from Zoe's pictorial
"When I was a little girl. I didn't like to watch TV or movies much," confesses Zoe Tay. "At the time, my greatest ambition was to become a nurse, or a teacher, just like everyone else in the class!"
Such is the irony of life that the simple village girl who grew up on a pig farm would one day become the leading TV actress in Singapore. And indisputably, our first full-fledged home-grown star.
Since winning the first Star Search in 1988, Zoe has been consistently breaking new ground, pushing the boundaries in areas where no local stars have ventured before. A quick look at the high points of her career should convince anyone of her pioneering efforts:
Zoe's list of accolades and achievements goes on. Why, there is even a widespread belief in media circles here that putting Zoe's picture on the cover will revive plummeting sales of any magazine!
- In 1990, Zoe joined the glittering company of international celebrities such as Sophia Loren, Michelle Pfeiffer and Joan Chen when she became the first local star to be featured in the Lux commercials.
- At the end of 1991, Zoe starred in the wildly successful TV serial, Pretty Faces. It set a record when over a million viewers tuned in to catch the episode in which Bobo, Zoe's character, was raped.
- In 1994, her fame shot to new heights when she clinched the Most Popular Female Artiste Award in the first Star Awards organised by SBC. This was, of course, followed by her Most Popular Actress win in 1995.
Indeed, who can forget the many stunning personas that Zoe has presented, whether on magazine covers or on the TV screen? By turns smoulderingly sexy or demure alluring, but always glamorous and classy, Zoe has lived up to the nickname given her by the media: The Girl with a Thousand Faces (qian mian nu lang).
Yet, behind all these very attractive facades question: who is the real Zoe? And how did it all begin?
THE EARLY YEARS
"I used to be real tomboy when I was growing up on my father's pig farm in Lim Chu Kang," Zoe notes in a charming mixture of Singlish and Mandarin. "I didn't have to help out much as I was sixth in a family of seven kids. I did a lot of 'boy' things, like playing football, climbing trees, or challenging other kids to a bicycle race!"
Life was simple, she remembers. "There were no electronic games or home computers. Our needs were straightforward and very down-to-earth."
"Was I a pretty child?" Zoe chuckles at the question, her voice famously low and throaty. "Well, my family and relatives used to call me mata kuching as I had huge black eyes! But then they stopped when my youngest sister was born, as her eyes were even bigger!"
Things began to change when Zoe was in secondary school. By then the family had moved away from the farm to a six-room HDB flat in Bukit Batok. "I became more feminine, and started paying more attention to my appearance." (See picture; Zoe sitting 4th from right)
Young and restless, Zoe started modelling at 16. "I was so happy when I got my first pay cheque! I bought a doll, which is still with me, and treated my family to a sumptuous meal. I told my father: 'I'll support you. You can retire now!' He just shook his head and smiled."
Zoe admits that she has been lucky as a model. "I met a lot of very nice folks when I first started out in '86. People like Ida Wong of Imp Modelling Agency, David Gan, Jeanette Ejlersen and Pat Chan. I was so young and green then, and they all helped a lot with my career."
A turning point came in 1988, the year when the first Star Search was held. At the time, Zoe was thinking of going to Hong Kong to try her luck as a model. "One day at a shoot, Pat Chan told me to join Star Search as I could speak Mandarin. My first reaction was: 'But I don't know how to act!'"
Other friends soon convinced her that it was the right step to take, and she breezed through the preliminary rounds. "The night before the final, my father, who's usually very quiet, told me casually that he's quite fond of the Toyota which was part of the first prize. As I didn't know how to drive then, I promised him that I'd try my best and that if I won, I'd give him the car."
The result was well-documented history. Zoe did brilliantly during the final and walked away with the top award, which included $100,000 worth of prizes and a three-year contract with SBC. "The secret of my success? I guess my modelling background helped me to be more confident and project my personality better." True to her words, she let her father use the car until she got her driving licence the next year.
"When I first started, I really didn't enjoy being an actress," Zoe remembers her early days at SBC with a frown. "At one point, I was so depressed I actually wanted to become a production assistant instead!"
An acting coach from her training class assured her one day, she would become an outstanding actress, as long as she was willing to persevere through the lean early days.
Slowly, things improved, as she learned to enjoy her profession. In 1991, something happened on the set of Crime and Passion, where she played a simple village girl torn between two men. "I suddenly found myself enjoying my work and beginning to appreciate the colourful life of an actress. For the first time, I felt totally comfortable on the set."
From then on, there was no turning back. In the same year, she played Bobo in Pretty Faces, still her favourite role by her own reckoning. "The script was really good. There was continuity in the development of the character, and a great deal of drama too. Bobo really went through a lot of changes and hardship. And it taught me one thing: that you must be clear about your goals in life. Otherwise, you would waste a lot of time chasing things which are not what you want; or worse, embark on a route which leads you to wrong-doing."
Having starred in more than 15 serials, Zoe says she is constantly after one thing: a good script that will stretch her acting ability. "As an actress, the most important thing is not fame or fortune, but a good script that you can sink your teeth into. I go green with envy when I see a film like Raise the Red Lantern or Judou! Gong Li is an actress whom I admire very much. It's not just her facial expressions or the way she says her lines, but her whole body language which is very expressive. And it helps that she has wonderful scripts. How I wish I could have one of her roles!"
Zoe Tay the actress is totally committed to her craft. She offers: "When I'm not working, I like to stay home and study the script for my next role. I will jot down the main points, do research so that I can be more familiar with the character. Costuming is quite important, so I'd check with the wardrobe department to make sure they have what is needed." Zoe's passion for fashion and fastidious demand for quality often mean that she has to supply her own outfits.
She says with a laugh: "I take my job quite casually, but I do it very seriously. The older I get, the more I know about myself. I work best when I don't pressurise myself. Shooting can be very tiring, so it's important that I enjoy myself on the set. Yet, once the camera starts rolling, I am totally focused on the job at hand." Those who have seen Zoe at work will testify that one minute she can eb the life of the party and the next, she can immerse herself completely in her character, even summoning up tears if need be. A true pro is what she is.
HEART & SOUL
"Ten years ago, if you asked me whether I would get married, I'd probably scream, 'Are you out of your mind?' But now, I am not so sure anymore!"
Zoe will be the first to acknowledge that behind her glamorous, even sexy, facade, she is conservative at heart. "Yes, family is very important to me; so are marriage and kids. I guess it has a lot to do with my upbringing. I am very close to all my family members. My older brothers and sisters are all married, and none of them are in this line. Their lives, which are very down-to-earth, provide a kind of security which is tangible and inspiring."
She continues, after a moment's reflection: "Work makes me very happy. Friendship gives me a sense of security. My brothers and sisters provide a sort of beacon for me. And in times of difficulties, I can always rely on my parents for support. So I guess I have my priorities right!"
"Work as an actress has given me a lot of opportunities and a great deal of satisfaction. I am by nature quite introverted, and I wouldn't have done a lot of things if I wasn't 'forced' to do them. So my career has provided the right amount of motivation. Otherwise I'd just grow mouldy sitting at home!"
As an actress, Zoe scaled heights where no local actress has even dared to dream of. So what does the future hold for her?
"I don't like to plan too much, as it would cause unnecessary pressure if I can't achieve my goals. I will continue to look for good scripts and improve my acting skills. Who knows, one day I might get married and have kids! And there are other things I'd like to do: enrich myself, increase my knowledge, learn to speak better English... there is still so much I want to do!"