MICHELLE Chia's luscious lips are contorted into an exaggerated O-shaped pout. But the MediaCorp actress-host, voted by FHM and Citta Bella magazines as one of Singapore's sexiest women, is not flaunting her sex appeal.
Rather, she is showing how, as a six-year-old, she kept her mouth in that position while dancing as a goldfish in a children's programme.
'I was very conscious as it was the first time I had lipstick on. So for the entire show, I went around with my mouth like that.
'I looked very ugly but the producers didn't stop me because they probably thought I was acting the part of a fish,' she says, flashing her famous dimpled smile.
The year was 1981. Besides being a goldfish, she also marked her television debut by appearing as a germ, a mouse and a bee, among other things.
She got into the business after a family friend, who was producing a TV commercial, talent-spotted her.
The early start means that she is marking her 26th anniversary in showbiz this year, which is quite unusual given that she is just 31.
But she is not keeping count. In fact, the quarter-century mark seems to have occurred to her only when I point it out.
Widening her eyes, she exclaims in her nasal voice: 'Scary, hor? More than a quarter of my life, leh.'
She breaks into a girlish giggle, then reaches for her glass of lime and avocado drink and takes a generous sip.
And that is all she has to - wants to - say about the topic.
No star ego
BEFORE I turn up for this interview at Bishan Community Club's Olio Dome cafe, a colleague who had profiled her a few years ago told me: 'She is very nice, but try as I might, I couldn't dig anything deep out of her.'
Chia herself would be the first to admit that she is not a very expressive person by nature. But she is also someone who does not take herself too seriously.
Refreshingly down-to-earth and sincere, she does not suffer from the usual egomania of celebrities who talk incessantly about themselves.
Michelle with her beau, Shaun Chen
Switching naturally between English and Mandarin during the interview, she is a pleasure to talk to precisely because she does not make any effort to sound profound.
She comes from a supportive, close-knit Cantonese family and has had a controversy-free career, so there is no angsty past to dig up or skeletons in the closet to uncover. At least none that anyone is aware of.
'My parents are very open-minded but they didn't spoil me,' she says.
Halfway through the chat, she even turns to her minder and asks apologetically: 'Sorry, are you very bored listening to me? Do you want to go first?'
Unfortunately, this indifference to self-promotion is probably one of the reasons she has never really made it big after all these years.
Yes, the 1.64m-tall former Lux girl was in the Top 10 list in the Star Awards three times, in 1999, 2005 and 2006.
She is easily one of the most attractive stars around, even if she is dressed casually in a pink Polo Ralph Lauren T-shirt and a pair of white Roxy pants, accessorised with a gold necklace and a Casio watch.
And yes, there are some who will argue that she came of age from 2000 to 2004 at SPH MediaWorks, hosting the popular food programme Yummy King and proving her acting chops in dramas such as The Warriors Of The Yang Family.
However, the general feeling within the industry is that she is, strangely enough, still an Ah Jie or Big Sister-in-waiting.
Lianhe Zaobao entertainment correspondent Eista Lee says that while Chia's sexy yet healthy image is unique, she has never quite risen to the level of fellow host and livewire Kym Ng.
'You cannot say she wasn't given the opportunities. So I think it all boils down to luck and timing,' says Lee.
The bubbly Chia can now be seen on Channel 5's food programme Our Makan Places II: Lost And Found, eating daintily with Gurmit Singh. From May 15, she will reprise her role as a paramedic in the second season of Lifeline, a drama series about firefighters on Channel 5.
She will start work soon on a new Chinese variety show, Red Dot, alongside Ng, Adrian Pang and Ben Yeo. Two other hosting jobs, one for each channel, are also coming up.
So, does she consider herself an A-list star?
There is a long pause before she replies: 'See, the thing is I can never answer that question. I don't know where I stand.'
She laughs and shrugs, then adds pragmatically: 'It's the nature of the industry. Things change overnight. Suddenly this person will come out, that person will go down, so I just do my job the best I can and accept what is given to me.'
To plan for the future, she invested in a hair salon, Twister in Hougang Mall, with hairstylist Addy Lee and actor Mark Lee last year.
MediaCorp producer Avis Goh says Chia is genuinely not interested in socialising, let alone playing politics. None of her close friends are celebrities.
'Some artists will fight for their chances. Not her. She works very hard but she won't cut queues, act smart or go through the back door to get her hands on certain programmes,' Goh says.
'Sometimes, I do tell her it doesn't hurt to stay a while longer to talk to people. But she won't do it unless she's required to. It's always straight back home after work for her.'
Marriage on the cards
HOME, a semi-detached house in the Thomson area, is definitely where her heart is.
She has lived in it since she was born on Sept 19, 1975. Living under one roof are her semi-retired businessman father, her Chinese tutor mother, her grandmother, a dog and a cat. Her car agent brother Kenneth, 29, is married with a daughter.
She says: 'I'm not allowed to move out until I'm married, but it doesn't bother me because I'm a homebody.'
Still, marriage could be on the cards in two years' time, according to her boyfriend Shaun Chen, 29. Cupid struck when the pair worked together on the aptly named Channel U drama The Power Of Love in 2004.
She had four relationships before him, including a short-lived romance with former Pyramid Game host Benedict Goh in 1997 and one with a Swedish businessman that lasted six years.
Eyebrows were raised when she started dating Chen, who had left MediaCorp under a cloud of controversy. Co-stars complained about his tardiness and it was said that Holland V co-star Jeanette Aw allegedly slapped him for being too touchy-feely during a shoot.
'The rumours are definitely not true,' Chia says firmly. 'I felt that everybody should be given a chance to prove themselves, so I knew Shaun as a brand new person without any baggage.'
He won her over when he took her to Malaysia to meet his folks and she was particularly impressed by how he 'washed everything' for his mother.
In return, Chen describes her as a 'simple, conventional girl' who does not let fame get to her head and says: 'I find that appealing because I'm a kampung boy.'
He adds that she enjoys eating at hawker centres and will cook his favourite stewed pork dish whenever she has the time.
She also manages to squeeze in yoga, wakeboarding and painting.
Describing herself as a 'shy but competitive child', she attended Raffles Girls' Primary and then went on to Bowen Secondary, where she honed her leadership skills as a girl guide and vice-head prefect.
She took on acting and modelling assignments throughout her school years, about twice a year, mostly during school breaks.
All the shows she has done since Day One have been lovingly converted from videotapes to DVDs by her father.
To this day, she still reviews her own performances by watching the recorded shows, which she says helps her to avoid making the same mistakes.
'It's kind of like homework for me,' she says. 'Sometimes I'd go: 'Eh, when did I say that? Why would I say such a thing?'.'
After years of appearing in bit parts and TV commercials, she marked a career milestone in 1990 when she played a majie in the highly rated documentary-drama about Chinese maids called Vow Of Celibacy. She was 15.
'That was when everybody suddenly saw that I had grown up,' she says.
As a result, she landed a major role as a police recruit in the 1992 Hong Kong movie The Inspector Wears Skirts 4, starring Sandra Ng.
It did 'okay' at the box office, Chia says, but she remembers being 'treated like a princess' and the movie company loved her so much that it wanted to sign her on.
'But the Hong Kong movie industry is a dog-eat-dog world and I was too young,' she says. 'I couldn't see myself entertaining people and fighting my way up.'
After a pause, she sums up her character: 'I'm the kind of person where, if you give me something, I'll make the best out of it. But if I'm not given something, I won't stretch out my hands to take it.'
In 1994, she quit her business administration course at Temasek Polytechnic and joined the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, with dreams of being The Next Big Thing.
Hosting the Best
BUT the first few years turned out to be a rough ride for her.
Even though she was in her 20s, all the roles she got were as 'someone's rebellious sister'.
It was a steep learning curve as she had led a sheltered life and did not have the faintest idea what being rebellious meant.
With a wry smile, she says: 'I didn't go clubbing till I was 22.'
She crossed over to Channel 5 in 1998, acting in forgettable series like Dreamers and Shiver. The turning point came when starmaker Man Shu Sum invited her to switch to hosting.
'I was like: 'Huh? Me? Host?' I can't even talk properly and I'm horrible at expressing myself. Even my Mum questioned if I could do it,' she recalls.
But she took the plunge and proved her mettle in the Channel 8 variety show, Battle Of The Best, which pitted people from various occupations against their peers. It required her to interact closely with the contestants week after week.
She says earnestly: 'It helped me to open up. I wouldn't be able to sit here and talk to you like this if it weren't for my training in hosting.'
During that period, she also did a four-month stint as a research writer for the Channel 5 children's programme Kids At Work, which built her confidence even more as she had to cold call strangers in her course of work.
In 2000, when her mentor Mr Man crossed over to MediaWorks, she followed suit.
After the media merger in 2004, she returned to Caldecott Hill, where she says she has 'maintained' her popularity.
She shakes her head furiously when asked when she plans to retire.
'I'm not the kind who will say 'When I hit my first two million, I'll retire',' she says. 'Cannot retire, my brain will grow smaller if I retire.'
But ever the realist, she admits she is past the stage where she is dreaming of achieving super-stardom.
'Some people are stars forever. Some people are evergreens. Some are the 'never can come up' people. Some are the 'always die' people,' she says matter of factly.
Which category does she fall into then?
'I feel I'm 'there and safe'. I won't die, but I may not be The One.'
She lets her words hang in the air, then looks at me straight in the eyes and smiles.
'I was a quiet child, an introvert. Although I was involved in a lot of activities, I wasn't very good at putting my thoughts across'
On her childhood
'When I'm under pressure and forced to study, I can. But if I'm given freedom, like in poly, cannot'
On how she fared in school
'I don't have enemies but I'm not the most popular person. I'm always the last to know about things, so people never come to me for gossip because I have nothing to gossip about'
On not mixing with fellow celebrities
On how she manages to maintain her figure despite hosting food programmes
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