Her fame enters long before she does on location for our cover shoot in a studio littered with art and artifacts that lie somewhere between the theatrical and the absurd. A large moose head coated in black paint, a light structure in the shape of the letter C studded with bulbs, rolls of canvas paper, mismatched furniture, table-tennis tables and … something from the archives, a CD player! No plastic envelopes with a “vintage” ’90s CD of our singing star in sight, though.
In fact, for a while there’s no sight of our cover girl either. She enters with an entourage and rushes to the make-up room, having just disembarked from a flight from China (where she was shooting for a reality-TV show) that was, as expected, late. She does not like to be late. Voluminous gowns, a brush of make-up and some exquisite jewels later, Karen Mok strikes a pose.
For a woman who has been in the industry for two decades, having circumnavigated stage and film sets around the world, a cavernous studio is familiar territory. She’s not tripping over wires, bothered by the heat of the spotlight, or conscious of the innumerable prying eyes.
A pop-star with 20 albums in her portfolio, appearances in more than 40 movies (in multiple languages), countless concerts and stage shows (including Rent), Mok’s steady rise to fame was no overnight success but attained through sheer grit and an unstoppable work ethic. Her petite frame carries the weight of fame easily as our conversation ambulates over all aspects of her journey. We kick off from the latest field of glory she’s conquered: social media.
You have more than 37 million followers on Weibo – that’s more than the population of Canada!
Well, it means that every time I post something on Weibo or anything of that sort, I really have to think thrice before I send it out. From that point of view, it’s a little bit intimidating.
Have you ever received backlash online?
Yeah, sometimes. It could be something really silly, or maybe a sort of wording that doesn’t really work or go well with the audience. You can always delete it, and repost. I don’t engage with haters or negativity, so I don’t work myself up over what anyone anonymous has said.
What came first – acting or music?
Music. As a little kid, I would just sing, gibberish even, sometimes while I was in the bath. I was always singing something, thinking that no one was listening. Music would be my first love. My parents aren’t particularly musical but my mother says my grandfather was. But, basically anything to do with performing from the get-go, I would do. I just love to be in front of people.
No nervousness? No butterflies?
Some butterflies. Even now. But that’s part of the whole thing. It’s actually enjoyable. And even career-wise, I started out as a singer. I recorded an album before I got into films.
As a student in London, you wanted to go on Broadway. Did it match up to your expectations when you were finally on stage with Rent?
It started long before, when I first started, I auditioned for Miss Saigon when I was in London. I got into the training group but I didn’t end up doing it because I chose to come back to Hong Kong to become a singer. When I was finally on stage to do Rent, that was 10 years after being in showbiz. My coming back was a full-circle moment. I still want to do a proper musical on an even bigger scale than Rent because I do believe that a country like China should have her own version of Broadway. It’s big enough, and this entertainment channel should work. I already have some ideas. When I have enough time I will really start working on it. This will be a big dream project of mine: to create an original Chinese musical for China.
To go back to Rent … what was the experience like?
Oh I loved it, of course! Because doing a musical is kind of the epitome of performance. You have to sing, dance, act, and do everything live. Again and again. It’s a different ball game altogether – it was very tiring. Because we were also travelling around: we did roughly 72 shows in three months, in six cities. We played in Singapore for two weeks, and then would move down to Seoul, and then somewhere else. Plus we had eight shows a week.
What was the audience reaction like?
I was very surprised with Seoul. Apparently they have a very mature market for stage shows, they have their own version of Broadway. They import a lot of shows such as Lion King and turn it into Korean. We did Rent in English, of course. It was a really good vibe. Even though we were singing in English and it wasn’t in their vernacular, they were like completely into it.
Any bad experiences?
Hardly, maybe because I’m very used to doing my own concerts, I’m used to minor interruptions. In a kind of emotional moment, and then someone might shout, “I love you Karen!” or “eff you Karen!” and that might just break the mood altogether. I’m kind of used to that. It does not faze me, the good or the bad.
The music industry has dramatically changed since people can download and transfer music so easily. People’s ability to access free music has killed music stores. How has that affected your career?
Of course you can’t compare it to the ’90s, when you put out three albums in a year. Now, it’s turned digital. The format is different, but people still need music. And as long as it’s good stuff I think people will still want to hear it and pay for it. Now the best way to really get your music out is to do live shows, which is what I really, really love. You still need new songs every now and then to give you more ammunition for your next concert. You can’t keep doing the same routine, the same show too often. I have accumulated quite a few songs over the last 20 odd years that I’ve been singing.
In Mandarin, basically. I did one jazz album (Somewhere I Belong), which was the only one full album that was in English. I’ve done bits and pieces, a single here and there in English, while incorporating Chinese instruments. That was quite crucial to the whole thing. A lot of people sing jazz but there’s no point trying to emulate the legends. You need your own take on it. I figured if I was to do jazz, which is something I really love, I should incorporate something that has not been done before. I play the guzheng and I love wearing the qipao and I did Chinese dance when I was kid so I incorporated my multi-ethnicity into the album. It’s interesting fusing East and West and then creating something new out of it. And I just thought I had to play my guzheng on a jazz album if I were to do it. And my boss really bought the idea and said, “Let’s do it!”
You have a boss?
[Laughs] Yeah. The big boss at Universal!
You’ve always had the image of the girl next door, but on stage you transform yourself into a far more sensual performer.
Well, it’s an excuse to show off my legs. Actually, on stage, I feel like I can completely let my imagination run wild. So whatever it takes to deliver the different songs in the way that I think it’s suitable, then I would just do it.
You also like to direct shows and have done away with a show director. Why?
I think even the first show I did, the first proper, large-scale show, I got involved with every aspect of the show: the costumes, the lighting, the setting, the background, everything, because we kind of have to design everything from scratch. You can’t separate these different elements.
That’s a lot of micro-managing.
Yeah, but you really need to have someone that can visualise the whole thing and as it stems from my mind, it’s better I execute it. I literally start with a blank piece of paper and I stare at it for hours. Then things start happening inside my brain, the songs would come. Some songs you want to keep, certain signature elements and not change too much. But sometimes you have to bring in an element of surprise as well, so that people think they’re listening to something they’re really familiar with but suddenly like, “Oh my God, that’s turned into a tango beat,” or something like that. I start to visualise and then I work with all the other individuals like the choreographer, the designer, the lighting guy. Normally, I’d go off on holiday and then I come back with a show. And then I literally act it out, “OK, we’ll start with this song, and then this is sort of the dance I’ll do.” And I’ll play it out in front of them. And then it’s there.
While you’ve been making music consistently, the acting bug seems to have left you.
I haven’t been in a movie for a while now because of so many reasons. They’re mainly co-productions now if you want a bigger budget and a bigger audience, so Chinese movies are now these grand epic productions. The little movie has fizzled out.
Who’s a favourite of yours in Hong Kong movies?
I really enjoyed working with Wong Kar-wai. I worked with him very early on, so everything was fresh and eye-opening for me. That was definitely quite an experience. You know something, a lot of Hong Kong directors I’ve worked with had no script! You kind of know the story line and you know your character but you don’t really have a fully fledged script. You might have the synopsis and then on the day, while you’re getting your make-up done, you’d get a fax of the dialogue. The fax comes in and it’s still piping hot. The paper is still warm in your hands! It sounds awful but it wasn’t – it was quite fun because it’s a little like improvisation on stage.
Working in China was different – more organised surely?
The first film I made, which was an independent movie, everyone on the team was from mainland China. It was a completely different style, we went two weeks earlier with the whole cast and crew. We literally sat down in a circle, we would go through lines, we would discuss. It was like a drama class. It’s great to experience these different methods in different stages in your career. Working with Stephen Chow was amazing. Again because he was one of the first guys I worked with when I first started acting. I didn’t realise it back then but looking back it’s like, wow, how lucky could I be to learn first-hand from a great actor like him. And also working with Sylvia Cheng in Tempting Heart was great, because again, she’s an actor herself. I tend to like working with actors-slash-directors.
Co-star and director Keanu Reeves (Man of Tai Chi, in 2013) must have been just your cup of tea then.
Yes! That was a great experience. I was very thrilled. Keanu’s really into martial arts and Chinese culture. He’s a great guy to work with. And of course he’s an actor himself, so he not only directs from a director’s point of view, he also knows how it is for an actor on the set. He really works with actors, and he walks through the scenes with you, and he gives you his ideas. And it was great because directors I’ve worked with were visual directors, not all of them would really delve into the character. They set the shot, then let you interpret it your way. It was great working with an actor and director.
What’s different between a local production and a Hollywood film?
They’re very careful in American films. They are not faster by any means, and they take shots from multiple angles. Whereas in Hong Kong, it’s a tight budget, schedules are rigid and you do it as fast as possible, as every day on set costs money. Time is money, so you can’t really be too luxurious about taking different camera angles. So if the shot that’s required is done, then that’s it, no retakes. And once you’ve got it, you move on, kind of thing. You have to make sure you hit it every time.
Would you direct a movie?
I think I would want to direct a musical first. And, possibly, I might make a movie version of that same musical. But it’s not the first thing on my list of things to do.
You’ve never shied away from different experiences, be it stage, music, American films or Asian. But you let go of a huge British film. Any regrets?
Ah, the Peter Greenaway movie [8½ Women]. It was a tough choice to make, but no regrets. It involved complete nudity and I thought about it. I actually had to ask my dad, my mum. Normally, I would just decide. But for that one, for a director like Greenaway, I contemplated. But the nudity clause was probably too much. Even after reflection now, I’m glad I made that decision because that was when my career was really taking off. I went to Taiwan, I released a couple of albums and they were all doing really, really well. My record company wanted me to get on with shows, concerts, more albums. It wasn’t like I had nothing else to do. So I carried on with my singing in Taiwan.
Your cinematic CV, the number of albums, stage shows … do you ever take time off?
Well, I’m beginning to take more time off now. Ever since I got married, which was five years ago, I started to realise the importance of having a balanced lifestyle and not just work all the time. But the thing is, I really do love my work so much.
How does your husband deal with such long absences?
A couple of years ago my husband, Johannes Natterer, and I realised that although we are married we still don’t spend so much quality time together because we’re apart constantly. Let’s just take three months off every year – and we take off. The two of us just ride into the sunset, literally. We go travelling, just the two of us; South America, Tahiti, New Zealand … We’ve done Europe already.
The fan base being what it is, are you OK with fans asking for a photo?
I’m OK with that. My husband doesn’t get irritated either. He actually offers to take pictures for fans. And then he jokes, “How come they don’t they want my picture?”
Earlier this summer, you were certified as a cultural ambassador to Italy by Italian government officials in the northern city of Bergamo, just after your concert. What do you love about Italy?
Oh, I like everything about Italy! Everything! I mean just the language, the food, the culture, the people, the fashion, the place. Even the sky!
Tell us about your Italian connection. How did that come about?
So, it all started with this invitation to perform in a place called Mantova, in Italy when I was 16 or 17. I played the guzheng when I was in this Chinese Youth Orchestra. We were invited to perform at a cultural event. My first time in Europe was romantic, we were playing music, everything was perfect. When I came back, I was raving about Italy, my father suggested I apply for a college there. It was an international college, I met, well, my future husband there. I spent two amazing years there and then met friends from all over the world.
Do your friends know how big a star you are in Asia?
I just recently finished my last world concert tour. We performed in London, Madrid and Milan and a bunch of my old friends came. And of course they had heard about me getting into showbiz. But they hadn’t seen me in action and they were completely blown away. Some of my venues have had an audience of 10,000 people.
You’ve transitioned into the latest juggernaut of fame, reality TV. Oddly, not long ago you said you’d never do reality TV. What made you change your mind?
The new format. It’s a little bit like The Voice, but you don’t just pick the challengers that you like. They pick you. And then we battle each other – musically! So they would sing whatever they like, the song they would perform best in. They choose any song that they would like for us to sing. So it could be something that we’ve never even heard of. And we have very little time to prepare for a random song. It has been fun. It’s a bit like what I’ve been doing in my concert and in my albums when we reinvent old classics and stuff. I’m working on this one up until early 2017. And then I think I really need a break.
Finally, what’s next for you?
My next big project, I hope, is to create my own TV show. Well, the musical is also in the pipeline. I’m trying to work on a reality show that incorporates music and travelling as well. All the things that I love.
PHOTOGRAPHY PAUL TSANG
STYLING SHEENA KHEMANEY
MAKE-UP LING CHAN
HAIR DERRICK NG
STYLING ASSISTANT ZANETA CHENG
ALL JEWELLERY BVLGARI