ROLLING WITH THE PUNCHES
Life is good for Julie Woon.
She’s been a regular fixture on the Malaysian entertainment scene for a decade, earning her stripes as a solid emcee and host, both on screen and for events. She’s also founded a fledging business that’s on an upward trajectory. And a relatively new addition to her list of roles is the most important one by far: mum. But her story wasn’t always a fairy tale. As one of the most talked-about women in Malaysia for a myriad of reasons, Woon is a woman who’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly—and risen above it all.
We are halfway through our interview, and Julie Woon lets out a titbit about herself that would throw anyone off course: she was watching the first season of True Detective when she was in labour. It’s a scenario that sounds so incredulous that it requires a double take, and Woon has no qualms about furnishing the details.
“My husband [Darren Lee] was so sweet. He had all these shows prepared for when I would be admitted to hospital. We’d just finished watching a movie, and my son hadn’t come out yet,” she recalls. “We started True Detective, and we thought that the baby had to come out while we were viewing that one season.”
She continues, “It was a long wait at the hospital, and the doctor would come in to check on me regularly. On his last visit, he asked me to push as hard as I could. I gave it a try, and he told me to do it again. He then asked the nurse to bring him his gloves, and I asked him if this was for real!
“I remember him telling me that he could see the baby’s hair. I asked him if there was a lot of it. My hair is fine, but my husband’s hair is like a bush, and I was hoping the baby’s would be like his. It turned out that he’s got a lot of hair, but it’s really fine, which means it’s going to be hard to style in the future. Forward planning, you know? I worry about all these things,” she says with a smile.
If anything, this showcase of humour, candour and honesty drives home why Woon is one of the entertainment industry’s most seasoned hosts. There’s genuine warmth that could win any crowd over. Whether she’s on television discussing the nuances of motor racing, or even introducing the world to a new range of laptops, there’s always a touch of class when she takes the reins at an event. But it wasn’t always this way.
Alifetime ago, far from the dazzle of the entertainment industry, Woon grew up as a studious bookworm in the suburbs. “I was very, very nerdy and very kiasu. I had an elder brother who bullied me a lot, but we’re close now,” she says. “I was pretty much left to my own devices, and I buried my nose in books. When I was in Standard Three, I finished all my UPSR books and started reading secondary school textbooks. That was how nerdy I was. And if I got second place in class, I’d be upset. If my score was less than perfect, I’d ask the teacher to mark my paper again.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Woon’s week consisted of tuition for Bahasa Malaysia, geography, history, IQ development and literature, as well as ballet, taekwondo and piano lessons. Her parents had done this to ensure that she stayed out of trouble. Her domestic situation was unique—although still married, her father lived in Sabah where he started a seafood exporting business, while her mother raised the kids in Petaling Jaya.
As she grew older, her enthusiasm for academic excellence started to wane. Woon says things took a turn for the rebellious when she turned 14. As a young child, she was obsessed with books. As a teenager, she saw things differently, and started partying. But she still had one foot firmly planted where it counted the most.
“I mixed with the wrong crowd, and we did the wrong things. But as long as I kept my grades up, my parents really didn’t care,” Woon reminisces. “There’d be times when I’d be doing Add Math homework while my friends were partying in the room. I think my foundation was strong. As long as I kept my grades up, and my mum was happy with all my aces, it was fine. I really didn’t attend secondary school much. I would ponteng here and there, but I’d finished all those books in primary school, anyway. It kinda was like a refresher course.”
It’s with wiser eyes that Woon looks back on her younger years though. “I regret mixing with the wrong crowd, although it didn’t shape who I was,” she states.
“I gave my parents a hell of a time. I was very naughty and rebellious. I ran away from home. I didn’t want to go to school. They were worried.”
She adds, “I could have done without that. I didn’t have to be so excessive. I could have gone out to party, but it didn’t have to be for three days. I guess in terms of life choices, personal choices, who I went out with, and who I hung out with, I probably made some mistakes. That’s my only regret: to be so rebellious from a young age.”
Fast-forward to a few years later, and Woon’s at her first big hosting gig for a major sportswear brand. She’s there because of her stint as a host for Football Overload, a position that she also secured by accident.
“I totally sucked. I had to host an event for a sponsor, and I was wondering what an emcee was. I was this student who’d never been to an event before, who’d never seen an emcee, and had no idea what kind of things you needed to say,” she confesses. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, just be yourself.’ There should have been a certain structure, but there was none. Luckily, I had a co-host. I just stood there. Everything was new to me! Imagine picking out a random person on the street and telling them to emcee an event. I just kept quiet the whole time. I totally bombed. That was the moment when I knew that I had to learn the ropes.” The overachiever inside took over, and a whole new challenge was set. From there, Woon cut her teeth by starting from the bottom.
Compared to most typical Asian families, her parents took her career choice relatively well. “My dad isn’t really a studious person. He never believed in studying too much, anyway,” she notes. “He always said that if you’re too smart, companies wouldn’t hire you because you’re going to take the interviewer’s job, so you might as well not be a high achiever.
“My mum, on the other hand, was very hesitant about it, because we had no family or friends in the entertainment industry. It was completely new. I knew nobody. It was all by chance. My mum thought that it was just for some part-time income while I was studying. She implied that I could do whatever I wanted as long as I got my degree. It’s not really true! When I graduated, I told her, ‘Well, here’s your degree!’ and she was like, ‘When are you going to get a proper job?’”
That proper job never arrived. Her lead role in 8TV’s Blogger Boy meant more opportunities came her way. The series also marked a very important period in her life: her professional name changed from Julie Hoi to Julie Woon. Though she insists that it’s no big deal, it does hold special significance.
“Even until now, people ask which name they should refer to me by, and I tell them that they can call me anything! I’m still Julie! When I started Blogger Boy, the producers suggested that I take a stage name. They wanted something that went along with my personality,” she says. “Woon is my mother’s maiden name. I thought that since she was always the parental figure who was always there, it’d be good for me to use that. I thought that I’d use it for the show, and then change it back. I didn’t know what a stage name could mean or do, nor did I know anybody else who had one. Nowadays, I guess it’s more common. But, at the time, it caused some confusion.”
Back then, the Internet, being the perpetual resource of all things fine and noble that it is, had a field day speculating what the name change meant. For Woon, it was symbolic in a lot of ways.
“When I started off, I was a skimpily dressed, car show girl. It was to shed that image. I had to do something drastic. I did it to break from my past and start a professional career in entertainment,” she stresses. “At the end of the day, it was also my choice if I wanted to or not. And I thought, ‘Why not, what’s the harm?’ If anything, I just made my mum, her surname and her heritage proud. And she was really happy about it. That was important to me.”
It’s no secret that the early stages of Woon’s career caused tongues to wag—and lash out. “When I was more outgoing in my twenties, people said a lot. I learned to shut their comments out. I was more carefree. I could wear really skimpy stuff, but I always viewed it as artistic,” she recalls. “I guess it wasn’t that way to a lot of people. I even had a nickname, ‘Julie Hot Pants’, when I was in school. I was body confident and felt that there was nothing wrong with dressing sexily back then.”
She continues, “Now I’m kind of old and chubby, and I have a son. Back then, people would have had the wrong impression that I was very open, or ‘Oh, you’re not covered up, so you don’t know your self-worth’, but to each his or her own. That’s just their opinion. I always believe that rumours stem from envy. You must be doing something right for people to want to talk about you, to even waste their time. I never take it to heart.”
After a decade in the industry, it’s become more than apparent that this is what Woon wants to do. There isn’t anything else that she can do, and she realises this. If she were to apply for an office job, she’d be in the unenviable position of starting fresh 10 years too late. And 10 years in entertainment is no mean feat.
“For me to still be able to do it after 10 years shows that it’s something good. I don’t want to let go of this gem. It’s an opportunity that a lot of people would want,” she muses.
There’s a hint of her being a maverick of sorts when she mulls over her favourite aspects of the job. Firstly, there’s the “live” element to hosting events and TV shows. She appreciates that she only has one chance to do a good job, and she feeds off the adrenaline. Secondly, each day on the job brings a different challenge: it could be a different location, a different event, and a different set of problems and opportunities to work through.
Her appreciation of challenges has also led her to found Plush Porter, her maiden business that is targeted at women who want to rent formal dresses. Woon handles everything solo, from getting in touch with regional designers and updating the website, to handling customer service, and even delivering dresses personally. She relishes the thrill of running her own business and building a brand.
Her hands-on approach is further amplified when she reveals that she’s always on her own when she goes for events. There’s no squad that tags along, no manager, no PA, no obligatory minion to carry her bags. Julie Woon, in her professional capacity, is essentially a one-woman show.
“I’ll eat whatever the crew eats, I’ll sit wherever they sit. It’s just about being down to earth and knowing that, hey, you’re there like everybody else to do your job,” she stresses.
Aside from a good deal of level-headedness, the industry has also taught Woon a thing or two about keeping things real and standing her ground.
“I was always very afraid of insulting people, saying the wrong thing, or giving a poor impression. I was always very nice. I never said a single bad thing about anybody, even when they were blatantly horrible,” she rues. “One day, Fay Hokulani told me that I was too nice to the extent that it appeared fake. It woke me up. You can’t impress everybody, no matter how good you are. You can be an angel, but somebody will still have something bad to say about you. ”
“ I gave up caring about people who don’t know me, but want to talk smack about me. ”
As a woman who’s notched up an enviable score in the experience department, Woon’s words carry a certain weight. Before she leaves for a day out with her son, she offers sound advice for those who’re looking to start fresh.
“Whatever hardship that you’re going through now, I believe that you’re not alone. It could have always been worse, and somebody probably has it worse. I also believe that God won’t put you in a situation that you can’t overcome. I always feel that in every situation, there’s a solution. You just have to look out for it,” she comments.
“I tell myself that every time something bad happens, something super awesome is coming after that. It always works, whether it’s to lift me up, or it’s some psychological thing. I believe that everything is temporary, so don’t dwell on things; try to look for a solution,” she says. “That’s one thing that I learned from my husband. Whenever we argue, it tends to be about that one thing, but he’ll then ask what the solution should be. You stop complaining and start to ask yourself, ‘How can I work past this?’ It puts things into perspective. You had problems before, but you overcame them, right? This is no different. It’s just in a different shape and form. You will get through it. And somebody else has, even if they had it worse. Count your lucky stars, and be thankful for all the good in your life.”
Photographs by Kim Mun, produced by Hopscotch Photography; Art direction by Rebecca Chew; Styling by Sarah Chong, assisted by Nawaf Rahman; Hair by Shawn Goh, Make-up by Joey Yap. / Cuff bracelet, long vest, wide-leg pants, and earings, all by H&M; suit jacket and pants by Versus Versace; ear cuff and body chain, stylist's own.
First published in Esquire Malaysia's June 2016 issue.