Update on Bernie:
By ELIZABETH TAI, Pixs by BONNIE YAP
You can accuse Bernie Chan of many things, but you definitely cannot accuse her of taking the easy way out.
The multi-talented Eurasian-Chinese beauty (who is a TV host, actress, emcee and former model) has already made a name for herself in Malaysia. After her stint on television as the host of Project Runway Malaysia (shown on 8TV in 2007), a participant on reality gameshow The Amazing Race Asia 3 (on AXN last year) and more recently as tough-as-nails news editor Andrea in TV drama Frontpage, she's become quite a household name here. Chan, 39, could have easily stayed here to build an even bigger presence for herself.
Yet in September 2008, Chan relocated to Singapore to try and establish herself there – effectively taking a huge pay cut – and at a time when the city state's economy is taking a downturn.
It was a move that not many understood. In fact, some thought that it was a step back since Chan is not an established name in the Lion City. They asked: "Why give up your comfortable life to go there?"
"Why not?" Chan retorts. "Why not try somewhere else and see where you can go from there?"
Our candid conversation takes place one sunny afternoon at Cocoon, a beauty and wellness floor of The Gardens, MidValley City in Kuala Lumpur. As a make-up artist applies glittery eye shadow and fixes her eyelashes for the shoot, Chan, a pro at modelling, continues chatting.
"I'm happy where I'm at in KL, but I wanted to try greener pastures. I guess I've got some ambition left in me!" she says with an infectious laugh.
"Singapore has been very humbling because I have to start from the bottom all over again," says Chan.
Having lived there before she returned to Kuala Lumpur seven years ago, making it her base was not a difficult task as she still have friends and contacts there. However, getting there was another story altogether. "Deciding to move was easy, living there is easy, but making the move was the hardest part because I had to give away my 14-year-old cat," she adds.
That, and her home, car, and her pick of jobs. It was also not easy giving up being near her family, whom she is quite close to. Needless to say, Kuala Lumpur was a very comfortable place to be for her. "But for me, being in that comfort zone for too long makes you complacent. It was time to get up," she explains. She felt then that it was time to "expand her wings, learn, and grow".
But it didn't mean that she had no doubts. "While I was moving to Singapore, I kept thinking, what the hell am I doing? Life is so much easier for me here and I wondered why I moved. But I know that if don't try, I will never do it," Chan recalls.
"A good friend who's in the fashion industry in Singapore said to me, ‘You learn what you do now and you've honed your skills, and now it's time to make full use of it in Singapore'," she says. Chan, who turns 40 in May, quips: "Forty is the new 30, I hear! In my head I'll be 30 forever – and hopefully my face and body!" While Bernie is someone who speaks openly about her work, she is famously tight-lipped about her personal life. "All I want to say is that I am learning to be on my own again," she says, refusing to comment further about her love life despite much prodding from the writer.
Right now, her goal is to concentrate on building her career in Singapore – not an easy task thanks to Singaporean recession.
"People have cut budgets, I will not deny it. But you just have to work harder to survive," she says with a shrug.
That's not a problem for her since she's worked hard all her life, and it didn't hurt that work was something she loves doing.
Still, despite that obstacle, Chan has managed to keep herself busy on the island republic. After signing up with talent management company Fly Entertainment founded by comedienne Irene Ang (who played the wife in hit sitcom Phua Chu Kang), she has snagged a few jobs.
She has just shot a telemovie called Sweet Tapioca Porridge, where she has a small part playing a "desperate young single mother" trying to seduce the love interest of the main character, played by Mediacorp artiste Michelle Chong.
In October last year, she was involved in the play Vagina Monologues. While the original play had three women, this version had nine, ranging from a character in her early 20s to a woman who is almost 60.
Bernie calls the play "interactive". "We packed out (the 500-seat theatre) at 85% most of the night. Every newspaper gave us a good review.
"I brought my madness and my willingness to let go to my character. It was nice to get a review that I was versatile," reveals Bernie, smiling. "Bernie Chan could actually act – it's quite nice!"
The Singaporean theatre scene is very vibrant and active, says Chan. "They get more support from the government and private bodies there."
Although emceeing is her "bread and butter", acting holds a certain allure for her.
"(When you act), you get to be different types of people. Maybe there's something wrong with me, maybe I have a multiple personality disorder," she says, chuckling. "You get to understand people more. Acting has taught me to be more accepting of people."
Not a celebrity
Since the day her elder brother Charlz dragged her to modelling agency Cilla and Associates in 1987, Chan has lived in the limelight, first as a clotheshorse strutting down runways in Malaysia and abroad, and later as an emcee and TV personality. Yet, Chan has never felt comfortable being called a celebrity. She also seemed flattered yet confused when she found out that young girls look up to her.
"I am not quite sure I like the C word: celebrity. Everyone and their dog is a celebrity. Who gives the person that name?" she remarks, throwing her hands up in the air in exasperation.
Which is another reason why she likes living in Singapore – she can go around incognito.
"(In Malaysia) I get stopped by people who want to talk about the Amazing Race – and that's fine. My work is very high profile, but I like to think I'm quite low profile and a private person. So it's quite refreshing to live in Singapore ... it's not a hard life," she says.
Then, dressed in a sleek, black evening gown with a glamorous white throw from Chanel, looking poised and perfect, she makes a remarkable statement.
"I was ugly most of my life, so I didn't think about (becoming a model)," Bernie exclaims. "I was tall and gangly, I was ugly! I still have ugly days."
"You look like you don't believe me! But it's true!" Chan insists, giving me her trademark vivacious laugh. "It's never been about the glamour. To me this is the only kind of normal life I've ever known. (People) think I live in a castle and a moat ... what I do is a job, it does not take over my whole life."
She's her very own worst critic, she says. She sometimes still cringes when she sees herself on TV, and is as equally harsh with herself when it comes to her move in Singapore. On that note, she concludes our interview. "I'm not content with what I've done so far in Singapore, but it will get better. Talk to me again in six months!" SOURCEPHOTOS