On the eve of their nuptials, Jessica Jann and Kenneth King get ready to make the jump from playing house to setting up a home. Over a lethal gimlet at PDT, a slightly frazzled Jessica Jann plonks herself on a bar stool and sighs, “What a day I’ve had.”
This is a few months ago, just after she officially confirmed that her boyfriend, Kenneth King, had proposed to her while they were on holiday in Bali. “This tabloid has written a horrible, wildly inaccurate article about the family and about Ken and his family,” she says, clearly agitated. “Can they just make stuff up? Is that legal?!”
Jess Jann, a rarity who transitioned from child star to actress, model and KOL with an ease remarkable for its lack of controversy and meltdowns, has been familiar with the rigmaroles of fame and celebrity for years. Often featured in the media, she’s taken the good, the bad and the ugly with a pinch of salt as tabloid culture, with its fleeting relationship with the truth, is familiar territory. But for the newly engaged King, an entrepreneur and investor who has mostly shied away from the media glare, it’s a whole new ball game. “He’s so upset by the lies,” says Jann. A HK$50 rag fabricating stories? Whatever, next.
“I was leaving this car-launch cocktail and after the obligatory photo call at the press line the PRs ushered me into a corner to chat with some of the papers. I had my mental notes ready and, you know, the sound bites prepped,” she says, laughing. “Suddenly, this random guy just asked me the rudest personal question and I was literally so shocked my jaw dropped.”
Jann went on autopilot, gathered her wits and resorted to that handy non-committal response: “No comment.” But King hasn’t been self-taught in media machinations.
“These days, they all ask me for Ken’s number and want to interview him,” she says and rolls her eyes, laughing. “He’s super private and unfamiliar with this flashbulb world. We went to this fashion show a few days ago together, and that was the first catwalk show he had ever attended. I’ve attended so many similar events, I’ve lost count. He’s entering new worlds — like when I heard about his businesses, I had no idea about the length and breadth of his work. It’s been so interesting as our respective industries are so vastly different.”
Comfort food is ordered and tater tots with a generous portion of melted cheese are consumed. Apart from the logistics and complexity of organising a wedding that involves a huge number of family and friends, as well as the ranks of the film fraternity and Hong Kong society (“you can’t even entertain the idea of a small wedding when family alone is around 100 people”), there’s an apartment under construction. “I’ve stayed with Ken’s family and he’s stayed with my friends and family and it’s like we know each other well. I have my place on Johnston Road, he has his family place in Mid-Levels — but this new place is going to be ‘our’ house. All new… I’m sure they’ll finish on time.”
Months go by. Fast-forward to the day of our photo shoot, and as we go over the couple’s itinerary there are several gaping holes. The house isn’t done, days before the wedding the couple has to fly to Australia for a close friend’s wedding, the media blitz has gone up to the next level, some who RSVP’d yes have become no and then there are those coming with additional guests so the seating chart has gone for a toss. There are decoration and design elements that need a second view — and yet, surprisingly, through it all, the so-in-love duo keep their spirits up. Both laugh easily and guffaw at the goofs. “I really thought the house would be ready,” Jann says, as those on set who have ever dealt with the construction industry are splitting their sides. “What was I thinking?”
Between portraits, we grab one and then the other for a chat as this young couple enters a new chapter in their life. Together.
First things first, on the eve of your marriage how are you feeling?
With our wedding coming up, I feel a lot of things: happiness, nerves and so many emotions – but overall, stress! There’s still a lot to figure out and plan. We started working on it early but my ‘to do’ list never ends. As I sign one thing off, another five crop up.
It may be a sexist question — as men are rarely asked this — but will you continue working as a model/KOL/actress or take a break, plan a family and so on?
I will definitely continue working. I’m such a type A person; I love to work, I love to be busy and I want to continue learning. Of course I need my chill moments but I need to work! I actually have a movie coming out soon called Enter the Fat Dragon, an action-comedy. It was such a great learning experience. I had the one and only Donnie Yen as my mentor, which was amazing. I learned a whole lot on and off set. I also plan to continue working on my digital-marketing company, Explosive Influencer Agency. We started out almost a year and a half ago and have been so fortunate. We’ve worked with some amazing clients like Netflix, Bloomingdale’s, MaBelle, Red Cross and Marvel. Co-founding the agency has been one of the biggest learning curves. Between family and wedding planning and work, I had to really remind myself to have a work-life balance there.
Speaking of family, did you know early on that Ken was the one?
I think so. We started out as friends but I was immediately drawn by how kind, hard-working and intelligent he was — he is! Kenneth makes me feel like the luckiest girl alive. He’s always super-supportive and attentive. I’m really lucky ’cause he’s been so on top of our wedding planning.
Recently on social media you posted a major throwback picture as a child artist on the sets of Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson. I had no idea you had been in the industry for so long. How did it all start, and how have you not lost the plot like so many child actors who fail the transition to adulthood?
I honestly am a very lucky person. I was eight years old when I went to this open casting call. Thousands of kids were there and I just stumbled into acting. I have no idea to this day how lucky I am because at that tender age, they cast me in a Hollywood blockbuster, Lethal Weapon 4. For three weeks I got to skip school and stay at the Warner Brothers lot and be in scenes with Jet Li, Mel Gibson, Chris Rock and Danny Glover. Now I would be, like, pinch me! It’s a dream! But at the time, I didn’t know how big a deal it was. Then, there was a pause — I didn’t get back into auditioning and acting until senior year in high school. My parents were so supportive and would often drive me two hours to LA for auditions and drive back another two. I have the most amazing parents in the world who supported me throughout. I booked a few TV shows and movies like iCarly, Zoey 101, Easy A and Jonas.
What’s the major difference between working on a film set and a TV set, and in local films versus American ones?
American films are more slow-paced and have certain filming times and they’re very strict about that — union rules and so on. Overtimes are often noted and you get compensated accordingly. In Hong Kong and China, film sets move really fast, things are a lot quicker, there’s a lot of pre-planning so perhaps more efficient? I was amazed how quickly we finished shoots — and yet the quality is still there. The end results are amazing for both.
Apart from acting and modelling, you also have become a social media star. How did that happen?
Social media is an interesting thing as I didn’t really plot out anything on that platform when I first joined. I started out posting more of my daily life (I have family here and in the US) so they could see what I’m up to. And food pictures in the beginning — I love good food — and it just slowly started climbing. My Eat with Jess food blog took off so fast. You have to be really consistent with it. Photo quality is really important — before, I would post whatever I wanted. Now I edit and choose which ones look the best. It really is like another full-time job.
What’s been the best fan encounter?
The funniest thing is people approach me more as a food blogger. They know me from my ‘eatwithjess’ instagram handle! I’ve gotten loads of free food and drinks from people who recognised who I was, which is the best bit. No fan encounter has ever been bad. I love seeing my fans’ messages. The best fan messages were ones that said I inspired them to be more open about their life, and they started food blogs too because of me!
What’s a surprising thing you do, that most readers don’t know about?
I’m a huge homebody. My posts might be all at events, lunches, meetings, sets — but I love staying home, I just don’t post that. I love my naps, my TV time and I need my me time. You have to take care of yourself first. I also love my family; I FaceTime my grandma, mom and dad at least four times a week. They live in LA, so I try to message them every day.
Apart from the wedding that’s all-consuming at the moment, what do you want to do in the coming year?
I want to travel more, grow my business and I want to continue acting. After all the wedding chaos, I’m sure I’ll need a break — but I’m also enjoying it. I don’t know what the future will be, but I’m so ready for 2019 with all the blessings that I’ve been given.
Since your engagement, you’ve entered a new world of media scrutiny and press coverage — and yet there’s so little “fact” about you out there. Let’s set the record straight. Quick background: Where were you born and brought up? What did you study at university, and does that inform your life today?
I was born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong. I studied for a BA in economics and an MSc in management science and engineering, both at Stanford. The Stanford culture had a lot to do with me being an entrepreneur. I was surrounded by young people who would start businesses in their spare time like it was a hobby.
Tell me about what you do as an investor — what are you involved in at the moment?
Currently, I’m investing in very early stage private companies and helping them grow. It is the most risky yet rewarding type of investing for me. I invest in projects I believe in — ones that are also happy to take my money and advice. For example, I was the very first investor in Singapore-based Tessa Therapeutics, a company I then joined personally to help build as founding COO for two years. Tessa (which recently closed a US$80 million financing round led by Temasek), is now at the forefront of cancer immunotherapy R&D, which is shaping the future of cancer treatments.
In principle, I build companies, which really means turning solid and exciting ideas into long-lasting enterprises that hopefully make a difference. The first two businesses I built in Hong Kong were more “traditional” per se; in F&B (Drawing Room Concepts) and in healthcare (Cosmetic Central). Both are healthy and growing businesses. Then my involvement with Tessa Therapeutics in Singapore became my first entry into building biotech. After Tessa, I co-founded a mobile video software company in China called Tian Tian Technology, which was quickly acquired by Miaopai, one of the most popular social video mobile apps in China. Upon returning to Hong Kong in 2018, I joined a friend to try to build Hong Kong’s first regulated and compliant digital assets exchange.
What are the challenges you face working in Hong Kong?
For one, the city-level population size compared to entire countries like the US or China means there’s a very small market for growth or disruption. For example, you can open a maximum of 10 cafes in Hong Kong versus 1,000 in China. And to get to 1,000, you must first conquer the vast cultural and infrastructural differences with mainland China, which is much harder than most people can imagine.
Secondly, it’s unfortunate to see unaffordable property prices take a toll on middle and lower income classes in so many ways. High living expenses and cramped living spaces for most people mean less happiness and less mental and physical room to try out new things or work on what you really enjoy doing, leading to less occupational diversity in society and less creativity, which then translates to less innovation from its people.
Are you optimistic about business in Hong Kong? And do you invest in other countries too?
Of course I invest internationally, but being firmly part of and connected to the Greater Bay Area is a big positive for Hong Kong. The city will continue to strive in areas that it has traditionally excelled in: financial services, trading, retail and having a very high standard of trained professionals. Tech and innovation take time, especially in a small place like Hong Kong, and require something of a cultural and academic shift — but kudos to Carrie Lam for her commitment to support local tech and innovation.
Post engagement, you’re now in the media spotlight whether you like it or not. How are you dealing with it?
I prefer to stay away from the spotlight. My beautiful and smart fiancée can and should take all the attention!
On the plus side, this can bring good publicity where needed in your biz, no?
Yes, that’s not a bad reason…
Apart from marriage and family life, business-wise what else would you like to do in 2019 or the near future?
A lot. The Hong Kong digital assets exchange I’m working on should launch in early 2019. I’m also closely following the personalised healthcare and tech space, which I find very exciting, and am toying with a few ideas around that. In the meantime, Drawing Room Concepts is working hard on bringing new brands to Hong Kong and Cosmetic Central may expand to enter the mass market. My plate is almost full already!
Outside work, what do you like to do?
Besides watching TV shows at night with Jessica to wind down, whenever my schedule allows, I enjoy cooking or grilling steaks, which I find therapeutic. On weekends I try to catch Man United play.
All right you guys, this has been brilliant. Is there a mutual goal that you’ve got in mind?
JJ: I have to really remind myself to have a work-life balance — same goes for Kenneth.
KK: What she said!