A 2010 photo of (from left) Jazreel Low, Aileen Tan and Zoe Tay, who were all in the inaugural Star Search competition in 1988.
In person, she looks a lot younger than her age. Dressed in a low-cut top and pink platform heels for this interview, she also appears much more glamorous than she is often made out to be onscreen.
“A lot of people are surprised when they see me in real life. They always ask me, ‘Why do the TV shows love to make you so old?'” she says with a laugh.
Not that she minds being relegated to these “auntie roles”, she adds.
“I’m totally fine with them as long as the roles are meaty enough. That’s why I always tell my managers not to arrange too many dramas for me back-to-back if all of the roles are too similar. I always hope to change things a bit.”
One such role she has enjoyed playing in recent years was the character Wang Bizhi in last year’s drama series The Dream Job, she says.
“That role was exciting to me because she was such a villain. She did a lot of horrible things, but she did them all for her daughter (played by actress Jeanette Aw). It was fun playing someone whom everyone loved to hate.”
However, such complex characters are few and far between.
With a candour that probably makes her accompanying artist manager nervous, she says: “You know, I’m actually getting bored in my job. When you watch South Korean dramas or Hong Kong dramas, even their auntie or motherly roles can be quite different.
“I’m afraid I’ll lose my passion for acting if the roles here don’t get more exciting. I really wouldn’t want that to happen because I love doing this.”
While her enthusiasm comes across as genuine, she never planned to become an actress.
Growing up poor, her only goal was to make money, never mind what the job was.
“When I was 10 years old, I would go out and help my mum wash dishes at getai shows. That was my kind of childhood,” says Tan, who is the third of four children.
Her father had worked as a taxi driver until he suffered a stroke in 1976, leaving the rest of the family to do odd jobs to get by. The entire family, along with her grandmother, lived together in a one-bedroom Housing Board flat.
After she completed her studies at the now-defunct Willow Secondary School, she took on her first official job selling steel pots and pans.
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