‘I dared to fail’: How these 3 gutsy S’porean artists are blazing their own path overseas

Singaporean entertainment artists making a name for themselves in overseas markets

With Singapore being a small country, it’s inevitable that many creatives here opt to venture overseas to expand their horizons, sharpen their skills and make their mark.

This is especially true for those in the arts and entertainment circles, where opportunities abound in larger cities with established communities within the industry.

MS News spoke to three Singaporean artists who are carving their own paths in the industry on the wider international stage: actors U.S. Praveen and Nathania Ong, as well as songwriter Nat Ho.

They shared their experiences relocating to New York, London, and Seoul respectively, the challenges they faced along the way, and what advice they would give those who wish to do the same.

U.S. Praveen: Off-Broadway stage actor based in New York City

28-year-old U.S. Praveen never planned to be an actor. In fact, he wanted to sign on as a full-time officer with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) after he started National Service (NS).

That dream came to an abrupt halt when he was rejected in the interview process.

He went on to spend the next four years in a Banking and Finance degree course with the Singapore Institute of Management-University of London (SIM-UOL) programme.

Source: @prabeenus on Instagram

It was there that he cultivated an interest in acting and modelling after a university friend noticed his potential and connected him with an agency.

“I then started to look for agencies on my own and two took me in. Within a couple of months of signing with them, I booked a nationwide commercial for the Republic of Singapore Navy,” said Praveen.

By the time he graduated, he was “dead set” on pursuing acting as his career.

He began starring in commercials as well as television and film projects in Singapore. Praveen was notably a series regular in the Vasantham drama ‘Vettai 5: The Hunt Begins’.

Image courtesy of U.S. Praveen

With the money he had saved up from these projects and modelling gigs, he left to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute (LSTFI) in New York City (NYC), and never looked back.

He is now based in NYC, and has been there for about two years.

Explaining his choice of location, he said: “It was New York or Nowhere. Simple as that.”

After deciding that he wants to pursue acting full-time, Praveen initially enrolled in an Acting Studio in Singapore, which was led by Kamil Haque, who once studied and taught as a faculty in the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in Los Angeles.

“When I was studying with him in Singapore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find me in the library devouring books about Lee Strasberg and The Group Theater and Stanislavski. I just had too many questions that needed answers.”

Following countless hours of research, Praveen figured it was better to get as close to the source as possible, and most of the people he had looked up to and hoped to learn from were in New York. Thus, he set his sights there, too.

When asked why he did not go to Los Angeles instead, he explained that it was because NYC is a city bearing similarities to Singapore.

He added that, as most of his favourite rappers are from NYC, he simply desired to see the place that influenced them and walk the ground they tread.

Faced challenges fining accomodations & different auditioning culture as an artist overseas

It was not all rainbows and unicorns for Praveen when he got to NYC, though.

The biggest problem he faced was finding suitable accommodation.

For instance, he had to cancel the first arrangement he made, because he started getting “weird vibes”.

“Thank god I did, because when I went to his place, it was in a rough neighbourhood. Lucky for me, someone in school had a spare room to sublet and I stayed with him.”

That, however, was not the end of his troubles.

As Praveen did not have a US Social Security Number (SSN) and a US Credit Score, he was unable to secure long-term accommodation, and could only find sublets to live in.

While the upside to that is they usually come fully furnished, the downside is should the owner of the house return, the subletter would have to leave. As a result, he had to move from sublet to sublet every three months or so.

“That’s something I would never ever wish on anybody. The amount of stress it causes is unfathomable,” he shared.

“There was once when a room opened up and I had only 12 hours to move in. I rushed back home, squeezed all my belongings into my two suitcases, booked a Lyft and off I went.”

He had also struggled with the city’s auditioning culture when he first started out.

In Singapore, an actor typically would not need to bring their headshots and portfolio to the audition venue as their agents would have sent them over beforehand.

In NYC, however, bringing along copies of one’s headshots and portfolio is common practice, and this was something that Praveen overlooked during one of his first auditions.

Image courtesy of U.S. Praveen

“I was petrified, I didn’t have my headshots or my resume printed out,” he shared. “I thought that’s going to reflect badly on me and they were going to think I’m not a professional and as a result, reject me.”

His fears turned out to be unfounded — he managed to book the job.

Since then, the Singapore actor has been in several Off-Broadway (a class of theatres with a seating capacity of 100 to 499 seats) as well as Off-Off-Broadway (venues with under 100 seats) plays and musicals since he touched down in The Big Apple.

On top of that, he is working on a new Hulu TV limited series starring Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Michelle Williams (Shutter Island, The Greatest Showman) called ‘Dying for Sex’.

“Working on this show not only gave me the eligibility to join SAG-AFTRA, a union for TV and film acting, but it also gave me major insights as to how a major Hollywood production functions like a well oiled machine,” he said.

artists overseas

Image courtesy of U.S. Praveen

Pursue your dreams, go full speed ahead, says actor in NYC

When asked if he has any advice for those who wish to take the same path he did and expand their creative chops overseas, Praveen provided the following quote from British-American poet W.H. Auden:

God may reduce you on Judgment Day to tears of shame, reciting by heart the poems you would have written, had your life been good.

“I remember reading that for the first time and I just started bawling my eyes out,” he elaborated.

“Imagine going through life, tentatively — suppressing every impulse that you’ve been blessed with, because you are worried about what someone might say, or worried about how it will all work out — and as a result of that overthinking, taking the safer road.”

He encourages anyone who wishes to pursue their dreams in NYC to go full-speed ahead: “Yes, do it! It’s always a yes from me. However, if I were to tell them anything, it would be to build a support system.”

He added: “It is going to get tough, and as artists we have to take heart every single day and keep marching on. I am blessed to have great support from my family and friends and my army mates.”

Nathania Ong: First S’porean to play Éponine in ‘Les Misérables’ on London’s West End

Looking at Nathania Ong now, you wouldn’t have thought the 25-year-old once suffered a string of rejections from drama schools in the United Kingdom (UK).

Nathania is now a household name, known for her spectacular performance playing the role of Éponine in the 2022 United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland tours of ‘Les Misérables’, and subsequently its West End run.

She is the first Singaporean to play this part on the West End.

At 18, however, Nathania faced her first setback.

She wanted to pursue acting professionally after catching the acting bug while being part of the theatre club in Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC), she told MS News.

She thought obtaining an education in one of the UK’s top drama institutions would be a great way to start.

That didn’t go so well. “I found myself being rejected from every school I applied to within two weeks of landing on UK soil. Being young at the time, the auditions were a big, financially costly mistake. It really shook my confidence as a performer.”

After failing to get in, she went on to attend the Bachelor’s in Acting course at Lasalle College of the Arts for a year.

Although she hadn’t planned on leaving, an “emotional phone call” with her best friend convinced her to try auditioning for spots in the UK again.

In 2018, seeing as the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts was auditioning in Singapore at the time, she decided to apply.

“Following a string of seemingly insurmountable inconveniences — including getting cut from the final act of my final year show to jump on a flight to the UK and land two hours before my audition — I made it to the final round auditions,” she recalled.

“I got into the course, and I haven’t looked back ever since.”

Singaporeans artists rarely cast in principal roles while overseas

At Mountview Academy, Nathania would put on one of her proudest performances as Helen Burns and Bertha Mason in a closed production of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’.

“Helen was the embodiment of selfless kindness, whereas Bertha was a desperate, unhinged predator. Finding and exploring the contrast between those two characters was lots of fun,” she continued.

This being one of her first few onstage experiences, Nathania knew she was probably not at her best — acting wise. However, she was glad she gathered her courage, stepped up and did it anyway.

What I was proud of during that production was my boldness and daringness to fail.

She was glad she didn’t fear making the wrong choices, and was able to laugh off mistakes one makes during rehearsals or the experimental stage of a production.

“Not fearing failure allows you to experiment more with bold acting choices, to even sometimes surprise yourself with the range of action a character could employ in a scene,” she explained.

“I was once told by one of my teachers that when we act we are given a perimeter or a frame to play in. Safe choices are somewhere near the epicentre of the frame, while an ineffective choice sits outside the perimeters,” she added.

“The job of a great actor is to try and get as dangerously close to the borders without overstepping them.

Upon graduation, Nathania said she was “fortunate to have landed my roles in relatively quick succession”.

On her historic role in ‘Les Misérables’, Nathania said she was “ecstatic” and it was a dream come true.

“Moving countries to pursue what seemed like a pipe dream was a big step for me, and booking the role made me feel like it was all worth it, all the uncertainty, and all the sacrifices.”

In spite of the achievement, she confessed that she struggled with her confidence at some points during the production, which she chalked up to being a relatively young actor when she booked the role.

“Even as a regular person in the rehearsal room, I would often find myself shrinking in body language and in discussions, not daring to speak and hugging to the corners of the room,” she recalled.

“It took a little bit of getting used to, but once I realised that the kind people surrounding me and I were working towards the same goal, I permitted myself to open up and grow in confidence.”

With her dormmates at Mountview Academy. Source: @nattyong on Instagram

Despite her training and portfolio, Nathania does face some difficulties finding work as a Singaporean in the London scene.

Nathania told MS News that opportunities like hers are few and far between.

“As Singapore is a small country, it is rare to see castings that call for actors of Singaporean descent specifically. Often the castings call for Asian actors of a larger diaspora,” she explained.

“This affects our chances of being cast, instead giving way for more similar and genuine casting — and rightly so! However, this does make it a little bit more difficult to find work as a Singaporean actor.”

Although the industry in London is moving towards a more inclusive and diverse environment, she noted that there’s still much room for improvement.

“East and Southeast Asians are being cast in more shows now, but I do feel that we are rarely cast in principal roles, instead being cast as covers or swings.”

Covers or swings, according to Nathania, refer to actors in a show that learn ensemble or leading roles, and cover the tracks in the event that the main actor is unable to perform, like a substitute of sorts.

artists overseas

Source: @my_photography_journal_ on Instagram

In spite of that, with the increasing number of shows telling Asian stories, Nathania hopes to see more of those and play in one someday.

“What keeps me going is that I never joined this industry hoping to get rich or famous. I started performing out of love and passion, and I try to constantly remind myself of that,” she explained.

“Whenever I get an exciting audition, I focus on the joy of exploring new work, rather than the pain that might come with the rejection,” she said.

Believe that you are enough, says West End actress

Nathania’s strongest ally and supporter through it all? Her father, whom she calls “her biggest fan” and regularly reminds the actress how proud he is of her.

After her successful West End run, Nathania decided to return to Singapore in late 2023, as she was offered the part of Cinderella in ‘Into The Woods’, a musical theatre adaptation of well-loved fairy tales by Pangdemonium, a Singapore-based theatre company run by husband-and-wife duo Adrian and Tracie Pang.

She spends her time reconnecting with family and friends — all while making her mark in the local scene.

She also staged a solo charity concert at the Esplanade in aid of the Business Times Budding Artists Fund in December last year.

Source: @nattyong on Instagram

Asked if she had any advice for budding artists, Nathania said she wished someone had told her this when she first started her career: “You are enough. You are enough right now, and you were enough before you made something of yourself, you are always enough and much more than that.”

Nat Ho: Songwriter who hopped from Singapore to Taiwan, Los Angeles & Seoul

For 39-year-old songwriter, actor, artist, and entrepreneur Nathaniel Ho, also known as Nat Ho, the route to where he is today is a long and arduous journey.

These days, he is a full-time songwriter in Seoul, and has been there since August 2022.

artists overseas

Image courtesy of Nat Ho.

“Korea had never been part of my plans, primarily because of the language barrier, but I guess the Universe works in mysterious ways,” said Nat, who was a contestant in the first season of Singapore Idol in 2004.

In 2013, he decided to pack his bags and move to Taiwan after signing a nine-year management contract with a Taiwanese management company.

“The first year was very intense artist training,” he recalled. “In the second year, I released my first Mandarin mini-album ‘第二男主角 / The Second Leading Man’. The song broke into the Top 10 on Taiwanese radio stations.”

However, things went awry when the company’s hired CEO allegedly mismanaged the business’ funds, and the investors decided to pull out.

He returned to Singapore in 2015 when he got a role in the local longform English television series ‘Tanglin’. He also ran a food and beverage business until 2019.

“By then, I was completely burnt out and needed to refocus on myself, to rest and regroup. So I moved to Los Angeles (LA) in the middle of 2019 to study music production at Icon Collective,” said Nat.

He spent about two years in the US before returning to Singapore for Chinese New Year in 2021.

It was meant to be a brief visit; unfortunately, he could not return to LA due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Language barriers are a struggle for Singaporean artists living overseas

When travel restrictions eased, Nat travelled to South Korea in April 2022. He liked it so much there that he stayed for 1.5 months.

He then decided to move there in August after enrolling at Yonsei University to learn the Korean language.

In 2020, Nat pitched a song he wrote for an upcoming album for South Korean boy band Super Junior through a connection at a Korean publishing company. Even though the song did not make the cut, it was at that point that he decided to launch his professional songwriting career and pitch for more projects.

Moving abroad isn’t easy, he said, with most challenges coming in the form of finances or logistics. In his experience, it takes about half a year before one can resume a semblance of financial independence when they relocate to another country.

Nat acknowledges that he has been lucky enough to have a relatively stable income during the process of relocating from a variety of sources, such as online businesses and investments.

For those who do not, however, he suggests taking on more flexible projects such as part-time work or freelance work from online platforms such as Fiverr and Upwork.

There is also the need to familiarise oneself with the local language and culture to make friends and build a new support network, he added.

Recalling his first day of school in Korea, where he attended a beginner’s class, he said: “Besides myself and another boy from India, the rest of the class had actually already studied Korean for a minimum of six months to a year! The class was taught in full-Korean — not a single word of English.”

I honestly felt really stupid and helpless for those two weeks and I started doubting whether I had made the right decision. But eventually, I chose to stick with it and trust the process. Although I still speak Korean like a three-year-old, I’m definitely much better than when I first started.

Nat is finally able to see the fruits of his persistence.

“A year later, I finally have my work visa, and I’m able to properly make songwriting my full-time career. I’m immensely grateful to be here in Seoul, and looking forward to more exciting things coming this year.”

Embrace the adventure, says musician in Seoul

Asked why the multi-hyphenate decided to move overseas that many times, and he pointed to the small artistic market in Singapore.

“Even though there are initiatives to help with the arts in Singapore, it is not enough,” he said.

“Remember the survey that ranked ‘artist’ as the number one non-essential job? That alone is reason enough to know that the arts will never be a priority in Singapore — and it’s totally understandable because as a tiny country with limited natural resources, we have to prioritise our survival and income-earning abilities. I don’t fault people for saying that.”

That said, Nat describes himself as a “very proactive” person who adapts by either changing himself or his environment, should he find himself in a situation where he is unhappy.

Responding to questions about what an aspiring musician like himself should do if they wish to embark on the same journey, Nat said: “Prepare enough money! Save as much as you can. These things are expensive. And especially in the area of music, it could take a while before being able to see any meaningful income.”

Lastly, he encourages everyone to follow their own “personal blueprint” and embrace the adventure. While naysayers or even well-meaning friends might have their own opinions on what should be done, Nat says it’s best to lead your own journey instead of paying heed to others.

He elaborated: “Anytime I have made any decision, people always have had comments and opinions about it — and it’s not always from a place of mean-spiritedness. Sometimes it can come from friends and family, too.”

“However, people tend to give opinions based on their own personal lived experiences, and it’s not going to always match my own experience, knowledge, and personal traits, so I only take in what I feel is useful and tactfully put aside the rest if I find it doesn’t apply.”

Have news you must share? Get in touch with us via email at news@mustsharenews.com

Featured images courtesy of U.S. Praveen, adapted from @nattyong on Instagram, and courtesy of Nat Ho. 

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