Belinda Lee

The TV host and actress on the life and gift of second chances.

BY Wayne Cheong | Feb 22, 2016 | Women We Love

Photographs by Elvina Farkas/Anue Management. Styling by Janie Cai.

The last thing you’d expect to talk to Belinda Lee about is a coffee enema. Hers specifically. Talking to Lee as she has blush applied to her face by the makeup artist, we stumble upon her recent foray into a juice cleanse, about how she started the night before and enjoyed the taste from Gorilla Press Co (the label on her fourth bottle [Beets!] says its contents will give you stronger bones and glowing skin, aid muscle recovery and digestion, and curb hunger). It seems to be working. Even after virtually uninterrupted work commitments and travel, Lee looks alert and wide-eyed, but I can’t be sure if it’s down to the diet or the make-up.

“I used to do coffee enemas a long time ago,” Lee says. “It’s coffee that you-“

Put in your butt? I add.

“Yeah, coffee in the butt and it detoxes you,” she continues. “I felt a little high from the caffeine. Coffee up the butt will leave you a little high.”

Lee’s apparent candidness informs you of who you’re dealing with—someone who has nothing to hide. Her closet is bereft of skeletons (there’s perhaps a scattering of bone chips, but then again, every woman should have a secret or two) and Lee answers our questions with aplomb. A journalist’s dream and, perhaps, a PR manager’s increased heart rate, coffee enemas might be the last thing you’d expect to hear about from Lee, but it won’t be the final takeaway from what the rest of the conversation will entail.

And so it came to pass that Belinda Lee finally agreed to talk to us.

But it wasn’t for lack of trying. We’d been trying to pin down a time for an interview and a photo shoot for a while, but the stars never aligned—she was just too busy with work. Then. When the dust finally settled and the sliver of opportunity appeared, we pounced, which brings us to now, sequestered in a room with Lee at MediaCorp.

She’s more petite than she appears on TV. Your attention is drawn first to her aubergine top, then you notice how wide her smile is, and smiling is her default setting. Even when she’s relating a story of tear-jerking proportions, there’s that ghost of a grin in the back, a dim ray of hope at the end of the sentence.

She wasn’t well to do but spent the majority of her childhood with well-to-do relatives. Whenever she returned to her immediate family, to the poverty-tinged environs of a home that wasn’t as sweet as she remembered, resentment bubbled within. “I felt… I felt like I was short-changed,” Lee says.

Growing up, she felt ashamed. “Maybe, it’s because I wasn’t the cutest or the prettiest kid,” Lee says. “I wasn’t the best student in school and the attacks… not physical ones but the kind with words… I hated school and the only thing I wanted to do was to dance, to be involved in the arts.”

But these sorts of activities require a fair bit of physicality to them. Being an asthmatic, Lee’s parents forbade her from partaking in any Extracurricular Activities (ECAs). That restriction carried over into her secondary school days, but “I secretly got involved in gymnastics, dancing and sports,” Lee confides. “Whenever I competed, I’d try to win a medal. I think this sportiness came about because I was deprived for most of my childhood.”

But it also feels like the more someone tried to suppress Lee, the more it fuelled the yen to exceed everybody’s expectations. “One day, my mum wanted me to quit school because my grades weren’t fantastic. She told me to drop out and enter the workforce. Even though I disliked school, I knew it was wrong to drop out. I said, ‘Let me graduate from secondary school at least and see what happens next.’”

After her GCE “O” Levels, she started working. “I always tell people that I’ve taken all kinds of jobs, except for waitressing, air stewardship and prostitution,” Lee laughs. “But I never felt a sense of satisfaction.” Furthest from her mind was the entertainment business. She claims she is an introvert.

“Well, I’m not anymore, of course, because my current [hosting] job requires me to put myself out there. I’m very comfortable with people. In the past, I found it hard to communicate verbally. Dancing was the only way I could communicate.”

Belinda Lee became the first Singaporean MTV Asia VJ but how she got there was a road most circuitous. It started with a 1997 local feature called The Road Less Travelled, where Lee played Baobao who was modelled after director, Lim Suat Yen, who operates Oak3 Films with two other partners. “I wasn’t the first choice for the role,” Lee clarifies. “There was tan actor whom the director was interested in, but I think they let her go because I heard she was a bit of a diva.”

She may have been a supporting cast member, but despite the minimal exposure, her character showed more chutzpah than the rest of the cast.

She found out that she was the back-up plan before filming even started. The fact her self-esteem took a beating and she had to play a tomboyish role didn’t help matters either. Her character, which Lee describes as “ugly” (far too harsh a description if you ask us), had short, parted hair, braces and a lack of fashion sense. She may have been a supporting cast member, but despite the minimal exposure, her character showed more chutzpah than the rest of the cast.

At the time, Lee watched a lot of MTV and her favourite VJ was Nonie (real name Ruth Winona Tao) from Hong Kong. “She’s this super-hot, amazing MTV VJ and I never envisioned being one because they were so well-regarded.”

Her then-boyfriend told her that MTV Asia was looking for a Singaporean VJ and urged her to try out for the role. There were only three places that carried the MTV VJ Hunt application forms and her boyfriend happened to be at all three places.

Prior to applying, Lee was gigging part-time for MediaCorp (when it was known as TCS [Television Corporation of Singapore]) and one of the TV projects that she was attached to required her to go for a makeover. She still had the “after” headshots, which she sent in with her application.

One day, when she was back at the makeover studio, she casually remarked to the owner that she had sent in their makeover shots to the MTV VJ Hunt. As it so happened, the studio was one of the competition’s sponsors. The owner called up the organisers and asked them to search for the entrant named “Belinda Lee”.

Trawling through thousands of applications, they retrieved Lee’s form and saw potential. They called her to suss her out, and two weeks later, Lee had moved onto the semi-finals. Another round of interviews took place, this time face-to-face, and they were impressed by her music knowledge and presentation skills. Her personality pretty much ensured that she made it to the finals.

And she won, of course, but not before discovering once more that the decision had come down to her and another woman with hosting experience. But a background check revealed the latter’s history of mental illness and thus, by default, victory went to Lee.

It also helped that Lee was a blank slate, easy to groom. She was 20 when she took the job, but initially, she had no inkling what a VJ job entailed. She actually expected to bag shopping vouchers. “Seriously, I was that naïve,” Lee laughs.

The funny part was she didn’t care about being an artist. All she wanted was to be a good wife and mother. At that mention, a quick laugh escapes from Lee’s manager. “See,” Lee wryly says, “even my manager doesn’t know this. It makes people laugh, but that’s the truth.”

Remember her boyfriend, the guy who prodded her to join the MTV VJ Hunt? They broke up soon after she won. “I knew he loved me. But I think my heart wasn’t settled… with him, with life… I don’t think the problem lay with him. It was me, I was the messed up one. I wasn’t ready. He wanted to get married but I wasn’t ready.” She talks about her first boyfriend with such tenderness it’s as though the breakup happened only recently.

And what would you say if you were to see him again?

A small smile, her philtrum bent by memories of regret. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Like Orpheus, Lee sometimes casts a backward glance, but she tells herself that it wasn’t meant to be. It was a mistake. A good that slipped from her grasp, but the past is a dead weight and there’s no point latching onto it.

“I loved people, but I never got back what I gave..."

Under the banner of MTV, Lee could have used the opportunity to explore the international market, since MTV has the resources, but Lee was waylaid by relationships. One after the other, none of them really worked out. When she was young, she never felt loved wholeheartedly. “I loved people, but I never got back what I gave. That was the goal, especially in a world that harps on about achieving success in work and having it all,” Lee offers. She left MTV Asia after four years to pursue acting.

If you are a TV addict, you tend to believe everything that you see on screen, but there’s more to a scene; things happen off camera as well. One of the programmes that Lee was involved in was RenovAID, a reality show about helping the less fortunate by refurbishing their homes and revamping their lives in the process as well. In one particular episode, while the camera crew took B-roll, Lee offered to escort one of the participants to the Institute of Mental Health to get her signed up for medical aid.

Lee is savvy about media manipulation. Ask her to tear up at key moments for emotional impact and she’ll refuse. “At the expense of someone else’s sorrows?” Lee shakes her head. “No.” She’s even followed up with most of the people she met while filming. “Not all of them though. In fact, with all the travelling for work, I don’t have the time to do so, but I try to drop them a cursory note, ‘Hey, how are you?’ or ‘Jia you’ [Go for it!]”

For someone so genuinely nice, it’s a little hard to hear that Lee gets taken advantage of. Some would think that her niceness is some sort of ploy to get people to accept her. After all, she is in the media industry, where appearance matters, so why play up the “nice person” angle in public?

Lee has learned to filter out criticisms levelled against her, but this is who she is. The real McCoy. She will play host and inquire about your wellbeing, whether you’re a friend or a stranger. If she were to credit her spirit of kindness to anyone, it would be to her mum and sister. “They are the kindest people on earth. Good hearts.”

It looks like you’ve taken a shine to hosting.

“I actually hated hosting because I don’t like public speaking.” Seeing our reaction, Lee clarifies, “I’m better at hosting now. See, because of my faith, I finally get to see why I’m a host. It’s God’s will. If I had a choice, I would prefer to be an actress or a dancer, but you know what? His plans are greater than my ways.”

It was during her stint at RenovAID that Lee had her Damascene encounter, or at least, a milder version of it. During the third season, she was scrubbing the floor of a family’s flat when she felt something impressed on her heart. She felt “God talking to [her], telling [her] the opportunity to host is for people”. Lee is there to be a platform for other people to get their stories out there. Presented as a vessel, she can let people speak through her.

The longer she works in the entertainment industry, the better she feels about herself.

That’s when her perception of her job changed. With the scales falling from her eyes, Lee found joy in her work. The longer she works in the entertainment industry, the better she feels about herself. There’s a much bigger calling to her work. All of the projects that have come her way have had a specific angle: social issues and humanitarian-skewed human stories. It will run her ragged; she’s exhausted, yes, but this is her calling.

But there have been bumps on that road.

Her last relationship, the one often publicised by the media, lasted six years. One of the glaring reasons for the break-up was they had different values. “I wanted to spend time with him, talking to him,” Lee says, “but his interpretation of quality time was just hanging out in front of the TV.” Splitting up after six years might seem incongruous to some. Didn’t you see the cracks, the writing on the wall? “I guess some people hang onto a relationship because of the familiarity. That’s why it crushed me when we broke up. We had to call it quits.

“Yeah, we were going to get married, the engagement was announced,” Lee says. “After we broke up, I sank into deep depression. It was so bad at one point I thought I was going to end it all.”

Like give up?

“Including my life.”

Throughout her life, Lee has walked through rough patches where she didn’t know who she was. She was lost and almost gave up on herself. It was a daunting journey that also affected those around her. “More downs than ups,” Lee says. “I never felt that my existence was important to anyone, so I never thought I would amount to anything in life. I had the victim mindset.”

But what pulled her out of the abyss was her faith. Ever the buoy in the churning depths. That’s what kept her afloat before she could stand on her own.

We pause here for an aside. Some of you fine readers might be rankled at the mention of God, His Mysterious Ways and whatnot. But while other celebrities might downplay their beliefs just to maintain the veneer of PC-ness, Lee isn’t one of them. Unapologetically, she wears her heart on her sleeve.

Lee cites Donita Rose for who she is today. Back when they were VJs over at MTV Asia, Lee would lament to Rose about the lack of prospects in suitors. “I’d tell her, ‘My heart is so empty. It’s a big void.’ And she’d reply, ‘Belle, this emptiness in your heart can only be filled with God’s love.’ She’s that sort of Christian and I would be like-” Lee fake rolls her eyes. “Whatever.

They are lifelong pals. It’s a friendship that’s deep-rooted and Lee owes Rose a debt for bringing her into the Christian fold. “She’s been there for me. If it weren’t for her, I’d probably be wayward.” She’s been told by another friend to tone down her “Christianness” lest she alienates some of her secular fanbase, but it’s hard for Lee not to express how grateful she is to be saved by God’s grace.

We see signs and portents everywhere. It’s how the brain is wired, to make sense of the chaos (apophenia) or to make out a familiar face in a knotted tree bark (pareidolia). Lee sees meaning in her personal chaos.

“The heart still hurts [from the break-up] but I’ve emerged much stronger than before,” Lee says. Her sister told her, “Never mind what’s happened in the past. Whoever marries you in the future will be the luckiest guy.”

She wishes all the people, whom she has wronged and who have wronged her, well. “I hope they will be happy and I wish nothing but the best for them.”

While it’s easy for many spurned lovers to slip into that comfortable emotion of hate, Lee isn’t the vindictive sort; but her break-up drew people who’d been through similar predicaments to her. They saw how she got out of her funk, how she’s continuing to live her life. She wishes all the people, whom she has wronged and who have wronged her, well. “I hope they will be happy and I wish nothing but the best for them.”

This year, Lee might be busy with work, but she wants to go backpacking alone. “Me, myself and I.” She has no time for a relationship now. We assume that her work is just an excuse not to date but, quite simply, she just hasn’t met the right one. “The projects that I’m currently working on mean I devote whatever free time I have to my family, church or close friends.” As a result, she’s selective about who she dates, who she talks to, who she hangs out with. “I need to find a man with a huge heart, who truly understands the way I feel.”

Once, after returning from a trip to Nepal in her capacity as World Vision Ambassador, she found that she wasn’t interested in what was being sold at the shopping mall. “I wasn’t interested,” Lee says. “If I spend this much on a bag or a shirt, that amount could be useful to an impoverished kid.”

One of the projects she’s involved in is Find Me a Singaporean, where she connects with Singaporeans living aboard. The Primetime show is now in its fourth season and it has allowed her to rediscover herself. Her travelogues have inspired Lee to write a book filled with inspirational stories on the people whom she’s met on her travels.

The man who wants to settle down with her has to understand and believe in her work. Interests must align. She hasn’t found anybody of such character and inkling yet. Will she compromise then? “I’ve compromised in the past and look where that got me!” A trill of laughter rings out. “I’m speaking the honest truth. It’s difficult. I’ve learned it the hard way. If my man doesn’t support my dreams, it’s not meant to be.”

After all those times of being the second choice, Lee would rather settle on having a second chance and she’s taking that philosophy to heart now. It’s the beauty of faith. It won’t have to stand on a place of influence.

Lee’s goals have shifted. The dream of settling down and being the good wife has dissipated. When asked what’s her new ambition, she hesitates, as though speaking it out loud might make it come true. “I am afraid to say this,” she says in a mezzo-piano tone, “but it’s social work.” With her altruism in mind, it seems like a foregone conclusion, but she knows it will be challenging. Humanitarian work is tough. She has no illusions about the sacrifices needed.

So this hypothetical comes up: if, like Job, everything that she was given and worked for were to be snatched away from her, what would she do? Lee thinks about it, and then says, “It hasn’t happened to me yet, so I don’t know what would happen. But in the ups and downs of my life, those ‘downs’ were equally important to me, because experiencing the negatives has allowed me to empathise with others who are going through the same thing, and they, in turn, can relate to me.

“If I’m beset by troubles, what do I have to fear? I have my faith. I look forward to it.”

First published in Esquire Singapore's May 2015 issue.