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.
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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.
Next page: Her life as a mother