Good Girl Gone Bad

From crazy rich tai tai to blue-skinned tyrant, actress Gemma Chan speaks of superheroes, real strength and the conflicted identity she’s battled all her life

Gemma Chan

Woven bead rope dress; cotton jersey inner dress, Louis Vuitton. White gold and diamond Liens Séduction earring and ring. All jewellery worn throughout the shoot are by Chaumet. Photo: Claire Rothstein

Want to know what actress Gemma Chan’s superhero ability is? “I can fit a lot of Maltesers in my mouth,” she laughs. “I’m a big fan of chocolates.” This is from someone more known for her statuesque beauty, clipped British accent and elegant poise. But that cheeky sense of humour simply adds to the appeal of Chan. Like her superhero costume of choice: “Dungarees,” she says gleefully. “And sneakers—I’m obsessed with them!” We’re talking about superheroes because Chan’s taken on the role of Minn-erva, a blue-skinned, sniper-toting Kree warrior of the Star Force in the next eagerly anticipated instalment in the Marvel universe, Captain Marvel. “She has an attitude and is pretty bad-ass, you wouldn’t want to mess with her,” says Chan, describing her character.

It’s a bit of a departure for the British-born beauty who’s sealed herself into our collective consciousness playing ultra-glamorous socialite Astrid Leong-Teo in 2018’s juggernaut Crazy Rich Asians. But then again, the last time she was seen onscreen, she was portraying Scottish noblewoman Bess of Hardwick in historical drama Mary Queen of Scots, so being typecast would seem to be the least of Chan’s worries.

She’s had a bit of a charmed life as an actress, winning a role in a Dr Who special within a year of leaving drama school and then consistently working in TV (notably BBC’s Sherlock and Channel 4’s sci-fi series Humans) all the way until she landed her career-making turn in Crazy Rich Asians. The success of the film with its all-Asian cast turned out to be one of the most compelling arguments for diversity and representation in Hollywood, a cause Chan is only too happy to champion. “I only hope it opens more doors for more stories to come forward to be told, especially other Asian, non-Asian and Singaporean stories that haven’t been represented in the past,” she opines. “If young boys and girls see themselves reflected in popular culture, in film and in the media, it will help with their sense of identity as well as the feeling that they are seen and are worthy of being at the centre of their own narrative.” She pauses, and quotes playwright David Henry Hwang, whose play Yellow Face she starred in a while back. “Representation—when it’s been missing for most of your life, sometimes you have to see it to realise just how much you needed it.”

Gemma Chan

Chiffon dress; silk slip top; cotton briefs; leather mules, Prada. White gold and diamond Liens Séduction bangle. White gold, pink gold and diamond Insolence earring. Photo: Claire Rothstein

Issues of race and ethnicity reared their heads early in Chan’s life, growing up in Kent, England, where Asian faces were not common. “I was generally fairly lucky that I went to a school where I had friends and didn’t have a terrible time,” she says but admits that she was occasionally confronted by thoughtless remarks about her Oriental features. “Those things can make you wish that you were different.”

It could also have been her go-getting Asian side that propelled her into racking up a list accomplishments Tiger Daughter style—playing the violin, swimming competitively, doing ballet and ultimately winning a place at Oxford University to read law. But in many ways, Chan felt like she existed in two parts: One that was British and the other that was Chinese. “I was very English when I went to school, but then there were things that we’d do like celebrate Chinese New Year and other Chinese festivals,” she recalls. “Those were the things that were kept very separate.”

Now, at the age of 36, Chan has in her own way pulled these disparate strands together, reconciling the different cultures and making peace with who she is. “It has taken me some time to feel that these dual identities have come together, but I now fully embrace them as one.” “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realise that what makes you different can be your strength. You don’t have to be one thing, you can embrace all elements of your identity. Identity is plural—I’m English, I’m British, I’m European, I’m Chinese, I’m Asian. I’m all of those things.”

Editor-in-chief: Kenneth Goh
Photographer: Claire Rothstein
Stylist: Windy Aulia
Cover Star: Gemma Chan
Makeup: Kirstin Piggott
Hair: Dayaruci using Moroccanoil
Manicure: Michelle Humphrey using The GelBottle Inc
Digital Technician: Will Richards
Flowers: Wildabout Flowers
Automobile: Classic Car Club London
Styling Assistant: Emma Gold
Outfit: Nabil Nayal and Chaumet

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