Cover story: CoCo Lee, born performer from Oscars and Academy Awards to I Am A Singer
June 30, 2016
Read the Chinese version of this article here.
CoCo Lee is ripping her way through the 4 Non Blondes’ standard What’s Up, dressed in semi-military garb, on Hunan Television’s I Am a Singer. “I say hey, what’s going on?” It’s kinetic entertainment at its best, a compelling display, full of soulful intent and sensational performing skills. It’s kick-arse CoCo – just what you’d expect from the natural performer that she is. That was in Changsha in April. It is little wonder that the chanteuse went on to become the first contestant not born in the mainland to win one of the most popular, buzziest shows on air.
Lee is no stranger to big crowds and huge television audiences. Viewers around the world watched her embellish the Academy Awards night in 2001 by singing A Love Before Time from Ang Lee’s Oscar Award-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She rivalled the agility of any of the martial arts performers in the movie by sure-footedly descending a flight of steps in vertiginous five-inch heels, wearing a blazing red Versace dress, betraying no sign that she was worried as much about where she might land as about how she sounded. All the while she sang with aplomb and pizzazz, pouring on the glitz like a Las Vegas headliner. She didn’t win an Oscar but, man, she nailed that ballad.
Her rendition of the same song won her the I Am a Singer contest. “For the finals, I decided to do the same song that I did 15 years ago at the Academy Awards and to wear the exact same red couture Versace dress,” Lee says. I Am a Singer is the most-watched programme of its type in mainland China. Each week, seven artists perform before a studio audience of about 500 guests and the finals are broadcast live. One singer is eliminated each week, after 45 minutes of adoration and assassination in equal measure.
I Am a Singer is unlike its reality television counterparts in other parts of the world in that the singers are already mainstream performers with well-established careers. Lee’s competitors in the fourth season of I Am a Singer were Hong Kong’s Joey Yung and Hacken Lee; Jeff Chang, Lala Hsu and Chao Chuan from Taiwan; South Korea’s Hwang Chi Yeol; and Inner Mongolia’s Haya Band. “This show has these top singers from all over Asia, bringing their ‘A’ game week after week, and one major criteria, you’ve got to be a phenomenal live performer,” says Lee.
Lee is certainly a phenomenal live performer, but appearing on the show was an experience she found alternately a joy and an agony. Performing was a joy. “I wanted to challenge myself,” she says. “I’m a big fan of the show. It’s a great show with some of the very best musicians and crew from all over the world. It’s an incredible platform for singers to really showcase their craft.”
The contestants are allowed to perform any songs they choose, in any style, and create their arrangements accordingly. That was another joy for Lee. “It gave us singers a chance to be really creative, to show who we are as artists while allowing the audience to see what we are like behind the scenes through the reality bits of the show. People saw how hard I worked and how dedicated I was,” she says.
“I do love singing covers. Funny thing is, I have always preferred singing other people’s songs and making them my own. That’s why this show is perfect for me.”
Yet the preparations were an agony. “You have such a short amount of time to prepare for the next week because you never know if you’re going to make it to the next round,” she says. “You have to be prepared to have the director reject your songs and to come up with something else within a few hours all while under tremendous pressure.”
“And I’m a very hands-on person. I choose every song, come up with the music direction, spend hours editing the music, styling the clothes, hair and make-up. No detail is too minor. I wanted every performance to truly represent who I am as an artist. Contrary to what people might think, I only have a small team and thankfully they were there for me through the highs and the lows.”
And despite the time she has spent on stage, competing remains an agony. “It’s a competition. You’re nervous. There’s the pressure and stress from being away from family for so long. I don’t like stress, really. I hate stress, in fact. What if I get voted off?” She says friends had tried to talk her out of taking part. “People were telling me the pressure was nothing like anything you’ve experienced before. But I felt if I was going to be afraid of the consequences I would never make a breakthrough. After all, it’s the same as breaking through in the United States. If I had been afraid of failure, I would never have taken that step. Sometimes in life you have to be brave and challenge yourself to do something that is so out of the ordinary and out of your comfort zone. Sometimes you have to be a little bit crazy to do this.”
Lee can’t decide if singing at the Academy Awards or in the final round of I Am a Singer was most nerve-racking. “Both were pretty much, like, major scary,” she says. “The Oscars? I was pretty much having a heart attack on stage. To be the first Chinese pop artist ever to perform, that’s being watched by millions of people around the world – you know, the pressure to not let the Chinese people down – I had to put myself in the zone. For I Am a Singer, I was really nervous at the beginning. I had to keep talking to myself to control my nerves. It’s a very different stage. When you have 500 people in front of you, you can see everyone’s face and into their eyes. It can be intimidating.” A thought strikes the singer. “I’ve actually built up a little bit of stage fright,” she says. “These days, if I do karaoke with people I barely know, I get so nervous. Strangely, I’m very comfortable performing in front of 80,000 people at a concert.”
Lee was born in Hong Kong. She never knew her father, who was an ethnic Chinese Indonesian. When she was nine, Lee, her Hong Kong Chinese mother and her two elder sisters moved to California. There she absorbed the influences of Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Those influences counted when, like her sisters before her, she entered singing contests.
On a trip to Hong Kong in 1993, Lee sang Houston’s Run to You in a talent show and was offered a Capital Artists recording contract the next day. Her good fortune continued when Lee gravitated from Hong Kong to Taiwan, where she recorded her first album. It won the Best New Artist Award in 1994. She hit pay dirt in 1996 with Sony Music and the album Coco Lee, which became Asia’s best-selling album of that year.
“I’m not afraid. I’m fearless. I dare to do things that people don’t expect me to do,” is the explanation Lee offers for her early successes. “Even before I became well known, I was this Chinese singer, singing ballads in Taiwan, wearing shorts and looking like one of the Spice Girls. I was different from everybody else. That was 1994. All the women singers were elegant, wearing dresses and speaking softly, whereas I was quirky and had a crazy loud laugh. I wasn’t afraid to be different and just be me.”
Lee’s success burgeoned. She sang one of the theme songs in the movie Runaway Bride. Walt Disney hired her to be the voice of heroine Fa Mulan in the Mandarin version of Mulan. She performed with The Black Eyed Peas at a pre-Grammy charity concert in Los Angeles and was the first Chinese artist to perform at an NBA game. As her achievements mounted, Lee found herself in a category of her own: she was a Chinese-American singer with an African-American fan base, a pop starlet in hip-hop guise. Lee concocted a sound the world had never heard and the singularity of her effort won the respect of the musical brotherhood.
Macy Gray’s songwriter, Darryl Swann, told Lee at the turn of the century: “CoCo, you’ve got some soul.” Lee’s response: “Some?” Lionel Richie once told her: “Coming from a brother, if I say you’ve got soul, trust me girl, you’ve got soul”. Lee says Richie was a big influence on her then and is to this day. “I’d go to Lionel for a lot of advice. He was so supportive. He used to tell me: ‘CoCo, I never worried about you once. I always knew that you would kill it.’ He’s always been very sweet and supportive.”
Lee’s supporting cast is never far from her mind, most of all her mother. “She’s my role model, my idol, my legend. She taught me to be a strong, independent woman. I grew up watching how hard she worked. She made me realise that if you want something in this life you have to work hard at it. You’ve got to make the effort. Because of her I was never afraid of hardship. After witnessing all the hardship my mum had been through for us, I was more determined to make it so I could give her a better life.”
Nor is Lee afraid of hard work. As a contestant in I Am a Singer, she slept as little as two to three hours a night for five months. “If you YouTube the song Bad Romance, there’s a cape I wear when I first walk on stage. I only wear it for about 20 seconds but we spent weeks on that cape, making sure it was just right, making sure it would come off fluidly when I needed it to. I didn’t care how short or minor or whatever anything was. I was constantly working. Nothing was going to break my focus.”
Lee likes to look the way she wants, as she demonstrated at her photo shoot for #legend.
“For a fashion shoot, I always come up with ideas. I’ll share with the team what I’d love to explore. But it’s also important to let creative people have ideas, and the stylist might have an even better idea. But, in certain aspects, yes, I need to have my own make-up artist and my own hairdresser. But other than that, I’ll give suggestions and not be a control freak about it. I think, being an artist for all these years, I know what I like. I know my preferences. I know which angle I look good in, I know what type of clothes and the type of cut that looks good on me. But I always go into a shoot with an open mind to try anything.”
She also knows what jewellery looks good on her. Lee has what she calls a “wonderful working relationship” with jeweller Sunfeel. She has been an ambassador and spokesman for the company for the past three years. “They make beautiful pieces,” she says. She wore Sunfeel’s lustrous jewellery throughout I Am a Singer to complement her outfits. “We are planning a CoCo line. It’s in the development stage. I’m going to be crossing over into being a designer, which I’m really looking forward to.”
Lee is certainly versatile. Prior to I Am a Singer, she appeared on a similar sort of show, The Voice of China, as a mentor to young performers. “I feel very fortunate that I have gained so much experience performing all over the world and it’s great that I could give back by advising these young talents,” she says. “There are a lot of great singers out there. But it’s all about how you make yourself stand out and make yourself memorable.” She let the youngsters into some of her showbiz secrets. “These kids are the future of our music industry. It’s more meaningful to be able to play a part in shaping them into brilliant artists” she says.
The singer was also a judge on Chinese Idol, yet another of the stable of such shows spawned by Britain’s Pop Idol. “People would tell me that I was the sweet and nice judge. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, so I was never brutal with my words,” Lee says. She lacked the killer instinct of Simon Cowell of Pop Idol and later American Idol. “I was very honest, but in a kind way. In being a judge, I would give them advice based on what I’d learned after all these years as a performer, and I would try to be a good role model by showing them my work ethic and by simply being a caring friend as I know how brutal this industry can be.”
Lee’s advice is valuable precisely because she has experienced the lows among the highs. She casts her mind back to the period between 2006 and 2010. “I developed a vocal issue from years of being overworked. All of a sudden I lost control of my voice and couldn’t sing,” she says. “I lost all of my confidence and developed stage fright. There were many nights I would cry myself to sleep. I was like a baseball pitcher who’d just lost an arm. I felt like my career was over.”
The singer sought out Lady Gaga’s voice coach and explained how she couldn’t control her vocal chords anymore, how singing had gone from being an effortless pleasure to being a terrifying, soul-destroying chore. “Let it go, CoCo. Just let it go,” the coach told her. “Don’t over-think it. Just do it.” Lee’s mother stood beside her, offering encouragement. Together, day by day, little by little, they got results. “I’m happy to say my voice is better now than at any other time. It took a long time to get to where I am, and there were times that I wondered if it was really over for me, but I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. I realised how precious this gift is and it’s something you can’t ever take for granted.”
A high was Lee’s marriage to her long-standing boyfriend, Canadian tycoon Bruce Rockowitz. The couple wed in Hong Kong in 2011 in appropriately glamorous style. “I have to say, Bruce is such an amazing human being and the most loving husband I could ask for. He has such a good heart and everyone loves him. I have so much respect for him and what he has accomplished in life. He is one of the hardest working men I know. Most important to me is that my husband has a good soul. I feel very blessed to have him in my life.”
Rockowitz was a steadying influence for Lee while she worked in Changsha, flying in to watch a couple of her shows. “He was most concerned for my health when I agreed to do the show because he has seen how extreme I work, pushing my body to the limit,” Lee says.
“I don’t eat much or even rest when I’m focused on something. It’s quite crazy. He often has to remind me to rest and eat something. He’s been extremely supportive throughout the show and was always there to comfort me when I bawled my eyes out after a bad result. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Lee narrowly escaped elimination on the show’s first episode. She has learned from the experience how to deal with the lows. “These days, I’ll need to cry and talk for, say, five minutes, either to my mum, my sisters or to Bruce, and then I’m over it,” she says. “I won’t allow it to get me down for too long in the way it would when I was younger. I’ve learned you have got to move on, pick yourself up and start again.”
Lee stands out as one of few artists with Chinese heritage to have attained global celebrity. In April, Teen Vogue bemoaned what it calls whitewashing in Hollywood, which stretches to casting Caucasian actors to play East Asians. “Sadly it’s true,” Lee says. “But it has gotten better – at least in television, if nothing else.”
She was alluding to starring appearances in American television programmes by actors of East Asian descent such as Lucy Liu in Elementary, Vincent Rodriguez in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Hudson Yang, Randall Park and Constance Wu in Fresh off the Boat. “I would love to see Chinese artists make it internationally in the music business,” Lee says. “One of my goals is to set up a management or entertainment company to nurture artists. I would absolutely love to do this,” she says.
“I want to give opportunities to showcase younger singers, every chance I get, which I started doing during my competition, I’m always looking for a great artist. I have a lot of visions in my head.” The would-be impresario has her eye on Dou Jingtong. “She’s got huge charisma,” Lee says. “She has such incredibly talented genes, the genes of Faye Wong and Dou Wei, but she really has her own style and edge. And she’s very talented. At such a young age, she is so freakin’ cool already, just like her mum and dad”.
Lee has aspirations to be a film-maker, too. “I would like to do a movie about my mum,” she says. Her mother studied biochemistry at Peking University, having been accepted there aged 16. As a doctor in California, her mother treated AIDS and cancer patients with acupuncture and prescribed traditional Chinese medicines.
Asked who would play her mother in the film adaptation of her life, Lee thinks for half a minute. “You know who would be good? Fan Bingbing or Zhou Xun because they are strong women. The story’s got romance. It’s got conflict. It’s got humour and lots of drama. It’s always been a little dream of mine to make the film. She’s been through so much and I learned from my mum that when you have the power to help and give back, you must.”
It was a life lesson Lee recalled while I Am a Singer was filming in Changsha ahead of Chinese New Year. “I was told about this elderly man who had a very sad story,” says Lee. “He was a farmer selling oranges to make money to pay for his travel home for New Year. A cold snap meant no one was out on the street and he couldn’t sell his oranges. He was stranded. I bought all his oranges, there were hundreds, and bought him his train ticket to go home to be with his family. I wrapped up the fruit and passed them out to everyone on the show. It was wonderful to be able to help someone in need.”
The singer knows how to work and she knows how to play – and where. “The Maldives. I love the Maldives. It’s the most amazing place on earth, a real piece of heaven.” She loves the buzz of snorkelling. “It’s one of my most favourite things to do. I feel like I’m in a different world when I’m snorkelling. It’s just the best sensation. The crazy thing is I don’t know how to swim, but I sure love to snorkel. One day I will try diving, that’s my next goal.”
Lee would jump at the chance to experience the sensation of weightlessness on board a Virgin Galactic or SpaceX spacecraft. “Hell, yeah. You only live once. So why not? It would be an incredible experience. And, let’s face it, that’s what life is all about: experiences and remembering things we do together with people we love and like.”
Coldplay’s Adventure of a Lifetime is one of Lee’s obsessions. “That’s my happy song,” she says. “It’s music that has medicine about it and helps you have a certain type of energy. It’s a song that makes me happy straight away. I even took this song’s arrangement and merged it with a song in Mandarin for my performance on I Am a Singer. What can I say? I’m totally obsessed.”
Lee is expanding her fan base. “The world is so different now with social media, which was non-existent when I started out. And doing the show, I can gain newer, younger fans,” she says. She tells an anecdote about a visit to Las Vegas. “We were walking around the Wynn Casino and there was a young family. A child, who we found out was only two years old, looked up and said ‘CoCo’. Bruce was, like, ‘My goodness. Who knew the power of the show?’”
Lee has older fans, too. Every year her mother chooses a place she would like to go, and Lee takes her there. Last year it was Vienna. “We went to the famous square and she became teary,” Lee says. “My mum said that after 60-something years her daughter had helped make her dream come true. When she was 10 she’d seen a book in China about Vienna and now here it was in front of her.”
And Lee is a dutiful daughter-in-law. “When I was very young, in fact not even born, my father passed away. Then, when I met Bruce, I became very close to his father, Murray, who was a great man. He was incredibly kind and everybody loved him. Murray passed away a year ago. I used to sing to him when he was very sick. He was very musical, loved music, and he followed my career very closely. I know how much he would have loved to be at the finals.”
The I Am a Singer final was on the late Rockowitz senior’s birthday. “I knew more than ever I had to give my best performance, as I knew he would be watching somewhere up above,” Lee says. “And I think he gave me the strength to win. That night was dedicated to my father-in-law and the whole season was dedicated to my mother, who, through the years, through thick and thin, supported and took care of us three girls on her own.
“She has gone through so much hardship but never complained. She’s the most loving and selfless mother a daughter can ask for. She lives for her daughters and we live for her. People say I’m 41 and still a mummy’s girl. I am. I’m proud of it. The trophy is sitting on the mantelpiece in her home.”
On cover photo: CoCo Lee wears jacket by Marc Jacobs, dress by Versus Versace, sunglasses by Thom Browne and jewellery by Sunfeel
Photography / Wei Lai
Creative Direction / Gordon Lam
Styling / Mix Wei
Make-up / Yousiqi
Hair / Mike Wong
Styling Assistants / Demo Zhao and Nan Li
Production / Tasha Ling
Location / The Peninsula Beijing