Inspiring Success: Oon Shu An

Inspiring Success: Oon Shu An

Special feature

Text: Adibah Isa

Photo: Vanessa Caitlin

Video: Robin Thang

Though she doesn't think so, actress Oon Shu An is a success story in our eyes with her unwavering passion to make something of herself — and then there's that affable charisma too

According to Oon Shu An, blondes have more fun.

At least, that's what the Singaporean actress garnered from her stint as a bottle blonde, before switching to her jet-black locks for her role in Chinglish, Pangdemonium's sold out staging of the David Henry Hwang play. Before her performance that evening during the play's last weekend run, Oon meets us in a smaller stage: A little studio to shoot her in Hugo Boss' Autumn/Winter 2015 collection, with the Boss Bespoke Bag in her arsenal.

This smaller stage was set pretty simply: With a couple of lights and a blank white screen, coupled with the infectious sounds of Hozier, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd. The latter's popular with everyone on set, most notably the actress as she juts her shoulders back and forth while stylists prep her next move. As her trusty hair and makeup duo buffs and spritzes products about, Oon shares snippets of success stories: Her heroines in theatre, film and television; and how a certain push-up bra gave her more than she had ever imagined.

Oon Shu An for Hugo Boss

What does success mean to you as an actor?
If you leave something behind for the next generation, and if you've done something that helps the next generation improve — the same way that the previous generations have done for us. I guess being aware of where you came from and being able to shape the present that you're in so that it becomes something useful and beneficial for the people who come after. For me, it's to help anybody who wants to go into this line, but I feel like I'm still figuring it out.

You're not ready to give advice?
Yeah! I don't even know what the f*** I'm doing sometimes. I have no idea how to translate that to anybody else. So I guess when I'm at a stage where I have something that I can share, then I will feel like maybe I've achieved some level of success.

Who is successful in your eyes?
For me that's Karen Tan, a local actress who does mostly theatre. I've worked with her a few times and every single time, she's always made the effort to give me notes or to point out something that she thinks I could think about. It's incredibly generous because not everyone is very free with information. And so that's something I've always appreciated of Karen — her generosity of spirit. To me, she's successful. Because she's gotten to a stage where she can impart that knowledge and also not be too affected by how people perceive it, because she knows she comes from a good place.

You say your favourite actors are Claire Underwood (House of Cards) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Honourable Woman). What do you admire about them?
It's hard to put into words. It's very cliché, but they know the balance between soft and hard very well. You can see them thinking through every thought. You can see them processing everything. So there's not a moment that goes by that they're not fully in. And as an actor that's very hard to achieve sometimes.

You count Jennifer Lawrence and Mindy Kaling as your favourites too.
Yeah, because they really impress me in the way that they are able to talk about the issues surrounding their work and, at the same time, stay employed [laughs]. Because sometimes I think that's a hard balance. When you talk about about the industry that you're working in, then it might affect your job or you get worried it might affect your job. So to see them do that — it's quite inspiring.

Apart from Chinglish, you're going to be delivering some of Haruki Murakami's texts in Listen to Haruki Murakami: Music Beyond Words. Do you have a favourite Murakami book?
No, but I do have a favourite Murakami quote. Something about like, "I have no sense of self. I have no personality, no brilliant colour. I have nothing to offer. I feel like an empty vessel. I have a shape, I guess, as a container, but there's nothing inside". There's also that fear of the more someone else finds out about you, the more they might not want you there. A lot of the themes in his books deal with the idea of redemption, loss, searching and yearning. And that is something that I really love. It's very poetic and beautiful.

Oon Shu An for Hugo Boss

Is there any character you've played whose style or costume you really like?
Actually right now I really like Xi Yan's (in Chinglish).

You know, when you took off your clothes in that bedroom scene I was like, "Oh my god".
Everyone is saying that! Because they were like, "Wow your boobs look great in that!" It's a push-up bra but you can't really tell it's a push-up bra. When I look down, it's like, "Oh my god, I've got some cleavage going on".

You can slide an ATM card through that.
Yeah, but I don't have that you know? I've done other shows before that needed cleavage and I end up stuffing so much s*** inside.

Oh my god, girl! You have no idea! Um... socks...

So that's what goes on backstage?
Yeah! It's a lot of work!

Okay, back to...

Yes! And style. How would you describe your personal style, and whose style do you admire?
I feel it's still quite undefined. Because as much as I love the clean looks in Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein, I also like that psychedelic s***, costumes, prints and things that are a bit grungy and kitsch.

I come from theatre, and we like dressing up and being different people. I guess because I grew up in theatre, I never defined what I like as a person. I just knew what I liked for characters and for other people. So in that sense, my style is very fluid.

Oh you know who's really cool? That grandma...

Iris Apfel?
Oh my god so cute, she's like what I want to be when I grow up. Like you just don't care, and do whatever you want.


What's your favourite trend as of late?
I like wide-leg pants, and the whole straight cut, oversized trench coat look. It's very clean and strong. And I love platinum blonde hair. 

What do you look for in a bag?
Something that's easy to open. I've seen bags that are super expensive and it takes like five minutes to open. Compartments are nice — not necessary — but nice. A nice opening is good because I'm very messy, so I need to be able to find my things. If it can hold a lot of stuff, that would be great — expandable is the best. I'm very functional, but on top of all that, I want my bag to look good.

We want to know: What keeps you going and inspired in this line?
Finding a reason for what I'm doing. There's this quote I like: "He who has a why to live can endure almost any how".

Basically it means if you know why you're doing something, you can find a way to do it. For me, that's very important. Because I think for a while, I was losing that, and I forgot why I was doing it in the first place. And I think that's something that you hear with a lot of people. So it's always about finding a reason as to why you're doing something.

Related story:
Inspiring success — Anita Kapoor
Inspiring success — Natasha Chiam

Oon Shu An's outfits: All from BOSS Womenswear 

Photography: Vanessa Caitlin
Fashion direction: Norman Tan
Makeup artist: Larry Yeo using Nudestix
Makeup assistant: Leah Lim
Hair stylist: Calvin Gan/Hairloom
Styling assistance: Andrea Sim