Dick Lee's hunt for a beauty king

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The writer, director and lead actor behind Beauty Kings sit down with Jo Tan to discuss casting based on looks and the island’s lack of suitably sexy male talent

First published on 27 Jun 2011. Updated on 5 Jul 2011.

The best-looking men in the world? Right here in the Lion City? It’s true… in a manner of speaking. After all, it was a Singaporean who in 1987 founded Manhunt, the original male-model contest, and it was here that Mister International was staged for the first time 19 years later. Still, no Singaporean has ever won either contest and it was this realisation that inspired Dick Lee, a former Manhunt judge, to write Beauty Kings.

The comic play, which reveals the inner workings of the male beauty pageant industry, is directed by moustachioed theatre veteran Jonathan Lim and stars Singapore-born, Perth-raised actor Kaeng Chan, who has come a long way from his days as a co-host on Playhouse Disney, a TV programme for kids in pre-school.

Lee’s eclectic list of accomplishments includes everything from producing last year’s restaging of his classic musical Fried Rice Paradise to penning a bestselling autobiography, The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman, and serving as a judge on Singapore Idol.

For him, sitting down to write Beauty Kings was the easy part. What proved to be a challenge was finding suitably buff actors to fill the play’s leading roles. ‘They needed to have the necessary character quirks and yet be handsome, talented, with good physiques,’ Lee says. ‘We have lots of great character actors here, but in that classic Hollywood mould.’

As it turns out, only one of the three actors playing the finalists in Mr Man, the fictitious pageant around which the play revolves, is Singaporean. And, deadpans Lim, ‘Rodney Oliveiro [a long-time thespian] has to spend a lot of time at the gym.’ The other two are singer-songwriter Eli T, who was born in Singapore but grew up in Canada, and Chan, who tackles the lead role.

Though there was never any doubt about Chan’s talent – he is a veteran of stage and screen in both Australia and Singapore – there was scepticism as to whether he could be convincing as a local. ‘This is Kaeng’s first time playing a Singaporean role, and it’s very Singaporean,’ says Lim of the actor, who speaks with a noticeable Australian accent offstage. ‘And he’s just come from starring in a production of Macbeth, so he’s been picking up the wrong sounds.’

Chan isn’t overly concerned. ‘Singlish is still ingrained,’ he says with a laugh. ‘My aunties and cousins are all in Singapore. I know where to put the “lahs” and “lors”.’ After taking other factors into account, Lee and Lim decided that Chan was the right man for the job. While he has never been in a swimsuit contest, the actor wore an ‘embarrassing’ fitted bright blue top and red pants in a previous role.

Chan has long maintained a rigorous gym routine and, not too surprisingly, he has watched his fair share of pageants. ‘Miss Australia, Jennifer Hawkins, won Miss Universe,’ he says. ‘Every Aussie was part of that.’ Still, Chan, Lim and Lee all agree that of the two – beauty contests for women and their male equivalent – pageants for men qualify as the weird sibling.

‘It’s very bizarre to me because of the mix of the ambitious and the clueless,’ Lim says. ‘If you think you get stupid answers in female pageants, wait till the male version. Also, the audience: supportive mothers, grandmas in the front row, while you’re wearing your skimpy outfits?’

That said, Beauty Kings treats male pageants with respect, addressing real issues even as it milks the situation for laughs. ‘It’s men worrying about their figures, dealing with the pressures that used to apply only to women… it’s something that’s actually happening everywhere,’ Lim says.

Lee elaborates: ‘I wanted to explore issues of male vanity, male competitiveness. How does the whole macho thing come into play [in a pageant]? How is it different from a female pageant? Maybe there’s no difference.’

Ultimately, audiences will be the judge, literally. It’s their votes that determine who earns the title of Mr Man, a decision that also settles which of the play’s three endings the audience sees. ‘That’s also why our actors all have to look good, so that the audience has a tougher job voting,’ Lim says. ‘Each must be a potential Mr Man.’ He adds with a laugh, ‘I say: more gym!’

Beauty Kings plays at Drama Centre from 6-17 Jul.

This story first appeared as 'Where my boys at?' in Jul 2011.

By Jo Tan
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