Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Anti Diva

I wrote this article a few years ago. I got a call from Theresa in the morning (I was fast asleep of course, not being a morning person) asking if I would like to interview a beauty queen.

Emphatically not.

I didn't like beauty queens because I had stereotyped them and imagined they all came in the same mould. Bimbo.

And Theresa coaxed me, as only she can do.

"But this one is the youngest Nominated Member of Parliament. And she does all this community service...I really think she's different."

And I woke up a bit, rubbed my eyes and considered.

Yes, that did sound different. So I agreed to do the interview. Which was that very day itself. In the middle of town at the worst hour possible. Which meant that I would have to peel myself from bed, take a shower, change into decent clothes (when I was freelancing I practically lived in my jammies)...and go.

Idly, I picked up my laptop and did a google search. I sat up a, this one was different. Even the mean articles about her seemed to suggest someone different. OK, I was up for this.

And then, and then...well you can read the article for yourself...

What’s so extraordinary about Eunice Olsen, the popular host of the AXN men’s lifestyle magazine The Duke, is how ordinary she actually is. Perhaps, down-to-earth would be a better way of putting it. If one was tempted to pigeonhole her, it would be as the Anti-Diva.

She remembers to thank her make- up artist and hair stylist who are on hand to touch up her face and tease out her hair for the umpteenth photo shoot of the day, gets excited at the sight of a lady photographer, is polite, obliging and eager to answer any or all questions.

And she is extremely careful not to take credit for anything – be it the bills she helped push through as the youngest Nominated Member of Parliament (other people raised these issues before me and after me, I was just part of the process) or one of her various community service projects (I helped bring people together but it was a group effort) or even her volunteer work (no, I didn’t counsel the girls, they have qualified counsellors for that, I befriended them).

Considering that this is her fourth interview for the day, she is astonishingly fresh and bubbly; a bundle of energy, her words tripping over each other to explain or clarify a point and her accent is refreshingly local.

Olsen, who was Miss Singapore/Universe in 2000, was determined not to be just another pretty face. Chilling with her parents in Cyprus after the pageant she told them she wanted to go back home and make a difference.

The other contestants would be returning to their countries with a direction and agenda, raising awareness on various issues close to their hearts, while she would be returning to university to complete her degree (she was reading Philosophy and Political Science at the National University of Singapore) and perhaps, do toothpaste commercials or sashay down catwalks.

Her father, Francis Oscar Olsen, a former Army Warrant Officer, listened to her tirade and remarked with characteristic candour: “You can say all you want over here but make sure you do something about it. Don’t let this be a cup of empty words by the time we get back to Singapore.”

Both her parents, but her father especially, who is of Swedish-Malaccan Portuguese descent, taught her that words spoke were not to be spoken lightly and commitments once made, had to be upheld.

Which led to a bit of a storm-in-a-teacup during her Parliamentary swearing-in ceremony in 2004 when she was just 27. Olsen had made a prior commitment to be the opening act for two friends who had performed on her first album , Nathan East, who has played with Phil Collins, and Bob James, a grammy-award winning pianist.

“I made the commitment months before I knew when my swearing-in ceremony was. And no, there was no money involved,” she said, emphatically.

This incident served to convince Singaporeans that their worst fears about her were justified. The youngest Nominated Member of Parliament? A beauty queen? A bimbo who didn’t deserve to be there, more like.

Olsen returned to a flood of recrimination and what looked like a bad start.
Hurt and confused as she was, Olsen didn’t have time to fall apart. She had a maiden speech to write and two days to do it. This was to be one of the most important speeches in her life and she was not about to mess it up. She listed out all the issues that were close to her heart.

Fortunately, the same people who had taken great pleasure in condemning her were kind enough to carry the issues she had raised. “They gave me a chance and I realised in Parliament, unless people watch the Parliamentary sittings or read the hand-outs, the only way for them to see what is happening is if the Press carries it.

From this, she learned that media attention, good or bad, is fleeting. The thing was, to focus on the task at hand and do her best. Her second term as an NMP comes to an end this July and she won’t be running for a third term, preferring to serve in other ways.

Besides hosting and acting, Olsen loves her community service work. She got into this as soon as she came back from Cyprus.

“I was determined to do something with my title. At the time, my father was driving the US ambassador to Singapore Steven Green who put me in touch with the National Volunteer Philanthropy Centre. I went to see the executive director of the NVPC and said give me something to do. Anything!”

Olsen was put in touch with Toa Payoh Girls’ Home (now known as the Singapore Girls’ Home) for juvenile delinquents. The home was looking for someone to speak to the girls, and she was more than happy to do it.

“It was a one-hour thing and they asked about the pageant and what it was like. I showed them photos and did the catwalk for them. During the break, they asked when I was coming back,” she remembers.

At the time Olsen had to finish one more semester at university while holding down three jobs (working at a cafe, teaching and performing the piano) but she made a commitment to come back in November. And as we know, her word is her bond.

She went from teaching them the catwalk and choreographing their shows, to “befriending”, not quite counselling but more of interacting with the girls on a one-to-one basis and getting to know them personally.

Why are they there? “I would say, in most cases, it was because of the breakdown of the family unit. Having said that, some of them are from very good homes, they just got in with bad company, lost their direction and ran away from home. There are two categories of girls – the court cases, and the beyond parental control, cases.”

In most cases, self image is a problem, but the deeper issue is that most of them feel alienated and displaced – unloved and unlovable, and they feel like they’re going to be alone all their lives. Just having someone listen to them with interest and understanding, makes a difference.

Olsen, a much-beloved only child in a very tight-knit family and extended family understands and empathises with this feeling of alienation in an atomised post-modern society and her favourite projects involve bringing people together.

Like her Bag-O-Sunshine project which started out as carting food to shut-ins (the elderly or wheelchair-bound) every two months and evolved into taking them out for excursions as well. She mobilised her friends, most of whom were eager to help but unsure about how to go about it, and paired them off with the various beneficiaries of the project.

“Two of my friends, a teacher and a writer, were paired with Mr Muthu, a sharp old man who was very happy to talk to some young people and share his philosophy on life. I messaged one of them to thank them for taking Mr Muthu home and he replied that he said it was no problem and he had really learned a lot. It was heart-warming to see all these people come together and although this is not a high profile project or a fund-raiser, I believe it fills an important gap and would like to see it through,” she said.

Olsen has been quoted elsewhere as saying that community service work is addictive. So why doesn’t she do it full time? “I believe my media work, the acting and hosting, which I love, give me the profile and the platform I need to raise the issues I want to.”

“I’ve been a World Vision ambassador, raised awareness on breast and cervical cancer as well as the Red Cross blood donation programme,” she pointed out.

Which brings us to the reason for Olsen’s presence in Kuala Lumpur that day. She had flown in to do a series of interviews to promote The Duke. Her publicists thought it would be a good idea, seeing as feedback from MSN chats with viewers revealed that there was quite a following for the magazine lifestyle show in Malaysia.

“We got viewers from as far away as Bangladesh or Bhutan writing in to tell us that one or another of the stories had touched or inspired them. We also received a lot of feedback from our Malaysian viewers who watched and enjoyed the show.”

Briefly, The Duke is a men’s magazine lifestyle programme on AXN which Olsen co-hosts with Marc Nelson and Rovilson Fernandez. It starts off with the three chatting about the topic of the day (which can range from women in power to secret fantasies) and moves on to lifestyle segments shot all over Asia (although a couple were shot in London) of restaurants, clubs or pubs. In between they bring in guests to comment and challenge each other about the topic of the day.

The main section, however, and where the show gets its name, is the interview with the “duke”, a successful, inspirational man who embodies, what the producers like to think of as “duke-like” qualities.

Olsen does most of these interviews, although there was one done by Nelson and another by Fernandez. “I have been very fortunate. All the dukes I interviewed were very humble and down-to-earth, very secure men with nothing to prove. We did 12 interviews all together and it was hard to finish the show because I enjoyed it so much.”

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