Dick Lee’s a pretty familiar name to us in Singapore. He was a judge on all three seasons of Singapore Idol, he directed last year’s National Day Parade, and he’s the composer of the wholesome, popular patriotic song, "Home".
So it might come as a surprise to you that he’s recently been thinking a lot about male beauty pageants. They’re the subject of a new play he’s written: a fun-filled and speedo-clad comedy named Beauty Kings, playing from 6 to 17 July at the Drama Centre Theatre.
“There are only two international male beauty pageant franchises in the world: Manhunt International and Mister International; and I’ve realised they both originate in Singapore,” he said in our interview.
“This is something very curious. There’s something about the culture here that’s created these things. Homosexuality is illegal, so it manifests itself in other ways, like pageants.”
Lee’s fascinated by the motivations of the men who take part in these pageants, plus the whole issue of male vanity in our otherwise repressed, self-effacing Asian society. He’s thus crafted a script full of scandal and intrigue, centered on the tale of an investigative reporter named Adam (played by Rodney Oliveiro) who’s going undercover to expose the truth behind the Mister Man beauty pageant.
Besides Rodney, the rest of the star-studded cast includes Lim Yu-Beng, Karen Tan and Judee Tan. You’ll also see new faces Kaeng Chan and Eli Tee, plus an ensemble of five other hunks in trunks parading down the catwalk. Fans of the annual comedy revue Chestnuts should also be delighted to know the director’s chair is occupied by the hilarious Jonathan Lim.
“It’s really hard to find hunky actors who are really, really good!” Lim confessed to me privately.
“I told Dick Lee as soon as he started writing that this play would be impossible to cast. The big fear was that we wouldn’t find our three leads: I knew it would make or break the show. We saw so many people, and no-one came close - we were on the verge of rewriting the characters.”
The producers had to hold out for weeks before finding their winning trio of leads. Rodney was an early and obvious choice – he’s acted with Singapore’s top theatre companies for years, and is a frequent collaborator with Lim.
Kaeng was a tougher call: he’d just flown in from Sydney to act in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Macbeth, and it took the director a while to realise that he happened to fit the bill with his square jaw, square shoulders and classical theatre training. Eli was a chance find: he’s actually from the music industry, with almost no theatre experience. Nonetheless, he had the entire crew in stitches from his very first read.
During Beauty Kings, audience members will also get to choose which of these three studs they like best via an SMS voting system. The outcome of these votes will determine the winner of the pageant, and thus the conclusion of the play: i.e. there are three completely different endings to this drama, so you might need to book the show on multiple nights.
Incidentally, this isn’t just a once-off production for Lee. It’s part of the opening season for his new theatre company, Fantastic Entertainment.
He knows it’s been a while since he created a completely original work – his name’s been associated with revivals more recently, such as the 20th anniversary version of his acclaimed musical Beauty World, and the People’s Association-sponsored Fried Rice Paradise. So he’s set up this company to signal his return to the creative world, so he can spur himself on to write more original works.
I managed to catch Fantastic’s maiden production, The Adventures of a Mad Chinaman, staged at the Esplanade from 24 to 26 May this year. It went rather well, I’d say: a tender yet whimsical autobiographical monologue by Lee himself, punctuated by the songs that made him famous.
Hopefully, Beauty Kings will prove to be another iconic work in Lee’s already impressive repertoire. I’ve been told the play will be sexy, but with real emotional depth, and just PG-rated enough for you to bring your boyfriend’s mother along without cringing.
Of course, even if you’ve already bought your tickets, you’ll still have to decide: which manly man will you vote for? You’ll be able to find out a little more about our fine, fine contestants on the next page.
æ: Age, Sex, Location?
Rodney: 36, could be more, Bishan (Singapore).
Kaeng: 32, obviously male, Australia/Singapore.
Eli: Male, Dressing Room Two at the Goodman Arts Centre. I don’t wanna say my age, but I’m the youngest.
æ: Most of us know Rodney Oliveiro’s theatre history. But Kaeng and Eli, what are your backgrounds in performance?
Kaeng: I was born in Singapore, but I migrated to Perth when I was seven. I studied at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts, which we call WAAPA, in Perth. Then I moved to Sydney after that. I first got into a kids’ TV show, Playhouse Disney, then I focused more on the stage. A friend of mine was directing a show for the Singapore Repertory Theatre, and he said, “Do you want to be a part of it?” And I said, “Sure, it’d be good to come back to Singapore after 25 years.”
Eli: I’m a singer/songwriter/producer. I write songs for pop artists aside from myself and I perform as well. I was born here and then I lived in Toronto, Canada. I came back to do my National Service and then I got signed with a label and started doing tracks for a bunch of different people. Then I left the label and started doing my own thing, ‘cos I figured it would help to grow my process basically.
æ: Tell us about your characters.
Rodney: I’m Adam. He’s a journalist and he’s entered the competition with an ulterior motive in investigating what goes on backstage at these beauty pageants. He’s heard over the years that there’s a lot of seedy things happening between the organisers and the contestants.
Kaeng: Benny. Benny is not your usual beauty contestant. He’s very straight-laced: he works a 9-to-5 job, he’s had a girlfriend since his JC days and the last thing he thought he would ever do is a male beauty pageant. So he’s lost in this world, but he’s spurred on by this girlfriend.
Eli: I play Don. And he’s proudly a part-time model, loves the fact that he’s doing it and he’s being trying to get signed with the agency that organizes the Mr Man contest.
æ: Is he the himbo?
Eli: (hangs head) Yes. But he’s nice! He’s just… y’know. (laughs)
Rodney: I think he has the most pure motive in joining, ‘cos he thinks he’s beautiful.
Eli: I don’t think Don thinks he’s beautiful. He doesn’t think he’s God’s gift to man. He’s got what it takes, but he knows he has to work really hard too. He takes the pageant really seriously. He’s in it to win it.
æ: By the way, have any of you guys ever been in a beauty pageant before?
Rodney: Never, never.
Kaeng: No, but being a performing artist is something one and the same.
Eli: I was in Female magazine’s “50 Most Gorgeous” a couple years back, but I don’t even know how I stumbled into it. Weird right?
æ: Did you have to work out a lot for your roles?
Rodney: (pointing to Kaeng) He didn’t have to; he came in this shape!
Kaeng: I’ve actually been going to gym since my last years of drama school. But it’s been hard because I normally have on periods and off periods, and now I’ve been on my on-period for a long time and my body’s saying, “No! Take a break!”
Eli: I’ve given up supper. I mourn the loss of supper! And some of us have been going for muay Thai (boxing), besides gong to the gym. We’ve been eating healthier eats, like chicken breasts instead of dark meat.
Rodney: I’ve already got a lineup of buffets after the show… champagne brunch…
Eli: Korean barbecue for me!
Kaeng: And then waxing. Oei. We’ll totally have to wax.
æ: Any thoughts on the script?
Rodney: The script has gone through a number of incarnations since the audition read. A couple of characters’ motivations have changed completely. Even in the first couple of weeks of rehearsals we had some major rewrites. Dick was in a lot: we tweaked the dialogue, we tweaked the characters... The script has become much meatier now, the subplots are more intricate and the characters are more delicate.
æ: Do you have any hidden talents we’ll be seeing?
Kaeng: I sing. I was classically trained, actually. I did four years of opera singing before I switched to drama school.
Rodney: He’s also very good in that Chippendales routine that we do. The body rolls and the hip thrusts…
Kaeng: Why??? I’ll get you…
Rodney: He’s being modest.
Kaeng: Body rolls were something I had to learn for another show: Miss Saigon. I was the only male stripper in the Bangkok scene. And I had what you call fuck-me-boots, mesh leather pants with a studded codpiece, and a bullwhip, with which I cracked myself in the head quite a few times. Not fun.
Rodney: Don’t give Jon any ideas!
Beauty Kings will be showing at the Drama Centre Theatre on 6-17 July 2011, 8pm (no shows on Mondays, 3pm matinees on weekends). Tickets are available from Sistic.com.sg. Also check out Fantastic Entertainment at Fantastic.com.sg.
Ng Yi-Sheng is a poet and playwright, and winner of the Singapore Literature Prize in 2008 for his poetry anthology Last Boy.