Actor Karen Tan who stars in Forever Young talks about post-natal depression and the pressure on new mums to be ‘perfect’, why she once shaved her head, how she’s being kinder to herself aged 54, and why we should all not be afraid to ‘do the right thing’
Singaporean actor Karen Tan, has had the privilege of working with practically every theatre company in Singapore over her acting career that has spanned 35 years. Karen has two daughters, Rachel, 25 and Olivia 16, and she lives in Singapore with her gynaecologist husband. We caught up with the actor who is currently starring in the hit musical Forever Young by Sing’theatre – a show blending comedy, music and tough themes surrounding eldercare, dementia, and ageing. Read on as Karen shares her thoughts on how we can better support mothers with post-natal depression, why she once shaved her head, how actors and the theatre scene has struggled under covid-19 restrictions and why we should all not be afraid to show extra kindness and empathy to each other, now more than ever.
Tell us about your latest role in the musical Forever Young
My role in Forever Young is a very elderly retired actress. She’s a mix of different characters that we know in Singapore – each character in Forever Young is like that. She’s a very bitter old woman who’s had a stroke and has some Parkinsons. She actually reminds me a lot of my own elderly parents – my father who passed away a few years ago actually during the first run of Forever Young – he passed away right after the show – and my mother who is 89 who is now not well. Forever Young centres around the whole waiting to die kind of idea where you may have had a very colourful happy life but somehow when you reach a certain point in your life when you’re old and suddenly nothing means anything anymore – that’s something my character goes through.
You have to wear lots of ageing makeup in this role. In real life, have you found any pressure to look a certain way as you get older and does this affect getting roles?
I’m really very fortunate – the good thing about theatre is that you can be an older person but you can still play a younger person because it can be, well a fantasy role – it’s not so exacting like film or television.
I think my own struggles with my self-image is always something I’ve had since I was young. So I’m always gonna say I’m too fat, never thin enough, never pretty enough whatever. Now that I’m 54, I’m nicer to myself, I’m better to myself – though I feel I should have done this ages ago. When I turned 50 my husband said to me I’ve got to look after my bones so I started exercising – it’s not so much now about losing weight it’s just looking after my body.
How have you enjoyed acting in a musical with dance moves?
It’s very tiring! Don’t like it all the time! I’ve started exercising to a Youtube video and that helps me with my choreography – but I am not a born dancer.
Do you get recognised when you are out and about?
No! And if I do, I’ve been called Selena Tan once by someone in Watsons in Holland village. And I’m not kidding that same day I went to Gleneagles Hospital and the nurse said “Hello Pam Oei” and I had to show her my IC! Another time at Plaza Singapura a lady walking around with a trolley said “You’re that actress – what’s your name?” Which is already a hint that she doesn’t know who I am. I said Karen Tan and she said “Oh wah you’re very plain!” Thanks, lady!
You have spoken about having post-natal depression after both your pregnancies – what do you think we can do better to help support new mums especially those who might suffer PND?
I think firstly we have to do more to have more empathy and just be kind. It’s very easy for us to get fed up with somebody who may be snapping at us. We forget that just as we have bad days and we react badly to certain situations other people do that too. It’s always very important to take five steps back before even saying anything and if you need to take more steps back then do that. It’s easy to judge and I don’t know why it’s easier to say you have cancer and you would definitely get more sympathy than if you said you have schizophrenia, depression, postnatal depression, bipolar disorder and all sorts of different conditions where you’ll get practically no sympathy. If anything people are going to step away from you very slowly. There is this idea of madness – that is such a general umbrella term but it seems that all mental illness comes under this umbrella of madness whereas we forget that actually we are all prone to a kind of “madness”. Haven’t we all said things like I’m so angry I’m going to kill that guy? That takes madness you know, to actually feel that kind of anger.
I would say we need to stop making the whole idea of motherhood out to be perfect. I know in our eyes our mothers are always perfect but we also have to remember that they’re actually more human than they are perfect. When we put mothers onto a pedestal it is impossible for them to get down. So you’re stuck on that pedestal, coping with a baby that will not stop crying, you don’t get to pee or shower and you look and feel terrible and everybody gives all the attention to the baby. You’re trying to breastfeed and people say “See you don’t have enough milk”, you give a bottle to the baby and they say you should breastfeed and it’s just terrible – we put all this pressure on mothers. Fathers have their own pressures too but I have to say it’s a lot less because they say how should men know how to change a nappy but you as a woman should know how to do these things? So I think we should all stop having double standards and even drop our standards! It’s OK, new mothers, to have dirty toilets and it is OK that you wear the same T-shirt every day and so and so forth. It is important to feel that you are in a comfortable zone and that you can parent your own way at your own rate.
What are your children up to now – did either of them follow in your footsteps?
My older daughter Rachel is 25 – she graduated with a degree in philosophy but she’s dealing with microbiomes, as in sh*t. So I say in philosophy you learn that life is sh*t and now you’re dealing with microbiomes which is sh*t! But basically, it’s a startup company that examines your microbiome to tell you how you can change your diet to have a better life and live better. Olivia is 16 so she’s preparing for O level exams. They get along really well – they are 9 years apart but they are incredibly good friends!
Neither of them has actually said that they want to be actors and I don’t think it’s anything that I would encourage them to do – it’s a really hard thing to be an actor. It doesn’t matter in Singapore or not, it’s really, really hard. I think the level for rejection and self-doubt and self-questioning is really higher than in other careers.
How did you cope when theatres were closed during the lockdown?
Well here’s my confession I managed to do quite a few things during the lockdown. I hate working on television and filming but I was offered some TV work and I just thought I’d do it for the money. I was not as badly hit as other people and I tell you while I’m really very grateful for it, the guilt that accompanied me all of last year was pretty bad because so many of my friends were literally shut down literally overnight. I still feel terrible because life for many of my friends has not picked up. Theatres may not be closed but there are so many restrictions and I feel it’s so important to speak up that I don’t understand the arbitrary rules for theatre. Before every performance, we have to go and get swabbed whereas doctors and nurses get swabbed every two weeks. And I don’t understand that we have to stay indoors until half an hour after the last show before we can leave. Why aren’t people who are going to malls, schools and government buildings swabbed? Not every day but why weren’t they swabbed every two weeks? Nothing has ever been traced back to theatres and of course, some might say yeah it’s because we swab you all the time but I don’t think that’s it. We were the first to be shut down with the lockdown because we are seen as non-essential and then now we are the ones that are also squashed a lot. Anyone out there who works in government I would like to hear from you!
Do you like watching acting on TV or theatre or do you find yourself critiquing the acting?
I like watching Netflix – I love Korean shows. I don’t go to the cinema much because I get a bit claustrophobic. Plus, yes I do find myself critiquing the acting – it’s a hazard of the job!
What do you like doing outside of work?
I like to do crochet and gardening.
We understand you are very passionate about supporting charities. Tell us about when you shaved your hair for the Children’s Cancer Foundation and your work with cervical cancer charities?
I shaved my hair for the Children’s Cancer Foundation many years ago in 2008 back before it was really the done thing. Olivia was three years old and when I came back home with a bald head after shaving my hair she burst into tears. The whole point about having my head shaved was not to wear a scarf to cover it – the guy at the Cancer Foundation said young girls are more prone to getting childhood cancer and when they go through chemotherapy and lose their hair – it’s really traumatic. He encouraged me to not wear a scarf or any covering. And people would really stare at me – when I was in KL I had a family from the Middle East literally come and point at me and laugh and I found out later that in their culture when a woman is shaved she’s disgraced, she’s done something wrong. I had lots of experiences of people staring and talking about me behind my back wondering why I was bald. So I realized how much harder it must be for a child or a young teenager to be bald. And this is the kind of empathy I’m talking about – it’s why I think more kindness is needed in the world.
My husband also does Cancer Research specifically for cervical cancer and the thing about cervical cancer is that it is the only cancer that you can prevent because it is caused by a virus and there’s a vaccine for it as well! Even though vaccines are a very sensitive topic- if you know you can take a jab that protects you 99% from getting cervical cancer, especially for women isn’t that one less cancer to think about? So see your GP about it or your gynaecologist – thank you very much!
Any last words?
I think it’s important for all of us grown-ups and children to encourage each other to not be afraid to do the right thing, especially with these times the way they are right now. Don’t be afraid to help an old lady across the road. Don’t be afraid to help somebody who’s been mugged by someone. Don’t be afraid to call for help if you know for sure that your neighbour is being abused whether it’s a child or mother or wife or even a husband who is being abused. Don’t be afraid to do the right thing – there’s no such thing as somebody else will do it. The regret is not worth it.
Thank you Karen for your time, for sharing your personal family pictures and your wise words!
Forever Young is showing at the Drama Centre until 3 October 2021.