Every few decades, in our little red dot, an iconic celebrity emerges – both shining star and creative soul in one beautiful, expressive, sensuous persona. Harry Winston, known to the world as the King of Diamonds and jeweller to the stars, presents one such treasure in the ineffable actress Joanne Peh, whose course to stardom and ongoing journey in reel and real life, boldly defies convention and definition.
You don’t become Joanne Peh, the successful actress and achieved woman, who has it all, by not taking risks and following your heart. The prolific and steely professional has persevered in staying on top of the acting competition since she began her fledgling career in 2002, fresh out of winning the titles of Miss Elegant and Miss Personality in the Miss Singapore Universe 2002 pageant. Two years later in 2004, while still juggling undergraduate studies in Mass Communications at NTU, she signed on with MediaCorp, and with raw talent in hand, sheer passion and grit, bagged both the Most Popular Newcomer and Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes awards.
That must have been around the time I first met Joanne, the only time I ever did, come to think of it. We were seated at the same table at a watch event and we spoke like old friends. Joanne started the conversation and we both felt comfortable enough to natter on throughout lunch. Our paths never crossed again until now, but the Joanne I had a glimpse of at the time, the friendly, confident woman, who made me feel like I was the only person in the room, is still very much there, but with so many more delicious, complex layers to her now. Little wonder that the pleasant, albeit small, encounter with her has always stayed with me.
Thinking back, she says with unreserved candour, “I was much less aware about the people around me. I’m in a different stage of my life – I’m a wife, a mother, and I’m more mindful. Along the way I also fell but picked myself up and through that I learnt to keep a worldly view of things, to be more sensitive to people – that’s the biggest difference. Priorities wise, while it used to be always about work and fulfilling other people’s needs and pleasing them, I now strive to balance work and life, and to have time for myself. I am less afraid to do the things that I think benefit myself. I’m also less afraid to praise myself. We are often so afraid to give ourselves a pat on a back. In trying to be humble, we actually end up short-changing ourselves and our achievements. I’ve arrived at a stage where I’m comfortable just being proud of my own achievements and the person that I am and not afraid to say, ‘yes, I did well’. As a younger person, I interpreted confidence as an outward show of how you carry yourself, how you speak and all that. I realise now that being confident inside is something quite difficult to achieve.”
Rare Talent, Raw Passion
Joanne has starred in 33 productions (and counting) to date. The intrepid actress does not shy away from challenging roles. She’s done it all too – TV, film and variety show hosting. Joanne captured the imagination of audiences particularly with her acting in drama serials such as Like Father, Like Daughter, The Golden Path, The Little Nyonya and A Tale of two Cities. Her compelling portrayal of Yuzhu, the ill-fated girl with a heart of gold in The Little Nyonya, earned her rave reviews, as well as a Best Actress award nod at the Star Awards 2009. A pioneer in her own right, Joanne has gone where many Singapore actresses have not. She portrayed a former lady of the night turned brothel owner, in Singapore’s first locally produced M18 TV series called The Last Madame. It stands as the second highest rated Singapore produced drama, and for her role as the heartless Fung Lan, Joanne won the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 2020’s Asian Television Awards. The hardworking actress has already put out another series, The Mind Jumper, for her fans in 2021.
As an award-winning actress known not just for her love of acting, but for her pursuit and appreciation of excellence in crafts such as music and art, she is also known to dig deep and cast wide to prep herself for her roles.
“I believe the person we are shows on screen and it is that transparent, even as we play a character. So, in a way, acting and living are not that different.
“I live vicariously through my children, the people I meet, the characters in books. I seek out varied experiences, I do things that make me uncomfortable, I study beautiful things – fashion, architecture, chandeliers, art, cars and I ask questions. It’s always the reflections from these cumulative experiences that enrich my emotional bank, which in turn builds my character and the choices I make for my characters,” she shares introspectively.
The virtue of humility is a key ingredient in her creative process; it is the open secret to her precise renditions of the characters she has depicted over the years. “Humility is very important in acting – despite having acted for so many years, I make it my personal creed to approach every role, every show, like it’s my first time. The sense of wonderment is one of the most endearing qualities of a newbie, and while we gain confidence with experience, we also inevitably lose that blissful earnestness that comes from not knowing. It becomes more and more difficult to be a blank canvas because there’re all kinds of marks on it. I strive to act by not acting, so I choose to remain curious and open to maintain authenticity in the performance,” she divulges, and adds, “the characters we play go through events that I don’t experience in real life. Human beings are extremely nuanced characters, and I rely on this emotional bank to make each character unique. So that despite having a similar character description on paper, the role which may seem similar to the ones I’ve played before will never be the same because this bank is different. It is where I store different types of emotions experienced in my daily life, so when I play a character, these emotions will influence the choices the character makes.”
She offers an example: “Think about it this way, if you have $10 in the bank versus $10 million, the choices you make, your emotional security will be different. How this amount came about, also makes you a different person. Was the money hard-earned, was it an inheritance, was it from winning the lottery? Two people can have $10 in the bank, but they are never the same.”
Facets of Creativity
Joanne has the rare gift of self-honesty, of being able to look into herself pointedly; being authentic is second-nature to her. So, while she describes herself as a “curious actress, a multi-passionate individual with a love for art, toys and stories”, she is also proud to profess that “I love that I am beautiful inside out, have a big, kind heart, and an affable and genuine personality.”
There are also the other shining, enigmatic facets to her that are equally compelling. The avid toy collector loves dolls, though growing up, she didn’t have many toys, so when she could afford it, she went at it. “I started collecting Barbie dolls many years ago, my focus being on those popular in the ’80s and ’90s. I also collected Lego and mostly vintage Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I fell deeply in love with Playmobil last year and have been hooked since.”
Her passion for objects d’art span pop art, in the form of collectible playthings, to Chinese contemporary works by artist Zeng Fan Zhi, “because there’s a Western-Asian element in his work that I find very attractive, just how he interprets the Western pieces we’re so familiar with. In many ways, I see myself as an artist. I’m creating a character and bringing it to life on screen, infusing my thoughts and my beliefs, while he is expressing it on canvas.” These expressions in turn evoke emotions from its audiences, just as Joanne is moved by classics by Rembrandt, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele “because there’s something very romantic about their work.”
She clearly has the spirit of the artist, that kindred yearning for the struggle of the creative. She says, “I was extremely moved by Cai Guo Qiang’s documentary on Netflix, that spirit of never giving up, taking years, fine-tuning the methods to pursue his dream and finally pulling it off. The process the spirit takes is important because in this we see his imagination come to life, and wouldn’t the world be so drab without imagination?”
Just when you’re ready to peg her as a complex-cerebral artist type, new, curious, explorative veneers shine through. Her love for reading sometimes leads her to explore new hobbies, such as seeking out unknown places, where she can feel out of her depth because a part of her enjoys being surprised. “I did a firefly walk a couple of years back and became more aware of nature; I befriended a forest school teacher by randomly contacting him online; I learn new recipes and spend time in the (test) kitchen with a chef friend, doing R&D, trading stories and tasting flavours. I also listen to different genres of music, and while we naturally have some preferences, I’d intentionally choose to go against those interests and figure its appeal. I love doing things that don’t necessarily lead to a specific outcome.”
A true star lights up the dark, points the way, orientates and navigates; it brings beauty and wonder; people look to it, and follow it. Joanne, the true star, wills the good of its environment and the people in it. People are inevitably drawn to a true star.
Where does that big heart of hers find all the love to fill it with?
“I’d say that comes from within and that has a lot to do with my upbringing and the healthy, loving environment I grew up in. I was loved, so I naturally would have the capacity to love. But it also matters very much that I’m married to the right person. Security and stability form a strong foundation for love. We’re only able to love when we’re emotionally stable, when the environment we’re constantly in is one that is secure, comforting, reassuring and supportive. And I have a partner who co-creates that with me.”
So, what made her fall in love with said life partner, Qi Yuwu, who is both a balanced and balancing factor in her rich and myriad life?
“His wisdom, fearlessness and beautiful physique. He taught me how to love myself. He admired qualities in me that I always thought were no good, and he helped me rebuild my confidence and learn to connect to my own feelings. We celebrate our love through intimacy – physical, sexual and intellectual,” she intimates.
Thinking back into girlhood, she talks about the first man in her life, who plays “a crucial role. My father was always present and would take me to school and fetch me home every day. Even when he wasn’t personally able to do that, he hired someone to do so. He’d also fetch my mum to and from work every single day without fail. He’d buy her nice things when he made a bit of money. He cooked, spent time with us, and took care of the family. That definitely influenced my choice of husband!”
When two stars collide, the result is a beautiful cosmic result. Joanne’s and Yuwu’s courtship may have been under the radar, but their married life is the enviable stuff of contemporary, romantic legends.
She remembers their deep connection from the start. “He told me how he felt about me in person. We also exchanged countless text messages because he wasn’t in Singapore then. He prefers voice messages, I prefer text. These days, we still say I love you, send voice messages, but we also just look at each other quietly and tenderly.
“He came to visit me on the set in KL while I was filming. Prior to that, we spent a lot of time talking and getting to know each other. Among the many conversations we had, one was about whether marriage was on the cards, what my ideal wedding would be, what my favourite diamond cut was. So, when he showed up to visit me (it wasn’t his first trip during that period of filming), I didn’t think he was going to propose. But he seemed very out of breath standing outside my hotel room (later on I found out it was because he was nervous). He then took out a huge bouquet of giant roses from his luggage and I knew what was about to happen. He got down on one knee and I can’t remember the details of what he said, but he had the diamond ring in my favourite cut and after that we celebrated at the nicest restaurant we could find near where I was staying.”
While there’s still so much chatter and argument about whether it’s possible for a modern woman careerist to really have it all, Joanne is unapologetically living the life, leaning in both at work and at home.
“I need both my children and work because they fuel different parts of me. I’m multi-faceted, and in fact, this love is not just shared between children and work, there’s also my husband, my parents, my friends, my not-so-close friends, co-workers, who are all important. They’ll get priority at different times, so things are always fluid and dynamic.”
Joanne concedes it’s like juggling, but with an emphasis on focus rather than multi-tasking.
“My take is to be present and focused on whoever I’m with. Children need us ALL THE TIME, and the reality is, I can never fulfil that, so whatever time is set aside for them, I do my best to be fully present, physically and emotionally. I think it’s the quality not the quantity of time spent. And the same applies to all. I put my phone aside and if I need to use the phone, it is for the purpose of accomplishing the task on hand. I do art with the children – I’m better at setting up concepts for them to create – to paint, sculpt, draw. I read to them, I plan weekend excursions, I document their discoveries and compile them into books. I eat with my loved ones and social circles.”
Her acts of love consist of what’s appropriate, and it covers all aspects of her life. “I think there’s no either-or, because sometimes the occasion calls for something big and dramatic and I’m inspired to do something big and dramatic. Then again, what is our definition of big and dramatic? It’s an ideal to work towards – doing small things with great attention and love – because reality encourages multi-tasking and we’ll always end up with some tasks that we don’t enjoy, but are necessary – but doing them also shows love, passion and duty. I don’t aim to be creative, I follow my heart and if it happens to be creative, that’s for the recipient to assess. But I have to agree that it’s the small things that matter – it’s the day to day, little acts of tenderness that truly convey love. That is also our family’s preferred language of love.”
In Joanne’s humble opinion, a woman can embrace life passionately in two great ways: by loving herself and bearing a child.
Of the latter, she glibly says, “That’s why they call it making love. It’s a life-changing experience and the new roles that we play as parents reveal a side of us that is bigger than ourselves. And a different kind of love happens. Parenting is a transformative experience.”
She is an unabashed advocate of self-love. Her philosophy of “appreciating yourself for the person you are in spite of the less than positive traits others may see, helps you to recognise and be at peace with your special brand of uniqueness. You don’t beat yourself up for it, you don’t put yourself down, you don’t see those qualities as ‘bad’ and that you need to do anything to change that. If you feel that you’re doing something that is against your natural inclinations, that is not loving yourself.
“Self-care is not feeling guilty about devoting time for your own benefit and removing elements that are hurting you – whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual. It could be going for a body massage, taking a nap, indulging in Netflix, going on a staycation without the children, or simply not wanting to do housework. We have different needs at different times of the day, which is why I think it’s important to know ourselves. What inspires us? What gives us energy? Is it time for our minds and bodies to rest? And then respond to those needs accordingly.”
Joanne will also be the first to admit that to have it all, you sometimes can’t do it all. And self-love also means not being afraid to ask for help, to lean on someone else, to have an internal support system.
“My husband especially, he’s been a huge influence in building me up, my confidence, believing in the person that I am and encouraging me not to feel bad for who I am. I’ve also been blessed to not have had to plunge headlong into the industry and work nonstop – I’ve had breaks that gave me time and space to view things from afar, from fresh perspectives. Knowing people from the region who are in the same line as we are, sharing stories and learning from them, gives me a wider view of things too. I also like to give myself time and to spend it meaningfully.”
Joanne may be self-motivated, disciplined, and practical-minded, but there is a soft, sentimental side to her that fondly gathers memories and physical keepsakes. Some of her favourites involve food – the smells, textures and tastes.
“Rojak always reminds me of my father and my childhood memories of him taking me home from school in the afternoon and buying rojak from this uncle who peddles it from his bicycle. I was lucky to have witnessed street hawkers. This hawker had a special bicycle with a structure attached to it in which he kept his ingredients and on which was also a work surface to mix the fruit and vegetables. He would show up at our void deck and for some reason, the man reminded me of my dad, because they were both very tan. Cherry Jubilee is a dessert that reminds me of our courtship days – it was one of the dishes Qi used to impress me when we first got together.”
As precious as diamonds are “drawings by my children dedicated to me. They may be scribbles on recycled paper, but I find them hard to toss because it means the world to them, to express their love for me through their drawing.”
With her sterling career, devoted husband, adorable children, and the world at her feet, Joanne is living the Singapore dream. Her diamond life, one she shaped by putting herself out there, learning from her mistakes, working hard and rigorously honing her skills as an actress and a wife, mother, daughter, friend, “is precious indeed. Like the resilient rock. As is love, an emotion that is not to be treated carelessly. We need a lot of courage to express love, and diamond-tough strength to see it through.”
This feature is produced in collaboration with Harry Winston. Artwork by Curatedition, all rights reserved.