Love it or hate it, Netflix’s latest entry into the reality show genre sampled the lives of young Singaporeans as they decussate the meandering journey that is life. The show is somewhat timely. After the popularity of Crazy Rich Asians and the attention brought about from the 2018 North Korea-United States Singapore Summit, it made sense for Netflix to ride the wave with some Singapore-centric programming in its line-up.
Watch the video below for cast insights into the filming of Singapore Social.
Released globally on Netflix’s streaming platform, Singapore Social stars personalities who are in the entertainment or social media industries. Viewers will follow them over three months as they interact with one another while dealing with their own issues.
It’s said that Singapore Social goes against the grain of your typical reality shows. Is it going to be like Terrace House? Can we expect drama? Will someone utter, “I’m not here to make friends”? The cast consists of your usual archetypes: the jock, the cheerleader, the quiet one, the weirdo, the brooding loner. The combination makes for an interesting chemistry as we gather them for a photo shoot and query them on the show.
ESQ: How did you get involved with the show?
VINNY SHARP: Lisa Marie White [Miss Universe Singapore 2015] contacted me. She said that there are people who are making a show and they are looking for interesting people to interview.
PAUL FOSTER: Some friends recommended me to them at the start in 2017 and another group of peers did again last year.
MAE TAN: [Mine] was years ago when someone from E! Entertainment called to ask if I’d be in a reality show, but a lot of my family members don’t want to be in front of the camera so it wasn’t possible. The producer who proposed this moved to Love Productions and pitched another show to me. This was Singapore Social, which seemed more aligned to what I was doing.
ESQ: Sounds like he caught you at the right time.
MAE TAN: He caught me just at the right time.
NICOLE ONG: They scouted for a few people early last year and one of the girls, a friend, encouraged me to do it. As an introvert, I told her that I can’t do something like this but she convinced me to join her and see how it goes, so we kinda fell into it.
SUKKI SINGAPORA: I was approached via WhatsApp. I didn’t know whether it was real or not. There wasn’t a pitch. It was more like, ‘hey, we’re doing a story on Singaporeans. So, can we Skype you and you just talk about Singapore?’
ESQ: That sounds like they were auditioning you.
SUKKI SINGAPORA: I guess. It was like a screen test and they wanted to see how we look, how relaxed we can be on camera.
VINNY SHARP: I was acting from primary school to junior college so I was familiar with the feeling of auditioning and not getting the part in the end. I had no expectations when I was approached. I was just happy to do the interview for fun. After the first Skype interview, came another, then another.
ESQ: What did you talk about?
VINNY SHARP: I was educating them [the producers] about the social fabric in Singapore. I feel that was the reason they wanted to talk to me and I wanted to help them figure out the narrative.
PAUL FOSTER: [The interviews were] to see which characters would fit the group dynamics and represent Singapore. I fit the role of the other male lead because they already had Vinny and the girls at that point.
ESQ: How interested were you in the project initially?
PAUL FOSTER: It didn’t really matter to me. This is kinda my work—compared to the rest [of the cast] I’m in front of the camera a lot, so in that sense it’s just another show. It’s cool that [Singapore Social] is a Netflix global title; it’s nice that it’s a project about Singapore. It’s awesome that it’s unscripted but when you’ve a career as long as I have, you learn never to count your chickens too early because some things just don’t work out.
SUKKI SINGAPORA: I’d actually been looking to venture into TV. I was flying in and out of LA to meet with producers.
ESQ: What’s your experience with reality shows?
SUKKI SINGAPORA: I’ve been scouted before for a reality show, at the start of my career. A talent scout, who followed me on Twitter, thought I was interesting but I didn’t really enjoy that process. I figured that it wasn’t really for me. You’ll wonder whether what you’re seeing is real when it comes to reality shows… especially with Western-type reality shows. It’s too staged.
I’ve only done things that I felt were genuine portrayals of myself. If it’s tacky, I won’t do it. If I don’t gel with my co-stars, I won’t do it.
PAUL FOSTER: I did The Big Unknown in 2002. This was a show examining people who are furthering their tertiary education. They followed me to [a university] in Australia during my first semester. I would do a few more reality TV shows after that.
MAE TAN: I’d previously filmed two reality TV shows: one when I was 18 in Korea and another, which was more travel-focused, for TLC.
ESQ: Have you watched any reality shows?
MAE TAN: I am super into bad TV. When I am eating, bad TV is the only kind of TV that I want to watch.
SUKKI SINGAPORA: Not really. I know about reality shows because you can’t escape the Kardashians and their reach. Occasionally, when I’m flipping through the channels, I’d catch a glimpse of it. Other than that, I’ve steered away from that.
ESQ: We heard that y’all knew one another before shooting started?
VINNY SHARP: I got to know everyone during the six-month period before shooting so there was already a context to begin with.
NICOLE ONG: Spending a lot of time together for that long, we’ve become closer now. I think Paul was the link.
MAE TAN: Yeah, Paul brought us all together.
SUKKI SINGAPORA: Paul is like the mayor of Singapore, he kinda knows everyone and he’s in social circles where everybody knows each other.
PAUL FOSTER: I’m the one guy [in the cast] who was acquainted with everyone. We usually see each other at events and again, the whole point of this show is that given that there are 5.8 million people on one tiny little island, everyone kinda knows each other through a mutual friend.
ESQ: Did you face any obstacles while filming?
NICOLE ONG: For me, it was breaking out of my shell and being open to the whole process. I’m a really private person. During those times I’m doing my own thing throughout my day, but at the same time, I’m trying to not be so closed off. Fake it till you make it, I guess. Even if you don’t feel good about it.
PAUL FOSTER: I was filming a lot overseas… so much so that I almost missed the first two weeks of filming Singapore Social. I had to catch up.
MAE TAN: The hardest part will always be having giant cameras following you everywhere.
SUKKI SINGAPORA: But after a while, you forget about the camera and the crew. You start to let loose.
PAUL FOSTER: We had to fit everything into our real-life schedule. That was difficult. You had to give even more because the cameras are picking up every little reaction.
VINNY SHARP: Cristina [Purdea], who is a very dear friend of mine, she and I were our sincere selves for the cameras. It was very hard as there isn’t much direction in our conversation. It was hard for us to be us as when we’re playful like kids… and like kids, our conversation usually has no tangible objective; it’s not something we usually think about.
PAUL FOSTER: It’s second nature to me. I notice where the cameras are so it’s easier to manoeuvre. People who aren’t used to having cameras will just shift towards the talking, so I guide them to face the camera a bit more. It’s little things like that.
VINNY SHARP: With reality TV, there has to be some directing, otherwise the show would have no point. It was hard to manifest our relationship when there were cameras on us and it got very frustrating.
ESQ: How did you move past that then?
VINNY SHARP: I became fine with it after two or three days into filming.
ESQ: Were there any unexpected moments from filming?
SUKKI SINGAPORA: [I discovered] that I’m stronger than I think I am. I feel this sense of wanting to help everyone and a lot of times, we’re taught not to be like that, y’know? Have boundaries. If you experience conflicts in your life, you’d do well to focus on your own lane… but I like that kindness is a strength and not a weakness.
MAE TAN: It sounds crazy but I never thought that a reality show was going to help me in my life. The entire process of them questioning, who are you? What do you stand for? What are you going to say? You question yourself a lot and in the process, you grow and learn a lot of things about yourself.
ESQ: What’s your take on the audience being privy to certain aspects of your life?
VINNY SHARP: I have no concern about censorship and privacy. I’ve nothing to hide and I wouldn’t want to hide anything.
NICOLE ONG: Terrifying. But exciting at the same time.
VINNY SHARP: I think circumstances have led me to this and if that can inspire people and people find something relatable in that, then I think it’s great.
SUKKI SINGAPORA: There are some aspects of my life I needed to be careful in not sharing. My parents don’t want to be in the spotlight even though they are more accepting of my work. I do my best to protect my parents’ privacy.
NICOLE ONG: I’m not sure how it’s gonna turn out, but the audience would get a really objective view. Or, at least, a fresh perspective of my life. I know what I went through and what happened during those six months [of filming] but I don’t know what made it to the final cut.
ESQ: What about you Paul?
PAUL FOSTER: [The show] was fun to do but at the same time there was a bit of fear. What if people don’t like you for being you, but what can you do? Who cares. That’s life. You have to accept the outcome and deal with the audience’s response afterwards. You’re going to get people who are not happy in their own lives so they have to find fault in other things. I’ve been in this industry for a while so I’d developed a thick skin. No matter what you do, you’re still gonna get one [guy] going “Wah lao, you wayang, lah… you’re just doing that because you trying to get people to love you.”
ESQ: Haters gonna hate?
PAUL FOSTER: That’sonething I’ve always dealt with all my life. If I’m out of Asia, I’m the Asian guy. When I’m in Asia, I’m the white guy. I’m used to that. The cool thing is that my mom is featured in this show a lot, so they will get to see and be like “oh his mom really is Chinese”. These three months, my mom and I had a lot more heart-to-heart talks because there was a lot going on in my life.
ESQ: Do feel like you have to put on a front for a reality programme?
SUKKI SINGAPORA: People only see the glamour of burlesque and are clueless about how much work goes into it; luck isn’t available to the top-tier. I wanted to open up that side of my life so people can know about the hardship, learn from it. Hopefully, it’ll be an education.
MAE TAN: If you watch the show and meet us, you’ll realise that we are exactly the people that we portray on the show.
PAUL FOSTER: When I’m acting or hosting, it’s not me being someone else or in a work capacity. This [show] is real me. By all accounts, I’ve heard it’s come really well together, which is very exciting. It’d be fun to see how it comes out and how it’s accepted by the audience.
ESQ: Is everything we see as real as it could have been?
VINNY SHARP: There are zero situations that are fabricated. Everything that you see is organic, at least from my end. I wasn’t dictated to behave in any fashion or form, everything that came out of my mouth was because I had full autonomy. One hundred percent, it is who I am.
MAE TAN: Likewise, I was 100 percent honest with the camera. But there were a lot of scenes that I refused or didn’t want the cameras to film, like me working. So, I wouldn’t say it’s exactly but it’s close enough.
SUKKI SINGAPORA: I have no idea how it’s edited but it was me and no one made me do or say anything. We were encouraged to be as forthcoming as possible and I genuinely wore my heart on my sleeve.
Everything that you see happen, happened.
NICOLE ONG: I’m an entrepreneur, I’m in finance, so I don’t think there’s much to stage. It is just the way it is. It was as authentic as what we did on a day-to-day basis. Even though it was extremely scary, the added confidence makes me just speak my mind.
ESQ: Has that changed you?
NICOLE ONG: I won’t say I feel different after this shooting but it has altered how I’d present myself in front of people. I didn’t use to do public speaking but now I’m willing to try it.
ESQ: They had to arrange for you guys to meet, right? Because, initially, most of you didn’t know each other before that.
PAUL FOSTER: Our paths had to cross or else it’s impossible to advance the storyline, but it wasn’t like we were doing things we wouldn’t normally be doing. The producers had to find a way for our paths to intersect because you can’t just have five people leading their own lives… that’s not the point of the show. You’ll see how our own stories turn out. It’s just us, pretty much, leading our own lives.
Like many things, the final product only tells the story that it’s made up to tell. The truth of the matter is that this interview wasn’t conducted collectively. In the window of time where all schedules aligned, doing so would have eaten into the limited hours we had with them. So, they were quizzed individually and had their transcriptions streamlined and stitched to give the impression that the conversation took place in a group setting.
Information on the show pre-launch was scant to almost non-existent. We don’t know why Tabitha Nauser wasn’t part of the main cast when promos have her face in it (the cast members claim to have no idea why this is the case and the official response from Netflix’s PR was that “Tabitha is more of a supporting cast member, she was featured because she’s a close friend of the cast”).
We apply filters to everything—in reality shows, in real life—we are very different beasts to others but ourselves. Critical thinking is needed. Asking questions is to be lauded. Singapore Social, like many things, will be left up to the court of public opinion.
But a genuine moment did stand out during the photo shoot. Under the camera flashes and make-up and outfits, there was an honesty in their interactions with one another. A warmness of an accord, a closeness borne from months of filming. Their friendship stands to endure, long after the lights have dimmed and the credits have rolled.
Words by Wayne Cheong, Joy Ling, and Ingrid Walker
Photographs by Gabe Chen
Art direction by Eugene Lim
Styling by Asri Jasman
Singapore Social is streaming now on Netflix. For more stories like this, subscribe to Esquire Singapore.