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The Straits Times
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Inside the outsider
by Andy Chen

In the flesh, 27-year-old actress- singer Rui En could pass for a junior college student. She is 1.68m tall and says she weighs about 52kg.

So it is disconcerting to hear this slip of a girl intone in all seriousness: 'I've decided to reveal certain things that I've never revealed before. I've decided to be a lot more personal. So when I was preparing for this interview, I was thinking I have enough stories for three lifetimes.'

Her full name is Lu Rui En and she is usually tight-lipped about her personal life, especially about her broken family.

'You know how people are asked if they would change anything about their lives? Many say no, they wouldn't change a thing. Well, I would change the first 24 years of my life.'

For instance, she would burn the photos from an FHM shoot she did during her modelling career. These days, she does not even wear revealing clothes on TV.

It would seem like this interview is the confessional she has been looking for. This is not because she needs to promote her recently released second album, United States, so called because she wrote the lyrics to many of the songs to unite her different states of mind.

It is because she has read The Monday Interview series and has decided this is the 'right platform'.

She says: 'You're not going to reveal things about your childhood in a magazine asking you about your new album or TV show. It is simply not appropriate.'

She also thinks she is ready to unload her tale. 'I used to be really angsty. That's the thing I like about getting older. You accept yourself a little bit more. I used to hate myself.'

Today, she is not the straight-talking non-conformist who used to fire take- no-prisoners barbs like: 'I never set out to be a Zoe or Fann. I don't like acting-acting. That's Channel 8 acting.'

Instead, she is guarded and hesitant. 'Petrified,' she says. Most likely, she has run through many times in her head what she is going to say here and does not want to deviate from the chronological order of her life, just in case she gets 'mixed up'.

'I don't want to hurt my parents because they've been through a lot. I told them I was doing this interview and cleared it with them so they won't be shocked.'

She starts at the beginning with her childhood. She is the only child of a property agent and a housewife. By all accounts, she was 'very quiet'. Unfortunately, her parents fought all the time.

'They were the most incompatible couple I have ever seen,' she says.

'From the time I could understand things as a child, I learnt to be very careful, so as not to set off a war between them. If you did something wrong, it would set them off. The instability and insecurity I felt would plague me and influence my decisions for the rest of my life.'

Her parents divorced when she was 17. Her father remarried three years later and her mother did the same a year ago.

She now lives with her dad, stepmother and grandmother in a flat in Clementi, and admits she is daddy's girl. But she is also close to her mother, whom she calls her No. 1 fan in the album notes of United States.

'It's kind of squeezy at home but I like the fact that there are people around me, simply because I think things are a lot more stable at home now and I didn't have that when I was a kid.'

On those tumultuous years, she says: 'My career started when I was about 20 but I actually started acting when I was a child. I developed a very fertile imagination because I was lonely and I didn't have anyone to share my loneliness and frustrations with.

'It's irrational, but when your parents are fighting, you feel the need to take sides. And after you take sides, you feel a lot of guilt. You just blame yourself because, as a kid, you don't know what else to do. When you have to be so careful around your parents, you end up withdrawing into yourself.'

It became a pattern: She felt like an outsider in her own home and everywhere she went subsequently.

During her primary and secondary school years in Singapore Chinese Girls' School, she felt she was from the wrong socio-economic class. 'If you go to SCGS and you're not rich, it just makes it worse. From that point on, I was always an outsider looking in.'

At Raffles Junior College, she was from 'the wrong side of the tracks, by RJC standards', flunking her first-year exams. At Nanyang Technological University, she was a fish out of water - a literature lover studying banking and finance because it was 'practical'.

At MediaCorp now, she is also an outsider of sorts, trying not to be the average vacuous Channel 8 star. 'Well, I try my best not to be,' she says, and this has led to accusations that she is cold and unfriendly.

Her decision at Primary 5 to take up ballet, which she loves, deepened her feelings of rejection because the world of pirouettes in SCGS largely comprised 'socialites' daughters' whose 'mums knew one another and went for high tea'.

She says: 'Eventually, the whole not fitting in and feeling like an outsider just got to me and I quit after Secondary 1. And that is something I regret till now because I really love dance.'

Without dance, there was a 'hole in my heart', she says in an exaggerated fashion, acknowledging the melodrama of the phrase. This was when she 'was drawn' to a schoolmate who was from a worse background than hers and yet 'seemed so strong, streetwise and cool'.

That started her period of delinquency during which she began to experiment with cigarettes and alcohol.

She says: 'I hung out with the kind of people I shouldn't have hung out with. I was also probably trying, in my own ridiculous way, to annoy my parents because I wanted their attention.'

Yet, she would always study at the last minute for her major exams and do well.

While waiting to enter university, she sent her photos to a modelling agency. 'If somebody was going to pay me to take a picture, that was proof to myself that I was not unwanted, that I was pretty.'

The agency signed her on and in 2001, got her in a SingTel TV ad, which in turn landed her a contract with Hype Records. This was followed by her first album, Rui En Vol. 1, in 2002.

'When I did that first album, I didn't pay my dues. I was just given the opportunity,' she admits. Before that, the only musical training she had was two years of choir experience in Secondary 3 and 4.

'Again, I got into show business for the wrong reasons, thinking if someone wants to sign me, it means I'm not that unwanted, I'm not so ugly. It was just this stupid insecurity thing again.'

Until she was in her early 20s, she smoked and drank socially. 'Smoking was something I did because I wanted to be cool,' she says.

But in 2004, she started an overhaul of her life. On her own, she realised how her teenage delinquency, which set off another war at home between her and her parents, and her modelling, singing and acting career were all symptoms of her insecurity.

'I was looking for ways to fill the emptiness that I felt. And I used everything, from hanging out with older people to partying to fame. I thought that fame was the ultimate answer to my problems.

'So from 2002 to 2004, it was just about that, about my ego. That part of my career is completely regrettable. During that time, I did a couple of Chinese shows, including My Mighty In-Laws, but the worst was Achar!.'

In 2004, in the second season of the Channel 5 sitcom about an Indian-Chinese couple, she replaced actress Steph Song and turned in a performance that disgusted herself.

'I remember watching Achar! and thinking that I didn't recognise myself. I was doing kissing scenes and all this annoying behaviour. I watched the show and thought that was not me. All I saw in my eyes was the hunger for fame and popularity. I really hated what I had become.

'So I decided to sit down and take stock of my whole life. I realised that I was just allowing myself to be a victim.'

She adds: 'I didn't want to be a victim anymore. I didn't want to use my broken family as an excuse for my behaviour anymore. I had to grow up.'

So she quit smoking and drinking. She quit wanting to be famous and popular. And most significantly for her career, she quit doing kissing and intimate scenes.

Ironically, in that same year, she was nominated for Best Newcomer at MediaCorp's Star Awards. Effectively, she stuck a knife in her own career when it was just starting to blossom.

She says: 'The result of my decision is that my opportunities now are very much limited, because generally, such kissing scenes are required.'

Since 2005, she has played variations of the feisty, young woman in shows such as A Promise For Tomorrow (2005), Love At 0 Deg C (2006), Honour And Passion (2007) and Metamorphosis (2008).

Earlier this year, she rejected a role in the Channel 8 drama The Defining Moment because of a rape scene in the script. The high-profile part of a go-getting businesswoman struggling with mental illness went to Fann Wong instead.

It has also been reported that there are influential TV producers who will not cast her in their shows. This does not concern her, not when she is finally at peace with herself. She says she is in a good place in her life because she is not fighting with herself anymore.

When she is filming - her current project is The Dreamcatchers where her character is stuck in a love triangle with Shaun Chen and Elvin Ng - she mostly keeps to herself in between takes by reading and listening to her iPod. When she is not working, she watches DVDs, reads, surfs the Internet and goes running.

She says she does not have any good friends in the industry. She does not have many good friends, period.

'I don't understand why people are so fearful of being alone. I love being alone.'

As impressive as her Wolverine-like self-healing ability is, a counsellor or therapist might say she still has some things to work on. For one thing, she seems a little too thin, although she says her negative body image days are behind her.

Also, she seems to have a fear of relationships. Currently single, she says she regrets all the romantic relationships she has had till now and admits she might never get married.

'My mother is quite upset and has said to me, 'Please don't use us as an example'. But when you grow up in that environment, you become careful. I would rather not put my welfare or my fate in the hands of somebody else.'

Then why did she do this heart-to-heart interview, which certainly requires a great amount of trust?

'I am hoping that kids who read this might realise that no matter how bad your family situation is, you have a choice not to be a victim,' she says.

United States is out in stores now.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 15, 2008.

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