Wednesday August 20, 2003

There’s something about Maggie

Stories by PATSY KAM

Actress Maggie Q is often seen as the sultry and smouldering model on fashion covers. How has the new face of Leonard Drake skincare and health spa emerged unscathed from tabloid gossip and stayed grounded? 

IT WAS your usual meet-the-press session. Model turned actress, and these days, producer, Maggie Q walked into the press conference last week at Carcosa Sri Negara in Kuala Lumpur, all ready to be mauled by the press. Dermal Esthetica’s public relations and promotions manager Yen Chong introduced Maggie as the face and spokesman for Leonard Drake, and then suggested that she take questions from the floor. 

This was met with dead silence. That is because we are talking about the Malaysian press which follows this strange unwritten code of politeness – so, nobody made the first move. Thankfully, someone eventually broke the ice. Later, during a private interview, I asked her what she thought of the Malaysian media.  

“They are really different, not as aggressive and the people really seem to be listening to what I’m saying. They are a lot more humane,” Maggie replied, after some thought.  

Born Margaret Denise Quigley, Maggie is American-Vietnamese with bits of Irish, Polish and French from her father's side.
Coming from someone who is so used to being hounded by the paparazzi in Hong Kong, that was a real compliment.  

Maggie is not your conventional beauty but that is all the more reason why she is so appealing. Her climb to fame reads like a Hollywood fairy tale played out on a Hong Kong big screen. You’ve heard it all before – “Sorry, we don’t like your face, your name is too hard to remember ?” But change countries, ditch the agent, abbreviate the name and the next thing you know, Maggie is cover-girl material and everyone wants a piece of her, including film producers and modelling agencies.  

Born Margaret Denise Quigley, she is American-Vietnamese with bits of Irish, Polish and French from her father’s side. Originally from Hawaii, after a short unhappy stint in Taiwan, she moved on to Hong Kong and struck gold. It was Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily that dubbed her “Maggie Q” and the name stayed.  

Despite her not speaking a word of Chinese then, the island republic loved her Pan-Asian looks and the next thing you know, she was thrown into the heady world of fashion. She is also much sought after as the face for advertisements and magazine covers. Besides appearing in scores of high-profile magazines, including the cover of newsmagazine Time, Maggie became the image girl for Lancel, among other international brands.  

Not bad for someone who has only been in the limelight for a little over five years. Certainly, it was a calmer and more mature Maggie, all 1.7m of her. Despite nursing a bad cough and looking a little tired, she was still polite and accommodating.  

“I used to get really bothered and depressed about what the press wrote about me, but not anymore. They are always making up these fantastical stories about me and the men I go out with. Hong Kong is a big city and it’s hard to survive. Everybody is so driven. It’s one of those places where you deal with extremes all the time – (can’t) live with it, can’t live without it – that kind of thing. I love the city. But you don’t get used to the cultural differences,” she quipped. 

“When I first got here (Hong Kong), I was naive and thought that everyone was nice and had good intentions. But that’s not always the case and I’ve learnt a lot in the last five years. It’s hard to stay ‘normal’ in this business and it helps to find humour in everything. People tend to define you by your relationships, the way you dress, and what you’ve done – they have no idea who I really am. Knowing a person has nothing to do with all those things. In the beginning, I didn’t understand the popularity. I don’t like it and I don’t value it. It wasn’t real. Even today, I’d be quite happy to trade places with the next person and be ‘regular’.”  

But she was quick to add: “I wouldn’t undo what’s happened to me at all.” 

She was once voted the most desirable woman in Hong Kong by readers of men’s magazine Him. Was she impressed? 

Hong Kong model-cum-actress Maggie Q is the new spokesman for Leonard Drake in Asia.
“That threw me off guard. I thought that was really sweet. Sometimes, they say I’m sexy, and then next, they say other things. I won’t really go by what the media say anyway.” 

Wasn’t she tempted to call the Taiwanese agent who gave her the cold shoulder? 

She said upon reflection: “I’m happy that I’m not the kind of person who would want to put it in your face. Not anymore. A few years ago I probably would have but in that sense, I’ve grown up. Before I was floating around, trying to find myself. Now, I’m working towards something. I’ve changed a lot and am more confident now.”  

One of the first things that struck me when I saw her was how thin she looked. Apparently one of those people who eat whatever they like and stay slim, the former cross country runner and swimmer works out religiously. Maggie confided a secret: “You know, men think women who are not scared to eat are really sexy.” 

By becoming Leonard Drake’s spokesman, she joins the ranks of other famous Hong Kong personalities like Christy Chung and Sammy Cheng, who also endorse slimming services or skincare products. Does that mean she will have to live up to a certain image?  

“People compare me to so and so, and I really feel that being competitive (in that way) is a waste of time. You should be proud of what you have. For me, I just want to be honest and tell people I’m not perfect and I have all these problems with my skin. But, let me share with you what works for me because it’s really helped me and I believe in the products.” 

Maggie sneaked into Malaysia for a personal project called Love Asia, an Asian version of the American Sports Illustrated. The publication will promote Asian women and Maggie will be featured in it as well.  

“When we were shooting in Chinatown (in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur) in front of the shops, none of the shop owners said ‘No’. Most of the local people I’ve come in contact with in Malaysia are those working in my crew, and they’ve been really co-operative. That’s partly why we chose to come to Malaysia. You have no idea how hard it can be in some countries. And even the reporters. Halfway through, some Chinese press reporters found out about me and politely asked for permission to take my picture and talk to me. That’s so different from Hong Kong. That’s why when I say Malaysian people are nice, I really, really mean it.”  

In fact, when I called her a month earlier for a phone interview, I had caught her smack in the middle of a photography session in Hong Kong for the same project. Then, she rambled on like a runaway train. Thankfully, she doesn’t talk like that all the time although she has been known to speak her mind. 

“Once I was going somewhere to eat and reporters were really breathing down my neck and I burst into tears and screamed at them, ‘Leave me alone.’ Later, they printed stuff that I regretted saying – it was just that at that point of time, I was really frustrated with them. To be fair, the article did explain the circumstances and there was an apology at the end.” 

Her movie career is on an up trend, and offers are pouring in from the United States, Britain and Japan. So far, she has been seen on the big screen in Gen-Y Cops, Manhattan Midnight and Naked Weapon, and a cameo role in Rush Hour 2, among others. She has also dabbled in a couple of Chinese serials and stage productions.  

“The press in Hong Kong are always harping on, ‘Oh, you did this bad movie,’ and ‘You did that,’ but I’m thinking, when am I supposed to be making my mistakes? At the beginning or years later in my career? But I really would like to explore film and get behind the camera. 

“When I first arrived, I did fashion modelling for one year solid and I was bored after that. I’m the kind of person who takes each day as it comes along. Some people have long-term plans but I don’t. It’s a lot more challenging this way, but it also means I’m not stuck in one place. I want to give myself options – people in the business do that – I’m realistic, I can’t be a cover girl forever. It’s not a problem for me. That’s partly why I’ve got my own ongoing projects.”  

Maggie said she has a couple of Asian and American movie scripts on the cards, which she may consider producing and starring in.  

“I love independent films. The current projects I’m looking at are darker pieces with pretty challenging ideas. I like pushing the limits. Even the books I read – I’m reading one about Cuba now – are not mainstream.”  

By the way, her Cantonese has improved since, but Maggie maintained that it is not about the language – it is a clash of cultures. 

“They (Hong Kong) don’t get what I’m about. For example, Asians tend to be all bottled up and don’t like confrontations. But I’m an outspoken person. If at the end of the day there’s something I’m not happy about, I don’t want to gossip about you or take it out on my friends. I want to get it out of the way. I feel it’s important to keep an open mind and I’ve learnt not to be judgmental.”  

Clearly, the girl in the big city is still a small town girl at heart, and the struggle to stay sane in the fashion and film industry is a real challenge. 

“If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want her to be in the business. My best friends are not from the industry and we talk about everything. It’s not about me or the movies I’m in. My time spent with friends and my two ‘children’ – my dogs – are the most important as it gives me a sense of reality. If somebody says today, choose your boyfriend or your friends, I would rather keep my friends.”  

Next month, Maggie will be returning to Hawaii to attend her sister’s wedding. What does her family think of her celebrity status? 

“My parents are proud of me today, not because I’m a ‘star’ but rather, it’s that whatever I’ve achieved, I’ve worked and done it myself. They couldn’t care less if tomorrow I’m appearing in a different magazine. I’ve tried to stay who I am, and family and friends still say I haven’t changed. To me, that’s the greatest compliment.” 

When asked what she had to say to her Malaysian fans, she smiled and rolled her eyes as if to imply, “What fans?” Trust me, Maggie, they’re out there ...  

“Thanks for all the support. With this (Love Asia) project, I hope to show more of Malaysia to the world,” she concluded.