“Please don’t say I’m beautiful,” says Ong Bee Yan.
In spite of her slim figure, high cheekbones, and luminous silver hair, the 65-year-old grandmother, who prefers to be known as Yan, says she has never thought of herself as beautiful.
Stylish, yes, but not beautiful.
Indeed, Yan exudes an understated and elegant style — today she is dressed in a black high-neck sleeveless top and houndstooth pants — which has probably opened up doors to several modelling opportunities since 2019.
However, the self-professed introvert admits that she suffers from low self-esteem; she is not used to being in front of the camera and she absolutely hates taking photos:
"Everywhere we go, when we go on holidays, I very rarely take pictures. If I do it'll be like, far, far away. Please stay far away. Take the scenery, less of me."
Why then, would someone with low self-esteem and a dislike for appearing in photos decide to take up modelling, what more at an age where most would gravitate toward more sedentary lifestyles?
Started when she grew out grey hair
It all started in 2019, when she decided to stop dyeing her grey hair and embrace it by growing it out.
"I told myself once I let it grow, I let it grow, whether it suits me or not. I guess I decided to embrace my age."
To her surprise, she started getting compliments for her hair, even from strangers:
"Is this natural?"
"Is it your natural colour?"
"Is this really your white hair?"
"You look very good for your age."
"I try my best...I don't want to be fashionable, but I want to dress [according to] how I think I will look good," she says.
That mentality extends to her locks, which have to be maintained with a specially-formulated shampoo for silver hair. She also lets on that she applies a blue pea flower extract to her hair every two to three days, preserving its cool tint.
Later that year, Yan was talent-scouted by a designer from Graye Studio, who wanted a range of everyday folks to model a collection of indigo dye clothes.
It was an opportunity to challenge herself and do something completely new, she thought.
Despite being the oldest model there, Yan found that she enjoyed the entire experience, working with younger folks and bouncing ideas off the photographer.
To be honest, she still feels butterflies when it comes to posing for the camera, Yan shares.
But she is slowly learning to be at ease in her own skin:
"If young and talented people believe that I can fulfill their vision, why should I doubt myself? I mean, they can easily get a young model to wear their clothes.
At the same time, it is to boost my confidence and self esteem. And to prove that seniors can actually learn and do new things."
From clothes to sunglasses, and even masks — Yan slowly picked up more and more modelling opportunities, which she documents on Instagram, under the username @grey_evolution. It's her way of inspiring other senior citizens to step out and do something different.
To date, she has done eight modelling gigs and shares that there are more lined up — "Almost one every week!"
Doesn't want to be "typecasted"
You might remember Yan from a previous interview we did in November last year. She and her husband Richard set up 1degreeC, a cold brew coffee business, after the latter was retrenched in 2016.
In some ways, diving into a new business at 60 and embracing her silver hair has offered Yan an insight into finding purpose in one's old age.
"Since we started the company, I realised that, you know, there are a lot of people my age who just feel that (growing old) is all they have."
Are seniors expected to spend their days watching television? Looking after their grandchildren? Spend their afternoons at the kopitiam?
These aren't terrible activities in themselves, but as an older person, Yan shudders at being "typecasted".
In particular, she does not appreciate the thinking that grandparents are expected to look after their grandchildren.
Grandparents should have a choice; it should not be imposed on them, she says.
"If they love to look after their grandchildren, that's fine. But don't tell them that, 'This is your job because you're a grandparent.'
I don't think that is right."
Yan and her husband visit their grandchildren — a boy and a girl — once a week. The rest of her time is divided between 1degreeC and her modelling jobs.
The freedom that she has has also enabled her to pick up new things like producing content for her @grey_evolution and @1degreec_coldbrew Instagram accounts.
She is even learning to take selfies.
"It is not easy, but at least I am learning something new," she says
Strong support from family
Yan has been able to engage in her modelling gigs. in part due to the the support she receives from her family, especially Richard, whom she calls her "biggest fan". He and her children take turns to be physically present at her shoots whenever they can.
Occasionally, Richard — out of an abundance of love for her — would advise her not to take assignments which want her to "look her age" (a.k.a grandmotherly).
"I said I'll embrace my age lah. I'm 65! I don't have to look model-like all the time."
Although there are ways to maintain one's general health and skin, at her age, one has to be at peace with the wrinkles, grey hair, crow's feet, and sagging skin, she muses.
She clarifies though, that there are certain assignments which she doesn't take, for example, those that involve revealing clothes. One designer wanted her to model a bikini — "I said no, I'm not going to do a bikini!"
Positive and inspiring responses
So far, the responses to Yan's content on @grey_evolution have been very positive and inspiring. She is heartened that her work has impact.
"[Richard and I] always wanted to do more, to be able to inspire people, empower them."
For those — especially seniors — who find themselves stuck in a rut, Yan has this advice: Just go out and grab those opportunities, no matter how small.
As she started receiving more modelling gigs, someone advised her to pick her jobs carefully — take those which pay more. She doesn't quite agree with this approach:
"Even the smallest job gives me the opportunity to practice, boost my confidence, my self esteem."
Looks like we'll be seeing more of her very soon.
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.