The Emancipation of Sharon Au
The former actress, who entertained audiences for over 10 years with her indelible screen presence, finally gets to be in charge in her latest role as a first-time entrepreneur. She talks about confronting parts of herself that she never used to like, living by herself with nothing and becoming the person she wants to be.
At some point in our adolescence, some of us may have run away from home before. Or at least attempted to, in the heat of uncontrollable rage. Sharon Au has done it a grand total of three times in her life. First at 13, then at 30, and again at 42. We are at Live Twice, a stylish bar inspired by mid-century Japan that oozes major “In the Mood for Love” vibes; the dark wood accents and warm, dim lighting calling to mind a hazy opium den. Quiet Inlet, a sweet Kayuki cocktail, is a popular choice of drug, but today, Sharon is happy sipping water. In fact, libations aren’t necessary, as she is exceedingly open. The erstwhile TV host is not only garrulous but also adept at the art of storytelling.
In an intimate corner space away from prying eyes, Sharon launches into the story of the first time she ran away from home with great zeal. In the day, she attended school and at night, she slept in Denny’s, which was open 24 hours. “Since I was young, I was thrown from place to place. I never had a proper home, and moved every year,” Sharon says. When her best friend Melissa from CHIJ St. Nicholas Girls' School discovered that Denny’s was her temporary abode, she immediately brought Sharon into her home and announced to her mother that “Sharon will be staying with us from now on, because she is homeless.” No questions asked. After staying with Melissa’s family for two years, Sharon’s aunt finally took her back in. When she entered the media industry at 19, Sharon drifted apart from her best friend. “I was not a very nice person to my friends,” she confesses wistfully. “I lost my friends as I was too arrogant, or perhaps too busy to care.”
Dress by Andrew Gn
For most of Sharon’s childhood, her fear of not having enough to eat manifested into a hunger to be more likable in her career. “I went into showbiz and wanted to be popular for stupid reasons. I was a people-pleaser because I was insecure,” she says. The precocious child, who despite a turbulent upbringing, did exceedingly well academically. Watching her mother’s marriage fail twice and seeing her loved ones leave her, only fuelled her ambition to pursue every single opportunity (from hosting to acting) with a dogged mentality. “I hoped that by being famous, my parents would notice me and regret that they had left. Now looking back, it was so foolish to have thought that way,” she says.
Almost everyone remembers Sharon as the vivacious host of City Beat in the 90s, where she would regale audiences nightly with her lively anecdotes and witty banter alongside co-hosts Kym Ng and Bryan Wong. Her ability to connect with the masses wasn’t her only repertoire of skills; there wasn’t a role Sharon couldn’t embody. From a cabaret girl in the 1998 stage musical, Beauty World to a bubbly radio presenter in the sitcom Right Frequency, she made every single character believable. She followed instructions, took direction well, but had little autonomy over her actions much like a marionette. Despite being trapped by an oppressive regime dictated by the entertainment industry, she continued to work hard and went on to clinch Best Variety Show Host at the Star Awards for four consecutive years, from 2000 to 2003. “I was at the height of my popularity around 26 to 30. I was put on a pedestal and became too full of myself. It was only when I turned 30 that I realised how much I disliked myself”, she remarks.
Dress by Andrew Gn; Hair: Ben Leong (Passion Hair Salon); Makeup: Andy Lee
The blazing lights of show business were soon snuffed out right when she blew out the candles on her 30th birthday cake. “I drew a complete blank and had nothing to wish for. I had everything, yet I felt a huge void,” she says. “I was unhappy and empty inside.” Three months later, Sharon left at the peak of her career and found herself in Tokyo, without a concrete plan in mind. Running away has always been Sharon’s source of comfort, a constant theme in her life that she has grown to be familiar with. “I just wanted to restart my life and go back to school,” Sharon declares. Time away from the limelight allowed Sharon to recentre herself, and upon graduating from Waseda University with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree in 2011, she returned to Singapore with an invigorated sense of purpose and identity.
Instead of acting, she took up an executive position at Mediacorp, citing Japan as one of the definitive moments of her life. “Living in Japan transformed me. The whole celebrity diva thing had disintegrated and I felt like I had become the Sharon Au that I was supposed to be—happy and contented. I understand now why I wanted to leave the fame behind. Tokyo was fun, as I could have the childhood I never had. Going back to school made me the same down-to-earth person I was before I joined the media.”
In 2015, she auditioned for The LKY Musical, and got the coveted role of Madam Kwa Geok Choo, but life took a sharp turn when her close secondary school friend passed away from a heart attack. During one of the nights, Sharon had reserved a ticket at the Marina Sands Theatre for her friend to watch the performance, but she never showed up. Fraught with despair over her unexpected death, Sharon continued to deliver a stunning performance. “As a tribute to her, I placed a bouquet of flowers on her seat so I could look at them when I was on stage… like I was acting for her. Her death made me realise how fragile life was. And from then on, I changed the way I lived,” Sharon reveals with a tenderness in her voice.
But for the next three years, Sharon continued grinding it out at Mediacorp. In 2017, she was appointed as the publisher for ELLE Singapore as part of Mediacorp’s move from print to digital. She recalls working “completely insane hours”, not even having enough time to pause for dinner. The more she dived into her work, the less time she had for herself—to a point where she suffered yet another identity crisis. “I kept asking myself: Who is really Sharon Au?” she admits. In an attempt to find the elusive answer to that question, she packed her bags once more–only this time—she headed to Paris instead of Japan. “I wanted to be liberated so I went to Paris,” Sharon says, who spent a year studying there as part of Waseda’s international exchange programme. “I fell in love with the country and knew I had to come back today. I didn’t expect it to be under such circumstances. It was really all on impulse.”
When I ask for the reason behind her move, she pauses before replying: “I disliked myself in Singapore, because it was all about advancing my career. In Paris, I was able to dive deep into my psyche and I got to know myself all over again. I began to like myself more when I didn’t have to please people.” The moment Sharon arrived in Paris, she crashed with a university schoolmate and slept on her couch. Her perspective on her career underwent an adjustment. She wasn’t in a hurry to find work, and was actually perfectly happy sleeping on my couch doing nothing. A far cry from the Sharon who had a reputation for being a workaholic.
“I wanted to bring nothing of the old Sharon with me and start from zero by leaving everything behind. I like myself in Paris; no one knows me and I am free to be who I want to be—creative, liberated and free from expectations,” she declares. With more time on her hands, Sharon got reacquainted with her artistic side and started to write a lot. More than she has ever written in the past 20 years, penning down her thoughts in long essays.
If an artist were to draw a youthful version of Sharon, it might be Piet Mondrian—best known for his abstract paintings consisting of squares and rectangles. The boxes represent her personal insecurities and perceived societal expectations that she puts upon herself, while the straight, rigid lines of her frame depict her unwavering, by-the-book approach. Or perhaps Picasso, in all his cubism glory, might do a better job. But Sharon doesn’t like Picasso. Her favourite artist is Rembrandt, who is a symbol of freedom. There are striking parallels between her (older self) and the great painter. As a provocateur and an innovator in technique, Rembrandt was constantly reinventing himself. His paintings transformed from the early "smooth" manner of polished contours to the late "rough" treatment of richly variegated paint surfaces, using hog-bristle brushes, which was uncharacteristic of that era. He ceaselessly searched for new stylistic modes of expression much like how Sharon has been working on the latest version of herself that “she likes best”. Straight lines would now break away to form wavy curves, painted with flowing brush strokes in a riot of bright colours.
Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation hanging in the Musée du Louvre is dearest to her. The painting is dominated by a wooden spiral staircase and depicts two figures in a dark room. The first figure is an old man seated with his head bowed and the second figure is an inconspicuous woman at the fireplace in a corner, tending to the fire. “I identify with the woman at the fireplace. The woman was me, when I was studying in Paris in 2008. I was once in her position too, supporting quietly while my boyfriend read in a candle-lit room,” Sharon confesses. Her deep love for the arts grew when she recognised its value, serving as a mirror of her life.
There is another side to Sharon that sets her apart from many of her peers—her sharp business acumen. After a few months in Paris, she began work as an investment director in Jolt Capital, a private equity firm. And in January this year, she started Ti Yan, an online culinary academy that teaches the art of French cooking. After savouring the best of French gastronomy that Paris had to offer, she felt a deep compulsion to share the intricacies of the cuisine by offering professional courses. The savvy entrepreneur managed to secure the involvement of Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris and Singapore, and persuaded Jean Schmitt (managing partner of Jolt Capital) to come on board. “They are so proud of their culture and gastronomy that when they saw this crazy Chinese woman wanting to share it with the world, they completely embraced the idea,” she says.
Apart from Ti Yan Academy, Sharon hopes to start a girls’ home or shelter, five to ten years down the road. During her teenage days, she had spent a night in Marymount Girls’ Home and witnessed many girls in dismal circumstances. True to her roots, she recognises the importance of having a safe space for women to retreat to, and empathises with them.
On occasion, the ghosts of Sharon’s past still pay her a visit. During a hypnotherapy session at one of the rehearsals for her recent play for the Esplanade Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts, she bawled her eyes out for hours. It brought her back to the past and reopened long-buried wounds. “I went back to my childhood and saw baby Sharon. I started crying like crazy. I didn’t want to leave baby Sharon, but I kept telling her that everything would be okay. It was a cathartic yet tiring session”, she admits. “Perhaps the trauma never goes away. But now, through acting, the anguish can be released rather than hidden. It is pointless to keep anger.”
As an actress and a host for more than 10 years of her life, Sharon is used to following a script that doesn’t give her any agency. But since her Japan and Paris escapades, she is recognising the importance of writing her own narrative. Today, she is proud to be the author of her own destiny, who is finally comfortable in her own skin. “I wanted to learn to like myself, to live by myself with nothing. Now, I can finally become somebody that I want to be.” Upon hearing Sharon utter those words, Rumi’s quote of “Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious,” echoes in my head. Discomfort is the only way to achieve personal growth—and Sharon has learnt to step out of her comfort zone and confront parts of herself that she never used to like. It takes courage, strength, self-awareness to break away from the comfort of familiarity, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. And, for once, Sharon has seen the light.
“Have we met before?” she asks.
Nah, I just have a familiar face, I mumble.
The truth is our paths have crossed before. Six years ago to be precise, onboard flight SQ334 from Singapore to Paris, where I had the privilege to serve her. What impressed me then, wasn’t how flawless and lovely her porcelain skin was, but her affable demeanour and immaculate manners. She exhibited none of the imperialism of a celebrity, made no desire to separate herself from others, and was just as unassuming as your next door neighbour.
What impresses me today is her candour. And I think about her forthcomingness, her vulnerability and her rawness. As I watch her float out of the door with a Gallic flair, a couple from the next table gapes with admiration. Her presence (however fleeting it may be) still has an effect, and I guess that part of her will never fade.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap