Jean Danker typifies the good girl that you hear about, the studious, “by-the-books” kind that you can take home to mother.
BY WAYNE CHEONG | Feb 26, 2016 | Women We Love
These days, a constant for radio DJ, Jean Danker (looking years younger than her appointed 37 years), is that her diurnal schedule looks pretty open for anything.
It wasn’t a consciously stressed fact, but it stuck out, that oblivious humblebrag of having the option to sleep in or do a million fun things (as exemplified by her Twitter account @jeandanker) before embarking on her weekdaily 5pm to 8pm slot— Class 95FM’s Cartunes. But that’s far from the case, as Twitter can only say so much about a person’s life. Beneath the social media veneer, Danker is kept busy by voiceover gigs, meetings, lunch appointments, Pilates and emceeing events, and this is just a sampling of what she does. Her radio work goes through ebbs and flows, and right now, she’s mired in “the busy phase of work”.
But soon, she plans to indulge in the “life” portion of “work-life balance”. “The girlfriends and I will be going to Iceland,” Danker declares, with her usual sprightliness, the wideness of her smile and eyes going into overdrive as she reveals this. “They are big Game of Thrones fans, but I’ve always wanted to see what the country is all about. Is it as how National Voices Carry Jean Danker typifies the good girl that you hear about, the studious, “by-the-books” kind that you can take home to mother. But is that a tremble in her voice that we hear when she’s faced by tragedy? Geographic shows it?” They will fly to London first before making their way to the Nordic climes of ice and snow. “For, you know, shopping,” Danker laughs. “I mean, you need to balance it out, right? Balance nature and the city.”
You can take the woman out of the city…
But you know what else is a constant for Danker? Her love for radio. It started at 14 or 15 when she got her first stereo set. “The sort that had the feature that played cassettes.” At that mention, as an aside, she remarks, Oh, now you know how old I am, right? “I would tune in whenever Perfect 10 (now rebranded as 987FM) came on. I was a fan of the station. I used to call in when they had competitions where the 10th caller would snag something. I won the first-ever prize of tickets to a Boyz II Men concert in Singapore.”
Fandom gave way to Danker’s earnestness to be the voice on radio. She enrolled in a weeklong junior DJ workshop that had Chris Ho and John Klass as mentors. Part tutelage and part talent search, Ho asked Danker if she would consider becoming a radio DJ at the end of the course.
“I was like, Are you kidding? This is all I’ve ever wanted to do. So Chris (who worked part-time at Perfect 10 then) passed my demo tape to the company, and a month later, they asked if I would be interested in working for them on a part-time basis.”
This was when Danker was 16 and had just finished her GCE O-Levels. It’s no surprise her parents were sceptical. Can this career be sustainable? Then again, such was the mentality in those days, and support for Danker ran scarce, except for her best friend who urged her to attend the DJ workshop.
There’s a lot said about the how life’s journey always takes on a route most circuitous. Never a straight line, it’s a path waylaid by detours and circumnavigation, but Danker saw the taut finish tape at the end of the track. All she had to do was take off from the starting block.
“There was no alternative, no back-up plan,” Danker says. “I knew that was what I wanted to do and didn’t see myself doing anything else. It’s weird, right? I was young in many respects, but that thing— to be a DJ—I was so sure of it.”
“There was no alternative, no back-up plan,” Danker says. “I knew that was what I wanted to do and didn’t see myself doing anything else.
Signs of her calling: 1) Danker hosted events during her time at Marymount Convent School; 2) she possessed a certain flair when it came to speaking; 3) a radio nerd, she practised talking over the music, timing herself to come in just as the music faded out.
“It sounded effortless, the way they conducted interviews over the air,” Danker says, before adding, “the technical side of radio, as well as the craft, appealed to me. My heroes were the DJs on air. I wanted to learn everything from them.”
Danker enrolled in a Mass Communications course and during those three years, any free time was spent sitting in for Perfect 10. “I told them [Perfect 10] I’m available, if there are any open shifts. I was the first one they’d call.” When Danker graduated, she signed on with the station within a week.
Given her intrinsic talent at the microphone, why didn’t Danker just jump into radio straightaway? Simply put, she wanted to see “how far she could go” with her studies. “I wanted to have an education.
There were things in Mass Comm that I wanted to learn. I was after the entire package, not just radio.”
What about being a VJ on MTV? Did that interest you?
“I mean, I watched it, but I felt it wasn’t the same as radio. Radio is so intimate. I get a sense of the person over the airwaves, that I know him (or her). Even if you hide behind the microphone, it’s still you. If you’re a likeable person, you’re likeable on air. There’s no way to fake it.”
There’s some truth to that assertion. Like the song from ’Til Tuesday, voices carry. It’s emotional prosody, where tone of voice is more telling than semantic information. People often say that Danker has conquered emotional prosody and, regardless of how crappy her day has been, she is able to go into the booth and be the affable DJ that the public is used to hearing.
“But I can feel the difference,” Danker avers. “The differences, albeit slight, I can hear them. My family and [my fiancé] Glenn [Ong] are able to pick up the nuances. Oh, she’s a little exhausted or I think she’s in a bad mood.”
(Looking back on the hours of transcribing this interview, her radio-friendly vocals don’t drop. She says “gosh” in lieu of less PG-chummy words and you wonder if she’s this professional on and off the air. It’s as though she’s all-too-aware that she is being recorded.)
Another constant. Jean Danker is always happy. She’s smiling, and even when she’s not, there’s a sense of positivity radiating from her like a halo. And it’s not the kind of annoying happy-happy- joy-joy pollyannaism that often causes people to stab pencils into their eyes. Danker’s brand of gaiety stems from a simple philosophy of how she reacts to things. She says, “I think I make, or try to make, the right decisions. I’m really impulsive, so it’s all thought out. I’m so blessed in many aspects of my life, so when it comes to trauma and upheavals, that’s your attitude towards it, I suppose.”
“I think I make, or try to make, the right decisions. I’m really impulsive, so it’s all thought out. I’m so blessed in many aspects of my life, so when it comes to trauma and upheavals, that’s your attitude towards it, I suppose.”
Tribulation coiled into the moment when Danker’s mother was diagnosed with an illness (to this day, she hasn’t revealed what sort of ailment her mother was afflicted with). “In 2011, when we found out, it overtook our lives,” Danker says of the time. “It was very difficult… so emotionally draining that I found it hard to even smile. I remember that, because when I see pictures of myself during that period, I couldn’t even bare teeth.”
The prognosis was that the ailment was terminal. The doctor gave her months to live and Danker found any excuse to spend every free moment with her mum. “Birthdays, anniversaries, every occasion that was meant to be celebrated, I celebrated it. Every single day, I went over to my parents’ place after my show. She didn’t like talking about her illness, so we didn’t, but there were moments when I would pray with her and she’d open up a little more to me. Generally, we wouldn’t talk about it in front of her. I only found out how she was really doing when my dad walked me back to my car after every visit.”
And then, fatigue got the better of her. After six months, she was depleted, exhausted. She rejected work and pulled out of hosting the National Day Parade, but maintained the façade that all was well in her world. “That was a really hard time, as I still had to go on air and do my job. Work was my solace. People who worked with me knew, but not many. I didn’t talk about it on air and I still stand by that decision. I didn’t think I had the right to share, but in hindsight, maybe I should have. If you have a family member who is going through a difficult time, here are some proactive steps on what you can do to make things easier.”
Danker’s mother defied the odds and lived for two more years before passing away at 65, two weeks before Mother’s Day.
The elephant in the room trumpets into the conversation: the relationship between Danker and Glenn Ong, an ex-radio DJ. The postponement of their engagement due to public scrutiny; the latter’s past as a twice-divorced man; his penchant for speaking his mind (Ong’s Twitter handle is “@glennegoman”)— all this is old news, but the scent of the pachyderm still lingers.
Danker is aware of the baggage that is the media scrutiny Ong brings into the relationship. She captures the sentiment perfectly with her quip on her impending nuptials: “He’s been married twice before. A lot of practice before our own marriage.”
You are pretty cavalier about Glenn’s previous marriages.
He’s open about it as well. His history is also part of the package. I’m attracted to his confidence.”
How does Glenn complement you?
“He’s an early riser—probably due to his previous stints when he was doing the early morning show. He’s also neat. People find that really surprising.”
Are you neat?
“I’m messy,” Danker chortles. “If you look at my car, the passenger seat is filled with files and books.”
She shares a pet with Ong: a Jack Russell (with light brown patches over its eyes) who goes by the name of Biscuit. “Glenn wanted to get a dog, but I’ve been a cat person all my life. (Ironically, Danker is allergic to felines, but her love for them remains unwavering.) His birthday was approaching and I promised that if we saw something, we’d get it.
“We’d been going to this pet shop in Holland Village and they never carried any Jack Russells. We were dining in the area and Glenn suggested we pop in for a bit. And lo and behold, there was a Jack Russell! In all my days of entering the shop, we’d never once seen a Jack Russell!”
Danker made sure that she wasn’t allergic to the dog (“I had to rub my face in its fur”), and three days later, they brought the dog home. Glenn came up with the name ‘Biscuit’.
Danker is unsure why he named their pet after food, but Biscuit is the most “manja Jack Russell in the world, who’d rather lie next to you”. Although she classifies herself as a “dog lover” now, Danker confides, “Deep down, I’m still a cat lady.”
The thought of whether she’ll quit radio has never crossed her mind. “The more I work in radio, the more encouraged I am. My colleagues and bosses were supportive at the beginning, so that helped. If you’re young and impressionable, you need your peers to be there for you.”
Her childhood was drama-free. Loving parents and an older sister, who was the “naughty one”. (She wasn’t a bad kid, Danker tells me later, but compared to me, yes, because I was such a nerd.) “Maybe,” she adds, “I saw how my parents reacted to her behaviour and didn’t want to do what she did. I was holed up in my room, listening to the radio and so focused on being a DJ that everything else didn’t matter. I didn’t have the extra energy to be rebellious. I skipped that. I skipped boys even. I didn’t care about relationships. I just wanted to go on radio.”
What’s your greatest fear?
“Looking back on my life and regretting not experiencing certain things. No what-ifs for me.”
What about losing your voice?
“Oh my God. Yes. You’re right. That should be my greatest fear. That and my sense of hearing, those things that we take for granted. I lost my voice once and didn’t get it back for two weeks. I was just losing it.” She laughs. “At first, I thought, Oh yeah, that sounds nice and husky, and then it didn’t come back and I took all the remedies I could find… pei pa koa, herbal jelly, antibiotics. It would be years later that I insured my voice.”
Even after that, you took that long to insure it?
“At that time, I was still young and naive. I’m indestructible. When I was 30, I decided to get it insured.”
Is losing your voice far worse than dying?
“Oooh, it would be worse,” Danker says. “It’d be torture.”
But hypothetically, what would you do if you lost your voice?
Right there, Danker pauses. It’s a marble of an idea, a scenario that demands attention, one she’d never want to confront. This game of what-ifs now turns into one that tempts fate. Maybe if she doesn’t articulate the fear it remains inchoate in the void of silence.
“I’ll cry. I’ll let it all out,” Danker finally says. “Then I’ll fall back on writing, I guess. I can communicate that way. Maybe someone will hire me to write. I’ll…,” she stumbles for the words, “try to find something to do.”
Danker grimaces. “Help others,” she says. “Give back in some shape or form.” Then, relents, her shoulders slump, “Oh, wow. This is tough. This is wide. This is big.”
And like a welcome release, there’s a sharp intake of breath. “I’ll delve into my artistic skills and start painting.” During the half-beat, her face is a picture of stoicism before it crumbles into a smile, already choosing a higher path in reacting to an unfortunate outline.
“Kidding. I don’t have the skills.” And, just like that, the air of the once-tense atmosphere clears as Danker bares teeth and laughter issues from her throat, the only thing one can do in the face of terrible situations.
First published in Esquire Singapore's June 2015 issue.