Gwendoline Yeo is a picture ofinnocence as the maid Xiao Mei inDesperate Housewives.
WISTERIA Lane has just received a Singaporean immigrant. If you’re a fan of Desperate Housewives, you can look forward to the introduction of a new character on the hit series (just three weeks from now on 8TV in Malaysia). Called Xiao Mei, the character is a Chinese slave girl whom the Solis family rescues and then hires as a maid.
The starlet who plays her is Gwendoline Yeo, a 26-year-old actress-musician born and bred in Singapore, who also happens to be the niece of Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo.
Gwendoline Yeo had initially signed up for only five episodes in Season Two. But she impressed the producers so much that she nabbed a place on the regular cast in Season Three, which begins filming next month.
Despite having gone around the circuit with recurring roles in 24 and General Hospital, and guest-starring opportunities on JAG, The OC and Judging Amy, Yeo counts this as her breakthrough role.
“Desperate Housewives is a huge show and everybody watches it. To even get on Desperate Housewives for one episode as a guest star is already a big deal. To be offered a part as a series regular is like the American dream,” she said in a phone interview with Singapore’s The New Paper from her Los Angeles home recently.
In real life, she is nothing like the reticent, innocent Xiao Mei. Vivacious and confident, she laughs easily, her American-accented voice crisp and sensual.
Getting the role was a challenge for the former Miss Chinatown USA and Miss Asia America. She had to compete against thousands of aspiring starlets, although she skipped the early auditions as she already had a strong portfolio.
“It helped that I wasn’t just innocent, but also had that sexy quality, just in case they wanted to go that way with the storyline – and I was funny. It’s one thing to be pretty and Asian, but to be pretty, funny and Asian is a different thing,” she said.
Yeo as Xiao Mei, the rescued slave girl hired by Gabrielle and Carlos Solis (Eva Longoria and Ricardo Antonio Chavira).
She estimated that she will be in “at least half” of Season Three.
“As for how large my role is in the script, I am legitimately one of the main characters in the story. Of course, I’m not one of the five main women – it’s called Desperate Housewives, not Desperate Maids,” she said, laughing.
On the set, she is closest to Eva Longoria and Ricardo Antonio Chavira, who play Gabrielle and Carlos Solis, since each of the five women’s storylines are shot separately. The experience, she said, has been nothing but fun – and lots of whoopee cushions.
“Ricardo and I tried to whoopee Eva – but because she’s so light, she bounced off it!” she said.
And everyone, she added, has been friendly to her, with none of the bitchiness that’s rumoured to be rife on the Desperate Housewives’ set.
Life is changing rapidly for Yeo. Currently, she is doing her press rounds for TV miniseries Broken Trail, in which she acts opposite Academy Award winner Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church.
And only a day before this interview, she had her first major sit-down interview with the American TV network E! Entertainment.
Yeo arrivingfor the premiereof Broken TrailinNew York on Tuesday.
It’s a far cry from when she started out five years ago as a fresh graduate from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). Then, work was scarce and she had to supplement her income by working a waitress, surviving on a diet of steamed rice with teriyaki sauce.
She didn’t have to – her father is an endocrinologist and her mother is a dental assistant – but she wanted to make it on her own.
She lived in a dingy rented flat where she could hear drug pushers on her doorstep, people getting beaten up outside – and worse.
One night, about five years ago, she was watching a police chase on television, when she saw the suspect fire at the cops. At the same time, she heard the gunshot outside her home. It turned out the shooting was going on near her flat.
The experience shook her up. She said: “I vowed, ‘Gwendoline, when you make it, you are getting the hell out of here.’”
Nowadays, she lives in a posh apartment on the penthouse floor of a “great art-deco building”, which has a panoramic view of Los Angeles. Although she declined to reveal how much she earns, Desperate Housewives, no doubt, pays well.
And if she ever gets complacent about her new life, she only needs to look at her screensaver: a picture of her old apartment!
It’s not all been rosy, though. Yeo said she has had her share of missed opportunities. These included almost landing the role of Suki in the 2003 car caper 2 Fast 2 Furious. It eventually went to half-Japanese, half-German model Devon Aoki.
So what does it take to land a juicy role?
It’s not just about looks or talent, she said, because “there’s always someone prettier and someone more talented”.
Ultimately, it comes down to relationships, politics and celebrity.
Yeo said: “Sure I look a certain way and I’m a pretty girl, but (I got the Xiao Mei role) not because of politics, not because of celebrity, but because I was the perfect person for the role and I was talented enough to get it. That makes me feel really good.”
She was only a teenager when she left for the United States, but Yeo said she has never lost sight of her roots.
“The blood that pulses through my veins, my palate for spicy food, my hardworking drive, my quick way of speaking, my wit – it comes from my parents naturally, but it also comes culturally from Singapore. The more I’m here and the more I know who I am, the more Singaporean I feel because I know where my values and roots came from.”
Being a Singaporean can be a double-edged sword in Tinseltown – because nobody in America seems to know for sure what Singapore is like.
On one hand, she gets to be a “chameleon”, a sort of universal Asian. On the other hand, she has no chance to use her Singlish or share the uniquely Singaporean sense of humour. She has played Korean, Japanese, mainland Chinese and Asian-American characters, but she has never played a Singaporean.
And the rarity of Singaporeans in Tinseltown has made her, unwittingly, a representative for Singapore. Like on the set of Desperate Housewives.
She said she has had to tell the curious stars of the show about Singaporean food and the fast pace of life, and explain that Singapore is more than just about Michael Fay or the chewing gum ban.
“And I do the Singlish accent a lot – everyone gets a kick out of that!” she added.
She has received fan mail from Singaporeans living in the United States telling her how proud they are to have a fellow countrywoman on the hit show.
“So even if I’m not trying to solicit Singaporean support, they are counting on me to fly the flag high,” she said. – The New Paper
‘Desperate Housewives’ airs on 8TV every Tuesday at 10pm. Catch Gwendoline Yeo in the episode titled ‘Silly People’, tentatively scheduled for July 4.