A 2009 photo of Aileen Tan and her husband, Gerald Lee.
“We would try to sell them by calling people on the phone first, but if that didn’t work, we had to carry all the heavy pots on our backs and visit people door-to-door. The job is not for everyone, but I think that’s where I developed my thick skin,” she says with a chuckle.
That lasted for more than a year before she quit to join an advertising agency as an office administrator.
As the agency was linked to Tan Swee Leong Associates, the events company that organised and promoted the Miss World competition in Singapore, she soon got involved in coordinating beauty pageants.
Most pageant events, she discovered, happened at night, so she would often kill time during the day by hitting the gym. That was where a TV station employee spotted her and suggested that she sign up for Star Search.
“I wasn’t very interested and I was also lazy to go to the station to fill the application form. But she was serious about it. The next day, she came to the gym again and brought the form to me, so I said I’d try it,” she says.
That fateful encounter led to her long acting career, with appearances in 70 TV drama series on Channel 8 and Channel 5.
Some of her most notable works include English TV series Growing Up (1996-2001), in which she played dance instructor Mae, and Chinese TV dramas The Blazing Trail (1995), where she played an undercover cop, and Three Women And A Half (2001), in the role of a conniving office manager. Three Women won her a Star Award for Best Actress.
Beyond TV, she also received critical acclaim for her moving lead performance as the long-suffering single mother in Jack Neo‘s period movie Long Long Time Ago (2016).
Given that she had emerged from the same Star Search batch as Tay, however, one cannot help but wonder if she has felt envious of her more successful colleague. Tay after all, is often referred to as the Ah Jie, or “older sister” in Mandarin, of the local TV industry.
Without reservation, Tan says: “Of course, I felt a little envious when I was younger. It makes you wonder if you’re not good enough. But as you get older, you don’t think about these things.
“Zoe did win Star Search, after all. I was just the runner-up, so the best person won. So there’s no problem. Zoe and I have always been great friends.”
Tay, 49, attests to the strength of their friendship. She tells The Straits Times in Mandarin: “Aileen is a very straightforward, loving and loyal person. If you are true friends with her, she will stay with you all the way until the end.”
Meanwhile, Tan has learnt that there is more to life than acting. “Work is important to me, but I have also learnt that there are other things I should worry about, such as my family and the things that I like to do on my own. I’m not the workaholic I once was.”
She used to be so busy with work, she jokes, that it took her years before she found the time to register her marriage to her Hong Kong-born director husband, Gerald Lee, 56.
“We have been together since 1996, but we registered our marriage only in 2002. We did it because I happened to have some free time. I was on medical leave from a shoulder injury,” she says.
The couple had met at a wedding – she was the bridesmaid and he the best man. She found him “handsome and charming” and had no issues with getting involved with a divorcee who has a son, now 31, from a previous marriage.
The first two years of their relationship were a little challenging as it was long distance. Her husband was still working at Hong Kong broadcaster TVB, but he eventually decided to move to Singapore for her, with son in tow.
Even though the couple were not legally wed yet, Tan suddenly had to take on the role of stepmother.
“I visited so many secondary schools around Singapore to make sure that he got into one. He was accepted by the then Thomson Secondary School in the end and I would take him to school whenever I could. I realised then that it was not easy being a mother.”
That did not stop her from trying to have a child of her own, although her first and only pregnancy in 2006 ended badly. It was an ectopic pregnancy, in which the foetus grows in the fallopian tube instead of the womb. As this can cause heavy internal bleeding and be fatal to the mother, she had to have an abortion.
“Back then, I cried almost every night. But I have no more memories of that time. If I can still get pregnant and have a baby now, I would be very happy. But if it never happens, it’s also okay. I already have a son,” she says.
Her life as it is, adds the devout Christian, is fulfilling enough. She has a steady stream of work, gets to spend time with loved ones and can while away happy afternoons at the mahjong table or the golf range.
“I used to worry too much about things like how I look or what people think of me. But you realise that those are not important. I should just do what I want and be happy.”
Should her work here become too monotonous, she is open to working overseas, such as in Hong Kong.
“I probably could have done that years ago with my husband’s help, but people always say that it can be a little sleazy there. Now that I’m an ‘auntie’, I think I’ll be okay.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.
(Main photo: ST; file photos: Zaobao, Wanbao)