Singer/actress Josie Ho and Ferrari’s new Roma don’t seem like the most obvious match. Granted she could easily stroll into the local Ferrari showroom and snap up its entire stock outright, straight off the floor.
But for a performer who, in a more than 25-year career in the music and movie industries, has developed a reputation as a rule-breaking iconoclast with a persona that’s more cyber- or steampunk than traditional showbiz glitz and which belies her privileged background, isn’t the elegant new coupé – so new, in fact, that at the time of shooting we have to keep the car shielded from public view — just a little too svelte? Heck, does she even drive?
It turns out that not only does Ho have more than a little experience at the wheel of a motor car, having learned as a youngster how to drift a humble Honda Civic through the corkscrew turns of Hong Kong’s south side in the early ’90s, but she can also claim a brief (if from her own account somewhat hair-raising) career on the race track, competing in celebrity women’s events at the Macau Grand Prix and even getting to grips with open-wheel formula cars on the circuit at Zhuhai. On her first Macau outing she crashed out – “I didn’t know a thing about racing and apexes,” she says, “and I was obviously going too fast when I came to a big right-hand turn and crashed the car head-on into a wall” – but her second attempt was more successful.
“I had [former racing driver] Michael Lui as my coach and he’s seriously nuts,” she tells us mischievously, as she painstakingly applies her own make-up for our photo shoot, a process that seems to take forever. “We had some training and he’s, like, ‘You don’t have to worry, you have to find the apex and get the right angle to ease out of the turn, find your straight line as soon as possible and slow down before the 100-metre sign, brake heavily, stay on the left and then go round to the right.’ So, I was doing that … and suddenly a car hit us on the side. It was a Miss Hong Kong. So, I’m like, “All right, Miss Hong Kong. Let’s kill her!” She’s my friend but she did it on purpose.
“So, we chased her down the road and my coach put his leg over mine and put his foot on the pedals, so I was steering, and he was accelerating and braking. Finally, there was a big, big turn, and she was catching up to me and you know what we did? I was on the left and she was coming up, trying to squeeze me up against the wall. She tried to kill me twice! So, my coach opened the door and kicked them, so they went off and I came in second that year.”
This was roughly the time when Ho was taking her first steps towards fulfilling an ambition to become a singer, after she’d returned to Asia from school in Canada. Although her parents were initially reluctant, she was gradually able to win them over, not least because of the support she received from big sister Pansy.
“I signed my first contract at the age of 18 in the chairman’s office in Shun Tak Centre with my father, [sisters] Pansy, Daisy and Maisy, [brother] Lawrence and my cousins all there,” Ho recalls. “It was like a huge celebration – like, ‘Oh my God, she’s sold!’ Jackie Chan and [the late Malaysian-born film producer] Willie Chan and Jonathan Lee from Rock Records also came – like, ‘You’re gonna take care of my daughter, please.’ And they really took good care of me. My dad thought it was a very terrible idea, so Pansy was, like, the guarantor. All my brothers and sisters supported me, but she got the say. She strongly convinced my father to let me do this, because she knows all these big stars and that there’s nothing dirty about this industry unless your daughter wants to take it.
“I’d just come out of high school and I had culture shock coming back to Hong Kong. I wasn’t wearing a bra! And people were staring at me like, ‘Oh my God, who is she?’ I came back from Canada in the early ’90s and it was a time when mini tees, tight mini tees, was a trend and it was like, no bra please, you’re young enough to pull it off. People dressed very modestly back then. I didn’t know I [looked like a] street walker, I thought I was cool with my jean shorts and Dr Martens.”
Her career as a songbird, which officially kicked off in 1994 with an album called Rebel (and which in reality was anything but rebellious), never really gained the kind of traction she wanted until around 10 years later, by which time she’d reinvented herself as the indie rocker she is now. She took voice lessons, and at one point was even fired by her record company.
“It took a while for me,” says Ho, “but I really did crack it because I had good mentors. I signed to a pop company in the ’90s and they said, ‘Josie, try to be as minimal as you can be.’ They wanted a clean palette and they didn’t want me to be wild – they’re releasing [music by] five clean palettes and they want to see which is popular. If you’re popular, they’ll spend money on you and make you bigger. So it’s a real competitive life I’ve been living.
“I’ve never been one to listen, so I’d crawl out and they’re like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God …’ I was told off about my singing as well. I wasn’t that good back then because I didn’t have a good teacher. I wasn’t using my real voice, and I was doing falsetto all the time and it didn’t go into the microphone well.”
In parallel with her road to musical self-discovery was an embryonic career as an actress. Realising that she’d be unlikely to get a second chance if she messed it up, she went out and bought “a lot of books about how to be an actor – Stanislavski, Chekhov etc. At the time I was doing a stage play with a serious art-installation group and during rehearsals I learned about the basics of drama, and I’d bring those tricks to my films.”
After taking a succession of small parts in local ’90s movies (her first cinematic outing was in the 1994 comedy, Victory), Ho’s breakout role came while playing alongside Daniel Wu in the 1999 Teddy Chan-directed Purple Storm, for which she received best supporting actress nominations in the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards. “[It was] a heavy action film and back then I was really fit,” she says, “so I’d do all my stunts and fight with my stuntman. I’d go after him, check out what he’s doing and I’d be like, ‘I can do it too.’ A good artist has to have the passion and joy to love what they’re doing and that will automatically bring them to be a more serious player.”
By the early 2000s it was as if Ho had found herself both as a singer and an actress. As a singer, she talks about the inspiration she gained from Madonna, as well as from her actor/rapper/producer husband Conroy Chan, whom she married in 2003.
“The company I was signed to before told me not to move at all, so I was confused – like Madonna moves, everybody moves, even Talking Heads move,” she says, incredulously. “Madonna was one of my first inspirations because of her work ethic – how she could go to New York with 10 bucks in her pocket and she was eating garbage and she made it.
“I read a lot of books about her, so I knew her attitude. I knew if I wanted something I had to work very hard, I just didn’t know how to work out the big corporates, the politics, but then I became independent after taking advice from my husband – because he’s a heavy-metal head – and LMF, this heavy-metal, hip-hop rap group. They were like, ‘Hey Josie, why are you playing video games up at our studio? Why are you acting? Aren’t you a singer? We thought you were pretty cool for a singer. We’re recording a song and we need a chorus, we’ll tell you if you can sing, come on, come in,’ and they gave me a chance and they were like, ‘Yeah you can sing, we’re going to talk to so and so.’
“I told them that no record companies wanted me, and they were like, ‘Oh yeah? We’ll try, we’ll talk to a record company tomorrow,’ and after they heard about what they wanted to do with me, as well as Davy, the producer of LMF, they were like, yes! Before that, I never understood what I really liked – before I thought I liked acid jazz and soul funk. My Taiwanese company let me sing some of that, but I always thought it was missing something, that it wasn’t heavy enough. I started listening to Metallica, Linkin Park etc., and I felt like I’d found my niche.”
Likewise, Ho’s cinematic career exhibited a new-found confidence, with leading roles in Takashi Mike’s Dead or Alive: Final (2002), set in a futuristic Yokohama, Dante Lam and Donnie Yen’s 2003 vampire fantasy The Twins Effect and the well-received Hong Kong drama Butterfly (2004), which opened the Venice Film Festival and brought her a Golden Bauhinia best actress nomination.
In 2007, she and husband Chan founded their production company 852 Films. “Our whole motto is to bring East and West together,” says Ho. “We don’t care who we work with, we just want to introduce our Eastern culture and rituals to the West and we want to introduce the Western side to Asia, so we understand each other better. But due to the current situation in Hong Kong, I think it’s better to venture into Hollywood for now. We’re still trying to do some Hong Kong films, but we still don’t really understand the laws just yet, like how much they’re going to control our freedom of speech and inspiration and all that, so we’re kind of taking a step back and playing it very safe.”
Among 852’s recent projects is the soon-to-be-released Rajah, a Hollywood biopic of Sir James Brooke, the 19th-century British adventurer who became the first White Rajah on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, in which Ho stars alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Dominic Monaghan. She recounts an issue she had during the filming of a scene in which her character, who plays Brooke’s former lover, finds a half-dead Myers crawling into the compound and speaks to him in Chinese-accented English, which she thought at the time was inappropriate.
“He’s like, ‘Can you not speak so loudly? You have a mic on your body.’ And I said, ‘But there’s a difference in distance,’ and he said, ‘This is the new way in Hollywood, we don’t scream.’ And I said, ‘I wasn’t screaming, I was just talking loud.’ So they tried to cut off my lines and I was furious. It was like 5am after the night I arrived, and we’d had to wake up and shoot the ending. I’d never met the actors before and suddenly here we were finishing the film at the beginning.”
“That was the first time I broke my own rule, [because] I never yell at people on the street. I finally asked the producer to come out, because they all came into my room and they were saying, ‘Josie, when you failed those two lines you wasted half an hour of our time and blah, blah, blah, blah,’ and I was like, ‘I’m paying for it. I’m taking a big risk here’ They were like, ‘Can you trade lines with this other role, this Indonesian guy?’ and I was like, ‘I pay money and I trade?’ I wanted to speak nicely and talk reason with him, and he was being a little bit racially discriminating and I just went crazy, and I slammed my hands on the table. I told him I’d just talked to my lawyer and he’d given me the right to look at all of the contracts, so I wanted to know in which contract it was allowed to change my lines. And he was kind of shell-shocked.”
Ho had already noticed how many of the local extras and crew had to sit around in the hot sun, while the lead actors at least had a tent with a fan to retreat to. So she asked the producer, “‘Do you have any problems with Asians, because it looks like to me, you’re trying to shoot this story about Asian people and you’re not treating them right, and you’re asking me to swap my lines with somebody? What are you going to give me in return?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, nothing.’ So I was like, ‘No. No way man.’ I argued with him and then in the end I still speak English and they’ve already sacrificed my entrance scene by asking me to speak Cantonese with Jonathan, because Jonathan thought it would be more convincing that he knows another language than Sarawakian. They asked if I could speak the whole scene in Cantonese and I said, ‘That’s a joke, maybe one line,’ and then we started speaking in English again. I never act like that in Hong Kong. I was uncontrollable – I slammed my hand on the table, like that’s enough!” I was sitting in the centre of the James Brooke Trust [near Kuching] and all the actors were walking past, and they were like oh f…, something’s wrong.”
Aside from Rajah, Ho lets us in on other 852 projects in the pipeline. “There’s this rock ’n’ roll badass film called Habit,” she says. “It’s basically crazy nuns chased by this fetish couple, which is myself and [The Kills guitarist] Jamie Hince. In the movie he’s really afraid of me, pathetic and kind of gangsterish with this insect fetish, and torturing these nuns who are half-innocent girls who are trying to make a life in LA. My plans have been delayed a little bit due to the virus – the shooting’s all done, but it’s in post-production. I might also have the chance to work with Charlotte Gainsbourg and it would be a very interesting thing – a film called Jodie and we’ve been talking to Bruce Wagner and Mike Figgis.”
And then there’s her band, Josie & The Uni Boys, which is still kicking out the jams some 13 years after the five-piece got together. “In a rock gig, you’re the clown or the king,” she says. “It’s up to you how you want to be – you choose yourself. I’ve chosen a really crazy wild style. I like to yell a lot, and get on the ground and roll around, it’s my Madonna thing, crawling on the ground. I don’t care if I make a fool of myself, because I love it, I get a kick out of it because that’s real performance. It’s real art to be a little bit out of control because if you always restrict yourself then you’ll never develop another level.
“My family’s not about that, my family’s all about discipline, not looking bad in front of people. Only once in my life, when I got fired, my mom took me in my room – she seldom does this – to have a serious talk, and she said, ‘Didn’t you get accepted into FIDM [the Los Angeles Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing]? You got accepted for spatial and fashion design. Maybe you should think about going back and stay out of the media.’
“That would be a nightmare,” says Ho with a laugh, “I’d probably kill myself. But now, even 20 years since she said that to me, now at this age because of all the design work of posters, record covers, film posters and all that, I should have done it! Then I’d have total control. Who’s criticising this poster? I can draw something else!”
With that, the rebellious Ho, who flips every Hong Kong rich-girl stereotype on to its head, makes her way down to our makeshift studio in the basement of the Ferrari showroom. “I love the car,” she says on first sight of the Roma. “If you lend it to me for an hour, I can probably show you and myself how I can really run this monster.”
Photography: Kyu at Shya-La-La
Art Direction: Sepfry Ng
Styling: Genie Yam and Adrin Yeung
Hair: Angus Lee
Make-up: Vic Kwan at II Alchemy Hair & Nail
Car: Ferrari Roma
All Outfits: Josie’s Own
Additional Reporting: Florence Tsai