How Deanna Went From Top-Scoring Accounting Graduate to Malaysian Entertainment Powerhouse

Deanna Yusoff, mistress of reinvention, celebrates two decades of success.

BY Paolo Delfino | Mar 7, 2016 | Women We Love

With so many feathers in her cap, it’s hard to imagine that in some bizarro, alternate timeline it would be Deanna Yusoff—accountant extraordinaire. “My life could’ve been very different. Thankfully, I had people in my life who pushed me in some other direction. There was this nerdy, absolutely brilliant college mate who had a huge impact on my life,” she recalls.

Top of the class and among the highest scorers in the whole of Switzerland the year she graduated, a young Deanna crossed paths with him a year after graduation—he was playing drums with a band performing at an event. Asking repeatedly, in various permutations—“What are you doing now? What do you actually do? Which bank are you working at?”—she was met with a blunt and confounding reply: “I am a drummer. This is what I do.”

“I couldn’t comprehend it,” Deanna says. “He was brilliant, he had excellent grades, he was so capable—and he was a drummer?” Sentiments that weren’t drenched in condescension, but rather a shattering of a worldview. “He might’ve had a genius mind, but I was blown away that he chose to do what he loved, instead of toeing the line.”

In the months that followed, and having crossed paths with more honour graduates and PhD-types that ended up as musicians and artists, she says, “He made me aware that you actually could do that. And so, I ended up at the conservatory doing soprano, picked up jazz piano, and joined a theatre. A few months later, I got asked to audition for Selubung.”

And that was that.

Deanna Yusoff in the flesh is grace personified. Every bit as poised and as captivating as you’d imagine. And enjoying the pleasure of her company is like taking the first, bewildering sip from a secret cocktail you were never old or worldly enough to have heard of.

She apologises for arriving late—the inescapable consequence of having to muscle through the savage MRT roadwork besieging the passageway towards Jalan Maarof. A 30-minute slog through traffic and having just only recovered from a crippling bout of food poisoning a few days prior, she seems completely unfazed, showing no signs of duress or discomfort.

It’s late morning, and we’re seated in the rear quarters of a café in Telawi, hidden away from prying eyes and kaypoh aunties. An emerald-green one-piece hugs her shapely figure, as her dark amber hair wafts in her trail. How can she possibly be in her late-forties? Surely, somebody in the Registrar’s Department balls-ed up.

Once a mainstay of magazine covers, advertisements, and big-label film and television productions, her withdrawal from public view since Chermin, her last major movie role back in 2007, drew rampant speculation. Had she migrated? Had she retired from the entertainment scene? Had she become an eccentric mountain recluse?

“Sometimes, it’s nice to disappear, y’know? Go quiet for a while, and then pop up on the radar again later on,” Deanna explains. “The entertainment scene here is pretty small. If you’re in the spotlight all the time, it’s easy for people to get a bit jelak,” she adds, before throwing her head back to let out a laugh. Any photographer could’ve frozen that frame and used it in a magazine. This woman has no discernable bad angle.

In spite of the relative radio silence during the past seven years, her track record suggests that her hiatus from the glaring spotlight of film and television isn’t a reflection of her industriousness. The eight-year gaps between Anna and the King (1999) and Chermin (2007), as well as her latest big-screen effort CEO (2014), imply that her approach to taking up roles can be somewhat finicky.

“I’ve always had offers. But if I can be frank, there are a lot of bad scripts that get floated about. And it’s honestly quite scary how many of them end up getting produced,” she says in the one rare occasion when her face crumples into a frown.

She leans back a little and brushes her fringe from her eyes. She’s as radiant as your memory of her serves—from the flipbook of ’90s movie stills and commercials that shuffles through your mind. And though the ’90s was an era when the Malaysian film industry started churning out big-budget productions by the truckload, it’s notable that her Best Actress Award for her breakout role in Selubung (1991) didn’t involuntarily translate into an assemblage of film credits, despite the scores of offers that came her way.

“I can’t allow myself to be on the screen just to be eye candy,” Deanna says. She’s unquestionably easy on the eyes, but there’s clearly a sincere reverence towards the craft. “I get lots of scripts where half the scenes have no significance. They’re just fillers. I just can’t do that.” Her eyes light up the deeper the discussion delves into the topic of acting.

Despite her impressive CV that lists a dizzying assortment of credits—singer, model, host, and lest we neglect to mention, professional race-car driver—she asserts, “Acting is my first love and it’s always been my passion. It’s a rush I don’t get from anything else. Bringing a character to a state where they draw empathy from the viewer—pain, desire, loyalty, longing—I really enjoy conveying those nuances. It’s in the details. They’re not in your face, but that’s how human beings are, right?”

It’s drawing closer to noon, and the empty café slowly starts buzzing to life. Coffee cups start clinking, a horrible Coldplay song blends in with the background noise, and a waiter skulks about, creepily—in hopes that Deanna might have some use for him. When she speaks, all sensory input starts dulling, slowly shifting out of focus, blurring into the background. It’s her silvery voice that draws you in, and her arresting brown eyes that you get lost in.

“Sometime back—seven, maybe eight years ago—I started to realise that I didn’t have control of my life or work,” she mulls, offering an insight into her recent stretch of keeping a low profile. “I went through a difficult period and had to work some things out within myself. But in the end, it brought about positive change. It felt like all these years, I was Deanna Yusoff—the version that people expected me to be. Eventually, I empowered myself to move forward and to be who I really wanted to be.”

That sea change brought along plenty of surprising, new ventures. “I’ve kept myself busy managing my tourism and Swiss chocolate businesses. Along with that, I recently got accredited as an internationally certified Life Coach,” she reveals.

“I’m learning so many valuable things that I feel are lacking in today’s education—things I wish I’d learnt when I was growing up. My life would’ve been very different,” she enthuses. “Once I got into these things, and with the positive change of mindset, offers started flowing in for new shows, and movie scripts started coming my way. Sometimes, you just need that little change about yourself, for good things to happen.”

Preoccupied with her newfound interests, time is a commodity that’s in short supply, and it reflects on her modest social media presence. “I know I should probably invest more time in it. But at the end of the day, I don’t think that’s where my market is.” She recounts how a tactless event organiser once remarked how they were surprised that their clients selected Deanna to host an event to launch a luxury car, despite her humble social media following—seemingly the new currency a celebrity is measured against. “Honestly lah, out of the 20 or so high-profile attendees, how many of them do you think even has a Facebook account?”

They say the spotlight is a drug. When acting took a back seat, the opportunity to bask in a spotlight of a different flavour arrived in an unexpected manner. “An article came out in Malay Mail, with some strong words from me about the local music industry. One day, I get a call from a secretary, saying Michael wanted to see me. I thought someone was pulling a prank.” She was, of course, referring to Michael Veerapen—jazz pianist par excellence and music industry stalwart. “Michael had one of those faces that gave me the impression he was very sombong!” she says with a giggle. Having listened to both of her earlier pop albums, he concluded that she had been wasting her time and her talent on pop. “He ended up being another one of those important figures in my life,” she says. “I’ve always felt that jazz was the ultimate music art form—and he got me into it.”

Before she knew it, she found herself in his studio. She picked one song, he picked another, and they recorded one take of each tune. A couple of previews to trusted friends and confidantes later, and there were “wows” all around, clinking whisky glasses and confetti showers. She had the chops.

“I was so paralysed the first time I sang, just me and Michael on the piano,” she confesses. But in that heady whirlwind of chance and revelation, she discovered a new thrill—the fluidity of jazz, the unpredictability of improvisation, the exhilaration of live performance. If acting was number one in her books, this trailed a close second.

When questioned about all her career changes that imply some inherent mastery of reinvention, she downplays it. “I don’t wanna settle on just this. On being. If I have opportunities to do new things that I enjoy, and that other people can also enjoy, then really…” her eyes twinkle, “Why not?”

Deanna asserts that she’s not a belter like Aretha or that she won’t scat like Ella, but she has her thing. Her live performances are flirtatious, sultry, intimate—a velvet cache of fragile whispers and sexy purrs. In a dark and smoky jazz lounge, Deanna Yusoff, the cocktail, might’ve been inspired by the voices of Lisa Ekdahl and Jessica Rabbit.

She tries to list her favourite jazz standards, but struggles to recollect the title of a particular song. She sings out the melody. It’s a soothing, willowy hum that tickles the ear. “Do you know this one?” I confess that I’m not familiar with it, but I’m not about to whip out Shazam to find out. How does it go again? She hums the melody once more. And in the distant background, that creepy, overeager waiter starts smiling.

First published in Esquire Malaysia's September 2014 issue. Photographs by Chuan Looi/Yippieyaya Studio. Styling by Ian Loh. Art direction by Rebecca Chew. Hair by Mesh Subra. Make-up by Jessie Chong. Blouse by Dorothy Perkins; Jeans by Topshop; Boots by Michael Kors; Cane by Comyns.