Ella Chen wanted to retire to grow lemons and rear chickens and ducks, but decided to challenge herself with a solo album
Chatty, joky, goofy and utterly self-assured Ella Chen – Taiwanese pop royalty and the life of the party at the recent Star Awards in Singapore, where she presented awards – is surprisingly nervous about fielding album promotions on her own.
That is why she had dragged her feet for such a long time on releasing a solo album. She is the last of the massively popular Mandopop trio S.H.E to have her own album.
It is a case of safety in numbers for her, says Chen.
“It’s stressful to fill my brain with information to promote the album. I have limited memory capacity. I want to be a good spokesman to do justice to my colleagues’ immense efforts.
“Having to handle pointed questions during interviews on my own can be pretty tough. With them by my side, they would be able to help cover me,” adds Chen of her S.H.E bandmates Hebe Tien and Selina Jen.
None of that apprehension she claims she feels was apparent when she was in town to promote her first solo album Why Not last week.
Chen, 33, surprised waiting reporters with a grand appearance at her media session in a hotel suite last Friday – sliding doors parted dramatically to reveal her sensuously sprawled across a table.
The Cleopatra-esque sexy pose is a far cry from Ella the tomboy – the persona that first caught the attention of music executives and earned her a place in S.H.E.
The singer has made good use of her androgynous image, even cross-dressing as a school boy in the Taiwanese drama adaptation of Japanese manga series Hanazakarino Kimitachihe (2006).
Her more feminine outfits may be the work of stylists, but they are also a reflection of her personal life. She used to sport a short crop, but now sports wispy locks, reportedly on the request of her husband. She also dons the skirts and heels she once eschewed.
Chen is every bit the professional spokesman throughout the 40-minute press conference.
The fun-loving lass shows off her DIY manicure – the letters of her album title Why Not written on her nails.
“Luckily my album name is not too long,” she chimes.
She does a show-and-tell about her multiple outfits with the fashion-spread booklet in her hands.
Expertly linking her personal life to the album’s songs, she explains how the breezy tune Oh, 30 – about overcoming her feeling of complacency as she enters her 30s – is an ode to herself.
“I’m just in my 30s, but I already feel like retiring to the suburbs to grow lemons and rear chickens and ducks,” says Chen, whose hometown is in Pingtung County in southern Taiwan.
“People think of me as a winner in life. I have had a smooth-sailing career since my debut. S.H.E have held concerts all over the world. I’m married. I have a loving family. I seem to have everything I need in life.”
But seeing how veteran artistes are still active in the industry, Chen feels ashamed of herself.
Citing Taiwanese host Chang Hsiaoyen, 66, and Hong Kong funnyman Eric Tsang, 62, she says: “Even till now, they are still passionate about their work. They love their job. I feel ashamed. I still have a long road ahead and I should challenge myself.”
She has come a long way from her show-business debut as a member of S.H.E in 2001.
The band were assembled by Taiwanese record label HIM International from a pool of contestants on a Taiwanese talent show.
Amid a deluge of Mandopop girl groups in the early 2000s, S.H.E emerged tops and outlasted the competition.
Their winning formula lies in their girl-next-door appeal, coupled with their distinctive vocals and great harmonies.
Jen’s personality is as sweet as her vocals, Tien has powerhouse vocals to go with a pretty face and husky-voiced Chen is the madcap livewire of the group.
They held concert tours around the world and have reportedly sold more than 15 million records. Their long list of accolades includes a prestigious Golden Melody Award for Best Group in 2003.
The trio eventually branched out into acting. All three starred in the idol drama Reaching For The Stars (2005), but it was Chen who garnered a Best Actress nomination at the 2006 Golden Bell Awards.
Given her thriving acting career and a stellar track record in music with S.H.E, Chen sure has laurels to rest on.
Instead, she was motivated to challenge herself and finally devoted herself to record her solo album five years after the efforts of Tien, the first of the trio to have a solo record.
In the second half of the year, Chen will also take on her first role in a musical, the details of which have yet to be released.
With a packed work schedule, her baby-making plans will have to wait till next year.
“I’ve seen how other female artistes find it hard to get pregnant. You really need to be well rested for a period of time.
“To have kids, I believe you must be mentally and physically prepared. Only then will God have peace of mind to send a kid to you,” says Chen, who hopes to have at least two children.
In 2012, she tied the knot with 38-year-old Malaysian Alvin Lai, whom she describes as a “salaryman”.
He was formerly a L’Oreal Paris Taiwan executive and is now described as a businessman in news articles.
They were long-time friends, but at a fateful group gathering, they suddenly felt electrifying chemistry. Shortly after, they started dating.
She says he is her ideal partner and that he “really, really, really, really, really loves her”. He would sacrifice his rest on weekends just to accompany Chen to autograph sessions and music-video filming.
Their future parenting roles seem to have been assigned already – Chen will play the good cop, while he will play the bad cop.
“You can tell what kind of parents we will be from the way we treat our dog,” says Chen, who has a Shiba Inu called Pudding.
According to her, Lai ensures that Pudding learns a trick before rewarding it with a snack, while she, the soft-hearted one, will give in to Pudding – “I feed it a snack regardless”.
It looks like bandmate Jen, 33, may beat her to being a mummy.
Jen is trying for a child with her lawyer husband Richard Chang, 42. They wed in 2011.
Chen says: “I was so moved when I heard my good sister is trying for children. I give her my blessings.
“All three of our lives are so closely intertwined. We’ve experienced many milestones in life together,” she adds.
Indeed, her pop group, which started out being company-assembled stars, have grown over the years to become genuine friends.
Treating one another like family, the close-knit pals playfully call each other lao po (wife in Chinese).
The group have weathered periods of uncertainty, such as Jen’s serious injuries and long recovery period after suffering third-degree burns in a filming accident in Shanghai in October 2010.
Known as Taiwan’s heavenly girl group, they have an appeal that has remained intact even after two members went from fun-loving Miss to respectable Mrs.
The group’s sole singleton is 32-year-old Tien, who has been romantically linked to males and females, including fellow pop stars such as Taiwanese pop prince Jay Chou.
Chen is not worried about Tien’s love life. She says matter-of-factly: “Hebe is surrounded by friends and family who love her. She’s all right with being alone. Love is not something you can force. You have to leave it to fate.
“It doesn’t matter if she gets married or finds a life partner. What’s most important is that she is happy.”
Starting new chapters in their lives, coupled with successful solo careers – does this spell the end of S.H.E?
The group have repeatedly emphasised their mantra – “going solo, but not splitting up”.
They have been performing as a group occasionally. In March, they were invited to perform at a private event in Singapore, and they will be holding concerts in Melbourne and Sydney next month.
When can fans expect an official group comeback? Their 13th and last album, Blossomy, was released in 2012 and made it to the top 10 albums in terms of sales in Taiwan, with 46,000 copies.
Chen says: “We have a few upcoming collaborations, but it’s not convenient to tell you now.
“We are working hard on our solo careers and fans who truly love S.H.E should give us their blessings. If you have faith in us, you won’t have to ask this question.”
Why Not is out in stores and on iTunes.
S.H.E’s solo careers
Taiwanese pop megastars S.H.E’s winning formula lies in their distinctive personalities and vocals. Dubbed a “heavenly” girl group, they were marketed as the sweet Jen, pretty-faced Tien and tomboyish Chen.
Although they have evolved in the 14 years since S.H.E’s debut, they complement – and not compete against – one another even now.
The host: Selina Jen, 33 (right)
No. of Weibo followers: 9.2 million
No. of Facebook followers: 898,000
While she has acted in a few shows, including idol dramas The Rose (2003) and Reaching For The Stars (2005), the bubbly Jen seems to be more comfortable hosting. She has covered emcee duties for A-listers Dee Hsu on Variety Show Of Mr Con & Ms Csi and Matilda Tao on College Talk.
The now-defunct talkshow Tiny Planet Number 33 earned her and co-host Natto a Best Variety Show Host nomination at the Golden Bell Awards in 2013.
She went on to co-host the prestigious 49th Golden Bell Awards the following year. The ceremony is Taiwan’s equivalent of the Emmys.
Her first solo album, 3.1415, debuted at No. 2 on Taiwan’s G-Music Mandopop album charts in January.
During album promotions, she revealed that she is unlikely to return to acting in the near future. The self-deprecating lass says she is “too round” for the camera.
The actress: Ella Chen, 33 (right)
No. of Weibo followers: 5.6 million
No. of Facebook followers:1 million
The free-spirited Chen has the most acting credits to her name among the S.H.E girls. This year alone, she has two movie roles, in Taiwanese flick The Missing Piece and Chinese New Year comedy Lucky Star 2015.
In Lucky Star, she stars alongside Hong Kong funnymen Eric Tsang and Wong Cho Lam.
Her solo album Why Not is now No. 1 on the G-Music Mandopop album chart.
Hosting is definitely not her thing. Chen was lambasted for being the worst host in the history of the Golden Horse, Taiwan’s prestigious film award ceremony, when she took on the role alongside veteran host Mickey Huang last year.
The crooner: Hebe Tien, 32 (right)
No. of Weibo followers: 7.1 million
No. of Facebook followers: 2.4 million
Arguably the strongest singer of the trio, she has released three solo albums, To Hebe (2010), My Love (2011) and Insignificance (2013), the last of which peaked at the No. 1 spot on Taiwan’s authoritative G-Music album charts.
The winsome vocalist has held solo concerts on homeground Taipei and around China. In Singapore, she performed to a sold-out crowd of more than 5,000 at the Resorts World Convention Centre in 2012. She will take her solo show to Vancouver in December.
The self-professed introvert has hosted variety programmes alongside her fellow members, such as stints on the variety show Guess Guess Guess in 2002 and 2007.
Her beauty and popularity make her leading lady material. She was the lead opposite Taiwanese actor Mike He in the popular idol drama Bull Fighting (2007).
However, she has largely stayed away from acting, making only occasional appearances.
Why? The rational Tien says she finds it hard to get into character, especially those not true to life.