Judee Tan: Singapore’s next queen of comedy?

Kai Fong
Singapore Showbiz

Best known on TV as Kim Bong Cha, theatre actress Judee Tan reveals comedy was never on the cards when she started out. (Yahoo! photo)

Risque, brutally honest and laugh-a-minute funny.

That in a nutshell sums up Singapore's best-kept comedy secret, Judee Tan.

Best known for her star turn as the well-loved North Korean correspondent Kim Bong Cha on season 4 of The Noose, the 31-year-old thespian is no stranger on the theatre stage.

Prior to her TV debut last year, the nine-year acting veteran had already won praise for her lead role as one of the Papaya Sisters in last year's musical adaptation of Royston Tan's movie 881 — and also for her breakout comedy roles in 2009's Hokkien-pride cabaret Broadway Beng as one of the chio bus and in skit-based comic series The Hossan Leong Show as a traditional Chinese doctor called Teochew Moi.

Most recently, the actress again stole the show in stand-up comedy extravaganza Happy Ever Laughter when she returned as the delightfully shy and insecure Teochew Moi.

But thanks to her breakout role in The Noose last year, perhaps it's now time for the greater public to discover Tan's comic talents. After all, while the likes of Irene Ang, Selena Tan and Michelle Chong are already household names, maybe there's still space for another queen of comedy in town.

Surprisingly though, comedy was never on the cards when Tan, who's now a FLY Entertainment artiste, started out with the SAF Music and Drama company in 2003.

In a recent wide-ranging one-hour interview with Yahoo! Singapore at a cafe along Handy Road, she confessed instead, "I've always liked playing a bimbo, I l-o-v-e it."

In fact, her infamous caricature of local ex-beauty queen of "boomz" and "shingz" fame, Ris Low, eventually led to her big TV break.

"I think that's where the producers of The Noose saw me, and they asked me if I wanted to be a part of it," said Tan of her Ris Low parody in 2009's comedy show Chestnuts Does Christmas Like a Hard Candy Virgin.

An audition later, she landed the second female lead role in the hit comedy series.

But TV was a whole new ball game, even for the talented thespian.

"It was challenging because I had not done TV and it's very different," Tan shared. "I'm not used to hearing complete silence when we're filming. In theatre, you always have people responding and I play my characters based on that, or just being in a story."

"The Noose is really just a lot of jokes or satires about certain specific things, which sometimes I don't know about… What does anyone know about North Korea?"

"And you don't have the luxury of time to do research," she added. "You're given a script and it's just, 'okay let's see how I can make this funny even though I don't know what this is about'."

Lest you be fooled — the bimbo character-loving actress is neither lacking in the brains nor looks department.

After scoring all As in her 'O' Levels, Tan went on to major in Theatre Studies and Drama at Victoria Junior College. She now holds a Bachelor of Arts in Drama and English Language Studies from University of Queensland Australia.

"Now you see, a lot of people don't believe that about me — I have a degree," she said with a laugh. "Maybe it's hard for them to, because of the roles I play and just the way I am."

What impressions then, does she imagine other people have of her?

"I have heard a few descriptions," Tan offered. "The good things are — I'm graceful, sexy, funny and I dare to be different."

"The bad ones are — I'm a slut, I try too hard, I'm trying to be Michelle Chong, I suck."

Ouch.

But the nasty put-downs don't get to her, she said.

"A lot of times, I laugh at what I hear because hey, they talk like they really know? And that type of behaviour is humorous to me."

"But everyone has a right to their opinion," Tan reasoned. "I have to be fair because there're times when I would criticize too, maybe even worse than that. And it's not personal."

'My dirty little secret'

Now onto the juicy part.

"I like kissing girls, to be honest," confessed Tan, who readily admitted that she used to work in a lesbian bar.

"I'll have girls coming up to me, it's normal," she said matter-of-factly.

"But I don't know if I can have a relationship with a girl 'cause I find girls very troublesome, too much drama," she continued.

But Tan did date one "spunky little girl" before, when she 20 and studying in Australia.

"We dated once and it was so odd. She danced, I liked her and it was all cute and nice… Oh gosh, and I had a boyfriend then."

"That's my dirty little secret," Tan continued with a grin, but not before clarifying that her "ex" would be okay with the confession since he's already married with kids.

Is Tan, who's currently single, looking for love then?

"No, I do believe in fate," she mused. "You can look for it but I think it's futile. If it's time to happen, it will happen."

What about someone from the industry?

"You see, I cannot take it if guys are vainer than me," Tan explained.  "I'm not sure why but I have this thing about men who need to prim themselves up before they go out."

"If I see a guy gelling his hair, I'll go — Why'll you need to gel your hair? Who're you trying to impress?"  said Tan in mock annoyance.

"You're a bloke c'mon, go get dirty and roll yourself in the mud or something. That, to me, is manly."

"But you don't really find a lot of them in our industry of course," she said before whispering, "You would notice that in our industry, a lot of men are "sisters"? So even if I wanted to, even if I had a crush on any one of them, I don't think they'll want to marry me…"

'Love affair with acting'

So it seems Tan's never-ending love affair with acting will suffice for now.

"Acting, to me, is not pretending to be someone else; it's being someone else… And unless it's taking off my clothes, there will hardly be anything I would not want to play."

She added, "I never knew what I wanted to be and I never thought of being an actress … but now, I want to do this for the rest of my life."

Fans of Tan will soon be able to catch her in W!LD RICE's staging of the Broadway musical comedy La Cage Aux Folles, where she plays a  Kopitiam Auntie.

"La Cage is all glitz and glamour — It's everything every show girl and every ah gua wants to be," shared Tan. "It's every ah gua's dream, seriously. I'm not joking!"

The glamourous Zaza, drag queen of the nightclub La Cage, played by stage actor Ivan Heng. (W!LD RICE photo)

And before we end the interview, who does Tan think is Singapore's funniest comedian?

"Of course there's Kumar," she said after some deliberation, before continuing in between chuckles, "But I just think that hey, somebody should take the queen tag away from him."

"He can't be the only queen of comedy… maybe I'll try to do something about it?"

La Cage Aux Folles runs from 20 July to 4 August at the Esplanade Theatre. Tickets are available for sale at all SISTIC outlets.