Fourteen years ago, Sharon Au had her first ELLE interview with me — she mentions this when I schedule our lunch interview. I’m surprised she still remembers, and it all comes back with startling clarity: The interview was for an August issue, and lensman Geoff Ang helmed the cover shoot featuring wide-eyed Au in a satiny pink shirt, with windswept ebony locks.
Since then, the 40-year-old former host/actress has deviated from the career path most would have expected.
In 2005, Au left the bright lights as an award-winning MediaCorp artiste (11 trophies, accumulated since 1999, are still stored at her mum’s place) to pursue a Liberal Arts degree at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
She returned to Singapore six years later — instead of the stipulated three — and took on an executive role at MediaCorp, subsequently founding fashion community portal, styleXstyle. In 2011, she endorsed then-presidential candidate Tony Tan and the following year, got married.
This month, she returns to her first love, the stage, to play Mrs Lee Kuan Yew — née Kwa Geok Choo — in Metropolitan Productions’ multi-million dollar production of The LKY Musical, which opens at Marina Bay Sands’ MasterCard Theatres on 21 July. The musical traces the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s life story from his early days in Raffles College to Singapore’s independence in 1965.
As I ruminate on this, Au arrives for our interview from a Skyped vocal training session with renowned soprano Cynthia Haymon. She orders a Niçoise salad and a cappuccino, and we start chatting.
Why the decision to get back on stage?
Sharon Au It all started with [actress/director] Michelle Chong. She called me one day and went “Hello, you want to be Mrs Lee or not?”. And a seed was planted in my head. I
asked to audition; I didn’t know the production only had one female role, so I figured even if I didn’t land the role, I could get some other one. I just wanted the opportunity.
I learnt a song from the musical, sent in my tape, had a Skyped meeting with director Stephen Dexter, who was with Dick Lee (he will write the music score) and Singapore Repertory Theatre’s [artistic and managing director] Gaurav Kripalani. And got the part. The whole experience was a miracle!
How are preparations for the musical going?
SA I’m excited! Since I was told that I had gotten the role, it’s been nothing but joy and happiness and celebration. But I believe that in the lead-up to the show, there will be fear…
You do have a gargantuan task ahead of you, playing Mrs Lee.
SA Needless to say, there are much better candidates out there. I did tell the media I got the role because Kit [Chan] and Stefanie [Sun] were busy in China. I think I’ll be fine — the past three-and-a-half years have taught me to be fearless.
It’s been challenging adjusting to work life after years of studying overseas, we gather.
SA Coming back [to Singapore] was pure depression. In 2000, when I was told [my scholarship bond was] six years, it didn’t faze me. I thought “Wow, the company is giving me money to go for my studies, and after I come back, I’ll have a job. Plus,I will still be a famous host, that’s the best of both worlds.”
Asking for a scholarship remains, till today, the best decision in my life. But I never knew, at that time, that I’d change, I’d grow up. Halfway through, I knew I was in trouble. By the time I went to study in France, I was suicidal because I didn’t want to leave. The thought of coming back to life here was terrible.
And that’s why you were gone for six years?
SA After three years, I held on to the idea that I would not have to come back and serve my bond if I landed an important job overseas. So I added on a one-year exchange programme, because I wanted to study in Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies), and maybe intern in European Parliament. Meanwhile, I kept receiving e-mails that I had breached my contract.
Why didn’t you go back to TV, where you were doing so well?
SA The contract stated I had to be in a performing role to serve out my bond. But I watched so many variety shows in Japan and realised how much higher production values there were. So I was very adamant about not going back to the spotlight. There was already a year of programmes lined up, starting with a City Beat revival. But I fought against it.
So I was sent to be part of a newly formed task force comprising three senior executives, a young business analyst and myself. I think everyone was mortified because to them, I was Sharon Au, the “hao chi” (“delicious” in Mandarin, her catchphrase on City Beat) girl. I faced a lot of pre-conceived prejudice, and had to do so much more to be taken seriously. I was there for a year; I felt very useful because I was giving so much feedback, I was very bold because I came from a production background and was exposed to so much digital technology initiatives in Japan. Then I was challenged to grow circulation numbers for the Publishing sector, and seconded to start and head styleXstyle, which I’m very proud of.
How have the past three-and-a-half years been for you?
SA I’ve learnt not to be so pompous. I had the attitude that I was all that; I graduated top of my class, I thought I was really smart, and I could have gone to Yale. I wasn’t delivering, though I thought I was so great. I really thought I could spearhead change, based on my passion and what I saw. But I mellowed after being more involved in the business aspect of things. I realise, through styleXstyle, how hard the sales job is.
It is my ninth project, and my only success. I’ve learnt not to be so quick to criticise. And many times, I learnt this the hard way. It was a huge slice of humble pie, but better than any university [can offer]. I’m very grateful for the experience.
The showbiz scene these days is very different from the City Beat era in the late 1990s, when there was no social media.
SA I really thought that since I was no longer in the limelight, I would be spared, nobody would care. But I was wrong. I was first attacked during the 2011 presidential election campaign, in which I gave a rally speech representing the young women demographic. People questioned why I was involved — [kicking off] my first negative online onslaught. Those [comments] were so terrible, even I had a shock and was surprised at how outspoken people can be.
There were vicious attacks on my character and political leanings. The same day I gave the rally speech, all four tyres of my car were punctured. My mum’s car in Potong Pasir was scratched, too, on all four sides. That was horrifying, because you can attack me, but when you go to my family members, that’s not right.
We’re at the age where we’re better at handling bad publicity. I’m sure that if this had happened to me before I left Singapore, when fame was the one thing that really mattered, it would have been very damaging. Little negative things would have totally ruined me.
Like rumours that your marriage to a local businessman is “fictitious”?
SA I have heard those rumours myself. It’s my fault — I didn’t want to say who I was dating, and I was always seen with prominent gays. To put a stop to all that, it would have been easy to just post a picture of us. I choose not to do that because for the first time, it involves another person. I don’t know why this is so hard for people to understand.
So you are married!
SA Yes, since December 2012. He is a known face, though from a different industry. He definitely does not work in MediaCorp!
So why not be honest about things?
SA I’m usually an open book, with a little devil-may-care attitude. But for once, this is a person I love, and this person is very private and suddenly, what I do in the public eye is not comfortable for this person. I’ve mentioned that I wish I could be very open about this. You think I don’t want to be one of those annoying Instagrammers who spend all day posting couple pictures? I get envious, too!
When we go to the Maldives, one of our favourite holiday spots,I end up posting pictures of myself only. My honeymoon in Santorini only featured a picture of myself and a balloon that said “Just Married”.
At least your stage husband’s identity is no secret.
SA Working with Adrian [Pang] again will be a source of comfort. We know each other, we’ve acted and hosted together, and we are very comfortable with each other.
You’ve mentioned Mrs Lee Kuan Yew is “the perfect Asian wife and perfect Asian woman”. Will it be difficult to play her?
SA I’ve managed to discover more about her by talking to her niece, and through soundbites from her cousin, her tailor, her schoolmates. It wasn’t difficult to form the picture that she was fiercely protective of her privacy, and the welfare of her husband and family.
To play her, I will fall back on method acting. Why am I not taking leave to prepare for this role? Until I absolutely cannot handle it, I will not — because Mrs Lee herself juggled a law firm, children, husband, speech drafting, agreement writing! She didn’t quit from one thing to do the other things.
Your MediaCorp bond is up soon. What does the future hold?
SA The plan is to move to Paris to start my own bakery. It will be back to the days when I don’t have to be wary, and I can be whoever I want. I can even show the world who my husband is!
You sound excited...
SA Yes! I can go back and pursue whatever makes me happier.