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My life: Irene Tsu

The actress and yoga fanatic tells Kate Whitehead about the trappings of Hollywood and her romance with a certain Frank Sinatra

 

FIRST STEPS I was born in Shanghai in 1944 and left for Taiwan when I was three, as part of the huge migration there. Within a year my mother, younger sister and I moved to Hong Kong and my dad stayed in Taiwan. I went to Heep Yunn School. I was crazy about ballet. I'd seen a poster of a pair of red shoes and really wanted to be in them - and begged my mother for ballet lessons. Everything in ballet was French, so I decided to learn French, too.

Every three years, (British performing arts venue) Sadler's Wells held a contest in Hong Kong, and I auditioned - and won! My father flew over and spoke to the Sadler's Wells people. They said that if I accepted and went to London I would be told when to eat, sleep and study and would do ballet every day. I'd stay for as long as they needed me and, although there was no guarantee I'd be a prima ballerina, I'd be in the corps de ballet. My father said no; he thought I'd be an indentured servant. I really lost heart because I'd tried so hard - I thought my life was over.

HOLLYWOOD CALLS We left for America shortly after that. It was the late 1950s and we took the President Wilson steamer, then a train to New York. My dad joined us in the early 1960s. So there I was in New York, taking English 101. My teacher found out that I danced and asked if I wanted to be in a school play. I said, "Yes, but I don't speak much English." She said, "Never mind, the lead is a deaf mute, just talk with your feet." It was Finian's Rainbow. That was how I broke into dancing. I'm a fast learner - language, dance, I just do it. By the time I was 15 I was out in California, for the (film) Flower Drum Song. The producer said, "I want you to meet fellow Hong Kong girl Nancy Kwan." She was a few years older than me and the star of the movie. I got to be her roommate and ride in a limousine to work with her every morning. The director was doing a movie ( Take Her, She's Mine) with Jimmy Stewart and Sandra Dee and wanted to know if I could speak French. I read the script and got the part, my first speaking role. I got my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card; I was 16 and in the film business. I'd lie about my age - I was 21 ever since I was 16.

BEING WITH FRANK My dad was furious - (to him) it was as good as walking the streets. My family wanted me to go to college, not for an education but to find a husband. My sister says she became a lawyer to make up for me. By the time I was 19, I'd done several films, including one with Richard Harris and Doris Day, and met the producer Aaron Rosenberg. I was the spokeswoman for (oil company) Chevron as well as (drink brand) Hawaiian Punch - they were major commercials and the money was good. I went to Miami for a shoot and looked up Rosenberg. He said, "Come for lunch," and when I got to the Fontainebleau (hotel) there were 10 people there and I was sat opposite Frank Sinatra. He was filming Tony Rome with Rosenberg.

I don't know if Frank paid any attention to me - [but] then I met him again in a private club in LA. He had the most incredible blue eyes and if he looked at you, forget it - so hard to resist. I got a call from a restaurateur, saying, "You're having dinner here with Frank tonight." Me? I went crazy shopping for something to wear. Finally I was dressed and the phone rang. It was Frank. I don't know why he had a car phone, no one else did at that time. He said, "I'm so sorry, I have to leave town; my divorce with Mia Farrow has just been announced. The paparazzi are at my house and I'm going to the desert. I'd like you to come out this weekend." Frank put me in the Pink Room, which was Mia Farrow's room, and he said, "If you don't like the colour we can change it." We went out for two and a half years - and I changed the colour to buttercup yellow. Age wise, there was a big difference - 30 years. I was vegetarian and into meditation and Indian gurus. We'd go to the most expensive restaurants in New York and I'd be a pain and order a carrot or something.

WHITE GOODS FROM OL' BLUE EYES When you dated Frank Sinatra, no one would dare come near you, but a Hungarian-American photographer, Ivan Nagy, would call every afternoon; he was persistent. Things were fizzling out with Frank. I married Ivan when I was 24 and Frank called and said, "If you don't tell me what you want as a wedding present you're going to get a Ming vase." I said, "No Ming vase! Actually, I don't have a washer/dryer." That gave him such a laugh: "What are you going to do, open a Chinese laundry?" He wrote me a card, "All the happiness to you and no starch." It was a good washer/dryer, I kept it for a long time.

LIFE'S LESSONS I was married seven years (to Nagy). I was devoted to the fashion business and would come to Hong Kong three times a year, but it ruined my marriage. After the fashion and design I got into real estate. I had a boyfriend in the business, so I took my real estate licence. I like working with people, like architecture; I not only sell real estate, I do a lot of renovations and help people change things around a bit.

My daughter was born in China - she's 16 and is the best thing that ever happened to me. I finally reconciled with my dad. He said, "I give you a PhD in life." And I said, "Thank you, can you give me a little diploma and frame it?" And he did, which was sweet.

I've been doing yoga for 36 years. My teacher is Bikram Choudhury - he's going to be opening a school in Hong Kong - and I've been teaching yoga for 18 years. Yoga keeps you energised and alive inside.

ALL THAT I HAVE BEEN I'm amazed and grateful that I've worked on 74 titles. I tried to broaden my range - I have been Polynesian, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese. I've done TV; a few years ago I did CSI and Law & Order. I have a fond memory of coming to Hong Kong for Peter Chan's Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996). All these years of acting in Hollywood TV and movies, I'm very aware of being an Asian actor; I was always someone's slave girl, or whatever. But when I did that Hong Kong movie, I felt I could be a person: I was Leon Lai's aunt.

 

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