How Do I Look? Asia host Jeannie Mai gets her style and sass from her mum

It is easy to see where Vietnamese-American TV host Jeannie Mai gets her famous bubbly personality.

Her mother, Madame Olivia TuTram Mai, was in town to accompany her for the two weeks that she was here to film and promote Season 2 of popular TV makeover show How Do I Look? Asia.

Despite Mama Mai's short two-week stay in Singapore, she had become quite the celebrity here in her own right.

Sitting in on local press activities alongside Mai, she was spirited and cheery the entire time, even after a long day of back-to-back interviews.

Mama Mai would hug you as soon as she saw you and gush excitedly in English, albeit with a thick Vietnamese accent, about the "beautiful, just beautiful" teal colour of your manicure.

The 53-year-old, who does not appear on the show except to pop up in a handful of short promotional trailers, started an Instagram account (@themamamai) to document her Singapore trip and has racked up more than 41,000 followers to date.

Mai, 37, pretending to be exasperated at being overshadowed, tells The Straits Times: "People just love Mama Mai.

"They don't even care if I'm around or not - everywhere we go in Singapore, people will just go up to her and ask for pictures and they'll chat for ages.

"She's always very honest and she'll tell it like it is, so people like that, I suppose."

In jest, she rolls her eyes, but it is clear that she looks up to her mother.

Mai even has tears in her eyes when she recounts a story of how her mother had been the one to tell her to stay true to her own style.

As a child, Mai once went to a new school wearing an outfit comprising a pair of pants - one leg was black and one was red, a polka- dotted top and colourful glitter in her hair.

She felt like she was "so cool", but she was mocked as soon as she stepped into the school, where the other kids were all wearing Levi's jeans, OshKosh B'gosh tops and "other brand-name stuff".

When she went home crying to her mother about it, Mama Mai, who worked as an assembly-line worker in a factory at the time, told her that she should be proud of the fact that everyone in the class had noticed her.

Mai, who has two younger brothers, says: "She asked me, 'How many of your new classmates' names do you remember? And how many of them remember yours now?'

"She told me that I should make myself stand out and just be proud of my own style and I never forgot that."

It is a piece of advice that she continually relays to the participants of her show How Do I Look? Asia, a spin-off of the hit American original that she also hosted from 2009 to 2012.

Each episode of the new show features an Asian woman who undergoes a fashion and hair makeover, but who also becomes more confident in her own skin.

Mai, who is married to actor Freddy Harteis, says: "I'm so big on personality and individuality, which is why I'm totally fine if I happen to wear the same outfit as someone else to the same event - because we can all rock our outfits differently.

"This season, it has been amazing meeting some unique women and helping them get through some of their issues."

One episode features a Singaporean woman named Amy Law, who has a hard time letting go of her "phantom fat": "She lost nearly half her body weight, but still dresses like her old self," Mai explains.

After spending two weeks to film here, she says one of her biggest bugbears about Singaporean women's style is that they tend to use the word "comfortable" as an excuse for sloppiness.

"Comfortable - just kill me, it's the worst word in the world.

"I love being comfortable myself, but it's not the same as looking lazy. If you look like you took only 20 seconds to get ready, it doesn't present the best version of yourself," she says.

"Ultimately, women should remember - what do they want to tell the world about themselves? If they want to say that they're professional, then dress the part.

"If they want to look sexy, that's fine too. But don't be lazy."

•How Do I Look? Asia Season 2 premieres on Diva (StarHub TV Channel 513, Singtel TV Channel 303) on Aug 29 at 8pm.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

This article was first published on August 10, 2016.
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