“I hear from fans from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Thailand…” she says. The 22 year-old has built an impressive filmography since moving to China at 17, but never imagined these films, though popular in Chinese language markets, would travel so far. “It’s really cool to see comments on my posts in Arabic, Russian, asking for a second or third season of their favourite series.” Eleanor Lee has carved her name on the global map – an impressive feat considering she ventured out of Singapore with only 100RMB in her pocket. And she hasn’t looked back since.
Eleanor credits her gumption to her time in an international school. “All my friends were from overseas and came here alone, without their family. They took care of themselves and made their own decisions, and I admired that.” She compares leaving the country and entering the entertainment industry overseas to swimming out into the ocean – “It’s so beautiful, yet scary. I definitely learned how to protect myself and fight my own battles early on. In Singapore, I felt like I was in a fish tank. You can swim back and forth comfortably everyday, but you’ll only learn so much.”
It is a uniquely Singaporean trait to be constantly self-aware of how small we are. Reflecting on the warm reception by the local press after her success in China, she recalls, “I was shot by a local magazine that usually features international celebrities on the cover, and they hadn’t had any homegrown talent on the cover in the past 10 years. So I was really honoured to be considered in those ranks.” Her experience echoes a familiar ideology set within our national consciousness – you’ve only ‘made it’ when you’ve gained recognition and validation overseas, whether in sports, or arts and entertainment. In film and music, especially, looking or sounding ‘international’ is generally regarded as a compliment – the subtext being that having a recognisably local aesthetic is immediately equated to being mediocre or subpar.
“I read a quote that says ‘Home is not where you are from, but where you are wanted’,” she shares. “That honestly hit me, because I felt very out of place when I was younger. I didn’t like school, I was bullied, and didn’t have many friends. I was so eager to go abroad, to anywhere I could just paint and study art.”
“I think, home is not a place, but a feeling of love and belonging.” Even as a child, Eleanor knew where she belonged – in the arts. “I love music and illustration and design – going to an art school was always my plan. I actually applied to SOTA (School of the Arts Singapore), and I got rejected. I was so discouraged that I stopped painting for a year after that.”
But she quickly found her own ways to live out her passion. One shining example was designing a red carpet dress for her mother – local host and comedian, Quan Yi Fong – for her attendance at the 2014 Mediacorp Star Awards. “I noticed that celebrities were always wearing big brands or designers or sponsored pieces, which lacked a personal heritage. So I offered to design her dress, and she was like ‘Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.’ And I was like ‘Wait… really?'” She laughs. “That was a big move for her to trust her teenage daughter with such a task. My mother is a very spontaneous, daring person.”
It’s easy to see where Eleanor gets it from – the guts to prove her naysayers wrong and show people what she’s truly capable of. Since landing the starring role in Apple China’s 2015 commercial, and being accepted into the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, the rising star has ridden a wave of top bill acting opportunities. “People told me I had to go to a performing arts school, that’s how people notice you and legitimise you as an actor, so I did,” she recounts. “But I don’t like to limit myself to how others define me. Even if it’s not professional work, or I haven’t been trained in it, just showing my interest is a start.”
The actress runs a second Instagram account to share her paintings and art, as well as frequently documenting her songwriting process – something she’s been doing since she got her very first guitar at 13 years-old. “My manager tells me, ‘I feel like I’m managing 10 different girls at once.'”, she muses. Singer, songwriter, actor, model, artist, designer – Eleanor seems to magically do it all. But she blames her obstinance as the main culprit behind her multi-disciplinary practice – wanting creative authority in her music and art forces her to be independent and learn it all herself. “The industry boxes you in – they ask you to pick one. But I’m stubborn, I don’t listen. When something is passed to me, whether it’s a song or a visual, I have very particular tastes and standards. I’d rather take things into my own hands, because I want it to truly represent me.”
She considers herself lucky to have found a management team that aligns with her creative ambitions. This is heartening, considering that, especially in East Asian markets, artistes are notoriously over-manufactured. While so many find it tough to straddle the line between being an artiste versus an artist, Eleanor dares to be both, which might have contributed to how she has amassed such an international fanbase – art and stories have the ability to transcend cultural barriers. “The more sides of myself I show, the more I explore and abilities I demonstrate, the more people responded,” she explains. Rather than products branded to a specific market, she tries to embody a new definition of artiste – a real, whole, human being. Her next move? Fronting a band called No Labels – a new-wave musical trio that experiments across various sounds and genres.
“This industry is obsessed with categorising its artistes. You’re either cute or you’re cool. You’re rock, you’re EDM, you’re dance. But I’m just me. I can express myself in different styles and personas. I straight up told my management before we even began working together – she’s not cute. She’s not sweet. She’s not any one thing.”
Even her surname, which is a stage name she adopted in her adolescence, seems to symbolise her no-labels policy. The extensive tabloid coverage of this move – and Eleanor’s family history – in local press seemed to be disproportionately concerned with a denomination rather than the person it belongs to. It mirrors a distinctly Singaporean habit of systemically, and oftentimes unnecessarily putting people into boxes (see: academic streaming, CMIO model, the list goes on) – a method that has been criticised for being both reductive and exclusive.
Eleanor is honest about defying the curation of her celebrity persona, and building her career on her own terms. “My company sometimes warns me against sharing funny or ugly photos of myself on social media, but I see sharing the comedic side of me as a positive thing. In fact, I’m actually a lot less confident than I portray. I have such bad stage fright that once I literally had to be carried down the stage by my manager.” Through her music, however, she hopes to remove the filter on touchier subjects, even romantic relationships. “It’s definitely still a taboo in the industry. But 谁没有点少女心? (Translation: Who doesn’t have a bit of a teenage girl’s heart?),” she exclaims. “Who doesn’t dream of revelling in a sweet romance? I’m still human! I’m still a girl!”
And rarely do girls fit neatly into the pigeonholes society has delineated. Instead, how can we build an industry that supports and normalises girls being anything they want to be? By letting them be ugly. Be cute. Be mean. Be vulnerable. Be mad. Be in love. All at the same time.
“We are in the position to affect change for the next generation. I want to get rid of this type casting mindset. Even if it’s baby steps, little hands make big differences!” She cheers optimistically.
When asked if she has any plans to move back, or migrate to another country, she replies, “I’m very happy with my life here. I have my job, my friends, my team. My company really supports everything I do. They put their heart and soul into managing me, and they love me like a daughter.” Eleanor’s path ahead is brightly lit, wherever it leads her. A home shelters you, it does not confine you, and she knows that all too well.