By See Foon Chan-Koppen
With 36 movies to her credit, asking Ipoh’s own celebrity Superstar Michelle Yeoh which was her favourite role is like asking a mother which is her favourite child. “Each role is different, with its own set of challenges, its own unique set of circumstances, its own environment. It’s like our circle of friends, some are more cheerful, others passionate, some pessimistic and some melodramatic. And yet we love them all don’t we?” she said recently at her home in Ipoh.
Michelle Yeoh did not grow up aspiring to become a martial arts master or a movie star. Instead, her dream was to become a part of the world of ballet.
I caught up with Michelle recently when she was home for the Chinese New Year celebrations. Warm, vivacious and without the slightest trace of haughtiness that one would expect of a celebrity of her fame and stature, we sat down to chat like childhood girlfriends.
Born to Dato’ Yeoh Kian Teik (IE100 Anak Perak) and Datin Janet Yeoh in Ipoh in 1962, Michelle’s childhood was spent swimming and diving with her friends at the Ipoh Swimming Club.
Michelle was a tomboy and loved many sports. As a teenager, she represented Malaysia at national level for swimming, diving, and squash. She was the Perak state representative for squash and once the Malaysian Junior Squash Champion.
However, her real passion was in dance, particularly – ballet. Her mother, Datin Janet, recalls that Michelle started to dance before she could even walk, and later from age 15, the London Royal Academy of Dance honed her talent.
Michelle’s dream of being a prima ballerina was abruptly cut short by a spinal injury which she suffered at her college and consequently she had to switch her focus away from dance to choreography and other arts. In 1982, Michelle received a B.A. degree in Creative Arts with a minor in Drama and continued her graduate study in England.
When Datin Janet secretly entered her for the Miss Malaysia competition in 1983, Michelle complied to please her mother and the then still self-confessed tomboy went ahead with the rest of the competition. She was subsequently crowned Miss Malaysia at the age of 21.
Modelling and commercial contracts in Hong Kong followed at the end of her term as Miss Malaysia and a film contract by Dickson Poon in his newly founded film production company, D&B Films launched her film career.
Michelle’s first movie role in Sammo Hung’s action comedy, The Owl vs Dumbo (1984) marked her movie debut.
A brief marriage to billionaire Dickson Poon in 1988 saw Michelle take a respite from acting but in 1992, she was warmly greeted by the Hong Kong film industry in her comeback role in the third instalment of Jackie Chan’s Police Story series, Police Story III: Supercop, where Michelle stole every scene she was in and easily matched him fight by fight, stunt by stunt. The film broke the box record in Asia and a female Action Star was born.
The High Price
But Action has its downsides and Michelle had to pay a high price in blood, sweat, tears and pain for the accolades as one of the highest paid actresses in Asia where she is known for doing her own fights and stunts. A dislocated shoulder, burns, and a ruptured artery in her leg were some of the injuries she collected along the way.
It was while in recuperation that Michelle decided to turn her talents to other roles which resulted in her nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Hong Kong Film Award) for her remarkable performance in Mabel Cheung’s historic drama The Soong Sisters – her first non-action movie.
Of the handful of female action actresses who came to prominence in Hong Kong films, Michelle was the first to make significant inroads into the West. Her first American release was Supercop. Michelle’s Colonel Wai Lin role in the 18th James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) definitely put her in the global spotlight.
The rest as they say is history. She went on to win many awards including being named International Star of the Year at ShoWest, the world’s largest motion picture industry convention. She has since become a film producer with her own film production company “Mythical Films” (Hong Kong) and launched, together with producer Terence Chang and Taiwanese journalist David Tang, a talent management company, “Stellar Entertainment Ltd.”, in 2008.
Between films, Michelle keeps very busy with many charity projects to which she devotes her time and energy. “It is amazing how much clout celebrity status lends to a project. I am happiest when I am working for a good cause and if my star status can help to push the envelope then I give it my best effort,” she says with enthusiasm.
Her devotion to innumerable causes is legendary as is her indefatigable energy. From Aids Research, to raising funds for Cancer, to helping kids in Inner Mongolia and the poor in India; from the plight of the orang-utans, to being Ambassador for Mercy Malaysia.
Since 2007, Michelle Yeoh has been the global ambassador for the Make Roads Safe campaign. Her eyes light up as she describes the role she plays in this campaign. She has travelled to different regions in Asia, Africa and Latin America to promote global road safety in developing countries. ‘Turning Point – A Journey on the World’s Killer Roads’, the documentary Michelle made for the campaign, premiered in Rome in May 2009, during the launch of the ‘Make Roads Safe: A decade of Action for Road Safety’. In June 2009, Michelle filmed a documentary on orang-utans rescue in Malaysia for the National Geographic Channel, ‘Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh’. For all these projects, Michelle works for free, a reflection of the generous spirit she embodies. “I get such a sense of fulfilment and happiness working for causes,” she modestly declares.
Michelle’s latest movie is a biopic on the Burmese democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. For this movie, ‘The Lady’, which will be released in the fall this year, Michelle had to get her weight down to 41kg from her usual 47kg. This meant cutting down on her meals from six to four. “Six meals a day?” I asked incredulous to which she replied, “Yes I have a very high metabolic rate plus I exercise every day. I love food especially the food here in Ipoh. So I am very diligent about my exercise. Even if I have to wake up at 4.30 to be ready for work at 6.30, I will factor in that minimum one hour for my workout.”
Coming Home to Ipoh
So what’s on the cards for Michelle? When I asked if marriage plans are imminent, Michelle who is engaged to Jean Todt, previous general manager and CEO of Ferrari and now president of the FIA, waved the question aside with a light-hearted, “Let’s keep my private life aside shall we?”
As for the question of where her main home is, she replied with alacrity, “Ipoh is my main home. This house is where I come home to.”
Come home often Michelle Yeoh – Ipoh is extremely proud of you!
Michelle Yeoh fans can get every bit of trivia, minutiae and details on her films, her life from any number of websites on the Internet. One of the most current and constantly updated is: http://michelleyeoh.info/.