Loco for Coco: Singer reveals the rocker inside
The singer is rebooting her music career with a rockier, more grown-up sound. She tells Vanessa Yung why she relishes being a role model for young women
COCO LEE LIKES TO describe herself as shy and averse to the spotlight, but when we meet for a photo shoot at an Aberdeen studio the 38-year-old pop diva comes across as confident and outgoing.
It's her charisma that makes her not only a role model - she is the face of Hong Kong Cancer Fund's annual Pink Revolution campaign - but also a good coach for all the wannabe pop stars in the mainland singing contests she has recently worked on. Lee was a mentor for The Voice and the judge for the full first season of Chinese Idol (both televised singing competitions on the mainland), which wrapped up five months of filming at the end of August.
"I'm a big fan of American Idol and I know the show so well that it came very naturally to me," says Lee. "But more importantly, I was that contestant years ago. I was that young girl pursuing her dreams. And when I saw all these young people, I wanted to be able to help them. Because I've been through exactly what they're going through. I want to use all the knowledge, experience and tricks I know to help them make fewer mistakes."
It was 20 years ago, when Lee was just 18 years old, that her life reached a turning point. Born in Hong Kong and raised in San Francisco, she came back to the city to take part in TVB's The New Talent Singing Awards competition. She didn't win, but her performance of Whitney Houston's Run to You earned her a recording contract.
"At first I wasn't sure. I love singing and I wanted to know whether this was really my path. I thought, maybe it's not meant to be, maybe I'm not good enough," says Lee, who was a pre-medical student at the University of California Irvine. "But when I stepped on that stage, I felt like this was where I belonged. My destiny was set on that night."
She got her big break in Taiwan with her solo debut album Love From Now On (1994) and since then she has become an international star. She was the first Chinese singer to be signed by Sony Music globally and the first - and only - artist of her nationality to sing at the Oscars, performing A Love Before Time from Ang Lee's award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Lee counts Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Nino Ricci, Madonna and Mariah Carey as her influences and has earned the chance to perform on stage with some of her idols over the years. "I'm glad I have all those memories," says Lee.
In May, she released her latest studio recording Illuminate - four years after East to West. The album, in Mandarin, is a shift away from her trademark pop/R'n'B. For example, it features Stuck on You, which sounds more like Motown than the other rockier tracks.
"On every album I sound different because at every stage of my life I go through different things, and the message I want to express is different," says Lee. "Before, I would never do rock. For this album, I completely changed the way I sing.
"I treat myself as a brand new artist. I don't want to put myself in a box where I only sing one type of music and limit myself."
She says this album reflects the changes her life has undergone in the past few years. In 2011, she tied the knot with businessman Bruce Rockowitz following an eight-year courtship. After getting married, she tried to be less of a workaholic, spending more time with her family and exploring the world.
"I wanted to rediscover myself. Sometimes being in an industry for too long, you get jaded. I wanted to go away for a bit to find inspiration, and that's exactly what I did - I travelled. It's great because I have been exposed to different cultures, different sounds, and it inspired me for this album.
"So in the lyrics or in the arrangement it almost sounds like I'm taking you on a vacation," she says.
Her most recent break was a New York trip with her husband after the shooting of Chinese Idol. But the couple resumed their hectic work schedule soon enough.
Lee admits it is hard to strike a balance between work and family, but says the love they share makes things work. She is planning a concert next year to celebrate the story of how she rose from the girl who only sang in the shower to the megastar she is today.
"We're very supportive of each other because we both started from nothing. So we understand what it takes to have success. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication," she says.
"I choose to work hard. It's a choice. I want to be a successful person. I want to have a successful career. I want to be able to influence young girls to believe that they can have a successful career, make a difference in the world, and have a family. You just have to work hard at it. You can't be lazy. As long as you put your mind to something, you can make it happen."
Lee has also been moved by the courage shown by her mother-in-law and a close friend who suffered from breast cancer.
"I learnt so much from these women who are going through breast cancer. Cancer means you have to change your perspective on life - you say 'I'm going through something very tough in life, but I'm going to beat it'."
That's why last year she became the ambassador of Hong Kong Cancer Fund's Pink Revolution campaign. The annual fundraiser - coinciding with global breast cancer month in October - aims to raise awareness of the disease and highlights the importance of early detection and self-screening.
"Being a singer there are lots of ups and downs, but my attitude has always been to choose to talk about the positive stuff. When things bring me down, I always talk to my family," Lee says. "When you're sad, it's OK to cry, because we're human. But don't let it get you down. Don't stay in that little hole. No way. You pick yourself up and learn from the bad things.
"That positive thinking can change your whole life - whether it's dealing with illness or with your job or with other issues. Life is difficult. All jobs are difficult. But it's just your attitude.
"As long as you have a positive attitude, then you are going to beat this. You're going to come out a winner."
Pink Revolution highlights
Luxury resort Conrad Macau, Cotai Central will donate all profits from sales of the limited edition Paisley Bear and Lucky Ducky toys to the Hong Kong Cancer Fund. And until October 31, a portion of the sales of the Pink Afternoon Tea at The Lounge and Pink Menu at its Dynasty 8 restaurant will also go to the charity.
Dr Joseph Chan, deputy medical superintendent and head of Department of Women’s Health and Obstetrics of Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital, will speak about breast cancer on Commercial Radio at 10.30pm (88.1FM) on October 1, 8 and 15.
The Pink Photo Competition takes place on the Hong Kong Cancer Fund Facebook and Instagram pages from October 4 to 31.
Dr Wong Ting-ting, Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital’s honorary consultant of breast surgery, will give a talk on breast cancer at the Central Library from 10.30am to 12.30pm on October 13.
Dress Pink Day! invites you to host a pink party to raise fund for the cause on October