She is the irrefutable extraordinaire, Queen of Caldecott Hill.
A prime example of poise, refinement and beauty, there simply are no adjectives in my book that starts to describe Zoe Tay. Who can forget the inaugural Star Search contest when Zoe, with her confidence and dexterity, came up triumphant and became one of television’s favourite actresses.
I was extremely flattered when Zoe agreed to an interview with me. Despite her influence and achievement, Zoe certainly did not exude a diva personality. On the contrary, she was most polite and sincerely answered the questions throughout our conversation.
1988 was possibly one of the highlights of Zoe’s glittering career. It marked the start of our very own local talent scouting show in which Zoe strode confidently on her way to the crown and a 3-year contract with what was then known as the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Already a top super-model at that time, Zoe had wanted to learn about show-business and enhance her profile for her already glowing modeling resume. Ironically, she had intended to venture overseas to further her modelling career following the show, and did not put any expectations on herself for the contest, which she confessed helped to overcome her stage fright.
Zoe confided that she felt depressed and lost because she had to change her modelling plans and was not sure if she was able to meet viewers’ expectations since as the contest winner. She felt that she had so much to prove and learn, such as memorizing lines, immersing into a certain role, how to position in front of the camera, lighting and acting crew, and soon started having cold feet. She once raised the idea of quitting show business to her superior as she felt that the other contestants were doing much better than she was.
Barely starting her acting career, Zoe was already counting down the number of days and hoping that she could finish her contract sooner. It was made worse with the enduring long hours and lack of sleep during filming.
She found solace in senior actors and actresses who advised Zoe to observe and learn from her other colleagues like how they moved, how they behaved and how they sounded when they were acting. She recalled how these seniors had shared with her on preparing for a new role, how she had to do her homework and practice her emotions and reactions.
Zoe shared that she consulted a senior actor on how to express feelings and emotions in front of the filming crew easily. The senior actor, whom she did not mention the name, told her that she should “fall in love a few times, get broken-hearted and then she would be able to know the pain and hurt. By doing so, she would be able to empathize and relate with those emotions for a given role.”
With encouragements from fellow colleagues, Zoe gradually began to enjoy acting and going to work every day was no longer a chore. She learned from her seniors and prepared for her roles conscientiously. Zoe’s love for acting still flames brightly today after 20 years, and she is still learning something new about acting every day.
Pretty Faces, though, was a game-changer for Zoe. The 30-parter drama serial catapulted her into stardom. Casted a very materialistic and vindictive character Bobo, it was a character you would love, hate and empathize. In an era where female actresses were predominantly casted into conservative roles, Bobo challenged the stereotype as an outspoken, raunchy and sexy female. It was not only until Pretty Faces that actresses started to show more “skin” on television. This was, however, not without its sacrifices.
For one, Zoe had to learn smoking. It was a character contradictory to her real life, and something that she was totally unaccustomed to, but Zoe felt that she had to bring out Bobo’s loud and mercenary character on-screen or the character would be mundane and lifeless. Zoe observed and researched on the role intensely. She wanted to bring out Bobo’s salacious character in a time when skin and lewd scenes were likely scorned at and would never make it on television in Singapore.
It was through Zoe’s courage, tenacity and spunk that she brought out the mercenary and amoral side of Bobo on the screen. Zoe conceded that many people perceived Bobo to be similar to her real life, which speaks volumes of her portrayal in reel life. She shared that in real life, unless she was doing a photo-shoot, Zoe would usually wear conservative t-shirts and jeans with comfortable footwear.
Needless to say, Pretty Faces was a great success, stamping her success on the screens. She received many compliments for her role and it was the confidence that propelled Zoe into believing that she could really act.
After 3 years, Zoe finally felt that she had completed a really good acting project. After the success of Pretty Faces, she received more television and film projects and was constantly on magazines and media. The press and her fans began to crown and label her as the Queen of Caldecott Hill. Whatever label she was given, Zoe was industrious and gave her best shot at every acting project she was given.
In 1995, Zoe was at the peak of her career and she became the first female artiste to launch a coffee table book titled “Zoe’s Coffee table”. The coffee table book was commissioned by MediaCorp and Zoe herself labelled the coffee table book as “JUICY”. She felt that the book failed to reflect the true Zoe. It was another coffee table book with beautiful and sensual pictures of Zoe, but it was not a true reflection of her story. Zoe divulged that on hindsight, if she had another opportunity, she would like to work with Wee Khim, one of Singapore’s most prolific and iconic photographers, to come up with another coffee table book. It would be filled with her past and present, living through the years and tears, captured in words and pictures.
Zoe has been well-known and touted as a “chameleon” actress for her versatility, talent and audacity to try out many different roles. I asked Zoe a very simple question on how she connects with and capture the essence of each character. Zoe said she took up some acting classes and she observes people from her everyday life. Everyone walks and talks differently, adding that no two persons say “Good Morning” in the same manner.
Clearly a media and fan favourite, Zoe has been a constant fixture at the Star Awards since 1994, as one of the most accomplished and talented actresses. Zoe was the first actress to have acted in Singapore’s only drama trilogy, The Unbeatables and also won the Best Actress Award in 1996 for her stellar and outstanding role in The Golden Pillow, in which she acted alongside Hong Kong’s Alex Man. In 1998, she was awarded the Special Achievement Award for her acting contribution to the local scene. Furthermore, Zoe’s outstanding performance in Home Affairs and The Ultimatum also earned her nominations for Best Drama Performance by an Actress at the Asian TV Awards in 2000 and 2009 respectively.
For Zoe, being a media darling comes with her job as an actress and she was even more exposed to the media since she was casted in so many television and film roles. At the peak of her career in 1995, Zoe registered her marriage with her pilot boyfriend, Philip Chionh so that they can purchase a house. Six years later in 2001, Zoe finally walk downed the aisle with her prince in a church wedding coupled with a captivating western –styled dinner at Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
There were always critics who thought that it was at the peak of her career and that it was too soon to get hitched, but Zoe felt she was ready to get married, have a house and start a family. Prior to the church wedding and dinner, Zoe spoke to MediaCorp’s CEO that she hoped for her wedding to be a private affair and not televised because her husband was not a celebrity nor was he someone from the entertainment industry.
For Zoe and her husband, privacy is the best policy. While many friends and colleagues were invited to the church wedding, there were only 60 to 80 seats meant for family, friends and colleagues at her wedding dinner party. Zoe wanted the western military wedding because it was refined and unpresumptuous. Furthermore, Zoe had a western-style wedding with eight long tables and the seating arrangement was, as she puts it, a “headache”.
Over the years, Zoe learnt to understand the media and conversely, let the media and fans understand her. She refrained from reading unnecessary negative reports of herself and kept her family matters very private to abstain from causing unnecessary distress to her family and herself.
After Zoe had her Church Wedding and wedding dinner, she wanted a “honeymoon period” of two years to spend time with her partner. Being a military pilot, her husband was not around most of the time and had to go on frequent work trips. Given work commitments, she put off having children until she was 35 years old. It took her two years to get pregnant with her first baby and she had to try even harder for their second child, which came four years later. Having had two boys, Zoe and her husband went on to try for a baby girl at the age of 42, and I really admire her for her fearlessness to try for another baby after 40 because of the known pregnancy complications for older women. She chuckled that all she did was adding another baby brother to her children.
Zoe encourages women to get married early before 30 if they plan to have kids. By 30, they should start having children and by 40, “it’s time for the women to get pretty again,” said Zoe. It is because when you are older, it is more difficult for you to conceive and there are more dangers for pregnant women above 35 years old. At a more mature age, you will also have less stamina and energy level to catch up with your kids. Zoe recounted that besides the financial stability, you must also be mentally prepared to have kids. You must also be committed to be a parent as parenthood is certainly not easy. Zoe reiterated that, “I am very blessed to have 3 boys; they are healthy, naughty but naturally they are boys. The Singapore Government is also encouraging working mothers to have more children. After I have become a mother, I have become more realistic and I need to do a lot of planning for my family.”
Zoe hopes to inculcate more Chinese values in her children. She wants her children to have more manners and also bonding as a family. Zoe puts a lot of attention on her children’s behaviour. If her boys come back and are behaving badly, Zoe will always communicate with their teacher. After a hard day’s work, all Zoe wants is to return home to her kids and play with them. Zoe also tries to get her kids to be more interested in Chinese. She even recommended me this show called Xi Yang Yang which I shared with my second son, Charles, and he was instantly and immediately enticed by the aforesaid Chinese Children’s Educational Series.
For working women struggling with family and their career, Zoe feels that spousal and familial support is very important. It will be an uphill struggle if the woman does not have any spousal or family encouragement and support.
Zoe feels that as women, we are able to take up a leading role in our career but because we have to sacrifice so much of our time to take care for our family that we sometimes neglect our career and it takes a backseat. She deems that we have a maternal instinct and calling after we have our children and thus as women, we spend a lot of time nurturing and parenting our children. As for the men, Zoe still considers them to be the lead financial provider for the family.
Nonetheless, Zoe has been extremely modest with her achievements. She has been an A-list actress with MediaCorp for more than two decades and it takes a lot hard work to get to where she is today. Zoe has broken many boundaries over the two decades as an actress with MediaCorp and she has shown many that she is a talented and gifted actress. She has an industrious and independent personality, and has been able to conscientiously manage her time, career and family life in an outstanding manner.
Zoe Tay – actress, icon, legend, Extraordinary Woman.
Photograph Courtesy of Wee Khim Photography