How Michelle Chong finds strength in herself and in others to be funny

As part of International Women’s Day, Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore celebrates the fighting spirit of three outstanding female individuals from various industries. They are, stand-up comedian Sharul Channa, film director and actress Michelle Chong and social media expert Pat Law.

Photo: Left Profile
Photo: Left Profile

Michelle Chong is a busy woman. The multi-hyphenate, who owns film company Huat Films and artiste management company Left Profile, juggles with multiple roles, from acting and hosting to producing, directing, screen-writing and managing artistes.

Days are unpredictable – especially when she has a few projects running simultaneously – and are packed with days of meetings, shooting and editing.

But Chong says keeping herself busy is just what she needs. “It’s a necessity more than a choice,” she admitted. “I can’t handle having nothing to do; it’s a very real problem for me. I really can’t let my mind go free, otherwise it starts wondering and going through existential questions which are really not healthy or productive in any way.”

The 39-year-old has come a long way in her career. The prolific funnywoman grew from acting in bit parts in her early 20s to being known as a leading character comedian for her portrayal of hilarious characters such as Lulu, Barbarella and Leticia Bongnino in satirical comedy series The Noose.

Her films – Already Famous, 3 Peas in a Pod and Lulu The Movie – that saw her in the director’s chair, have been well received. Already Famous, for example, became one of the top 10 highest-grossing Chinese movies in Singapore in 2011 and was selected to be Singapore’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards (Oscars) in 2013.

But beneath the chirpy demeanor and her career breakthroughs lies a lifelong battle with depression. She was diagnosed with clinical depression at 17 and continues to struggle with negative thoughts throughout her adult life.

Being in front of the camera brought Chong little joy, and she felt a deep void inside. It was only when she went behind the scenes and found a creative outlet, that she began to feel more fulfilled and find more meaning in life.

“I enjoy doing anything creative, like writing, directing and editing. I hate doing anything administrative or involving logistics,” she shared. “That’s why I try to do that as little as possible and delegate such ‘unfun’ things to the team.”

Photo: Huat Films
Photo: Huat Films

Her “inner demons” is also a reason why she keeps her schedule hectic and herself mentally engaged and creatively stimulated all the time. “It’s important to constantly have something to look forward to,” she said. “I have to remember and be aware of (my depression) so as not to be careless and let myself slip into that downwards spiral again.”

Still, despite the numerous things on her plate, keeping to deadlines are not her strong suit, she said wryly. “I had little order or discipline when I was growing up. My parents were very busy working and pretty much let us kids do what we wanted, so I spent much of my days watching TV and always studied for exams only the day before,” she recalled.

“Some of those habits die hard and my team needs to give me deadlines, otherwise I’ll just procrastinate, like how I’m rushing this email interview on my mobile phone now,” she joked.

While she might look positive now, it wasn’t easy for Chong to assert herself, being a woman in a male-dominated industry.

“The production crew were often rude and disrespectful to me because you know I’m just a TV artiste/female director, what do I know. So they would often snigger and not listen to me as a director and it would take me a long time to convince them to do what I wanted them to do,” she mused.

“But with all industries, you need to prove yourself and have a track record before you earn any respect. Things are much better now and my shoots get done in record time! Everyone is happy because they get to produce good work and still go home early!”

Asked if she feels she’s an inspiration to women, and Chong replies that she has never felt that way.

I assume most women already know and are doing what they want in life,” she said. She does try to encourage young girls, however, who tell her that her success makes them feel that they too can do what they love for a living. “I tell them, yeah sure, if you’re good and passionate at it!” she quipped.

Ultimately, Chong, who cites Oprah Winfrey as someone she looks up to, carries on doing what she does out of a “fear of boredom and disengagement”.

“Beautiful and passionate people who make beautiful and passionate works of art inspire me to keep going,” she said firmly.

Related stories:

Sharul Channa on being a female ‘Pottymouth’ in a man’s man’s comedy world
Social media expert Pat Law opens up about dark past

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