PHOTOGRAPHY: Veronica Tay STYLING: Dolphin Yeo HAIR: Peter Lee, Hairloom, using Goldwell MAKEUP: Kenneth Lee, using YSL Beauty OUTFITS: Topshop CUFF: H&M
“You bully an old lady!” mock-pouts Cynthia Koh at our hairstylist, teasing him when he accidentally musses up her fresh makeup. When our photographer shoots her complicated instructions – take a big step forward while twisting your body to the right! But keep the shoulders straight! And balanced! Bigger smile! – Cynthia cracks another joke about needing to reboot her old computer to process it all.
Don’t be fooled by her self-deprecating humour. The veteran actress, who turned 42 in March, neither looks nor acts her age. “The definition of old age is all in your mind. It’s how you think, how you feel. When I’m 60, I still want to have the mindset of a 20-something,” declares Cynthia, citing the example of a gung-ho New Zealander gal pal in her 60s with whom she’s climbing Mount Shasta in California next month.
“Be willing to learn and have fun. So many people lose their inner child. I always want that inner child in me. Whether it is bewilderment, adventure, discovery… it’s non-stop fun!”
Beneath that ‘fun’ front is a steely determination. Cynthia, who plays a divorced mum in her upcoming Channel 8 drama serial The Gentlemen, says she relates most to her character’s craving for independence. Her character Charlotte splits up with her chauvinistic husband, played by Chen Hanwei (their second collaboration as a couple after 2009’s Daddy At Home), to restart her life and becomes a high-flier in the insurance industry.
Cynthia attributes her independent streak to being the eldest in the family; she has a younger sister. “I make my own decisions most of the time. My parents had a hard time with me when I was young!” she laughs.
Her spunky nature has helped her blaze through 24 years in showbiz and launch a successful second career as a national marketing director for a direct selling company. In 2015, she joined forces with actress-director Michelle Chong, former deejay-turned-F&B honcho Daniel Ong, and three other non-celebrity partners to open the 180-seater Mischief at Esplanade, serving up American street food with an Asian twist.
She is also planning to train as a teacher in the Bach Flower Remedy system and venture into alternative healing.
How does this petite powerhouse juggle so many hats? “I like to get uncomfortable,” says Cynthia, almost gleefully. “A lot of people fear that but I don’t like to be in my comfort zone too much.” Here, we get a close-up of ‘Her Many Faces’ – coincidentally, the title of one of the over 60 drama serials she’s starred in – and glean tips on how to be adaptable.
Cynthia, who picked up a Best Actress Star Award and an Asian Television Awards nomination for Stepping Out in 1999 where she memorably shaved her head on screen, says her key to success is to keep learning. Quoting American writer Alvin Toffler, she adds: “‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.’ If you’re passionate about something, you’ll keep finding ways to improve.”
Learning does not have to be in school, she points out. Ten years ago, she considered attending acting school in New York. Surprisingly, her close friend and acclaimed Hong Kong director, Gordan Chan, stopped her. “He told me, ‘You have so much in you already. To go to basics, it will become technical.’”
Instead, over the last few years, Cynthia found her world expanding when she travelled extensively. “Meeting new people opens up a different dimension.” She taps on her new experiences to flesh out her TV characters. “That became my acting school. Actually, you don’t have to chut (show) too much pattern. Acting is about life, it is emotions. You want to portray things very close to the heart, to let people have a relationship with the character.”
One of the first Channel 8 actresses to cross over to Channel 5 in 2000, Cynthia reveals: “The first season of Moulmein High was not easy for me.” Ironically, when she first joined the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation’s Drama Performers’ Training Course in 1992, the “very English speaking” Saint Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School alumna had to adapt to using Mandarin, aided by a three-month training stint in Taiwan.
But after years of filming in Mandarin, she found her English enunciation not up to mark for Moulmein High. “I’d speak English as much as possible to practice,” she recalls, roping in the sound man to help her catch and correct mispronunciations.
If, like Cynthia, you face a job rotation, she offers this advice: “We often expect the environment to suit us but we need to adapt to the environment. Every change pushes us out of our comfort zone and we’re often not willing to be pushed. But if you can adapt once, you can adapt many times. There’s an opportunity to each challenge and you may discover something good about yourself.”
Cynthia’s enviable second job has sent her jetting around the world on 32 trips in the last four-and-a-half years. She is the national marketing director of the Singapore branch of World Ventures, an American company that offers bulk buy travel deals to members. It allows sales reps like Cynthia to build their own business leveraging on multi-level marketing.
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She’d just returned from Bali the night before our shoot, where she climbed the 1,717m Mount Batur to see the sunrise at 2.30am. Next up: Hong Kong in June, London in August, and San Francisco and Mount Shasta at the end of August.
Cynthia leads 1,800 sales reps, making her one of the highest ranking in Singapore. Over the years, she has learned to be flexible with her working style instead of issuing top-down instructions.
“I work with a team of leaders. Instead of insisting on my way, I’m much more open now and will ask them to propose their ideas. I enjoy sitting at the back of the room observing their training and learning from them. Sometimes, I even think, ‘How come I didn’t think of that!’”
Her tip to managers: “I love communicating and working with younger people. They may not think like you but they have different knowledge and ways of doing things that you can learn from. Embrace change.”
Don’t be surprised if your waitress at Mischief turns out to be Cynthia herself. She usually pops in on Fridays. “I like serving customers, it’s fun!”
If you are keen to start a business with friends, Cynthia advises: “Every partnership needs to be very clear cut. Put everything on the table so there is no misunderstanding about authority and dollars and cents. At Mischief, we keep our communication very open and have a very healthy partnership.”
Daniel is in charge of operations while Michelle and Cynthia contribute to marketing and public relations as the faces of the restaurant. The six partners have monthly meetings and food tasting for every new dish.
She actively solicits feedback from customers both on the floor and on social media when they send her private messages, speedily conveying both brickbats and bouquets to the operations team.
Being part of a dynamic F&B business has taught her not to dwell on problems but to constantly look for solutions. “Seek suggestions from your staff. You must have trust and faith in your employees. Richard Branson once said if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers.”
She usually stays out of the chef’s kitchen but did have one specific ‘order’: “I told him that plating is very important because I want it to be Instagrammable,” says the active Instagrammer (she has over 35,000 followers and posts at least four to five times a week) who is savvy about the viral power of social media.
The Alternative Healing Advocate
Cynthia first discovered Bach Flower Remedies in 2011 when she used Impatiens, adding the flower essence to her water to manage her impatient nature. Her diagnosis of hyperthyroidism a few years ago, she says, was to her a symptom of her emotional imbalance. “I was so uptight about everything.”
After seeing improvement within months of taking Impatiens, she took a correspondence course for Bach’s Level 1 programme to learn more. She also gave fellow actress Jacelyn Tay a bottle of Olive to help with her exhaustion and depleted energy after childbirth.
“When I studied Level 1 in 2011, I wrote that I wanted to become a teacher in Bach Flower Remedies so that I can share knowledge with people. Jacelyn reminded me about it recently, so I thought it’s time to finally do that,” says Cynthia.
She is going to London in August for the two-day course for Level 2. Within the next 18 months, she hopes to complete Level 3, write a thesis, and train as a teacher. “Eventually, I hope to run workshops and seminars to educate people on using Bach to help themselves, their kids, pets… and even their plants. If I’m able to help people use flower remedies and feel better, it will give me a different kind of satisfaction (from what I do now).”
Living Life With Higher Purpose
From a wide-eyed 18-year-old actress to a budding Bach teacher, Cynthia’s constant reinvention is part of her larger quest. “I want to live my life with higher purpose,” she reveals.
She cites Oprah Winfrey as an inspiration. “Artistes should understand they have power of influence. If managed properly, they have huge power to change. The whole purpose of me training to be a Bach teacher is because I hope to influence people that change is not about looking outside of you, but within you,” says Cynthia.
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She strives to be as authentic as possible, from her interactions with the public (“I don’t like to be put on a pedestal”) to posting photos of her no-makeup face regularly on Instagram, and sharing candidly about her bachelorette status.
“My last relationship was three years ago. Am I looking to get married? Not particularly. My future boyfriend will be more of a companion, someone on par so we can learn from and grow with each other. Someone supportive and who can understand my independence. I don’t have to be married; I’ve seen so many marriages come and go.”
Is she satisfied with what she’s achieved over the years? “Yes, very. I won’t give myself full marks – I still have plans but I will take them one step at a time – but I’d say I’m 7.5 on a scale of 10.” She flashes that familiar megawatt smile. “I’m happy.”
This article was originally published in Simply Her July 2016.