By NIKI CHEONG
THERE is this tendency in Malaysia to celebrate our countrymen and women – among them actor-producer Datuk Michelle Yeoh and designer Datuk Jimmy Choo – who have achieved tremendous success overseas.
Heck, we also love to claim successful Malaysian-linked personalities as our own such as Malaysian-born Guy Sebastian, the first Australian Idol, and Penny Wong, the Australian Minister for Finance and Deregulation, both of whom left the country as adolescents.
Whatever you make of them, we often only hear about them once they have made it big. Rarely do we hear about their journeys en route to such success.
For Samantha Tan, however, this is not the case. At 27, the young actor and dancer is not new to performing. At the age of 19, she had moved to London to read theatre and dance at the London Studio Centre.
Three years at the Centre earned her a bachelor degree in Theatre Dance, following which she spent four years in London making a name for herself.
She has appeared in numerous commercials and performed on stage.
“My first West End musical was (the stage version of) High School Musical at the Hammersmith Apollo. I also did The King and I at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009, the one with Daniel Dae Kim and Maria Friedman,” Tan shared.
Still, it was only when she started a campaign to raise funds to further her acting training in New York City that she started to enter the consciousness of some Malaysians, especially among those who were active on social media networks
Her fund-raising campaign to help her become the first Malaysian to study at the prestigious The Actors Studio Drama School in New York was met with mixed reactions.
On one hand, many people were happy to donate what they could and Tan managed to raise US$105,000 (RM332,000), which included scholarships from the drama school and two major corporations. Then there was the backlash.
“I did not think people would be that negative about somebody saying ‘I have no money and I want to go to a school’,” Tan said at an interview in London.
The criticisms streamed in, with people taking to Twitter and blogs to make their opinions heard.
“I think their main gripe was that they thought acting training was a waste of time, and not necessary. For them, it was the equivalent of someone asking for money to go to New York for fun,” she explained.
With the support of friends, family and many others who spoke out for her – “For every negative comment I got, there were three others defending me,” Tan said – she soldiered on. She had raised enough to fund about 75% of her three-year Master’s programme and was soon on a flight to New York.
It has been almost a year since all this happened, and the programme was beyond what she had expected.
“The teaching standards, the classmates, it’s freaking amazing. In the first year alone, I feel like I’ve learned more and grown more as an actor compared to my whole life,” Tan said.
Currently, she is back in London where her fiancé, filmmaker Ari Abraham, lives. She had not originally planned on heading back as she wanted to stay and work in New York to save up the other 25%.
It was the offer of a gig – her biggest so far in terms of audience size – that convinced her to come back. Samantha will be one of about 100 professionals “peppered among the volunteers” at the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, which has been titled A Symphony of British Music.
For Samantha, this was a great opportunity to be part of the Olympics, and also to be back with her fiancé for a bit. But she is also grateful for getting the gig in the first place as she was unable to audition for it because she was in New York.
As luck would have it, two people involved in the ceremony were familiar with her work and wanted her to be part of the event.
“I had previously worked with Kim Gavin in 2008 and one of the choreogaphers, Gareth Walker, had taught me (at the London Studio Centre), hence they booked me without an audition,” she explained.
Things weren’t always so easy for Tan, however. The Hollywood stereotype of the struggling actor who does menial work while waiting for his or her big break is real.
“Of course everyone has to work in a restaurant once in a while, be a receptionist. (You have to) pay your dues. It’s just part of the game,” she said.
Not that she had expected anything less. In fact, after many years of arguing with her parents about her career choice – “They thought I wanted the fame and glory so they didn’t want me to be deluded about how easy it is,” said Tan – she had come to terms with the fact that she would encounter a lot of rough times.
Speaking about her parents’ initial resistance to her career choice, Tan said: “When they came round to realising that I understood that I’ll probably be poor for the rest of my life and that I was okay with it, then in their minds, it was okay.”
And even when she gets great opportunities such as this one with the Olympic Games, she still has to work hard to make sure she is one step ahead. Over the past few weeks, Tan has maintained her catering business while juggling 8-10 hour rehearsals, five days a week. She hopes the money she earns will help make up the other 25% she needs for her studies.
Once the closing ceremony ends, Tan only has a couple of days left in London before she flies back to New York for the start of her second year.
For now, however, she’s just focused on improving herself and finding ways of getting the balance of the funds she need to finish her Master’s programme. She is not dismissing the possibility of restarting the public fund-raising campaign if necessary, despite all the criticism she received.
For her, at the very least, it stimulated a debate. It has also somewhat started a trend in Malaysia for others who find themselves in the position she was in.
“I’m glad to have stimulated talk and debate rather than indifference,” she said adding that she could see that a lot of the criticism was shrouded in ignorance. One critic even said Michelle Yeoh didn’t need training to become successful, so why should someone like Tan need it?
Tan hopes that one day, she can play a part in changing that perception. She has already pledged to return home to conduct workshops for aspiring performers. When that time comes, let’s hope that we don’t expect her to be of the same stature like Yeoh and Choo before embracing her.
Those who helped her get to New York were there for her, as will she be for her country. After all, she is one of our own and this time, we get to join her on her journey.
The writer also speaks to two other personalities involved in the Olympics. Check out his Olympic City column, exclusively in The Star’s iPad edition today.