Jaime Teo

No stranger to juggling different roles and responsibilities, Jaime Teo, the multi-hyphenate, tells us about the possibility of having it all, and the reality of it.

BY NG YI LIAN | Jan 1, 2016 | Women We Love

Photographs by Chng Dju-Lian. Styling by Lim Siu fang. Photographer assisted by Matin Latif. Styling assisted by Joy Ling. Make-up by Brenda Lye at PaletteInc using Urban Decay. Hair by Huimin Ng at PaletteInc.

It’s a well-established fact that women, more than men or any other known creature, can multi-task, are multi-faceted, juggle multiple roles and are even capable of experiencing a diverse range of emotions in the span of a mere hour.

For example, on good feeding moments when her infant manages to consume her nourishing breast milk down to the last drop without any struggle, a mother considers it the maternal triumph of her day. However, in the next hour, despite how she tries to cajole or rock the baby to slumber, the little being refuses to comply, and the poor mother is on the verge of tears and exhaustion, as the fleeting thought that she has failed her child for life plays games with her mind.

Women’s coping mechanism for breakups? Going through the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance— and sometimes all these emotions in the same day. While, of course, continuing to manoeuvre through their daily responsibilities and roles.

To some, feeling so deeply may seem like a cursed life that has been bestowed on women, who, for generations, have been deemed as emotional and the weaker sex. Whether it’s a curse or a blessing, the ability to experience such emotional roller coasters is, unfortunately, not an option box women can tick or cross out.

“Look, if we can’t change it, we should just accept it, embrace it and celebrate it,” enthuses Jaime Teo. “We are all by-products of the goings-on in our lives. We can live to resent or celebrate—the choice is that simple to me,” says the actress/entrepreneur/singer/ mother/wife who should know. But she didn’t always.

“No, I didn’t always feel this way,” Teo says, as she fusses around as any multitasking entrepreneur/mother/interviewee would. She makes sure I am comfortable at her Twelve Cupcakes outlet at Orchard Gateway, as she prepares Earl Grey tea and serves her now-famous honey cake, which took her six months to perfect before its launch. She injects her answers with, “You must have the honey cake with black tea—they go so well together!” Teo then promptly sits herself down while continuing with the interview without missing a single beat.

“Motherhood has been the most challenging role I’ve ever had to play in my life. I wasn’t prepared for it. You know that immediate feeling a lot of mothers claim to experience after carrying their newborns for the first time? I didn’t have that. I thought it was strange seeing my daughter Renee after the nurse put her in my arms. My first thought was, ‘Oh, erm, hello you.’ It wasn’t an overwhelming feeling at all. I just understood that, okay, I would have to take care of this person for the rest of my life. I felt responsibility, yes, but not love right away.”

Breastfeeding wasn’t a walk in the park for the 38-year-old either. “I had trouble breastfeeding during the first month, because Renee wasn’t latching on properly. Later, I realised I had mastitis (inflammation of the breast that’s caused by an obstruction, infection and/or allergy). It was painful and I felt bad that I wasn’t a better mother for Renee, but, of course, in hindsight, it wasn’t my fault that those situations happened. They just did.”

And among the emotions women, especially those who play multiple roles—are naturally inclined to, guilt is one of the most imposing of all. Many women make it their life mission to be a Jill of all trades because life demands it.

“It was also around that time that Daniel [Ong, Teo’s husband of eight years] and I started Twelve Cupcakes. Everything was happening at the same time, and I was under a lot of stress, but Dan is an amazing life and business partner. I know I can depend on him, no matter what.”

Other women may highlight the romantic aspects of their husbands and partners that keep them in love, but for Teo, she has torn apart the façade of partnership and the success of her marriage and business partnership with her husband based on the simple but crucial criteria of his reliability.

And there’s that saying: a couple that plays together stays together. Teo’s Instagram feed of over 26,000 followers is often littered with her quick workout posts; she’s also sometimes seen dancing to Taylor Swift with her now four-year-old toddler or exercising to 12-minute circuits with her husband. “Dan and I are quite the fitness enthusiasts. We’ll spur each other when we work out together, very much like how we are as business partners too. Dan is always challenging me to rise above an obstacle, move upwards and treat everything as a lesson, but always with a sense of humour.”

Teo recounts the moment of deep distress during the early months of Renee’s infancy when her baby was bawling and hungry, but couldn’t latch on properly, and Teo was crying too because she felt helpless. “Dan walked in on us during that situation, and while witnessing that scene of drama, his only remark was, ‘No use crying over spilled milk, right?’ I burst out laughing. Renee was still crying and I still had tears in my eyes. But how Dan handled that situation gave me clarity about the steadfast partner that he is, while not taking everything in life too seriously.”

Thanks to that partnership and Teo’s own recipes, Twelve Cupcakes has since exploded into a chain of 42 stores in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines, with 16 located in Singapore employing over 200 staff.

Due to the multiple roles that Teo plays in her daily life, there is never an average day for her. She was in Twelve Cupcakes’ central baking kitchen every day for months when establishing the new business and recently again before debuting the honey cake. And a few months ago, she spent an intensive month filming the movie Mr Unbelievable with veteran actors Chen Tian Wen and Liu Ling Ling, under the direction of Ong Kuo Sin.

“I just love creating. There’s something so rewarding about making something new and original. Acting, playing music and baking are all creative, and I’ve really been so blessed that I can actually do all of these at the same time, whether they are paying jobs or hobbies. I’ve always had that mindset from young. When teachers asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I always said that I wanted to be happy, to their exasperation, of course, because they wanted to hear about little children aspiring to become doctors or lawyers. But it was never about the nature of the profession for me, but the level of happiness while being in that certain job. I think that’s the best benchmark for anyone wanting to know if they are in the right occupation.”

Ageing and becoming older have never been issues with the effervescent Teo. I turn up at the photo studio as the crew are wrapping up this Woman We Love shoot with Teo. She is bundled up in a luxurious terry-towel bathrobe with a full face of make-up, sitting at the dressing table, sneaking a few selfies on her smartphone when I walk in on her, accidentally photo-bombing her shots.

She laughs sheepishly and says, “I hardly do photo shoots any more, so I want to take advantage of the amazing make-up that I have on and steal some photos for memory! But you know what, that’s the good thing about becoming older. You can be vain, admit it and move on. I never wish that I could go back to my younger days. I’ve learnt so much and become so empowered by the things I’ve done and the lessons I’ve received. It’s always about personal growth for me.”

And what does that look like to her? “I’ve never measured my own sense of success by how many digits I have in my bank account. Of course, that helps, as it’s a security blanket. But essentially, I’ve always been about experiences. Instead of spending money on a designer bag, I would rather spend it on a vacation to a destination that I’ve never been to before. It’s really all about the attempts you make in life. You don’t have to like your experiences, but at least you tried.”

Teo’s reply to ageing sounds just like the 24-year-old she was when she signed up for Miss Singapore Universe in 2001 and won. “A lot of other pageant winners always have the glamorous stories about how they accidentally joined the contests because their loved ones sent in their applications without their knowledge, but mine doesn’t sound as nice as that,” Teo says, laughing.

“I was always a chubby kid,” she claims, to my widened eyes looking at her slim bone structure. “It’s true! I finally lost some weight, managed to get my teeth straightened thanks to affordable braces from an orthodontist trainee programme and thought I didn’t look half bad. I also had some insecurity issues that I wanted to deal with. So why not dive headfirst into this daunting competition and see how far it gets me? But I didn’t think too seriously about it and didn’t tell anyone about my participation until I became a finalist. That was actually when I told my mother about it.”

Growing up in a single-parent household with an older sister, Teo didn’t feel she was at a disadvantage in the game of life. “My father left my family when I was only one so that has been my reality all my life. Why would I think I’m missing out on anything?”

If anything, Teo has been deeply impacted by her own mother and credits her as the person who has had the biggest influence on her life. “Yes, my mother was remarkable in managing it all alone, working two jobs to bring my sister and I up, and I’ve learned about my own strength based on her. But as my mother, I’ve also come to learn what traits of hers that I do not want to have. Due to her past experiences with my father, and not ever remarrying, my mother has a tendency to become guarded and closed off. You can’t fault her because it’s her defensive mechanism. But I remind myself to always be open to life’s experiences and continue to be open, even if I feel defeated, because how else can I fully embrace what life has to throw my way?”

ESQUIRE: Which experiences have you tried that you are fine with not trying again?

JAIME TEO: Motherhood? [laughs] Well, I’m still trying every day, and I have to. There’s no such thing as ‘I quit’ when you’re a parent. But I’m totally okay not having another kid. Renee has already brought me so much joy and allowed me to experience such deep love that once is enough. But if it does happen, then it happens. And oh, jumping out of planes. I did that twice for work and I refuse to do that again!

I know of a few older people who have such regrets about not trying, and these are regrets that you carry with you to the grave. There are also people who often change their paths in life, which is great too! They dare and they try, and at the end of the day, it’s really about accepting your decisions in life.

ESQ: Where is your happy place?

JT: On my exercise mat. Every morning I spend 15 minutes on my own doing a quick workout. It’s what keeps me going every day. I also need my lone downtime reading and playing the guitar.

ESQ: What books do you read?

JT: I love mysteries and thrillers like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I’m not into big-screen adaptations of novels, so there are many movie versions of the books I’ve read that I’ve never watched. I also love reading Paulo Coelho’s titles because I like his life lessons. But when I was a kid in primary school, I liked my Enid Blyton. Then I graduated to the Sweet Valley High series when I was in secondary school, before getting into the trashy Mills & Boon phase in my late teens. I guess that was the stage where we all learn about sex. Yes, I will admit to reading all three books of the Fifty Shades of Grey series. [laughs]

ESQ: What do you remember about your childhood?

JT: That I was always busy! I was always studying or learning new things. I was in my secondary school’s military band and that was my big introduction to music. I played so many percussion instruments and I really wanted to be good at them all. I also remember spending a lot of time at my grandparents’ place because my mum had to juggle two jobs so they were my sister’s and my primary caregivers.

ESQ: What’s the one thing that you always tell yourself when the reality of having it all is much harder than it actually is?

JT: That life gives you what you need, not what you want. It was really difficult for me to accept that truth for a long time in my younger adult years, because I always thought that you should fight for what you want. But there’s a certain confidence that you have in yourself and in life when you become older. It’s okay. Just let life be. And just go with it.

First published in Esquire Singapore's January 2016 issue.