so, I can try doing other stuff.
There are many things I can do. Like now, I’ve started doing behind-the-scenes production work, stuff like how to do a programme or sell my creative ideas. All these are quite interesting. If you never try, you’ll never know. In the past, I also never knew that I could do them.
We were just about to get into that. You established social media and production company 3X Media Production with Quan Yifeng and celeb hairstylist Addy Lee in 2014. How did that idea come about?
We set up this company ’cos we wanted to try out new things. We’ve been in this industry for so long, and we have our own ideas. No matter what, [Mediacorp] is still a TV station and there’s a format to follow for every programme. So we don’t have the liberty of doing whatever we want to. On social media and online, we have a lot more freedom with the things we say or do.
How has delving into behind-the-scenes production work changed the way you approach your work as an artiste?
I no longer dare to kick up a fuss. (Laughs) Only after going behind-the-scenes did I realise the amount of hard work put in by the producers, writers and editors. In the past, I always viewed the entire production from solely the perspective of an artiste. Why did the writer give me the script so late? Why must the producer film for so long? I just wanted to finish filming so I could leave. But now, if there’s a delay, I’d say, “It’s okay, I’ll wait.” As an artiste, I just need to focus on myself, and when I finish, I can leave. But as a producer, I need to take care of the overall production. I have to go for meetings with clients to sell my ideas, and oversee the filming. That’s not to mention the prep work which takes two to three weeks. And after filming, I still need to have a meeting with my team on what to do the next day. But all the hard work is worth it ’cos these are all experiences that cannot be bought with money. When I see the end product go “live”, wah, I feel very shiok!