From The Straits Times    |

“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.

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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.”

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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.”

But to get better, you just have to keep working on it over and over again. If you do that, the quality of your work will eventually match up to your taste.

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.

Because I wasn’t trying to be an actress, I just didn’t care. But I think, over time, it became the allure of the character.

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.

“I think many people relate to the characterisation because Instagram is often about presenting an ideal life to the world even if it’s not real, and I think people have been on social media long enough to see through people who lie to them. In playing Chantelle, I allow them to call out these people vicariously,” she muses.

And yes, she has her favourites. “I’d say Chantelle is my favourite. I don’t know how she became so popular. I’d only made, like, five videos of her, but people loved it and kept talking about her.”

Staying thoughtful and hopeful

“Is it too dark? Should I turn a light on?” asks Annette as thunder rumbles in the background through the screen. It’s about to pour on her side of the island and she’s worried that I can’t quite see her. I assure her that the lighting is perfectly fine and ask what fuels her new ideas. She keeps silent for a moment and ponders over the question carefully.

“I think people underestimate how much I think through and rewrite a lot of the stuff I put out. I did a Covid reactions around the world video in different accents – it was sort of a social commentary, and I made sure to only use meme references or positive stereotypes. Not everyone understands satire, and I didn’t get cancelled only because of those two things,” she says.

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And while she has gained enough recognition to be striking out on her own now, she absolutely still encounters bumps in the road. As it is, she still experiences self-doubt.

“I think anyone, at any stage, will still have it. It doesn’t help that, for me, so much of my work is seeing if people like the content I come up with. Plus, when a video doesn’t do well, it’s easy to go, ‘Oh gosh, I’m never going to put out something good again.’ But when a video does well and goes viral, there’s so much pressure and I’ll go, ‘Oh gosh, I’m never going to put out something as good again. How can I top this?’”

Thankfully, she has learnt to avoid getting sucked into the abyss of negative self-talk.

“Whatever comes next will always be stressful, so I learnt to [steel myself against] failure and to tell myself, ‘It’s OK if you fail. Focus on what’s next.’

If something good happens, I celebrate the success, but not let it get to my head. And if something bad happens, I just go, ‘Did I die? No. It’s fine.’ This has allowed me to constantly improve and not let failure bring me down.

More work, even more authenticity

So what’s next for Annette now that she’s free to pursue creative growth on her own terms?

While she still works on commercial projects (the girl’s got to eat), she intends to invest more time into passion projects that align with her artistic direction. Besides singing about bubble tea and cai fan with Benjamin, and releasing short skits on her Tiktok and Instagram, she discusses adulting in her Youtube web series Glowing Up.

She has also just wrapped up filming Asian Billionaires, a five-episode mockumentary about “a billionaire family in Singapore and their rich-people problems”. Gurmit Singh and Amy Cheng star alongside Annette and Benjamin, and the series is slated to air at the end of the year.

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And in the time she’s not developing characters or doing anything related to work? She hopes to find the truest version of herself.

“I try my best to be a consistent person both in private and in public. This makes my own life easier as I don’t have to keep ‘switching on’ to be another person. In that sense, I’m working on being more authentic,” she says.

5 things you didn’t know about Annette Lee

1. Her go-to bubble tea order is a macchiato
“It’s either that or lychee oolong tea with pearls. I know it’s very specific, but most stores have it. I usually have my bubble tea with no sugar.”

2. Her dog, a Japanese Spitz, is TikTok famous
“His name is Jam and he is 11. He appeared in a video with Chantelle. It was a social commentary on influencers who make their pets influencers as well, even when their fur kids don’t actually know what’s happening.”

3. Her favourite film genre: thriller
“I love thrillers and comedies – it’s why I enjoyed Squid Game a lot. I’m also a huge fan of Korean cinema and have watched everything by Bong Joon-ho.”

4. She doesn’t reply to nasty comments
“It took me a while to understand the quote: ‘True freedom is allowing yourself to be misunderstood.’ These days, I’m like, ‘I’m not going to be a slave to that person’s opinion.’”

5. She has a habit of journaling
“I find it helpful because I just sit down and reflect on whatever has happened in the past week. It allows me to sort my thoughts out. I do it once a week or every other week.”

This story first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Her World.

STYLING Lena Kamarudin
HAIR Edward Chong/Evolve
MAKEUP Lolent Lee using Tom Ford Beauty