I first met Denise Keller in 2000 on a work trip to Lombok, Indonesia, to shoot the June cover of ELLE Singapore. I was a newly minted features and fashion writer, she was a newly crowned winner of the Ford Supermodel contest. Perhaps bound by the fact that we were both industry greenhorns starting out, we hit it off immediately.
Today, as I sit across her in a restaurant, we’re cocooned in a happy bubble of familiarity and I see a less wide-eyed, more self-assured 34-year-old woman. As she lounges in a giant armchair, her glowing skin is completely free of makeup, and her eyes are as bright as her smile. It’s as if time has stood still — she’s as fresh and beautiful as when we first met.
As we fork up bites of our shared slice of coconut cake, reminiscing about mutual friends and how our paths have crossed over time, she marvels, “Has it really been 16 years? It’s been a long, long journey.”
Keller, who is of German-Singaporean Chinese descent, has been working non-stop since entering this industry. She went from modelling in New York, Hong Kong and Singapore to being MTV Asia’s longest-serving VJ (she clocked seven years). Realising she wanted more — “I got tired of the red carpet events, the makeup, the fashion… I wanted to do something that gave me some sort of authenticity” — she set her sights on a different kind of TV experience with the TLC Network and later, Discovery Channel.
She quickly became a leading TV host in Asia, thanks to the landmark, award-winning Passage To series (which took her from Malaysia to Abu Dhabi to China). Not many may know, but she went on to open her own award-winning production company, No Quarter, setting up offices in Malaysia, China, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul to produce travel shows.
Success, she says, led to her “migrating” from one country to another. Most of last year, for her, was spent on the Silk Road filming the documentary Expedition X: The Silk Road Rising, which will air on Discovery Channel soon.
Woman of the world
Her success across the region led to questions about her identity and nationality (“Do I feel more Chinese or more German? I’m an ang moh lian, lah!”).
Singapore-born Keller reveals, “I spent so much time in Malaysia, people thought I was Malaysian. And when I was in Hong Kong, people thought I was from there,” she says. “In the last five years, I’ve had to explain myself more about whether I’m Singaporean. So I break out the Singlish, throw some of my Mandarin in there, and everything is okay!”
Keller confirms she’s also heard whispers of ‘Where’s Denise?’ and ‘She’s over the hill!’. “The rumour mill was always churning… she’s no longer on covers, she’s no longer in magazines, she’s no longer doing stuff,” she shrugs.
She’s equally amused when I mention unkind comments about the size of her mouth. “Awww, people call me Big Mouth?” she groans, before declaring in mock consternation, “Yes, I have a significantly larger one compared to other girls, but my mum gave me that mouth, and I would never, ever, exchange it for all tea in the world, or China!”
Keller has never had issues about her body, despite being criticised for fat arms as a young model. “It stays with you because you’re so young and impressionable, you know? But I had [the] ability to laugh things off. I saw how models lived on Coca Cola, cigarettes and diet pills, I didn’t like it.
“There’s a lot of talk out there about body shaming in general. As a yogi, I look at how a person is feeling in her body. That’s so much more important than what you see in a mirror.
“I’ve never had a problem with my shape. There are all kinds of shapes out there. I’m a shape, you’re a shape, round is a shape! The only time I feel insecure about myself is when I have my period. That’s when I go, “Give me the ice cream, the chocolate and the Tim Tams now!”
Room to move
This year, she says, is all about change. Erratic schedules used to drive her nuts, making her question when her next project would be or when she’d be sent on another Passage To.
She laughs, “Was my schedule on time? Did I get that booking? The intensity was very German. Now, now, now! Schnell, schnell, schnell! Now I just take a yogi breath and go, ‘I’ll just see what comes my way’.
“I’m on a hiatus till [Discovery Channel] calls me back to do whatever. Till then, there’s yoga training, “live”-hosting and modelling. I’ll focus on what I love about my work — travelling, discovering cultures and film-making — and come home to Singapore to my passions: Teaching aromatherapy yoga, and my family.
“It’s nice to reset and feel like a human being again, then go back out there and be an engine, and work.”
An ambassador for pulp and paper mill company Double A’s 1Dream1Tree project in Singapore and Malaysia, Keller has other projects lined up but is letting her manager handle them “while I yogi out!”
Wifehood, she adds, has been great. Keller and her husband, US-born advertising creative director Robert Gaxiola, celebrated their one-year anniversary two days before this interview. She smiles, “I love wifehood. People size it up to be this big thing, but when you’re truly comfortable with a person you spend every day with, it’s just… normal.
“I never thought I’d get married, with this job, with this life. It’s really hard to find a man who will accept you for everything you are.
“We talk about babies all the time but we have three cats and a dog, so that’s enough of babies to deal with right now, to be honest. We know that timing is everything. I’m not ruling out kids… I want sh*tloads, actually.”
A place to rest
And while she’s never sure where life will take her next, Keller says Singapore will always be home. She explains, “I’ve been to places where there’s so much more to complain about. Singapore is amazing!
“I love arriving at Changi Airport, you know? The hideous, ugly carpet makes me feel fuzzy and warm, because I’m home!’” Maybe it’s the yoga, or the shift in mindset, but there’s a different aura about Keller. She explains, “I’m finally balanced. I never really was before… Now, I’m aware that there are some things you just can’t change, or be in charge of. You’ve just got to take a step back and look at it differently. And it makes life way easier.