In many ways, Eleanor Lee is your standard card-carrying member of Generation Z. She’s a multi-hyphenate, a digital native, and gushes over Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. But not every 20-year-old can lay claim to having parents who are household names in Singapore—her mum is presenter Quan Yifeng, her dad is actor Peter Yu, and her godfather is celebrity hairstylist Addy Lee. Her every move is hotly watched by 216,000 (and growing) followers on Instagram and 8.6 million more on Weibo. But like Zoë Kravitz or Kaia Gerber, Lee represents that new breed of celebrity offspring who, although undeniably blessed in the looks department, is not content to just rest on their parents’ laurels and be famous for fame’s sake. She delights in the work, and is determined to make her own name, carve out her own path.
Our own path to Lee has been a highly unconventional one, when social distancing measures were put in place as we raced to complete this cover shoot before the end of March. Split-team operations meant that the shoot and interview had to be conducted separately; the full crews to which magazine productions and celebrity entourages are so used to trimmed down to the barest minimum—but pull it off we did. It was vital to BAZAAR to be the first to spotlight this rising star; the title thrives—as it has done for more than 150 years—on always having its eye on the new and the next. And no one represents the next generation more than Lee. With a uniquely Singaporean drive coupled with a global outlook, as well as a poise that belies her youth, she is on the cusp of breaking it big. Not just here on the little red dot, but also in the world’s second-largest economy, with a population of more than 1.4 billion. She catapulted into the public eye for her stirring role in an Apple China commercial in 2015 before moving on to Chinese films—Solaso Bistro (2017), My Poseidon (2019), Blowing in the Wind (2019) and last month’s The Enchanting Phantom, to name a few—but claims that music is her number one passion. “My first dream was to be a singer,” she says. “I’ve always liked singing, writing my own music—it’s the most important part of me.” Acting was meant to be a detour and a platform for her to raise her visibility as a musician, but she fell in love with that too. “The opportunity came up and the way I saw it was, why don’t I just try it? After that, I realised that I like it—diving into another person’s life; feeling what they feel.” Now, she wants to do it all, but don’t you dare put a label on her. “I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, she can only act’ or ‘She’s just a singer’—I think I can do it all if I set my mind to it.”
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That determination is one of the reasons why her mother knows she has what it takes to go the distance. “When she said she wanted to join the industry, yes, I was worried. Every mother worries for their child’s future,” says Quan. “But if their child is happy, and they show talent and determination, of course we will support them.” Addy, Lee’s godfather, adds: “Apart from talent, she has incredible manners and professionalism, even at a very young age—she is never late and never has a bad attitude.” Those qualities brought a then 17-year-old Lee to the renowned Beijing Film Academy—an institution whose alumni roster includes the likes of Zhang Yimou, Ai Weiwei, Zhao Wei and Huang Xiaoming.
When it comes to her music though, Lee remains as raw as ever. “I didn’t learn all the music stuff; I’m self-taught and I just play by ear. I’ll write the lyrics first and then I’d play a melody on the piano or the guitar,” she explains of her process. As for what she writes about, she aims to be as personal as her idol, Taylor Swift. “Listening to her music is like opening her diary. Her songs are her stories and you know the feeling because you’ve been through the same stuff.” Lee draws from the same well when she writes. “I write about feelings. I’m just like everyone else—I have family problems, friendship problems, relationship problems.” She has channelled those experiences into four singles and an eponymous EP since 2018, and recently signed with a recording label.
She may write about universal emotions, but not everyone has had her experience of growing up in the spotlight. “It was tough sometimes,” she admits. “In primary school, I kind of got bullied a little. But after that, things got better. And then there’s social media. There’s a good side and there’s a bad side that’s just the way it works. Sometimes, when people say really negative things, yes, I do get really angry; I want to respond, but it’s hard because doing that would make things worse.” So how does she deal with it? “You get used to it. The things they say are the same all the time; after a while, it doesn’t affect you anymore.”
Today, as a rising star in the entertainment industry, what upsets her is when people try to confine her to boxes. “They take one look at you and say, ‘Oh, you look cute, so you have to sing this cute song, wear that, play this kind of role.’ But I don’t want to. That’s not what I signed up for. I’m the kind of girl who doesn’t like labels.” Asked about the roles she’d like to play, Lee says: “For now, I tend to pick characters I know I can bring to life. Sometimes, it’s not the one that is the most challenging because I’m still kind of scared. But after I finish a project, I’ll try to push myself a bit more for the next one. Period pieces are hard for me because of the language and the script—my Mandarin isn’t that great. I’d love to be in something like the gritty prison drama Orange is the New Black; a superhero, Marvel kind of movie would be so cool too. The one role I would never play is a bimbo—I can challenge myself to try and play sweet, but I can’t do stupid.”
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Her sense of style reflects the versatility she aims for in her career. “Sometimes, I wear very girly, sparkly, fairy-tale dresses. Most of the time though, I’m in very boyish clothes. If I feel like it, I wear something sexier—tight, skinny dresses. It really depends on my mood for the day. I just like to try things out.” Her love of fashion extends beyond dressing up for the camera or the red carpet. “I like drawing and I like designing clothes—I actually designed two of my mum’s Star Awards red-carpet looks,” she reveals. “That was fun. One of my dreams is to one day open my own store, selling my own designs.”
Whatever she chooses to do, this is just the beginning. “What I love most about doing what I do,” she says, “is being able to make a difference, having a voice—I can speak up for those who don’t or can’t, and I can speak up for myself. What’s the point of having a voice if you don’t use it?” We can only wait to hear what sweet music she makes with that voice.
All jewellery worn throughout the shoot are by Cartier.
Stylist: Windy Aulia
Makeup: Toni Tan
Hair: Jenny Lee / Monsoon Hair Salon
Manicure: Joyce Chan
Photography assistants: Samsidi Baderi, Ang Jong Jye
Assistant stylist: Gracia Phang
Styling assistant: Margaux Levy