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Yip Wai Yee
The Straits Times
13 March 2017
Even though Aileen Tan is one of the most recognisable and prolific stars in Singapore entertainment, there is no taint of scandal nor hint of gossip surrounding her name.
Despite chalking up nearly three decades in show business, the veteran actress has kept a very low profile off-screen.
It is as though her quota of notoriety was used up even before she became a full-time actress.
On the night before the finals of the inaugural edition of the television talent show Star Search in 1988 - in which she was a participant - she suddenly found herself thrust into the spotlight, but for the wrong reasons.
Tan, then 21, had been dating a man 18 years her senior, who was in the middle of a divorce. A Lianhe Wanbao journalist broke the story and a juicy headline was splashed in the evening newspaper that day, with the man's ex-wife calling Tan the mistress.
Speaking in a mix of English and Mandarin during the interview, she says: "A reporter came to my flat and started asking me all these questions about my relationship.
"When I started dating my boyfriend, he had already broken up with his wife. So I know I didn't do anything wrong, but I felt so stressed about it when I saw the news that I wanted to quit Star Search. I didn't want to go through with the finals anymore."
She ended up staying on with the support of her friends and also her then-boyfriend's family.
"I remember his mum was especially kind to me and told me that I should just go through with the show," she says. "But that incident stayed with me for a long time. I realise that you pay a price when you become a public figure."
It is a good thing that she stuck it out because she ended up placing second at the competition, after television queen Zoe Tay. Tan also won the award for Most Photogenic that year.
One might have expected that early brush with infamy to rein her in, but it has not toned down her personality in any way. Unlike other celebrities who tend to be cautious around reporters, she comes across as being extremely frank.
Asked about her nomination in the Best Evergreen Artiste category at next month's Star Awards, she dramatically scratches her head and says: "I think it's bad that I'm included in this category. I just don't get it. I think it should be given to somebody who is at least 65 years old.
"It makes me feel so old. Is this a hint for me to retire?"
The award, which was started last year, is handed out to those aged 50 and above who have performed for at least 25 years. Other nominees in the category this year include Chen Shucheng, Hong Huifang, Rayson Tan and Xiang Yun.
At the Star Awards, Tan, 50, is also up for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a cleaner in the Dakota Crescent-set drama Hero (2016).
In person, she looks a lot younger than her age. Dressed in a low-cut top and pink platform heels for this interview, she also appears much more glamorous than she is often made out to be onscreen.
"A lot of people are surprised when they see me in real life. They always ask me, 'Why do the TV shows love to make you so old?'" she says with a laugh.
Not that she minds being relegated to these "auntie roles", she adds.
"I'm totally fine with them as long as the roles are meaty enough. That's why I always tell my managers not to arrange too many dramas for me back-to-back if all of the roles are too similar. I always hope to change things a bit."
One such role she has enjoyed playing in recent years was the character Wang Bizhi in last year's drama series The Dream Job, she says.
"That role was exciting to me because she was such a villain. She did a lot of horrible things, but she did them all for her daughter (played by actress Jeanette Aw). It was fun playing someone whom everyone loved to hate."
However, such complex characters are few and far between.
With a candour that probably makes her accompanying artist manager nervous, she says: "You know, I'm actually getting bored in my job. When you watch South Korean dramas or Hong Kong dramas, even their auntie or motherly roles can be quite different.
"I'm afraid I'll lose my passion for acting if the roles here don't get more exciting. I really wouldn't want that to happen because I love doing this."
While her enthusiasm comes across as genuine, she never planned to become an actress.
Growing up poor, her only goal was to make money, never mind what the job was.
"When I was 10 years old, I would go out and help my mum wash dishes at getai shows. That was my kind of childhood," says Tan, who is the third of four children.
Her father had worked as a taxi driver until he suffered a stroke in 1976, leaving the rest of the family to do odd jobs to get by. The entire family, along with her grandmother, lived together in a one-bedroom Housing Board flat.
After she completed her studies at the now-defunct Willow Secondary School, she took on her first official job selling steel pots and pans.
Could register her marriage only when on medical leave
"We would try to sell them by calling people on the phone first, but if that didn't work, we had to carry all the heavy pots on our backs and visit people door-to-door. The job is not for everyone, but I think that's where I developed my thick skin," she says with a chuckle.
That lasted for more than a year before she quit to join an advertising agency as an office administrator.
As the agency was linked to Tan Swee Leong Associates, the events company that organised and promoted the Miss World competition in Singapore, she soon got involved in coordinating beauty pageants.
Most pageant events, she discovered, happened at night, so she would often kill time during the day by hitting the gym. That was where a TV station employee spotted her and suggested that she sign up for Star Search.
"I wasn't very interested and I was also lazy to go to the station to fill the application form. But she was serious about it. The next day, she came to the gym again and brought the form to me, so I said I'd try it," she says.
That fateful encounter led to her long acting career, with appearances in 70 TV drama series on Channel 8 and Channel 5.
Some of her most notable works include English TV series Growing Up (1996-2001), in which she played dance instructor Mae, and Chinese TV dramas The Blazing Trail (1995), where she played an undercover cop, and Three Women And A Half (2001), in the role of a conniving office manager. Three Women won her a Star Award for Best Actress.
Beyond TV, she also received critical acclaim for her moving lead performance as the long-suffering single mother in Jack Neo's period movie Long Long Time Ago (2016).
Given that she had emerged from the same Star Search batch as Tay, however, one cannot help but wonder if she has felt envious of her more successful colleague. Tay after all, is often referred to as the Ah Jie, or "older sister" in Mandarin, of the local TV industry.
Without reservation, Tan says: "Of course, I felt a little envious when I was younger. It makes you wonder if you're not good enough. But as you get older, you don't think about these things.
"Zoe did win Star Search, after all. I was just the runner-up, so the best person won. So there's no problem. Zoe and I have always been great friends."
Tay, 49, attests to the strength of their friendship. She tells The Straits Times in Mandarin: "Aileen is a very straightforward, loving and loyal person. If you are true friends with her, she will stay with you all the way until the end."
Meanwhile, Tan has learnt that there is more to life than acting. "Work is important to me, but I have also learnt that there are other things I should worry about, such as my family and the things that I like to do on my own. I'm not the workaholic I once was."
She used to be so busy with work, she jokes, that it took her years before she found the time to register her marriage to her Hong Kong-born director husband, Gerald Lee, 56.
"We have been together since 1996, but we registered our marriage only in 2002. We did it because I happened to have some free time. I was on medical leave from a shoulder injury," she says.
The couple had met at a wedding - she was the bridesmaid and he the best man. She found him "handsome and charming" and had no issues with getting involved with a divorcee who has a son, now 31, from a previous marriage.
The first two years of their relationship were a little challenging as it was long distance. Her husband was still working at Hong Kong broadcaster TVB, but he eventually decided to move to Singapore for her, with son in tow.
Even though the couple were not legally wed yet, Tan suddenly had to take on the role of stepmother.
"I visited so many secondary schools around Singapore to make sure that he got into one. He was accepted by the then Thomson Secondary School in the end and I would take him to school whenever I could. I realised then that it was not easy being a mother."
That did not stop her from trying to have a child of her own, although her first and only pregnancy in 2006 ended badly. It was an ectopic pregnancy, in which the foetus grows in the fallopian tube instead of the womb. As this can cause heavy internal bleeding and be fatal to the mother, she had to have an abortion.
"Back then, I cried almost every night. But I have no more memories of that time. If I can still get pregnant and have a baby now, I would be very happy. But if it never happens, it's also okay. I already have a son," she says.
Her life as it is, adds the devout Christian, is fulfilling enough. She has a steady stream of work, gets to spend time with loved ones and can while away happy afternoons at the mahjong table or the golf range.
"I used to worry too much about things like how I look or what people think of me. But you realise that those are not important. I should just do what I want and be happy."
Should her work here become too monotonous, she is open to working overseas, such as in Hong Kong.
"I probably could have done that years ago with my husband's help, but people always say that it can be a little sleazy there. Now that I'm an 'auntie', I think I'll be okay."