DIY In Dubai
Why multi-faceted local celeb Simone Heng believes in "doing it yourself"
Most of us would like to believe that we go through life with some help from experiential highs — and, at times, crushing lows — called tipping points. For Simone Heng, that happened four years ago, in Singapore, when she got a “life-changing” telephone call from this part of the world. “I was asked,” she says, “if I would like to live and work in the world’s fastest-growing city.”
She said yes, and moved to Dubai. And the rest, you could say, is history. Or her-story.
But then, not really. While Simone, with a certain deft lightness of being sitting pretty on her petite frame, is instantly recognisable these days if you bump into her in a public domain — thanks to the many hats she wears and her legion of fans — she had already carved out a niche for herself in the time that predated her move here. So before she started a radio career in Dubai in right earnest — 28-year-old Simone (a regular in Dubai’s ‘influential professionals’ pantheon) hosts The Lowdown on 104.4 Virgin Radio (also a known face on the telly, having been a host for Dubai One) — she moved around in Asia-Pacific juggling a television career. At 22, she was the face of HBO for South East Asia and China. At 23, she was “the first Asian face on Channel 9 Perth’s decade-long travel series Postcards WA”.
“It’s funny,” she laughs heartily, “how different cultures have different notions of ‘being presentable’: I had to fake a tan in Australia; whereas in Singapore, I had to scrub off the tan and be ‘white’… You know, in a sense, God blessed me by making me short — that way I can be more creative. In television, I was constantly told I needed to be taller... and thinner…”
Does radio put her more at ease, no frantic pressure to look a ‘certain way’? Yes, definitely, she says, even as you are hard pressed to figure out why ‘looking a certain way’ should be a problem for Simone (the Virgin Radio presenter was ranked the 18th ‘hottest woman in radio’ according to a global poll on popcrunch.com). Her daintily exotic looks come from her Eurasian mother and Chinese-Singaporean father. But while the world is clearly pleased with her ‘inheritance’ of cocktail looks, she’s far more grateful for the kind of childhood her parents gave her. “It was a strict, migrant upbringing [her family moved to Perth when Simone was three]… No indulgences… My mother was into thrift stores — we were a typical migrant Singaporean family in Perth.”
She knew she couldn’t be complacent. “I had to be productive; it was drilled into my head that I needed to ‘contribute’… It was like, if you have free time, don’t put up your feet and take it easy — be productive… that helped me be immensely grounded and I learnt a thing or two about being creative.” She did her own stitching (instead of buying ready-to-wear), for instance, and it’s stood her in great stead — especially with cheapnchic, her hugely-popular blog on a ‘champagne lifestyle on a beer budget’, but let’s come to that in a bit.
One other reason why Simone is instantly recognisable in Dubai — so what she lends only her voice on prime-time radio? — is her brand associations. She endorses Philip Stein, BlackBerry and Pond’s in the region, while dishing out her own take on this marketing tool: being visible is virtually virtual. “Social media and online have changed the nature of brand endorsements — I am chatty and interactive with my audience and nothing works better for my brand equity!”
With fame, and therefore power, comes responsibility; so what pearls of wisdom (in her capacity as a youth icon) would she scatter along the way for her followers to pick? “Live and learn, don’t lie about your abilities, actualise your strengths… Convert hobbies into something constructive…” There are so many things to do, she says, waving her hands expansively: she paints and exhibits; studies comedy and is an occasional stand-up comedienne; likes telling stories so writes a few columns; is taken in by the catwalk so does some commercial modelling.
“And the one thing I never tire of repeating is: Be strategic and work hard — remember, you don’t have to be the best, you just have to be willing to put in that extra effort… you know, do the grind, work the hours.”
It is a throwback to when she was asked to name people she looks up to, and she mentioned Jennifer Lopez. “What I like best about her is that she is living proof you don’t have to be the best — or even the skinniest — to succeed.”
Among others (people who’ve been inspirational for her), she “definitely” counts her dad (who passed away in 2004 — it was probably not a tipping point, a watershed more like. “I realised life is too short, and I had a lot to achieve”, a realisation that jolted her out of a “protective environment” into the big, bad world). “Then there is Audrey Hepburn — I only wish I could be as elegant!” Ryan Seacrest [the American Idol host], for obvious reasons.
“And my old boss at Virgin, who was always looking out for me,” she smiles. Actually, that’s how cheapnchic.net, Dubai’s DIY inspiration blog, happened in July this year. It was like this: one day, her boss asked if Simone was “saving” enough. He felt she owned too many expensive-looking clothes, too many “fine accessories”. “There is a tendency among expats to splurge on their lifestyle, which is alright to a certain extent — but then on, one has to be sensible and practical, he advised.”
Simone loved his sage advice, but informed him nonetheless about the “XYZ” amount she had put away in her bank account from her salary. “His jaw dropped”. “You see,” she says, “I’ve always improvised on stuff — so the ‘expensive’ gear I sport is most likely knock-down-prices’ stuff that I have embellished, given a new life to… all in line with the season’s latest cuts, designs, colours.”
Cheapnchic.net is dedicated to make a virtue of bargain basement prices — cheap can be chic, you only need to know how to go about it. For starters, you can let Simone show you the way — she’ll love that; she says she gets a real kick when she is swamped by ‘thanks yous’ for adding more value into the wardrobes of an entire fashion-crazy generation.
But the most important detail about DIY is probably the licence to walk down your path — or the imagined catwalks in all aspiring fashionistas’ minds. “I want my followers to not always think they are being thrifty [because a lot people in Dubai can afford to spend]; it’s more like letting your creative juices flow.”
Even as the free-flowing conversation with Simone Heng bubbles, every now and then she goes back to her roots: the life lessons she acquired very early on to facilitate living on her terms. “My mother is still very matter-of-fact; if I were to tell her, I’ve done this or that, she always lets me know it’s not the end of the road, there’s more to be done — and that I should get on with those.”
... You can live a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget
Don’t be afraid of the old. Keep your old jackets, vests and T-shirts and don’t be afraid to slice them up and embellish them with studs from Satwa.
Take your husband’s or father’s old business shirts, cut off the collars and embellish with buttons and studs for current season detachable collars.
I love Jumeirah for its wealth of discarded vintage furniture; try out your DIY skills! If you mess up a project, throw it away — you didn’t spend a cent on it.
Old white pillowcases that are looking dull can be tie-dyed into new cushions for kids’ bedrooms in bright colours.
Breathe life into an old lamp by buying some fringing from Satwa and edging it. The tassles will cast pretty shadows and change the atmosphere of a room.
Most old, mismatched picture frames can get a makeover with spray paint. Re-do the colour scheme of a room by unifying frames in a similar colour.