Sharon Au is back from Paris — but not for long.
At the Singapore launch event for her French Culinary school Ti Yan Academy on Dec. 19, the actress-turned-investment director was vivacious in addressing an audience of 80.
Although the self-confessed performer appeared genuinely exuberant, this has not always been a given, as we found out.
After a whirlwind of an event, the 44-year-old spoke to us about growing up in a broken family, what it was like being mired in depression, and slingshotting herself out of the entertainment industry to a faraway land.
No single trigger
Back in Feb. 2018, Au made headlines when she abruptly left her high-paying job at Mediacorp.
She had been a publisher at Elle magazine, and was also spearheading fashion and lifestyle site styleXstyle.
Au had no back-up plan, except for a crazy impulse to uproot her existence and move to Paris.
Naturally, she was bombarded with questions from those around her. "What about me?" her mum had asked. Others thought that she had been poached or headhunted with a better offer, only to find out that she was officially jobless.
"That month in Singapore was quite tough. I think that was why I packed my luggage as quickly as I could," Au jokes.
Intending to take a one-year sabbatical, Mar. 20, 2018 marked the day she left for Paris.
If you're here for the tea, sorry: There was no particular episode that made Au leave her role at Mediacorp. Even she admits it was "difficult" to give up the status and pay.
Instead, she calls it the "female version of mid-life crisis".
"Even though we keep saying age is just a number, but I remember turning 40, I was doing the LKY musical, and suddenly you start to question a lot more. So I guess this is the female version of mid-life crisis. Men mid-life crisis they buy Lamborghini. For me, my mid-life crisis was I needed a change. That to me was, what do you call that? Hormonal [laughs]."
The decision to leave was made in just a few days, after more than two decades building up her career as a host, actress, and entertainer in Singapore.
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Finally signed the papers to my apartment. Feeling somewhat surreal. Stood at the balcony for the longest time wondering if this is really happening. I want to share with all of you reading this: to chase your dreams with all your heart. It will come true. #clichebuttrue. and when it doesn’t, it’s because another view ( a better one) was planned for you.
But mid-life crisis or not, Au has adapted well to the Parisian life.
With Asian values of humility and confrontation avoidance inculcated in her, the investment director was initially "disturbed" when met with unceremonious feedback from the French.
Now, Au can not only take "in your face" comments, but is also learning to dish it.
Most of all, Paris seems to have instilled Au with a vibrancy that shines through, even in causal conversation.
"When I was in Paris, I was in the stage of my life where I was really experiencing new things.
Suddenly, I was very free, both physically and also spiritually I was feeling very liberated, cause I've never done anything like that (quitting and moving to another city).
It was against all the rules, against all the things I was taught growing up, against our values, so I felt very rebellious.
Can you imagine, my whole body, my being, my existence, was just going through an overhaul, you know. Even until now."
Rumour has it
But thanks to her inspirational Instagram captions asking people to live their lives and not waste any time, a rumour started that Au was dying.
Here are some of her particularly rousing posts:
People were convinced that she had a terminal illness of some sort, hence the drop-everything-and-move-to-Paris decision.
This was partly fuelled by the fact that Au had a reputation of being a go-getter in the industry. "Aggressive" and "ambitious" were the words Au used to describe herself.
Quitting and moving to Paris, therefore, was the exact opposite of what people thought she was.
When a reporter called to verify the rumour, Au laughed and lamented, "Why you curse me...?"
But Au also found the rumour "sobering", as she realised that most people would only make such a drastic change to their lives if they were dying.
"It takes death for them to do a change like that. At the same time I was grateful I wasn't ill, but I thought to myself, 'Then I better really do this before I really got ill.'"
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Urgent message. Don’t forget to live, until it’s too late. Slow down and take it all in. We become what we chase after. Someone asked me if i was ill and dying. I am not. But case in point exactly. Why do we need to wait for tragedy to strike before we realise and make a change? I choose to strike first.
And she does not deny that she has become vastly different from the Sharon Au that people knew.
"I've been pushing myself, my entire first 40 years of my life. I think I just got tired, so I tried the other way of life where you stopped pushing yourself."
A broken family
Growing up in what she once called a "broken, poor and unprivileged family background", the natural performer admits that it took a toll on her self-esteem.
"I was brought up to not rely too much on a particular family or person. Because my childhood was such that I had to move several times in a year. The longest would be a stay for one year and I had to move to another relative's house.
My whole childhood, people were trying to find where to chuck me."
The feeling of being unwanted was made worse at school, where Au could see that her friends had parents and by extension, a stable environment.
When she realised telling jokes drew people to her and made her forget about the dreary realities of life, Au started living through that persona.
But that has its downside.
"Then you become too much of a performer — you never know when to stop performing. So you don't know what is not performing, what is performing. And then I keep having to keep up with my performing persona."
Putting up such a front made Au question if she was really that happy all the time, and whether she had lost sight of herself.
And all of this began when she was only in primary school.
But under such circumstances, Au emerged a fiercely independent woman and top-notch performer, which could explain her career-oriented fervour in her former life at Mediacorp.
"Life has no meaning, why not just end it?"
In 2005, Au left her popularity behind to attend university in Tokyo for a Liberal Arts degree.
This was after four consecutive years, from 2000 to 2003, of winning Best Variety Show Host at the Star Awards.
Nonetheless, Au thoroughly enjoyed her six years in Japan — so much so that she fell into depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when she had to leave in 2011, after an earthquake took the lives of more than 19,000 people.
It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful in modern history.
Coming back to Singapore proved to be a blow for Au.
It had gotten to the point where she felt, "Life has no meaning, why not just end it?"
And it also didn't help that Au couldn't come to terms with the fact that she was depressed.
"It took me a long to admit that I was sick and I need to seek professional help. [...] Because all my life I've been strong enough to overcome any adversities, so like, this shouldn't be any different. "
Until one day, in a work meeting, she felt the ground tremble and shake.
Thinking that an earthquake was happening, she gripped the edges of the table and asked if anyone else felt it.
"I really felt it you know. Even today if you asked me, I really felt the earthquake. So I just stopped the meeting and just held on lah. And I go like, 'Aiyo, how come Singapore also has earthquake? Wow, really the world has changed.'"
The entire room looked at her, incredulous. Nobody had felt anything.
That was when she knew she had to get serious help.
Recognised at the clinic
But the process of getting help was not as straightforward.
Before the pseudo earthquake episode, Au had visited a clinic where she was recognised by the counter staff, who made a fuss and requested a photo.
When asked what she was doing here, Au could not bear the idea of the public knowing about her condition, and therefore lied that she was researching for a role.
She subsequently left the clinic before she even got to see the doctor.
Unfortunately, the second psychiatrist she went to was no better.
An unsympathetic man with his gaze fixed on his computer, the doctor only looked at Au once, when she stopped talking.
A part of their dialogue went something like this:
Doctor: Nowadays everybody depression ah? Aiyo, why so depressed? Tell me why you depressed
Au: Maybe I just came back from Japan, not used to it, haven't adjusted.
Doctor: Japan?! Japan very good meh?
Au: I studied there for six years, so I've gotten used to it, very different.
Doctor: "You know Japanese killed a lot of people ah? In the World War ah?"
Au sat through the entire 45-minute session (she had paid good money for it anyway), but she never visited another psychiatrist again.
(Almost) checking in to IMH
But startled once more into action by the incident at work, Au went to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
She decided that she would be honest with herself, and be open to treatment.
Alas, it did not work out.
"The IMH must check-in for seven days, and surrender your phone. For my particular treatment, it was like that lah. Wow, I couldn't you know! I wanted to, I struggled and told myself, 'Okay, maybe this is what it takes.'
But I chickened out. I was really such a coward. So I didn't go for that treatment."
Thankfully, she eventually found a competent counsellor in April 2012 — one that was recommended by her mother, who had grown increasingly desperate when Au did not get any better.
The counselling, together with anti-depressants, eventually redeemed Au from the clutches of depression.
"That's why I'm very particular when I read news about suicide and depression. I know it can go to that stage if you don't have a good support system. And if you deny medical help, it can get to that stage."
Since then, Au has treasured the "second chance" to embrace life again.
The next leap
At present, Ti Yan Academy is one of Au's latest project, in which she has invested S$100,000.
"It's for people who do not have the proficiency in French, to be able to have relatable access to the art of French cooking." she explains.
If you're wondering, no, "Ti Yan" is not French.
Instead, it means "to experience" in Chinese. More specifically, to savour an experience.
"Because of my freed up status (in Paris), I was able to really look at things. And then I realised I spent over 40 years of my life not appreciating things because I'm always too busy to savour a moment. And I could only do that when I physically plucked myself out of a very, very competitive environment."
The academy offers e-courses from a number of established chefs, including Gunther Hubrechsen, Vianney Massot, and Singaporean private chef/Masterchef Asia contestant Lennard Yeong.
Prices start from S$138 for an express programme, and go up to S$688 for a professional course.
This is relatively affordable compared to culinary schools overseas, which can cost upwards of S$50,000 and take over a year.
Another difference is that there is no timeline for Ti Yan's courses, so that students can progress at their own pace.
Besides instructional videos and text, students at Ti Yan can also book an online session with the chef, where an expert can watch them cook in real time.
To complete the course, students will spend one week in one of the chef's kitchen, after which they receive certification should they pass.
Even though Ti Yan is based in Singapore, Au will be running it from Paris.
Before we say au revoir, though, Au will star in an upcoming Chinese play "Sages of the Bamboo Grove", at the Esplanade on Jan 31 and Feb. 1, 2020.
Seems like she isn't taking it that slow just yet.
Top image via Sharon Au