The perpetual smile on Yes 93.3FM DJ and actor-host Dennis Chew's face now masks a long career struggle many do not know about. In an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Singapore, the Peter Pan of the local entertainment industry shares how he toiled for 23 years before belatedly finding success in 2009, ironically in the guise of a woman — Auntie Lucy.
Popular radio and TV personality Dennis Chew is a man in demand these days — mostly as a woman.
He returned to Singapore last Thursday (1 March) after spending two days in Kuala Lumpur promoting the Kelvin Tong-produced movie "Dance Dance Dragon", in which he played the role of a spinster yearning for love.
But viewers familiar with local TV will know that this is not the first time Chew has crossed the male-female divide and played a woman.
That role, Auntie Lucy, transformed Chew's showbiz career and finally gave him the fame and popularity he craved.
The fictitious character — in which Chew fashioned himself into a bespectacled woman with a penchant for tossing back her imaginary long hair and uttering the phrase "so embarrassing" — grew so popular that it even has its own Facebook page and Twitter account.
Watch Dennis Chew as Auntie Lucy here:
This belated fame also translated into a financial windfall for Chew. Advertisers so enamoured of Auntie Lucy flocked to Chew offering advertising deals for products that run the gamut from cooking oil and steamboat restaurant to furniture and jewellery stores.
"I have seven endorsement deals in total," Chew gleefully revealed during this interview at the St Regis Hotel, where he was having a leisurely afternoon spa treatment.
The six-figure income - Chew declined to reveal the exact amount - from the endorsement deals has also helped to clear the debts he incurred when a business venture failed in 2007.
Yet, despite the many positives that Auntie Lucy brought to his life, Chew admitted he felt "slightly confused" in the early days of the character's undoubted success.
But he has since come round to it. "I realise that cross-dressing and being Auntie Lucy is part of my work. I'm just more special to (be able to) perform as both a man and a woman," he said in crisp Mandarin. "The fortunate thing is I know what my real self is, and that is Dennis Chew."
More than that, Chew is now also at peace with the seemingly difficult lot life deals him at first. "Everything I want in life, I have to wait very long for it. My life is typically 'Xian Ku Hou Tian' (Chinese for tasting success after initial hardship)," he said melodramatically.
'My father hit me when he was drunk'
Chew may be 38 this year, but his appearance is anything but middle-aged. His youthful-looking face betrays little signs of his age and he came for this interview dressed like a teenager, in a boyish T-shirt and bermudas and with his bowl-shaped hairstyle uncombed.
Adding to his overall child-like demeanour is the admission that he likes to go to game arcades and is the proud owner of a range of expensive Blythe dolls, a brand of Japanese collector dolls.
In a way, he said, his hobbies are to make up for a childhood that is no less dramatic than his career.
Born the elder of two children, Chew grew up in a one-room HDB flat in Chin Swee Road to a father who was unemployed and a mother who was a babysitter. His parents are now 71 and 67, respectively, while his only sister, Jane, now 33, is an administrative clerk.
To supplement the household's income, Chew entered the workforce when he was barely nine years old. "My maternal grandfather was a Chinese physician, and so at that time, I would take a bus from Chin Swee road to Boon Lay with a bag full of perfume and Chinese medicated oil to sell them from door to door," Chew recalled.
During his growing up years, Chew's father drank regularly and "would hit me when he got home drunk", he shared candidly.
The elderly man still enjoys taking to the bottle now despite doctors' advice for him to quit. But Chew is not living with his family anymore. Instead, he shares a five-room flat in Choa Chu Kang with his nanny.
"My job can be very stressful and I need my quiet and just stare at the ceiling when I get home at night. I won't have that luxury if I live with my family," he explained.
But he says he is not shirking his responsibility towards his parents. "I still go home quite regularly, but before I go home, I will call home to make sure my father hasn't been drinking. If he has, then I won't go back. I'm still fearful when I think of what happened to me when I was young."
He also foots his father's medical bills and picks up the tab from his drinking habit. "He will ask me for money to pay for his drinking whenever I go home," Chew said matter-of-factly.
"I love my father and I hope he can change some of his bad habits, like drinking. I know he can do it but just that he doesn't want to," he added sadly.
Chew's sister described her brother as a responsible and loving elder sibling. She told Yahoo! Singapore: "We see my brother whenever we miss him. Nowadays with a phone, it's very easy to stay in touch."
Talking about Chew also brought a tinge of pride to her voice. "My brother has always been very independent from young. He started going to the market to buy things for the family when he was around nine because my mother had to look after me."
But his mother, housewife Lim Hiang Lung, still pines for Chew to move back home: "My son is a very filial boy. He will share everything with me, including his work and his problems. I will be most happy if he moves back with me but I will let him choose what he wants."
(End of Part One)
In the second part of this exclusive interview, Dennis Chew tells Yahoo! Singapore his views towards starting a business - after his bridal shop shut down in 2007.