Besotted with the girl next door

Never underestimate the power of a fresh-faced, bright-eyed actress in a girl-next-door role.

Last year, such likeable lasses opened doors for three actresses in productions across Asia.

Taiwanese actress Vivian Sung, 23, struck gold in her sophomore project as the nerdy wallflower Truly Lin in high-school romance movie Our Times.

She was neither the school belle nor the popular kid. But she had audiences rooting for her.

K-pop starlet Lee Hyeri, 21, was the darling of a sleepy Seoul neighbourhood in hit retro Korean drama Reply 1988.

She is now the darling of advertisers and a sought- after female lead.

Singapore's Ya Hui, 29, was a warm and genuine presence as she hawked wonton noodles in the Channel 8 long-form drama 118.

Not even an uncool fanny-pack and dowdy attire could mask her sweet smile and winning innocence.

The girl-next-door appeals to a wide audience, said Ms Georgina Chang, head of Mediacorp's The Celebrity Agency. "Boys and girls, and men and women like her. Grandmothers also like her," she said.

The girl-next-door is defined by her pleasant looks and wholesome appeal, said Ms Chang, pointing to Mediacorp actresses Ya Hui and Bonnie Loo as examples.

She added: "She's not devastatingly beautiful, which makes her non- threatening and more approachable. Sometimes plain Janes have that engaging appeal.

"They usually have a fresh light in their eyes and a very sweet smile. They are the kind of girls that boys want to take care of and their mothers want to have taking care of their sons."

Mr Molby Low, chief creative director of television production company WaWa Pictures, decided to cast Loo as her sweet image fit the bill for a student with a love for singing in the music drama Crescendo (2015).

There are plenty of wholesome roles in dramas and movies for a reason.

He said: "They are less intimidating and so viewers are likely to be able to relate to their stories and feel for the characters."

Ms Chang agreed: "These roles are more believable and familiar to our audiences and connect closer with them."

Marketing manager Siti Noraini, 30, felt that connection with the endearing heroine of K-drama Reply 1988, who was played by girl group Girl's Day member Lee.

Ms Siti said: "I find Hyeri's energy amazing. She's a little quirky and fun, not just another pretty face.

"She's relatable and I think that is an important factor for a star to become successful. She emits so many positive vibes on TV that it makes viewers happy."

Taiwanese belle who says sorry to fans

In Taipei

When Taiwanese breakout star Vivian Sung gets approached on the street for photographs, she ends up asking her fans whether they mind that she is not glammed up.

This is because the obliging actress from last year's hit romantic comedy Our Times feels apologetic for not being photo-ready.

The 23-year-old said: "When I'm not working, most of the time I'm bare-faced or have very light make- up on. That's why I feel embarrassed when fans on the street ask for a photo. I will ask them if they mind, I'm glad to take the photo if they don't."

She was speaking to The Straits Times to promote her new Taiwanese idol drama Taste Of Love, which premieres in Singapore on Jia Le Channel on July 11.

During the session, it was apparent that the unassuming air of the bumbling nerd Truly Lin she played in Our Times was no act.

The earnest actress looked reporters in the eyes when answering questions.

Animatedly recounting a chance encounter with a fan while holidaying in England earlier this year, she said: "She told me she was surprised to see me in England. I replied that I was surprised to see a Singaporean fan in England."

From time to time, she playfully exchanged jibes with her co-star Ray Chang.

Though she achieved stardom fresh out of school, fame has not gone to her head.

Last year, she graduated from the Textiles and Clothing faculty at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan.

The school belle was already a household name in Taiwan because of her debut movie Cafe. Waiting. Love (2014).

But it was mega-hit Our Times which rocketed her to fame in the region.

The high-school romance is the highest-grossing Taiwanese movie in Singapore, with more than $3.5 million earned at the box office last year. Her performance also garnered her a Best Actress nomination at last year's Golden Horse Awards.

Taiwanese government officials are capitalising on her popularity.

The film was a hit in South Korea and Apple Daily reported that the actress has been appointed a tourism ambassador to attract Korean visitors to Taipei.

Judging from her acting resume, it is safe to say her appeal lies in her wide-eyed innocence.

So far, she has been cast as the girl-next-door type in her three projects.

Both Lee Si-ying of Cafe. Waiting. Love and Truly Lin of Our Times were students pining for love.

In Taste Of Love, she is bubbly tour guide Yeh Hsiao-ho, who loves to help people and hunt down good food.

Some might find the wholesome image limiting, but the level-headed actress sees it from a different perspective.

She said: "There are 100 types of girl-next-door. So far, I've portrayed only three types. Someone once asked me if I'm worried about being stereotyped as a student. To me, I'm treasuring the fact that I can still wear a uniform and look convincing as a student."

In her latest project, she puts on a uniform again as she returns to a school setting in the Chinese fantasy romance Proud Of Love.

She is reportedly in Beijing filming the Web drama, which will be available on major Chinese video-streaming site Youku Tudou in September.

While there are plenty of overseas opportunities beckoning, ultimately, home is where her heart is.

Lamenting the lack of family time due to her long filming hours, she said: "During my school days, I used to think it was boring to return home after school. Now when I'm tired at work or overseas filming, I miss home. After entering the workforce, I now know why people say that home is a safe harbour."

The only child is the pride and joy of her mother, a former airstewardess, and father, a former school discipline master.

She said: "My parents are really supportive. My mother makes it a point to keep newspaper articles about me."

Die-hard male fans will be disappointed to learn that she has another pillar of support - her long- time high-school sweetheart.

Coy about revealing too much, she would only say: "Sometimes my boyfriend visits me on the film set. That small gesture is a source of strength for me."

Just as bubbly as her roles, but so much wiser

In last year's hit nostalgic Korean drama Reply 1988, Lee Hyeri was quite literally the girl-next-door, as the show revolved around the lives of her bubbly character Sung Deok Sun and her family and neighbours.

The show helped to distinguish the Girl's Day member from the many other K-pop starlets out there.

In her follow-up role, the actress stuck to the tried- and-tested by playing Jeong Geu Rin, the eager manager of a rookie band in K-drama Entertainer.

On the surface, the two characters boast the same sunshine personality.

In an e-mail interview, Lee, 21, said: "I like that the two roles are similar yet so different at the same time. Geu Rin comes from a broken family and has to pick up the broken pieces in order to move forward. There's some kind of sadness in her.

"Deok Sun, on the other hand, is just very cheerful. The word I would use to describe her is naive. She is young and free. Even though she was poor, she had everything she needed."

The K-popster's indelible performance in ratings blockbuster Reply 1988 has certainly left an impression on viewers.

"I was out buying food and this group of ahjummas (aunties in Korean) came up to me and called me Deok Sun, like I was their daughter," said the performer, who debuted as a member of girl group Girl's Day in 2010.

Her affinity with audiences has turned her into a top bankable star. Korea Times reported that she earned almost six billion won (S$7 million) by starring in more than 20 advertisements.

In one, the doe-eyed lass beckons viewers to buy chocolates. In another, she is working out in trendy sportswear and shoes.

In real life, she bears more than a passing similarity to the fun-loving academically challenged Sung.

She said: "We laugh a lot and we are spontaneous. Deok Sun, like me, is learning about the world every day, but not through books." For her role as a newbie manager navigating show business, she did not need to refer to any textbooks as she could easily observe her work environment.

And her acting stint has made her realise the challenges of being the minder of a K-pop group.

She said: "A manager's job is really tough - you have so little time, but so much to do. I think it's really fun to be on the other side. Now I appreciate my manager more."

In the drama, her character faces an uphill task as she has to come up with ways to get publicity for a fledging band.

In one storyline, the band's lead vocalist ends up being inadvertently framed for sexual assault.

Though many of the sensational plots are made up, Lee says there is some truth in the show.

Perhaps reflecting on her own ascent, she said: "The drama does reflect how difficult it is for rookies (to make it). It takes the right timing, opportunities and confidence from everyone."

Good girl gets a hug on the street

Singapore actress Ya Hui received a hug on the street, thanks to her loveable turn as down-to-earth wonton mee seller Hong Jinzhi in the long-form drama 118.

"An auntie gave me a hug and told me, 'If no one sayang you, auntie will sayang you'," she said, referring to the Malay word for love.

The character's kind nature coupled with her being diagnosed with a brain tumour made her a hit with audiences.

The 29-year-old actress said: "Many people can connect with Hong Jinzhi. She's a simple girl who does not hanker after material needs. She's contented with leading a simple life. Passers-by call me Jinzhi when they meet me. People tend to like good-girl characters."

She is versatile and has tried her hand at roles ranging from a tough cop in Channel 5 drama Point Of Entry (2012) to spoilt rich girl in Channel 8 drama Gonna Make It (2013).

But it is the amiable role as the noodle seller that has really struck a chord with the public.

Audiences were not the only ones who took to Miss Nice. Industry players and advertisers also took notice.

Ya Hui earned her first Best Actress nomination at this year's Star Awards in her nine-year show- business career, though she did not win.

She also snagged an endorsement deal with blackcurrant drink Ribena, where she smiles sunnily in television and bus advertisements.

Fans will be pleased to know that she reprises her role in the sequel to the popular heartland drama 118, which begins filming later this year.

Hong Jinzhi's easy-going attitude is something the actress can identity with as she enjoys daydreaming on bus rides home and chowing down hawker fare.

She said: "I'm just being myself. Being the girl-next-door is not an image that I created. I've always been one since I was young."

Speaking to The Straits Times on the phone while standing in line at the bank, she said she is in her default outfit for filming days - T-shirt and shorts.

She had just wrapped up shooting for the upcoming cop drama C.L.I.F 4, in which she roughs it out as a policewoman for a change of pace.

"Since we are going to change into our characters' outfits, I usually chin chai (Hokkien for in a careless manner) wear clothes.

"If I go to town or meet friends, I'll dress up a bit, but I won't overdress. I'm very much a T-shirt and jeans girl. Singapore's weather is so hot, stars are humans too and we need to be comfortable in what we are wearing," said the youngest of three children of retiree parents who are in their 70s.

She is just as comfortable in her own skin when it comes to her acting career.

She has yet to win an acting award and has made it to the Top 10 Most Popular Female Artiste category only once, in 2014.

She once likened the feeling of not getting into the popularity polls to failing school examinations.

Now she seems to have come to terms with the lack of awards and is focused on the intangible rewards of acting.

She said: "My biggest dream is to move audiences with my acting, I want them to feel the emotions and be able to understand what is going through my character's mind. That's the most important thing for me as an actress."

Drawing a parallel to her character in 118, she added: "We will do things to the best of our abilities. There will be people who like my acting, there will be people who don't. What's most important is that I'm true to myself and I've put in my utmost effort. I'll have no regrets."

This article was first published on June 8, 2016.
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