Interview: Mandy Lieu

Mandy Lieu recently made her big screen debut, but in real life she is in Italy, shooting a travel show with her newly formed production company. The celebrity model-cum-TV host and now actress is an infectiously upbeat young woman who is going places

Interview: Mandy Lieu

Mandy Lieu, the Malaysian-born model, television show host and fledgling actress – she has a role in Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi trilogy  – transforms into a beautiful bride in front of our eyes. Arriving in a Clash T-shirt and cargo pants with her sandy-coloured dyed hair tied up and no makeup, she is nondescript and though willowy not so tall that you would immediately think ‘model’. Within 90 minutes, though, she appears as you see her here, poised and positively glowing.

Childhood dance classes contribute to a physical presence that is both graceful and commanding (especially when towering heels are added to her 170cm frame), but it is her positive nature that is most striking. Behind a gentle manner lie a strength of character, self-assurance and enthusiasm that make her instantly likable.

At 27, Lieu might appear to be living the dream – star of magazine, catwalk and small screen, and possibly big screen in the future – but she hasn’t always had it easy. She has bravely gone her own way, coming to Hong Kong nine years ago with nothing but a brief portfolio in hand – she had secured a few modelling jobs “unintentionally” while she was at school and had liked them.

She won’t talk about her parents except to say they are no longer around. Her father was American, her mother Malaysian-Chinese and she has always used her mother’s surname. She says later that she “was kinda raised” by a godmother “who has been my rock”. Her first goal was to be a ballerina – she made money by teaching ballet and piano before landing in Hong Kong - her second was to travel.

She hung a map of the world on her wall and dreamed of experiencing far more than the familiar routine of daily life in Kuala Lumpur, where she grew up. Lieu’s adventurous spirit and curiosity about faraway lives have been put to good use in her television work. Four years ago, she was approached by Now TV to co-host a Chinese language (which she speaks but doesn’t read) luxury lifestyle programme, Lifetival, which appears on channel 101. She was on a modelling assignment in Greece at the time, but within two weeks had met and clicked with the producers and was filming her first segment.

Interview Mandy Lieu 2

"When I was younger I used to jump from one relationship to another, but in the last few years I've had the chance to really know myself, which is one of the most difficult things we must learn."

“It really helped me to grow as a person,” she reflects. “As a model your job is solely to represent someone else by wearing their dress or brand, but hosting a show involves taking the audience on a journey to experience things from your perspective. There’s a lot more of  ‘Mandy’ in it.”

The ‘Mandy’ stamp will be all over her latest television venture, a 10-episode travel show made by Lieu’s newly formed company, De-mand Productions. It will be shot in two three-week sessions in Italy, a country she fell in love with during a visit three years ago. Lieu has interviewed people in either Milan, Modena, Venice or Tuscany; in November, as you read this, she returns with her crew to capture scenes of life in Rome, Naples, Sicily and the Amalfi coast. “When you travel it tends to be voyeuristic, you set foot in a country, take some pictures of moments and leave very quickly,” she explains. “The idea of this programme is to show the other side of travel – the people who live there, their lifestyle, their vision, their success stories.”

Of running her own company (and show) she notes: “I’m very hands-on, but I’ve got a good crew with me. It’s all about finding people with the same passion as you and then collaborating.” She adds, with quiet confidence: “I like challenges; the only way to improve is to push yourself. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes, it’s about learning from them.”

 

Interview Mandy Lieu

Traveling to Beijing earlier this year for a co-star role in Tai Chi, her first major film experience (she had appeared in a TVB series, Dressage to Win, back in 2008), was one such challenge. She had to dig deep to project yet another side of herself. “I found that in a movie you are not representing anything and there’s no Mandy; it’s about being somebody else, at least while shooting. The challenge is to tap into certain kinds of emotions and live life through your character.” For a seasoned model and TV host used to small-scale shoots, the scale of the production was an eye-opener. “It’s far from a one-woman show. There are hundreds of people behind the camera, all working as hard as you.”

Fung has proved himself a capable director and the Tai Chi trilogy (the first two instalments, Tai Chi 0 and Tai Chi Hero, will be premiered in consecutive months), with its late Qing period sets and costumes and choreographed fights, looks slick and stylish – steampunk meets Chinese martial arts. It also has an intriguing main cast: Angelababy, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Feng Shaofeng, Eddie Peng, Shu Qi and Daniel Wu. Will Lieu be following in the footsteps of another beautiful Malaysian dancer who came here and conquered kung fu? Unfortunately we may not be able to judge from this movie if Lieu will be the next high-kicking Michelle Yeoh, as the novice actress reveals that her scenes focus on relationship issues (with Peng).

Lieu, of course, had a three-year relationship with another Taiwanese heartthrob, Wilson Chen – “Old news!” she interjects with a laugh at the mention of his name. And apparently there is no news in the Lieu love department presently. “There’s no-one special at the moment, but I believe there’s a time for everything so it will happen when it’s right,” she says sanguinely. “When I was younger I used to jump from one relationship to another, but in the last few years [of not having a boyfriend] I’ve had the chance to really know myself, which is one of the most difficult things we human beings must learn – it’s not easy as no-one wants to be lonely, right? I’ve found out what I like and what I don’t; I’ve achieved a lot of personal growth.”

Interview Mandy Lieu 1

"As a model, your job is to represent someone else, but hosting a show involves taking the audience on a journey from your perspective. There's a lot more of 'Mandy' in it."

Characteristically upbeat, Lieu has nothing negative to say about modelling – we did ask – and not because she doesn’t want to dish dirt to the press but because her positive outlook on life means she genuinely enjoys each and every moment. “I count myself really lucky to be doing what I do. I love fashion and every day, every season is different. There are always new designers and people from different cultures to meet and learn from. I’ve got to travel the world” – thus accomplishing her childhood dream – “and try things I never thought I would do, like commercials in which I had to ice skate and skateboard. Every day is just so exciting.” The hardest part for Lieu is fitting in time to be herself. “I do realise it’s important to find a balance [between work and personal time], to take some time off, to calm down and hear my own voice.” 

It’s then that Lieu will visit Malaysia and catch up with old friends (she also has a younger brother who works in the internet industry). But Hong Kong is her home, a realisation that came to her about three years ago when she returned from an intense period of travel and decided to buy herself a dining table! She is happily settled in a flat in Central, in the thick of the action. “When friends and family come to visit, I’m the first to volunteer to take them around,” she says, her enthusiasm as infectious and unrelenting as the city’s pace. “People tend to see the negative things about life here – the crowds, the noise. Taking visitors around I get to experience Hong Kong all over again, to be reminded how lucky I am to be here.”

She is even pollyannaish about the paparazzi culture that plagues Hong Kong celebrity life. Acknowledging she may be spared from the more rapacious reporting by not being able to read Chinese, she notes: “I understand it comes with the job. But you know sometimes it’s nice to be able to share the connection. Just think, the interview I am doing with you today might be read by someone I’ve never met and then that person might be inspired by my love of travel to take a trip to a place they’ve never been to before. That would be amazing.” She pauses, and concludes with a knowing smile. “See, that’s the positivity in me.”

It is indeed and it’s an endearing quality. It’s rare – and refreshing – to meet a celebrity who is such a people person, and we are confident that no matter how high she might rise the ‘Mandy’ in Lieu will remain.

More images of Mandy Lieu here.

Credits

All jewelry courtesy of The Perfect One Wedding Collection by Chow Tai Fook

Photography: Olaf Mueller
Styling: Olivia Tsang
Hair: Adrian Au
Makeup: AnnaEden

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