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Who Is Michelle Yeoh, The First “Anak Malaysia” To Win An Oscar?

Who Is Michelle Yeoh, The First “Anak Malaysia” To Win An Oscar?

Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh has been known for her martial art roles in Hong Kong films and she has made a lasting mark in Hollywood too.

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UPDATED 6 May: Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President Joe Biden for being the first Asian to win an Oscar as Best Actress in 2023.

Biden acknowledged that Yeoh has for decades shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings to “enrich and enhance American culture.”

The White House also acknowledged that Yeoh’s efforts to advance gender equality, conservation issues, and global health have been felt globally.

Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh won her first Oscar today for her role in Everything Everywhere All At Once, and claimed her seat in Hollywood history as the first Asian woman to win the coveted Best Actress award in the Academy’s 95-year-run.

READ MORE: Michelle Yeoh Wins ‘Best Actress’ At The Oscars

Although it seems like she’s gaining further recognition in Hollywood now, most of us in Asia have already recognised her star power when she appeared in Hong Kong films such as the iconic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.

Born in Ipoh, Perak, on 6 August 1962 to Janet Yeoh and Yeoh Kian-teik, Michelle Yeoh received her early education in Main Convent Ipoh. She moved with her mother to the United Kingdom at 15 years old to study in an all-girls boarding school.

She was known to be highly active in sports such as swimming and rugby. However, she wanted to become a ballet dancer and began her lessons at four years old. She continued to pursue her dream in London and enrolled herself in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance.

Unfortunately, her dreams were dashed when she suffered a back injury but that didn’t stop her. She pivoted and focused on studying choreography and the arts. She didn’t know it at the time but her background as a ballet dancer will serve her well when she enters the film industry.

Yeoh received her bachelor’s degree in creative arts with a minor a drama in 1982.

Mother knows best

Her break into the world of acting began in 1983 thanks to her mother who signed her up for the Miss Malaysia World beauty pageant.

In an interview with British talk-show host Graham Norton on The Graham Norton Show, she revealed that she was back in Malaysia from her studies in England when her mother revealed what she had done.

Her mother was worried that she would not get more audition opportunities as she gets older and encouraged her to go all out at 21 years old. She then promptly signed her up for the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant.

Yeoh explained that she participated in the pageant so that her mother would not bring up the matter again. Who could have guessed that Yeoh won the Miss Malaysia title after all?

She then proceeded to win other pageants such as Miss Moomba International 1984 in Australia, Queen of the Pacific, and Miss International Tourism Quest.

Her mother’s instincts were right because her pageant win opened doors for her in the Hong Kong film industry.

At the time, businessman and co-founder of D&B Films, Dickson Poon, was looking for an actress to appear with Jackie Chan in a commercial and Yeoh’s name came up when he dined with a friend.

Yeoh flew to Hong Kong to audition, secured the role, and bagged a contract with D&B Films. And the rest they say is history.

Yeoh appeared in several popular and iconic films alongside Jackie Chan in the 1990s such as Yes, Madam (1985), Police Story 3: Supercop (1992), and Holy Weapon (1993).

At the time, she’s credited as Michelle Khan, a nickname chosen by D&B Films as they believed it would be more marketable to international and western audiences.

Breaking into Hollywood as a Bond Girl

Yeoh increasingly rose to fame in the industry because she did most of her own stunts. She eventually became a Bond Girl in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), which further increased her profile as an actress in Hollywood.

From then on, she starred in Hollywood shows such as Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Reign of Assassins (2010), Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), The Lady (2011), Star Trek: Discovery (2017), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), and Last Christmas (2019).

She has also helmed roles in popular titles such as Marvel Studio’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) and The Witcher: Blood Origin (2022).

Due to her illustrious career, she was awarded Icon of the Year 2022 by TIME. In that same year, she was awarded Darjah Seri Paduka Mahkota Perak which carries the title Datuk Seri in conjunction with the birthday of Sultan Perak, Sultan Azlan Muhibbuddin Shah.

In 2013, she was awarded Panglima Setia Mahkota which carries the title Tan Sri in conjunction with the birthday of Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah.

In 2016, she was the first Malaysian citizen who was made an Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French ambassador to Kuala Lumpur.

In 2022, Yeoh is the first Asian artist to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by the American Film Institute (AFI) for her contributions to the arts.

Yeoh married Dickson Poon in 1988 and she retired from the acting industry. They divorced in 1992 because she found out that she couldn’t have children and she didn’t want them to live a bitter life. She soon returned to acting right after the divorce.

She changed her stage name back to Michelle Yeoh when she embarked on her Hollywood career. In 1998, she was briefly engaged to an American cardiologist Alan Heldman before they broke it off.

Fast forward to 2004, she met Jean Todt, the then general manager and CEO of Scuderia Ferrari, and have been together ever since. Yeoh announced her engagement to Todt in 2008 and they live in Geneva, Switzerland. Yeoh does not have any children.

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