“Sorry, wait ah,” says Annette Lee as she pauses to chew a mouthful of boba from her bubble tea. Not that one would expect her to have her priorities in any other order – she did, after all, write and perform a song about the well-loved beverage for The Ann & Ben Show, the YouTube comedy series she recently started with musician Benjamin Kheng. The duo even made a music for it.
An actress, singer-songwriter and Youtube personality, the 29-year-old first gained a following after playing multiple comedic characters on the social media website SGAG. But since leaving the company last year, she now works independently to write, direct and act in skits and shows for her own platforms, a lot of which are still related to comedy. Another song she released together with Benjamin recently is “a song about the mixed emotions one feels when ordering mixed rice [cai fan]”. It racked up close to 900,000 views in just two months, so it’s probably safe to say that she’s doing just fine.
But there’s a lot more to Annette than being funny. For one, she’s persevering – it’d be naive to think that her 100,000-strong following on Instagram and 170,000-strong following on Tiktok came without grit. She’s also deliberate – a lot more thought goes into her work than you might realise. And she’s really “not too similar” to the characters she acts as, even the more popular ones like Sue-Ann and Chantelle.
In short, the real Annette is also tenacious, rather serious, and a lot more introverted than she usually comes across. And in doing this interview with her over Google Meet, where her hair is down and her face is without a tinge of makeup, there is perhaps no better time to get personal with this entertainer we can’t get enough of.
A heck lot of tenacity
Annette will candidly tell you that she wasn’t an overnight star. In fact, she had to go the extra mile to hone her craft.
Before she was a comic, she was a singer. She was the vocalist of a two-person band she formed with a friend while pursuing her degree at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media. But that didn’t last very long.
“We were a substitute band and would take the place of regular bands who couldn’t make their slots at bars and cafes. One time, a bar owner told us that if we performed well, he’d make us a regular band. It was what we wanted,” she says.
“After the gig, he went up to the guitarist and said, ‘OK, you can have the residency, but can you change the singer?’ I was like, ‘It’s all right, I’m not hurt,’ because I wanted my friend to take it up.”
It took her some time to build the confidence to start singing again, but once she did, she was determined to practise, even if she didn’t actually have the time or place for it.
“I was working and going to school, so I was usually only free at night. But that meant I couldn’t challenge myself with more difficult pieces because my parents would ask me to keep the volume down, so I’d practise my singing in the lift. I’d take the lift from the 20th storey to the third, and then back up to the 20th again, repeatedly, for about 20 minutes each time.”
That rejection wasn’t the last of it. There were many others to come, like when she went on to apply for music mentorship programmes, but also “kept getting rejected”.
“I was like, ‘No one is interested in my music.’ I wanted to give up so many times because it was just so hard. It didn’t help that I wasn’t formally trained,” she lets on.
“But then, I recalled (American radio personality) Ira Glass had said something about how, when you are disappointed in your work, it’s not because it’s horrible, but because you have taste. Your standard is up there, but your work just isn’t matching up to it, so you think you suck because of the discrepancy.”
So she kept knocking on doors, even if they kept getting slammed in her face. Her resilience eventually paid off: an American producer she’d sent her demo to liked what he heard and wanted to work with her. She travelled to the US for the collaboration, and her debut electro-folk extended play record All Our Achilles Heels was released in 2017.
Nonetheless, it was a “difficult period” because she was holding a full-time job at SGAG and had a lot on her plate. But in true Annette fashion, she simply bit the bullet and found a way to balance all her responsibilities, bringing her songwriting skills to the company, and writing many of the catchy and cheeky musical numbers for their skits.
Not like her characters
It was never part of Annette’s plan to be groomed as an actress at SGAG, but it happened anyway because of a shortage in manpower.
“I joined as a pioneer of the video team, so I wrote, directed and edited videos. Now, there are 60 people on the team, but at that time, there were only six of us, so I also had to be in front of the camera. I didn’t actually want to act – it was just a gap I had to fill,” she explains.
“Xiao Ming (SGAG co-founder Adrian Ang) wasn’t acting as himself, and I didn’t want to either, so I started putting on disguises and playing characters. Then it stuck.”
One of her more popular characters is undoubtedly the clueless and irreverent Sue-Ann, whom she created because she wanted someone with a character “not so similar” to hers.
As such, she realised she had to “improve on acting” and “be more intentional about it” when the character found success. And her mastery of the art sure has taken her places, so much so that she has brought to life a new cast of characters in her solo career. They include Chantelle, a “pretentious and sometimes obnoxious influencer who butchers the English language”, and Susan, a “typical Asian parent” most millennials would roll their eyes at.
Neither Chantelle nor Susan is anything like her IRL, but she’ll admit that they are inspired by the people around her. For example, even though the characterisation of Susan is “dramatised”, she takes inspiration for the character from her mum, who ran a “stereotypical Asian household” when Annette was growing up. And Chantelle is really just one of those types of influencers on Instagram.