When you think of Zoe Tay, the image of a self-assured big sister figure whose acting chops are acknowledged comes to mind. In short, she’s the Queen of Caldecott Hill (or should we say, Stars Avenue?)
She celebrated her 30th year in showbiz earlier this year, and at the time, she admitted that she “never imagined myself spending 30 years in showbiz back then (…)somehow, with all the help of everyone around me, I managed to make it this far. It’s a blessing.”
In this week’s episode of Dennis Uncovers, we delve into the early days of Zoe’s career – including how she requested that the company transfer her to another department so that she wouldn’t have to act (read: she didn’t like acting), and the three most important men in her career.
Scroll down to watch the latest episode of Toggle’s Dennis Uncovers featuring Zoe Tay, or read on for our five biggest takeaways from her heart-to-heart sharing session. Stay tuned next week for the second episode!
WATCH: How did Zoe Tay end up joining Star Search in 1988?
Ah Jie’s rocky start in showbiz
We all know that Zoe kick-started her showbiz career with her Star Search 1988 win, but did you know how it all began? She shared that she had no self-confidence when she was younger, and that joining the competition was a way for her to gain experience and become more confident in front of the camera.
“I was intending to bring my portfolio to Hong Kong and Japan to start my career there. I didn’t quite understand why I kept being picked to advance to the next round,” the 50-year-old smiled. “When we were at the finals, I ended up on the headlines and I started panicking because my family knew about it from the papers. I didn’t tell them that I was participating in the contest.”
She recalled her older brother flipping open the English papers and asking her if the Zoe Tay that they were talking about in the news was her. “I really wanted to find a hole to hide myself in. My classmates called me and asked the same question,” she mused.
Just as she was about to hide from embarrassment, her father, who is a man of few words, spoke the words that could have changed her fate.
“He mentioned that the winner would receive a car as part of the prize, so he asked me to win the car,” she chuckled. “To me, I didn’t feel like I was the best among the contestants, neither did I think I was looked upon particularly fondly. That’s why I told him that it was impossible, and that I was in it for fun. My brother replied, ‘Please win that car. Daddy will like it very much.’”
The younger Zoe had no expectations towards the results of this contest, but after that simple declaration from her father, she started to think about doing something that would make her dad happy.
She explained, “I had never done anything to make him feel particularly proud of me when I was younger, so on the day that I was announced as the winner, I was in disbelief. The stage was pretty small, and the moment the results were announced, I looked at my dad who was sitting in the audience.”
But that was just the start of the very rocky road that Zoe would have to walk on, because the real work started after she won the contest.
“When I signed the contract, I felt like I was in trouble because I had to start acting. I started to worry and regret – and I couldn’t not sign the contract, because to me, the prize was not only very generous, but also my father’s wish that I wanted to fulfill. Hanwei was offered a one-year contract, but mine was a three-year one,” she shared.
Actors back then, she said, had it much tougher than the newer generation of talents, as she recalled, “When I first started filming, I felt like it was really tough (…) acting requires you to pull all-nighters, redo things countless times and manage your own outfits and belongings. Basically, you had to do everything yourself. On top of that, you had to go through your script. I couldn’t adapt to it overnight. I didn’t feel like acting was a job that I was suited for.”
This was when she realised that there was a job that she felt she would thrive in – but it was behind the scenes.
“The AP’s (assistant producer) job of running about all the time felt like something that was more me. I requested to be transferred but my boss said no. I said that I was willing to have my salary cut to match theirs, but he still said no. I was really perplexed,” she said. “I didn’t like acting, and yet I still had to do it. I was wasting others’ time, along with my youth. Honestly, when I was filming My Fair Ladies, I didn’t like acting.”
In her first three years in showbiz, not only did she get scolded all the time, we also found out that it went as far as her getting blacklisted while she was filming a drama. “For a few days, I would get up bright and early to get my hair and makeup done, put on my outfit and head to the film set. I’d wait there for the entire day, only to go back at the end of the filming day without any scenes filmed. Only on the last day did they film my scene,” she let on. “They hurriedly finished my scene and called it a day.”
While the crew was filming behind the scenes shots, she was joking around with the crew but also got told off for doing so. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
She grinned, “There was also another instance where I was napping because I was really tired. They coloured my toes and drew on my face, and I threw a tantrum when I woke up. I got scolded by the director for that.”
“There was also a period of time where I felt like I was stuck – my roles were pretty similar, and so I talked to the company and they sent me for a summer camp. It was there where I realised that I should be thankful for every single opportunity that I am given,” she mused. “Regardless of how tired I was, I told myself that I had to treasure the moment. If I didn’t respect my job, it was the equivalent of disrespecting myself. In that case, I shouldn’t be in this industry (if I couldn’t even get this right).”
With all that said and done, Zoe has taken all these experiences in her stride. She said, “Now that I look back on everything I’ve gone through, I realise that the people I’ve met and the things I’ve gone through have helped me grow up. The actors these days have it much easier than we did back in the past.”
(Continued on next page: The three most important men in Zoe Tay’s career)
The three most important men in Zoe Tay’s career
“I’ve always been very thankful to (Huang) Yiliang. He made the filming process a very enjoyable one for me. I consider him my mentor. I filmed Strange Encounters II with him – which is also my first period drama. He was very accommodating towards Hanwei and I,” she smiled.
Recalling a scene where she was supposed to slap Yiliang, she went on to say that she “tried many times but I couldn’t get the feeling right, so the director told me to just slap him for real. Once I did it, I saw his eyes brim with tears and I felt so bad (…) I enjoy working with him, and we even went to Hong Kong to film a movie together. The last time we filmed together was on The Unbeatables III.”
The second person, who changed her view on acting entirely, was the Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase.
“I got to know him through a movie that we filmed together, Asian Beat: Love from Temasek. Through that collaboration, I got to see for myself how professional and hardworking he is,” Zoe recalled fondly. “He had to travel from country to country to film short films, and he would have to speak Cantonese in Hong Kong, along with Bahasa Melayu and Tamil in Singapore. He would listen to the recordings every day. He got along with everyone on set, but once the cameras started rolling, he’d go into character and would be really focused. I was very shocked and suddenly felt like this is what actors should be like.”
Masatoshi also had a good work attitude, and wanted to be hands-on with a lot of the preparations. He explained to Zoe that he would be able to observe more through doing so, adding that if he would become complacent if he didn’t do so.
“I learned a lot from him – especially the basics of being an actor,” Zoe summarised. “I had been filming for some time then and I knew the different aspects of acting, but it was him who put it all together, and that’s how I managed to discover myself (as an actress).”
The change was evident as she took on the drama Patrol after working with Masatoshi.
She expressed, “I started discussing the script with the director, and he was quite surprised because I had never did that previously. When I started filming, Edmund Chen felt like I had changed from the previous times that we worked together. He said that he was touched by my performance.”
This carried on even when she worked on Pretty Faces, as she discussed the script again with the director. The EPs also changed their view of Zoe after that, and she was finally acknowledged as an actress who did her homework.
The last, and probably most obvious, man who has shaped her career is none other than David Gan.
“He’s an elder that I respect very much. I got to know him even before I entered showbiz and he was the one who encouraged me to give it a try. My image was created by David, and I remember something that he told me. ‘You’re a celebrity. Regardless of whether it’s a big or small event, you have to look like one when you’re there. As a public figure, you can’t be sloppy. If you do, that’s how people will treat you.’,” Zoe shared.
David would borrow clothes for her, arrange for makeup artists and hairstylists if he was unable to make it personally, making him someone that Zoe is “very grateful” towards.
“It was him who helped me all this time. People might not understand why I’m so grateful towards David. It’s because he’s always been on my side silently. He’s never asked for anything, even until this day,” she explained.
Zoe Tay’s biggest regret in life
On the topic of regrets – Zoe shared that while she is the type who will not consider going back in time to change what has happened, she admitted that she too, has regrets.
“When my dad was unwell, I wasn’t unable to be by his side enough, and I couldn’t do much for him either,” she said, with tears brimming in her eyes. “After he passed away, I had a lot of strange thoughts for a long time. I spent a long time recovering. If anyone asked me about it at the time, I would definitely start crying. Perhaps it was because of the impact that my dad has on me – I lost my mother at a young age and my dad is someone I respect a lot. He looked after the family single-handedly and he built such strong bonds between all of us. I think that’s really amazing.”
The painful experience made her think about how she regretted not trying harder to take time off to return to his hometown with him, as she shared that she “didn’t know how to bring it up. I thought that people would think that I was asking for too much, or making too many requests.”
“What I also learned is how to express yourself at an appropriate time without hurting others.”
(Continued on next page: How getting famous had a negative effect on Zoe)
The double-edged sword that is popularity
Zoe found her footing in the industry soon enough, as she mused that her breakthrough was during the drama Pretty Faces.
Although she was recognised as an actress after the role, it wasn’t a bed of roses for Zoe, as she shared that there was a negative impact of her success as well. “Because (I managed to) successfully (convince the audience with my character) Bobo, they also had the impression was Zoe Tay was Bobo. They felt like I was as materialistic as my character. There was a lot of speculation and rumours about me, and I felt terrible. Some people felt like they shouldn’t get close to me, either. At the time, I was still young, and I couldn’t get used to it, and I felt very lonely.”
As a newbie, she let on that she took everything people said to heart. “It’s not because of myself, but because of the effect on my family and the people around me. My father felt a bit troubled as well because of what people said. Even though I said that it wasn’t the case, people wouldn’t believe me. Sometimes, the more you try to deny something, the more people will try to make up things about you,” she explained.
“People might call me an Ah Jie now, but when I look back at what happened in the past, the process that I went through is worth it because I’ve been acknowledged as who I am today,” she concluded.
What’s Zoe Tay like as a mother?
With three boys in her brood, some would expect that Zoe would be a tiger mum, micromanaging every aspect of her sons’ lives.
“When people ask me if my boys are well-behaved, I ask them this question. If you put three cockroaches in a match box and open it, do you think the cockroaches will run in the same direction? That’s how my sons behave. Why do you think my voice is always hoarse?” she chuckled. “Even when I bring them out, I don’t care about my image if I have to shout at them. That’s why I go to less crowded areas. I’ll tell them directly, ‘Stop it!’ I’m just an average mum.”
These days, she’s using a different approach to talk to her boys.
“I tell my sons that I have never been a mother before I had them; much less was I a mum to three kids. That’s why there are times where the choices that I make might not be the best, and there are times where I make mistakes,” she let on. “The same applies to them, and I tell them so. I use my past experiences and judgement to make the decision that I think is the best, but if we get it wrong, we can always try again. They too have to give me a chance to learn and change. This is also a way to keep our relationship strong. That’s a really good method of communication with my boys too.”
“My three sons are very protective of me. If my husband raises his voice at me, they’ll tell him, ‘You can’t talk to my mum like that!’ If our argument gets heated, my eldest will come to me and comfort me. It’s almost as if they protect me a little more,” she added.
But with three boys, has she ever thought about what it could’ve been like having a daughter?
She laughed as she said, I remember the time when I went for some additional tests because I was having a high-risk pregnancy. They told me that I was having another boy, and I turned around and said, are you sure? They turned the monitor around and showed it to me, saying that there was a 0.000001 percent chance that it would be a girl. I turned and looked at my friend who came along with me and told her, ‘It’s your fault!’ She also has two boys and she only said, ‘It’s okay lah.’”
While she’s accepted that she is destined to be the only woman in the household, she has one thing to say. “Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I can’t find a spot to sleep. All of us sleep together – we pushed two big beds together and there are just so many males on the bed! Sometimes I get slapped or kicked awake by my youngest,” she lamented.
It’s definitely not easy being a woman.