'I say no to disrespect': Rebecca Lim won't let you push her around any longer
CNA Luxury's first digital cover star Rebecca Lim isn't the quiet little pageant girl you think you know – and she won't stand for rudeness and silly mind games.
There are three things on Rebecca Lim’s mind. The first is her sense of self and personal growth. Rebecca 2.0 is not the same as the fresh-faced ingenue you may have encountered when she first started in the industry 14 years ago – a point she made clear multiple times over the course of our conversation.
“The Rebecca now is a little bit more difficult to get along with than the Rebecca when she was 19,” she said.
One never doubts a point made in the third person.
The second is that she does not appreciate or have the time for foolishness. Not from you, not from duplicitous colleagues, not from boys who want her at their convenience, not from silly children who think they’re superstars just because the camera’s pointed in their direction for now. This is a woman who is done smiling through your insensitivity, vanity and thoughtlessness. You can keep playing whatever ridiculous game you have in your head that you’re mistaking for strategy – Rebecca knows what you’re up to, and you can take your two-bit act somewhere else.
The third is the future. This 33-year-old is in it for the long haul – not as some famous pretty girl who takes a good picture (she didn’t always, in any case), but as an actor, thank you very much.
She may have her insecurities, she may have residual hang-ups about having been a “chubby kid”, and she may have auditioned three times for Crazy Rich Asians and lost the part to someone who’s now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – but it’s all good. Rebecca’s plan for career longevity is simple: Work hard, work on your craft, and work on being the best version of you.
And if you have a problem with that, you can refer to Point 2. Why? That would be Point 1. How? Welcome back to Point 3.
Oh, and one more thing. Rebecca doesn’t think she looks good without her clothes on.
NEVER THE BEAUTY QUEEN
I first met Rebecca when she was fresh out of Junior College. She was looking to kill time before starting university, so she entered the Miss Universe Singapore pageant in 2005. She didn’t win. In fact, she barely got her name on the call sheet in the first place. Her brother had just passed his driving test and was eager to get behind the wheel for any occasion, including dragging his sister to her destiny.
“I went totally unprepared. You were supposed to have prepared a portfolio. I didn’t have anything – I had my Junior College IC photo. For the swimsuit, I just went with a one-piece,” she admitted, giggling at the memory. “I was on eight months holiday. I thought, ‘After these eight months, I’m going to the UK to study medicine.’”
By the time every name was called and every cheek was air-kissed, Rebecca was crowned first runner-up. Part of her “prize” was to model Swatch watches alongside the winning queen for a sponsor-associated interview in 8 Days, where I spent two years as a disgruntled employee. My job was to squeeze some sort of story out of two fresh-off-the-boat pageant girls – and to help the photographer get one good picture of these kids who were terrified at the notion of doing their very first photo shoot with a magazine.
“Oh, that was terrible… I was very scared,” said Rebecca, looking a little embarrassed when I told her I had in fact popped her photo cherry. “I was just basically listening to instructions and taking them very literally.”
She still remembers the photographer telling her to pout for the camera – she also still remembers proceeding to pout like a six-year-old in pigtails who has just been told she won’t be getting fish fingers for her teatime snack.
I remember telling my colleagues about it.
Years later, that photographer told her, “‘You are the first person in my career who did a literal pout,’” recalled Rebecca. “‘Not a model pout. But a literal, sad pout.’ I really didn’t know what was going on.”
Fourteen years later, the very same photographer was shooting Rebecca again for this piece, CNA Luxury's first digital cover story. But this time, she clearly knew what she was doing, drenched in the latest Chanel finery.
Some celebrities suck up all the air in the room. They relish being the centre of attention, holding fort over the set, almost gratified by the flashing lights and gratuitous fawning courtesy of an inner court of sycophantic hairstylists, make-up artists, managers and other assorted handmaidens. Rebecca is different. She’s quiet because she’s listening to direction, thinking about how to make it work for her face and body. She’s focused on getting the job done well.
It’s a work ethic that applies to everything she does. Sometimes that quiet concentration on television shoots can be mistaken by colleagues for aloofness. Rebecca knows she can’t change people’s minds, so she lets her work do the talking. “If you don’t know who I am, I’m going to let my work show you who I am,” she said. “That’s why I place a lot of emphasis on my craft and my job, as opposed to me going out, hanging out after work and all that.”
This steely resolve is somewhat of a coping mechanism to survive the entertainment industry – an environment she never actually thought she’d be part of, what more rise to the A-list of. Experience, she said, has made all the difference. That and “full acceptance of yourself – the good and bad”.
“Why is it that imperfections are not beautiful? Do we need to reach the stage where everybody looks the same?”
“It was a process… Putting yourself out there, learning from scratch,” shared Rebecca. “I grew up in a very sheltered environment. I had a very loving family, I’m comfortable, I didn’t have to work… Just a very comfortable Singapore child. But when I was thrown into this industry, it wasn’t something I expected."
It didn’t help that she started her career wearing a sash and a smile. “People come into this industry thinking that it’s very glamorous, and that [joining Miss Universe] is a shot to fame, that this pageant background is going to give you a huge stepping stone,” said Rebecca. “But, in fact, it was actually a stumbling block instead of a stepping stone because people already have this preconceived notion of who you are. ‘Oh, you are just a beauty pageant contestant.’”
Interesting note: Rebecca mentioned her Miss Universe Singapore experience several times during our conversation – but she never used the words “beauty queen” to describe herself. “Contestant”, it seems, will do just fine.
“Being in an environment where I’m not under the shelter of love… Being in an environment where I have to succumb to criticism – constructive or not. It’s a position where you don’t know what is going on and you have to learn along the way.”
“Even now,” she continued. “I’m still learning every day.”
STICKS AND STONES AND REMEMBERING WHO YOU ARE
It’s a tough industry to navigate – one where anyone can say anything about you, sometimes to your face. “Most of the time to your face,” Rebecca corrected me, laughing.
“When I came into this industry, people were like, ‘Why are you not wearing any make-up?’, ‘Why are you always in the same jeans?’, ‘Don’t you have any other clothes?’ But I’m like, “What’s wrong with that? They’ve been serving me well for the past 10 years!” she said, laughing.
For the record, she still has those jeans, which she recently had shortened to more stylish proportions. She still uses the Longchamp nylon bag her grandmother gave her when she was 18. She still owns the simple cross pendant her other grandmother gave her before she passed away. Part of it has to do with practicality – but Rebecca is also sentimental. She admitted to attaching meaning to things. She still prints out photographs and brings them along with her when she travels, “just to make it a little bit more like home”.
That’s the balance she’s trying to strike: Having to care about “things that you thought were not so important” but are essential to the career she’s chosen while holding on to who she is as a person. She’ll do what the job requires – but she’s increasingly defiant about having to “conform”.
“Why is it that imperfections are not beautiful?” said Rebecca. “Do we need to reach the stage where everybody looks the same?”
I think we’re already there, I offered. Swipe through the famous faces on social media and it’s pretty clear this train has arrived at Clone Station.
“We’re almost there,” said Rebecca. “But why do we need to get there? For everybody to have the same cheekbones, for everybody to have the same eyes, for that to be beautiful. That’s something that took me a while to accept – to accept who I am, physically.”
It seems her perceived flaws about her body are key to both her insecurities and her determination to rise above it. “Even as a chubby kid, my mum would always tell me how beautiful I was,” said Rebecca. “She’d buy me miniskirts… I look back at all these pictures and I’m like, ‘Why did you even allow me to be in a miniskirt with these thunder thighs?’ And she’s like, ‘Because… you liked it.’”
“I understand that because of who I am and my genes, unfortunately, my weight fluctuates quite a bit,” she said. “The first thing I have to tell myself is to not be too hard on myself. If I do balloon during a production, it’s fine. As long as I’m healthy.”
It might be self-preservation, she confessed, but it’s a healthier mindset to have than to force-fit herself into some templated celebrity mould for no other reason than “just because”.
“Why must you always conform to what people expect of you?” she asked, rhetorically. “In this industry, there is always pressure to look picture-perfect all the time. And I’ve come to accept that at the end of the day, when the camera cuts and I go home, I’m a human being. I still have my life outside of work. It’s okay to be human.”
Yes, she understands she’s just a cog in the star-making machinery and cannot singlehandedly change the rules of the game, but she insists on playing her part to resist losing herself. “And it’s so easy to conform. Every day you feel pressure to conform,” said Rebecca. “But you have to be really solid and stand firm to say: ‘This is what I’m going to do. Like it or not.’”
SWIPE LEFT ON BAD PEOPLE
The industry and the people in it were clearly on Rebecca’s mind. Even when the conversation made a detour to the sideroads of fashion and style (I get distracted by pretty things), she steered it right back to the topic of unpleasantness.
What, I asked, was the secret to looking confident when it comes to style? Her answer surprised me.
“The thing is, you can wear the most fashionable, expensive piece of clothing – but if you have a terrible heart and a terrible mind, I really believe that whatever you think and who you are as a person shows on your face. In Chinese there’s a cheng yu (idiom): Xiang you xing shen. Which means your face reflects whatever is in your heart.”
She asked if I understood that cheng yu. My level of proficiency in the language, however, is tied with a turnip’s understanding of string theory. “Roald Dahl said it as well,” offered Rebecca, referring to a passage from The Twits: A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.
"Don’t be nice to someone just because you want a long career. It’s just basic respect for another human being. You don’t treat someone differently because this person is a CEO."
I pointed out that there seemed to be a theme running through our chat. “Mmm hmm,” she replied. Is it getting better for her, I asked. “Yes and no.” She said she’s learned to separate the noise from what’s real – and she’s learned that the hard way. “Through experience, getting hurt. Even by people who you thought were true friends, who you thought had your back.”
“Certain incidences in and out of work life caused me to see that you may be doing something for this person, and you may expect that loyalty, or expect that reciprocation – but you cannot expect that of someone else. You do it out of your own will,” said Rebecca. “So when I do something for somebody… I don’t expect it back in return. That’s something that has helped me a lot.”
“Sometimes people get very bitter,” she continued, albeit cryptically. “When people start to get bitter, they wallow in self-pity, and that’s not who I want to be. I think mental health is just as important – if not more important – than physical health.”
Famous people, it seems, aren’t above getting sucked in by the same gossip us non-famous folk read about celebrities – even when it’s about them. Drama inevitably ensues. But if you read some gossip about you and another celebrity that you know isn’t true, I asked, wouldn’t you just text the other person and clear the air?
“You’d have to ask them,” replied Rebecca. “If something inaccurate is said about me or someone else, I settle it privately. That has always been my style. If I’m involved in any drama whatsoever, I’ve never been the one who goes out to say, ‘I’m the victim.’”
“I’m never one to make a big deal about small, trivial issues. Or want everything to turn out my way. Or want everybody to be on my side. I believe that people will take sides, naturally. And no matter how much you try to stay out of drama or be nice to people, there will be people who don’t like you. So, I accept that fully. I just move on with my life,” said Rebecca.
“If you really want to put on a front, there’s only so long you can do that for before someone sees through all this fakeness. Because how long can you keep up the act for? Acting is a tiring job – how can you do it 24/7?”
Which brings us back to the point we started this story with: Rebecca 2.0 is not the same little girl she was when she first started out – and she will not allow you to push her or anyone else around any longer.
“I say no to disrespect. Disrespect for people on set,” said Rebecca. “I get very frustrated, especially when I see the younger generation [of artistes] being disrespectful. I get very angry. I’ll put my foot down and say, ‘Don’t speak to someone like that just because this person is of a “lower status”.’ Everybody is working together. And don’t be nice to someone just because you want a long career. It’s just basic respect for another human being. You don’t treat someone differently because this person is a CEO or a client."
“Just treat everyone with respect and do your job well.” No truer words have ever been spoken, in my opinion.
That, to me, is what makes Rebecca different from many starlets, influencers and precious wannabes in the industry: She knows what her job is.
Rebecca Lim is an actor who is famous – she does not chase being a celebrity who also happens to act. And that’s a major distinction. Focus on your craft, she said. “I feel that everything else comes naturally after.”
"I want longevity. You don’t focus on climbing up the ladder. That can get you up there quickly, but how long can you last?"
She’s been exploring international productions, returning for a second season of HBO Asia’s The Bridge in early 2020, where she plays a weathered detective. She also auditioned for Crazy Rich Asians three times – and ultimately lost the role of Astrid Leong-Teo to Gemma Chan. Had Rebecca gotten the role, she would have played unhappy wife to fellow Mediacorp alum Pierre Png in his Hollywood debut.
“I think I did really badly with the accent,” admitted Rebecca, laughing sheepishly. “They asked me to do an American accent… Maybe they wanted an accent that sounded posh. I probably sounded like the other extreme!”
That said, her goal isn’t to work on international projects per se – it’s to work on quality productions. “I want to explore everything. I’m not averse to any roles, except nudity and love scenes,” she said, explaining that she must keep her family’s feelings about risque roles in mind, before quipping: “Also, I’m not a pretty sight to see without clothes on.” Insecurities don’t vanish just because you want them to.
Rebecca’s focus is on an actor’s long game: Knowing it’s all about the work.
“It could be a very good quality Singapore production – that could take you places as well.” When casting directors come to town and ask to see the best actors we have in the country, Rebecca wants her name to be “in the top five”. “I’m working towards that," she said. "I want to be on that list."
“When it comes to my career, I want longevity. Longevity in your career ultimately [comes down to] your talent,” said Rebecca. “You don’t focus on climbing up the ladder. That can get you up there quickly, but how long can you last? I may take longer than others, but that’s fine.”
She’ll do it with grace, respect and hard work. As well as the cheekbones and eyes she was born with. And that’s beautiful.
Shot on location at Wallich Residence. Photography: Aik Chen; Stylist: Daryll Alexius Yeo; Hair: Dexter Ng; Makeup: Shaun Lee; Manicure: Rebecca, Fluttery Tips; Model: Jeff, Mannequin.