James Lye’s final interview before he left showbiz in 2000

Just when everything’s coming up roses for JAMES LYE, he does the seemingly unthinkable: he quits TCS. We have to ask: Is he nuts? LAU KUAN WEI sits him down for this exclusive one-on-one. (This story first appeared in Issue 486, Jan 29, 2000.)

Bored. James’ bored.

That’s it, isn’t it? Mr-Top-10-Most-Popular-Artiste is flying the coop. Mr Blockbuster-movie-star wants out because he’s done it all. No more challenges to pique his curiosity. He’s a kid who got tired of all his old toys. Blah blah blah…

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Less than two years ago in April ’98, when James first confided to us that he was contemplating ditching his TV career and not renewing his TCS contract, he was held back by something. “TV to me is like getting a diploma; cinema is where you get your degree,” he’d mused wistfully. Well, the 2000AD star has graduated now, hasn’t he?

This is not a ploy, we repeat, not a publicity stunt, to plug Raintree’s first action movie. Some of us just take our millennium resolutions more seriously than others. “The turn of the century is a good time to reflect on the past and move on. I’ve been fortunate and I’ve seized the opportunities that have come my way,” he reasons. “I enjoy what I’m doing and I don’t want to move on only when I’m unhappy with the job. That’s a bad way to end things.”

Harsher critics would call it ungrateful. Reckless. Even insane. Doesn’t the man know a good thing when he sees one? After 2000AD, he romances Fann Wong in a recently-completed HK movie due to hit cinemas in April. And James was, until last week, a contender for a role in Raintree’s first English-language film, My Four Seasons, where he could’ve ended up playing opposite Karen Mok or Christy Chung.

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He is Mr Zen before me. “There will always be temptations along the way,” he says sagely. “You have to decide and just do it.” Now, he’s a Man on a Mission. “I will not make this switch a failure. Whatever I do, I will tough it out.” Wisely enough, he’ll never say ‘never again’. “I’ve seen people go back on their word about making comebacks, so I won’t rule out a return to acting some day.”

What else he’s telling us: He’s one of three partners in a juice bar opening soon at Pacific Plaza (sited next to Burke’s, where Angie the Choice used to be); he’s choosing to leave TCS in February instead of June, when his contract lapses. “They’re casting for new English dramas now, and I thought it wouldn’t be fair to keep collecting a salary until June since I don’t see myself doing those dramas.” (Sources tell us that James was up for a leading role in a tentatively-titled, and ostensibly PG-rated, Ch 5 drama, Making Love.) He’s quit television, but he may stay in this industry (“I could even go into PR, where I may have to deal with the media again,” he teases).

What’s going to happen when TCS loses the first star to ever make Ch 5, well, sexy? He’s all aw-shucks self-deprecation now. “Oh, no one is indispensable.”

Not even James Lye, with his undeniable, irreplaceable James-ness? That Darlie-perfect smile. The Americano-ish accent no one bothers to carp on anymore. The cocksure aura. His happy-go-lucky ability to not take things too seriously. Not the fame thing. Not the hunk-image. Will we not miss any of that?

“I think,” he says suddenly, as if the thought just occurred to him. “I will turn down requests for autographs after I quit. I’ll just say, I’m sorry, I’m not an artiste and I don’t do this anymore. Some people might get upset initially, but they’ll get over it. Then they’ll realise that I’m just James Lye,” he furrows his brow. “Your…your…”

Friendly insurance agent?

He chortles, tickled by the thought. “I was thinking ‘guy-next-door’.”

We’re on our way to the press conference to announce his imminent departure when a fan catches up with him, armed with a magazine cover (with him on it, of course) and a pen. He smiles at the delighted girl and obliges by scrawling his name across his picture. She scuttles off, precious autograph in hand.

Just one more month.

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8 DAYS: You’re Ch 5’s resident hunk, recently voted one of Ch 8’s Top 10 Most Popular Artistes, and your movie opens in a fortnight. You realise that to most of us, your decision to quit makes no sense…

James Lye: It’s time for the fun and games to come to an end and for me to get out of my comfort zone! I’d like to spend more time with my family, for one. The more success you achieve, the greater the loss of privacy. But you will stay a mediocre artiste if you want to protect too much of your privacy. And I don’t want to be mediocre.

8 DAYS: So you’re throwing it all away just so you can reclaim your privacy?

JL: As an artiste, you never really get off work, you know? Even when you go and have dinner with your friends, you’re still ‘on duty’. (Idly) You can’t show your middle finger when you’re driving along the expressway… you’re a role model.

8 DAYS: Um, I don’t think it’s advisable to do that even if you’re not an actor.

JL: (Laughs) Can we please put it on record that I am not fond of showing my middle finger? Okay, once I went to a seafood restaurant for dinner with some friends. A week later, I got a letter from a complete stranger saying, ‘You’re so proud. My family and I were sitting five tables away from you at the seafood place and you didn’t bother to even look at us and smile.’ Now, that’s disturbing. That’s what I mean about how you never get off work.

8 DAYS: Goes with the territory of being a celeb, doesn’t it?

JL: I understand that people expect you to be a personality all the time and I know that signing autographs is part of the job. If you don’t like that, then maybe you shouldn’t be an artiste. Maybe you should strictly be an actor.

8 DAYS: So you don’t think of yourself as an actor?

JL: (Tentatively) I would like to. But here, maybe Asia in general, you have to be an artiste, [be] versatile. You act, you cut an album, host a few shows – you milk your popularity for what it’s worth. The station milks it for all its worth. And it’s fair. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. It’s a ‘rojak’ profession, and fun for a while. (pauses) You don’t see Jodie Foster doing a song-and-dance item during the Grammy Awards.

8 DAYS: So you’d rather be focused. As an actor.

JL: If I were to stay in showbiz in the long run, I would only choose to do things that would enhance my skills as an actor. I wouldn’t choose to cut an album, sing at variety shows or [trade] launches.

8 DAYS: Well, don’t.

JL: But I’m an artiste. As an artiste, your job is to entertain. Just acting alone isn’t really enough sometimes. Anyway, I’m not the kind of person who likes to create news. I don’t like to read about myself in the papers, about who I’m going out with.

8 DAYS: Yet you always make the headlines.

JL: Well, isn’t coming up with juicy news, if you have any, part of entertaining? I don’t enjoy it, but I know it’s part of the job.

8 DAYS: That hurts, James. You mean all those times you talked to us and flashed your smile for our cameras – you hated all that?

JL: (Laughs sheepishly) Um, I try to enjoy my job. You know, appreciate the company, the trips abroad, the perks.

8 DAYS: From now on, no more discounts? Free desserts?

JL: Hey, I won’t stop people from being nice to me. It’s greatly welcome, after my financial reserves run dry! I think you shouldn’t expect good service just because you’re an artiste. Likewise, I don’t want people to be friendly because they hope to get something out of me. I hope they think I’m a nice person.

8 DAYS: You have a degree in finance. Are you headed for a corporate job?

JL: Not necessarily. At this moment, I’ve not committed to anything. But whatever my next job is, I want to be able to spend public holidays with my family and not be at the mercy of a schedule. I’ve missed my parents’ birthdays three times since I joined TCS four years ago. As for Chinese New Year, every year you pray that maybe there’s a window of three hours you can find to go and have your reunion dinner. I just want more time, that’s all.

8 DAYS: Let’s talk about money. What if TCS offered to double your pay?

JL: I’d be very flattered. But I’d still say no.

8 DAYS: Oh, come on. Isn’t golf an expensive hobby?

JL: (Nodding) Rather. But money’s not on the top of my list of priorities. I know that wherever I go, I’m going to have to take a huge pay cut.

8 DAYS: Half?

JL: At least.

8 DAYS: What are you getting now?

JL: Now? Between $100,000 to $200,000 a year.

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8 DAYS: Is it because you have a fat bank account that you can afford to take the plunge?

JL: There’s a cushion there, but not a huge one. (Grins) I can survive two months of job-searching if I eat nothing but fish-ball noodles…

8 DAYS: Very funny. So you want to throw away fame and fortune to be a regular guy who celebrates Christmas with his loved ones. What does Diana [Ser] have to say about this?

JL: She’s been supportive, but we’re both pretty nervous about how it’s going to affect us. We know this is going to be a test of our relationship. It could make it better, or it could end the whole thing. Things will have to change – if I find a regular job, we obviously can’t catch a movie on a Wednesday afternoon.

8 DAYS: And your family? Are they rejoicing – “Finally, James is going to get a real job”?

JL: My family has never given me a hard time with the “What-the-hell-are-you-doing” spiel. When I told my dad, he didn’t jump out of his chair and applaud. He just said: “If you know what you’re doing, go ahead.” I found that very reassuring.

8 DAYS: And your mum?

JL: (Chuckles) She’s always asked me how long I was going to do this for. Now I can save her some money ‘cos she doesn’t have to go out and buy magazines that feature me on the cover! (mimicking mum) “Aiyah, that store’s all sold-out!”.

8 DAYS: Ah, but you’re  not ruling out the possibility of returning to showbiz. Has TCS offered you that option?

JL: They asked if I would consider signing a full-time movie contract with Raintree Pictures or the Willie Chan [Jackie Chan’s manager] Group. But I declined.

8 DAYS: Tsk, so many people would kill for such an opportunity, and you’d rather put on a shirt-and-tie.

JL: I’ve done everything I wanted to do as an artiste and I have no regrets.

8 DAYS: VR Man?

JL: Not even VR Man. Which, by the way, was my shot at sitcom. People just took it too seriously. There’ve been many who’ve left TCS feeling unhappy. I’m not one of them.

8 DAYS: What do you consider the proudest moment in your TV career?

JL: Now. Being able to walk away from it all knowing that I have not short-changed the company. I feel I’ve given it my best shot.

8 DAYS: It’s not easy starting afresh. Doesn’t that scare you?

JL: Not at all. I’m not afraid to try because I’m not afraid to fail. Having the courage to explore comes from my upbringing. My family has never discouraged me from being adventurous.

8 DAYS: You see yourself getting up at seven in the morning and being at your cubicle by nine?

JL: Sure, why not? If I do quit this industry completely, it will be a humbling experience. And I’m looking forward to it. I’m 30 – I don’t want to go through the rest of my life not being able to comprehend what a normal job is like.

8 DAYS: Playing golf on a Wednesday afternoon sounds like more fun.

JL: True, but I can adapt! That’s one of the things four years in television teaches you. It also teaches you how to deal with expectations and people. Nice and not so nice. Imagine having to deal with a tough customer. At times, I’ve dealt with a nation of tough customers.

8 DAYS: How are you planning to celebrate your last day at work?

JL: (Raises his eyebrows) Celebrate? Eh, I’m not escaping from some kind of hell, you know.

8 DAYS: My apologies. How will you mark your last day?

JL: (Grins) Start looking at the Classifieds.


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