47-year-old Singaporean, who has six grandkids, crowned at Grandma Universe 2023

Laura Lee, winner of Grandma Universe pageant, at her home on Jan 30, 2023. The grandma of six had her first child at 20 and first grandchild at 37. - ST

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): The music is pounding inside the gilded ballroom of Hotel Montecito in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

Audiences whip out their phones as Singaporean Laura Lee – clad in a sparkly red frock that shows off her lean physique – begins singing and doing the salsa to Michael Buble’s Sway.

The 47-year-old – the youngest contestant among 17 women but already a grandmother of six – ended up sashaying her way to the crown.

The competition, which ended on Jan 23, was her third beauty pageant and her second win.

At 44, Lee – who had five grandchildren then – took part in her first pageant, Mrs Singapore, in which she emerged as the first runner-up. Later that year, she won the Mrs Tourism Queen International Pageant in Thailand.

The mother of three, who turns 48 in March, is also a successful entrepreneur behind a logistics business and five frozen food companies.

But life has not always been a bed of roses for Lee, who first became a mother at 20 and a grandmother at 37. Her three children – Cheryl, Sean and Lester – are now 28, 27 and 24 respectively.

Money was scarce growing up. Her electrician father supported a family of six on a monthly salary of S$1,500, while her mother, a housewife, looked after their four children.

By age 13, Lee, the second youngest child, was giving English and mathematics tuition to Primary 1 pupils to earn pocket money. At 16, she worked as a sales assistant at a gifting company, selling flowers, hampers and trinkets when she was not in school.

“We never went hungry, but we were not able to afford any luxuries either. It made me want to be more capable, so I could provide my children with a better life,” she recounts to The Straits Times in a video call.

Lee was pregnant with her first child, Cheryl, and married to her high-school sweetheart when she was 19.

She continued to pursue her studies and secured an advanced diploma in sales and marketing from the Singapore-based Thames Business School at age 21. That same year, she gave birth to a boy, Sean.

But the young couple faced financial problems. Lee held three jobs – selling insurance and copier machines by day, and waitressing by night.

Though she felt like giving up at times, she soldiered on for the sake of her children. She had a third child, Lester, in 1999.

“I told myself that no matter how difficult it got, we had to keep the faith. So, I kept going because my children depended on me and they were still young,” she says.

But the money problems took a toll on the marriage and Lee filed for divorce when she was 31.

“That was the worst time of my life because I was all alone with three kids. But there are no regrets. I believe I made the right decision,” she says.

To feed her young children, she sold refrigerated trucks for an industrial goods company. She was good at the job, making $15,000 to $20,000 a month. Within months, she had cleared all her debts and was on her way to financial independence.

In 2009, with the $50,000 she saved up, Lee founded Trade-Pro Trading, specialising in logistics and warehousing.

Today, she also has five other companies dealing in frozen food. Her businesses employ more than 70 people.

“I was lucky enough to have a lot of ‘angels’ around me. They helped me build my career and introduced a lot of business associates to me, and that was how I was able to expand,” she says.

After making her mark in business, the world of beauty pageants beckoned. But Lee says it was not for the glamour when she participated in her first pageant in 2019.

“By then, I was already doing a lot of charity work, especially with old folk. But a friend shared her pageant journey with me... and told me how we can contribute in a different way,” she says.

Though she did not win the Mrs Singapore title, the experience taught her several things.

“Pageants are much more than just charity work because we can inspire and motivate one another. I got to know a lot of friends and we went on to do charity work together,” she says, adding that it is more like a sisterhood and nothing like the petty rivalry often portrayed in Hollywood films.

Several months later, Lee became the only grandmother to compete in the Mrs Tourism Queen International Pageant in Bangkok. This time, she won.

“I knew what to expect then, so I took about three months to prepare for it. I also went for singing and dancing classes,” she says.

Even with two tiaras under her belt, she is not taking things for granted and believes her achievements are a result of hard work and perseverance.

Lee, whose grandchildren are aged two to 10, exercises thrice weekly and goes for aesthetic “tweakments” like fillers and Botox and stem-cell injections to maintain her looks.

“We have the technology to help us look good, so why not?” she says.

She has also found love again and has been in a relationship with her business partner for the past 15 years.

With a smooth-sailing career and love life, Lee does feel that it is time to take things slower.

She is in the midst of handing over the businesses to Cheryl and Lester. Sean has his own automobile business.

“My biggest achievement in life are my three children,” she says.

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