Photo courtesy of Jeanette Aw
Widely known for her breakthrough role in Singapore’s Mediacorp Channel 8 mega-blockbuster production ‘The Little Nyonya’, The Ridge is delighted to find out more about Jeanette Aw’s days in the National University of Singapore (NUS) before she became a local household name.
1.Tell us more about the activities you undertook when you were in NUS.
Dance took up a big portion of my time when I was in NUS. I was very much involved in NUS’ Dance Ensemble (DE) and I eventually became the President of DE. Besides DE, I was also taking my ballet classes in a ballet school outside of NUS. I remember taking double grades for my ballet classes and when the ballet exams were approaching, I’d be taking double classes, which basically meant I was dancing almost everyday. DE dance practices were about 3 times a week, with technique classes conducted on Sundays. Even though my schedule was packed to the brim with nothing but dance classes, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
2. When did you discover your love for music, arts and theatre? Were there any prominent scenes that inspired your passion for them when you were young?
I have always loved dancing since I was young and was a gymnast in my school team during my primary school days. It was only in secondary one that I decided to learn ballet, so it was a relatively late start. That explains the need for doing double grades in order to catch up with my peers. Dance and music are kind of inseparable, as music flows through your body through the movements and choreography. Additionally, I was interested in learning a musical instrument, so i joined the Symphonic Band hoping to play the flute. Instead, I was given the saxophone, but I grew up falling in love with the saxophone with time.
My passion for acting really only developed later during my college years, when I had more exposure to the arts and different performances. With dance, we learnt to emote and tell a story with choreography and our bodies. Theatre brought that to a whole new level for me. There were a lot more techniques and skills involved and it is a craft that should be respected. So as we were deciding the core subjects to major in, theatre studies naturally became the first choice for me.
3. What difficulties did you face in school? Could you tell us one significant event where you felt completely helpless but managed to pull through eventually?
I completed a double major in theatre studies and psychology, with a minor in English literature, and they were the subjects that I really loved. University days were my happiest academic years because I was finally able to choose subjects that I had a strong passion and interest for. I genuinely believe that when you do what you love, the work will not appear as daunting, but rather you’d be yearning to want to learn more without fear of the challenges.
The real test came when I was offered a full time acting contract upon graduation, and then the Honours offer followed after. Deciding to take up the Honours was a dilemma because it meant that I would be doing HOnours and taking on my new role as an actress full time on both ends. Writing my thesis and filming at the same time was nothing short of grueling and stressful. I remember going without sleep for days on end, just shuttling between school and the filming studio. I was also sent to Taiwan to film for four months and I had to defer a semester; this meant my peers had graduated and I had to resumed school with a company of new faces. There wasn’t much comfort in that.
There were some moments of frustration, moments of fatigue, moments of despair, moments when I thought I’d never be able to see it through, but I did. I did graduate with an Honours degree eventually.
4. Were there any moments of limbo you had to face during your varsity life? And, what is one life lesson you took away from NUS?
I vividly recall having a part-time tutor teaching me in my final semester. She wasn’t the most supportive tutor – I remember her coming up to me one day and saying that I should just choose to focus on one thing instead of trying to handle both. Her words verbatim, “Jeanette, you should consider if you want to give up acting since you actors don’t earn much anyway or drop your Honours.” My stress level at that time was at an all-time high. I had serious sleep deprivation but I was still trying my best to perform. Instead of speaking words of encouragement, she just shattered any bit of confidence that I had left. I spoke to my family and my Professors and decided to soldier on because I simply did not want to disappoint them. I’m glad I pulled through, because at the end of the day, I’m pretty happy with where I am now at this point of my career and can proudly declare that I’m an Honours graduate.
Life lesson? Well… There will always be people who can’t wait to see you fail but don’t be discouraged. Just push on and believe in your own potential. You don’t need to prove anything to your naysayers, think about the people who believe in you and love you, and you will find the strength to fight on.
5. Regarding your acting career, were there any major challenges you faced during the course of progression? What motivated you to keep pushing through?
In a high profile job as a media personality, there will always be talk about you, be it lovely comments, negative criticisms or even personal attacks. It’s all part of the job and it comes in a package. Improving and honing my craft has always been my focus, but learning to handle these comments is a learning process for me. It’s tantamount to the NUS part-time tutor multiplied by a few hundred. Slowly, you learn to sieve our the destructive from the constructive. I keep an open heart and mind and will work on the points that I know need working on.
The life lesson I learnt in school helped me push on. I think about my family, my supporters, my fans, and all the production people who believed in me and who have helped me along the way. I owe it to them for where I am at and what I am right now. It is never an individual effort.