updated 29 Dec 2011, 14:37
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Fri, Nov 25, 2011
The New Paper
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Already famous, but... she's not happy
by Kwok Kar Peng

You can say Michelle Chong has found fame, 13 years after she took her first step into showbiz as a finalist in the 1998 talent search Fame Awards, organised by the then-Television Corporation of Singapore.

Now, after an uphill climb involving countless rejections by those in the industry, the local star has reached the peak of her career.

The versatile comedienne-actress-host, known for her hilarious impersonations and alter egos Barbarella and Leticia Bongnino on the Channel 5 skit show The Noose, is in high demand and appears on Mandarin TV channels too.

She can command a five-figure sum for a night's work performing at private events, owns a condominium apartment on Thomson Road and drives a Porsche Cayman.

And on Dec 1, she will be making it on to the big screen with Already Famous, a film she wrote, directed and starred in.

But now that she's, well, already famous, the 34-year-old MediaCorp star says she is deeply unhappy.

She didn't shy away from revealing to the media in June that she was seeking professional help for her depression - what her doctor terms a chronic chemical imbalance - and is taking medication for it.

Chong told The New Paper: "I have everything that I've dreamt of for a long time...

"Yes, it is ironic (that I'm unhappy now). After fighting for so long and being so used to fighting, I don't know what I wanted in the first place.

"I've always thought I wanted the chance to perform. But as the years go by, I realise what I really want is to be part of the creative process."

Chong feels the main reason for her unhappiness is the lack of a long-term creative outlet.

Which is why she took seven months' no-pay leave from June to work on Already Famous, in which she stars as small-town Malaysian girl Ah Jiao who harbours grand dreams of becoming a TV star like her idols Zoe Tay and Fann Wong.

But with her thick accent, so-so looks and kampung naivete, Ah Jiao had doors slamming in her face faster than you can say "wannabe".

The feel-good romantic comedy stars Taiwanese idol Alien Huang as Ah Jiao's love interest, who provides the key to her future.

Chong also thinks her loneliness contributes to her unhappiness.

She has never been romantically linked to anyone or spoken to the media about her love life.

"I do crave for love and companionship. I can't wait to get married and have kids. I'm not dating anyone now and I am lonely," said Chong, who then broke into the classic Bobby Vinton song Mr Lonely.

Her mother has suggested that she approach the task of finding Mr Right with the same fervour she puts into her work projects. But she's too busy with work to hunt him down, Chong said.

No-pay leave

Perhaps you can take no-pay leave to do so, we offered, like what you did for Already Famous.

She seemed stunned into silence for a moment by the suggestion, then chuckled and said that is something to consider.

She also admitted that while acting has been a tough yet enjoyable journey, it's not fun any more.

She's too tired to act, she explained.

"As an actor, people tell you what to do. Everyone's watching you and you have to get into character the minute the crew tells you the camera is rolling.

"Every take is stressful and you never get a perfect take. There are so many things you cannot control. You work very hard, but things can still go wrong.

"It's a very stressful job. How long can you stay (in this line)? Can you do it for the rest of your life?"

In contrast, being a movie director gives her more control.

She eventually hopes to stop acting, but she also concedes that's where the money is.

The happiest scenario, Chong said, is to continue acting for the money and then take time out to make movies.

She dipped into her own experiences for Already Famous.

"There are plenty of disappointments, and it's not just me who've experienced it. That's what this industry is all about; rejections and obstacles," she said.

She was called a "nobody" in 2001 by a staffer from the defunct MediaWorks television station after starring in the short-lived English drama Paradise, opposite models Nadya Hutagalung and Lum May Yee.

The show, filmed in the Philippines, was canned after a few episodes.

Chong said: "It was supposed to be my big break, but I wasn't really hurt or surprised when it ended because I didn't think the show was good."

Her career fell into a lull and that was when she started writing the script for Already Famous.

Early in her career, she claimed she was promised the lead role in a movie and given its entire script by the director. He was supposed to contact her to read the script the following week.

But no one called her. And when Chong called the production company, she was told by the movie's producer that she was no longer needed.

"He told me they initially had contractual problems with the original actress they wanted, but everything had been settled and they signed her to do the movie instead," said Chong.

She declined to reveal which movie it was.

She also claimed she was close to landing a meaty role in a Hollywood production.

Chong said she had auditioned for the role of Tuptim in the 1999 movie Anna And The King starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat when its casting director came to Singapore for a casting call.

Tuptim, who was one of the Thai king's concubines, was beheaded with her lover after she ran away to a monastery.

Chong said the US casting director wept after she gave a moving piece about why her favourite TV show was The Simpsons and her favourite character was Krusty The Clown.

"She shook my hand and told me to wait for her call. I was like, wow, it's Anna And The King! Surely a Hollywood casting director wouldn't anyhow promise (me a role)," Chong recalled.

But the role eventually went to Chinese actress Bai Ling.

A few months later, Chong received a personal letter from the casting director explaining that while she thought Chong was suitable for the role, it wasn't up to her to decide.

Chong added: "I don't remember how I felt, but it was then that I realised nothing is confirmed in this industry until you see yourself on the screen...

"But Ah Jiao and I are alike in that nothing can break our spirit."

But unlike her fictional character, Chong said no one has told her she wasn't pretty enough.

"Eh, I was a model leh," she said in a mock boast.

"The only time I remember my looks were criticised was when I went to an audition and the male director said my breasts were drooping.

"I was shocked and very uncomfortable."

Now that Chong has discovered a new thrill in movie-making, she's already thinking about a second movie, revolving around a love triangle.

She said there are some interested sponsors, but everything else is still hush-hush.


This article was first published in The New Paper.

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