Photo: The Straits Times/ Kua Chee Siong
Zoe Tay and her manager are already seated at the table when I arrive, three minutes before our arranged time of 1pm.
It’s raining and traffic was heavier than I’d expected. I feel bad that they are there before me and apologise for being late.
She stands up, ramrod straight, to shake my hand and says soothingly in her husky voice: “No, no, you are not late. We are early. We just arrived.”
She says she and her manager, Carolyn, had set out early because of the rain. In fact, they had driven for 10 minutes before finding The Dempsey Cookhouse and Bar, a restaurant she’d chosen because she hadn’t been there before.
I settle down and arrange my voice recorders on the table. We look at each other, smile – and size each other up.
This is the first time I’m interviewing Singapore’s most famous actress, even though she’s been famous for almost as long as I’ve been a journalist, which is a pretty long time.
In 1988, Tay, then a model, won TV’s first Star Search talent hunt. Over 30 years, she has appeared in countless Mediacorp TV dramas, advertisements and magazine covers. Last month, she won Best Actress at the station’s Star Awards for playing a cancer-stricken nurse in the drama You Can Be An Angel 2. It was only her second Best Actress win, 21 years after her first.
In person, Tay, 49, looks every inch the star. Her face is carefully made up and as it appears on TV and in magazines -perfectly oval, deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, wide smile and dimples. Her hair, black and shiny, grazes her shoulders in a flipped-up bob.
She’s very slim and looks glamorous in a blue Gucci pantsuit with orange trim and a beige, high-necked ruffled top. It’s paired with gold brocade Lanvin pumps, and sculptural earrings and rings complete the look.
For those who are wondering, she has not had work done on her face. Up close, there are lines around her eyes, especially when she laughs, but they add to her charm.
And she is charming.
Colleagues who had interviewed her have told me that she’s down to earth, and I find that she is exactly that. She is calm, has a warm, natural manner and is altogether very likeable.
English is not the language she is most comfortable in, but because she has heard that my Mandarin is poor, she gamely speaks English during our two-hour chat.
The restaurant is packed and I notice some diners looking her way. But the table nearest ours is filled with Australian tourists who don’t know who she is. They look on suspiciously when the photographer takes pictures of her at the table.
The menu has several set lunch options. Tay gets sashimi, foie gras, beef and chocolate cake, Carolyn opts for yellowfin tartare and a snapper, and I order burrata, chicken and almond cake.
I congratulate her on the Best Actress win and ask if she was surprised by it. “Actually, half-half,” she says. People will always tell you how you’re the hot favourite but you end up not winning, she says. She had rated her chances 50-50.
What did surprise her – pleasantly – was how her colleagues were happy for her when she won.
“When I look at the video, it’s like, wow, everyone was so happy,” she says. “I was so blessed.” Blessed and happy are words she mentions quite a bit, even though she’s no longer at the top of her career, something she readily admits.
It comes up when I ask her which period of her life has been the happiest and most fulfilling.
She says it is now, even though it is “not the peak, peak time of the most popular Zoe”.
“It’s like everything falls in place, in a good way,” she says of her life now. “It’s like I’m balanced.”
She’s still contracted to and managed by Mediacorp but does just one or two series a year, in addition to other appearances.
In the past, it was all ” work, work, work, work, work and I can’t really enjoy much”. She rues how her late father wanted her to go on a family holiday to China but she couldn’t make it because of work.
The slower work pace suits her because her three sons, with air force pilot Philip Chionh, are still young. Brayden is 12, Ashton nine and Nathan six. “I try to have as much bonding as I can with them.”
Becoming a mother at a relatively late age has its advantages as she’s calmer and her career is more settled, she says. When not filming, she does everyday tasks like drive the boys to tuition classes, do housework, go for yoga and spend time with her mother.
When she does go behind the cameras, she relishes the work. “I find I can spread my happiness to a lot of people at work,” she says, slowly eating her sashimi. “Making people happy, I am happy.
“Happiness is very important. It can make you healthy, and can make you pretty also.”
The week after our lunch, she will start filming a new series, While We Are Young, where she plays a teacher and mother.
Does it bother you to be getting older women roles, I ask? Are you afraid of growing old?
“I’m 50-50,” she says. While she naturally doesn’t like the idea of ill health, “I’m pretty contented with what I have today”, so in that sense “it’s not so bad getting a bit old”.
She lets on that friends and even film crew have asked her why she hasn’t had procedures like Botox and fillers done. She knows how unforgiving high-definition cameras are but says, simply, that “it’s personal preference… I’m quite happy with the way I am”.
But she adds: “I should not say no. Maybe in the future because it’s so common now it becomes like a beauty treatment, not so much like a plastic procedure.” She has ordered foie gras and asks me to try some. When her main course of beef arrives and she sees that my chicken hasn’t, she doesn’t eat. We discover that they have forgotten the chicken, and she starts on her dish only when I urge her a few times to carry on.
She describes herself as a “crazy mum” who can be strict but tries to do fun things with her sons. She’s also glad that they get to spend time with her mother, who lives with them.
She speaks with great fondness about her mother, Madam Wong Pong Chin, who’s 81. Anyone who has followed Tay’s life would have read that Madam Wong is actually her stepmother. I raise this and she doesn’t mind talking about it.
Tay’s mother died when she was three, in an accident. She was the youngest of six children. Her father, who had first a chicken farm and, later, a pig farm in Lim Chu Kang, remarried and had a daughter with Madam Wong.
Tay says she can’t remember her biological mother. In the photos she has seen, her mother looks like one of those beauties on Chinese face powder boxes. Do you look like her? No, she says, “she had single eyelids”.
“My auntie said my mum was very pretty. None of us look like her. Not even close. So upsetting,” she says, while laughing. Family lore has it that after her mother gave birth to three children, her waist was still just 22 inches. “Not possible!” Tay protests.
Madam Wong raised her and her siblings and treated them as her own. “She gave a lot of love to our family, so we all respect her a lot. So it’s no difference to me that she’s not my blood mum.”
When she was younger, she and her siblings would address their stepmum as “auntie”. When Tay was in secondary school, she decided that “auntie” was “rude and weird”, especially when her half-sister – whom she is close to – called Madam Wong mum.
She decided to call Madam Wong mum and her siblings followed. “In the beginning, it was very awkward but after a while everyone started calling her that,” she says. “We should not have this distance. I should address her as my sister addresses her.”
She says Madam Wong is a very good cook and remembers inviting her actor friends to the house to eat during breaks in filming. “She’ll cook all the dishes and then she’ll go to the room and hide. She’s a very shy woman.”
Photo: The Straits Times/ Courtesy of Zoe Tay
Her eyes moistening, she says: “My stepmother is really, really a very kind person. I’m very, very lucky, I’m very, very blessed that we have a mother like that who brought us up.” I’ve always wondered if Zoe was her birth name and she says it was something she chose later. In fact, she nearly called herself Jenny.
When she was 13, students started to be called by their hanyu pinyin names, so her name Tay Hui Gek became Zheng Huiyu.
People weren’t sure how to pronounce Zheng. “They pronounced as Jenny, so I thought, okay maybe I call myself Jenny. That time it was a trend for everyone to have a Christian name.”
But her siblings didn’t like the name, so she thought she’d find one beginning with Z. Because her dialect name Tay Hui Gek has three letters each, she wanted a three-letter Christian name. She found “Zoe” in a dictionary.
“When I started using this name, nobody can pronounce it. Ah Joe, then they put an ‘i’ on top, Joei, Joey. Some call me Zoo, call me Joo. A lot of funny names… But I find it’s okay. I like the Z.”
Her sons’ rather unusual names, by the way, came about this way – her husband liked Brayden, she chose Ashton “because I like Ashton Kutcher” and Nathan was named after a character in the TV series Heroes.
I remark that she appears to have had an easy career but she says the early years were tough as she didn’t know if she even liked acting.
Was the rivalry with fellow Mediacorp actress Fann Wong, now 46, back in the 2000s as intense as it was made out to be?
She says that, looking back, the rivalry was probably “company strategy” to motivate them to improve. While she and Wong respected each other, the working relationship was awkward. It was a stressful period.
Celebrity hairstylist David Gan, who is close to both, helped to ease the situation and made them see that they were in “a friendly match”. “Now I look back, the strategy worked for both of us,” Tay says. “I worked harder and it made her work harder, I believe.”
Service has been a little slow and we’ve been talking for nearly two hours when the desserts finally arrive. I sense she is a bit tired.
We move on to do the photos, which is when a very different Zoe Tay emerges.
During lunch, she comes across like a normal mother, albeit a very well-dressed one.
But in front of the camera, she’s in total control. Supremely confident and no longer looking at all tired, she drapes herself first on a chair, then a table. She smoulders, smiles, stares and flirts with the camera. Every tilt of the head, flick of the hair and movement of the hand is picture-perfect.
The photographer has been waiting two hours for the shoot but it’s over in less than five minutes. It’s quite an experience watching her in action.
Photos done, I ask for a selfie. Of course, she says. After I attempt a few shots, she takes over my phone and does a better job.
We say goodbye and shake hands. For some reason – maybe I was star-struck after witnessing the photo-taking – I offer a second handshake. She looks surprised but takes my hand again.
Her job is not done, however. A few women diners have spotted her and want a photo.
As I leave the carpark, I see her driving off and heading home – back to her role as dutiful mother and filial daughter.
This story was originally published in The Straits Times on May 21, 2017.