Oscar season is here, and there’s a ton of buzz about one particular nominee, Michelle Yeoh. With a successful career that has spanned several decades and continents, the ground-breaking veteran actress has reached a level of fame many dream of but few achieve. Along the way, her life has made a couple of surprising turns.
Michelle Yeoh isn’t really Michelle Yeoh. Born on August 6, 1962 in Ipoh, Malaysia, her name at birth was Yeoh Choo Kheng. Yeoh came from an English-speaking Malaysian Chinese family of Hokkien and Cantonese heritage. Her parents were Yeoh Kian-teik, a lawyer and politician, and Janet Yeoh.
By her own admission, Yeoh enjoyed a privileged but normal childhood. But there was nothing normal about the life fate had in store for her.
Few could’ve guessed what lay in young Choo Kheng’s destiny. Apart from learning to dance ballet from the age of four, the future A-lister showed little interest in a career in show biz. After studying at an all-girls convent school in Malaysia, she went to an all-girls boarding school in the UK when her family moved there.
Her talent in dancing eventually led her to London.
Yeoh had different ambitions as a young woman. After graduating from high school, she went on to major in ballet at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance. Michelle initially intended to become a professional ballerina, and the RAD’s ballet program was renowned.
However, tragedy struck the budding would-be ballerina. Her dance career stopped before it even began.
As fate would have it, Michelle was not destined to be a ballerina. Sadly, a spinal cord injury ended her dreams of becoming one. With that door slammed shut, she redirected her studies towards choreography and drama, which she ironically hated, earning a BA with a major in creative arts and a minor in drama.
Afterward, she headed back to Malaysia, where she was in for a surprise.
When Michelle returned to her native Malaysia, she still didn’t have plans for an acting career. At the time, she had plans to open her own ballet school. But perhaps sensing her daughter was meant to achieve greater things in life, Mama Yeoh decided to go behind her back.
She signed Michelle up for the Miss Malaysia pageant. Little did young Michelle know that this would be her first step toward stardom.
If being selected as a contestant came as a huge surprise to Yeoh, what happened later was an even bigger shock. In 1983, she won the Miss Malaysia title! Later that year, she returned to her old stomping grounds in London when she took part in the Miss World pageant and finished in a respectable 18th place out of 72.
Although Michelle didn’t take home the big prize, Yeoh’s status as a beauty queen opened a door to a whole new world.
From here on, Michelle’s life became a series of unexpected events. An acting career was something she fell into as a result of her stint in beauty pageants. In 1984, Hong Kong businessman Dickson Poon hired her to star in a commercial with Jackie Chan. She caught his eye, and he signed her to his studio, D&B Films.
Soon, Yeoh started acting in movies alongside the famous action star.
At the beginning of her acting career, Michelle faced several challenges. One of them was learning to speak Cantonese. Although she came from a Cantonese family, she wasn’t actually fluent in the dialect. But it was an essential skill for a career in the Hong Kong film industry, so she learned to speak and write in it. But that wasn't all.
A change in her career path wasn’t the only thing that altered Michelle’s life. To make her more marketable to a foreign audience, the movie studio gave her a new stage name—“Michelle Khan”. D&B Films wanted to capitalize on her good looks and cast her in the role of the pretty girl in movies.
However, the strong-willed Yeoh wasn’t having it. She wanted to show there was more to her than just beauty.
Michelle didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a certain type of role. When D&B Films asked what types of films she wanted to act in, Yeoh expressed an interest in action movies. The newcomer felt she could use her background in dance to perform fight choreography.
From what she could see, there were similarities between the two. But she had some major convincing and learning to do.
Michelle had her work cut out for her. Her first stop was the gym where the stuntmen and actors rehearsed. Being the lone female there, she had to show she was serious about learning the choreography and able to handle the physical demands of performing her own stunts.
For a few weeks, she worked hard as she trained with them—and eventually, it was show time.
Yeoh had an uphill battle. Many doubted her abilities. After spending some time training at the gym, she had to impress one person—famed action choreographer and director Corey Yuen. A display of her progress and tenacity won Yuen over. Eventually, she gained the team’s respect and landed her first starring role in Yes, Madam.
Yes, Madam wasn’t just Yeoh’s first movie in which she played a lead role. It started a movie trend in Hong Kong’s burgeoning film industry. The movie was the first of many to feature women as action heroes. Michelle landed future film roles starring opposite Jackie Chan and Jet Li, cementing her status as the leading female action star. But her career stopped just as quickly as it rose.
The actress caught more than just the eye of Dickson Poon, D&B Films’ head honcho. She also won his heart. A few years into her fledgling career, she married Poon in 1988. Yeoh chose to stop acting of her own accord to focus on being a wife and starting her own family. The former actress had no intention on returning.
But once again, just like her return to Malaysia, things didn’t go according to plan.
Michelle’s plan was to be a stay-at-home wife and mom, but it didn’t happen. The retired actress, who badly wanted children of her own, attempted to start a family, but unfortunately, she faced a terrible disappointment. Yeoh struggled with infertility issues, and this sad turn of events led her to rethink her life.
After a few years of marriage, Yeoh and Poon called it quits. Despite her short-lived marriage, Michelle’s spirits were still high. Although she and Poon divorced, Michelle has since remained good friends with him.
She is the godmother of one of his children and continues to have tea with his mother! Yeoh also channels her maternal nature toward her brother’s children. With her marriage behind her, she made a decision she never thought she would.
Michelle looked to her past to find her future. She decided to come out of retirement and return to the acting world. The actress wanted to make a comeback but wasn’t sure how she would re-enter the industry after a lengthy absence.
However, she didn’t have much to worry about because it turned out people thought her permanent retirement was just a hiatus. So, Yeoh picked up where she left off.
After five years away from the silver screen, Yeoh made her long-awaited return in the Jackie Chan-led movie, Police Story 3: Supercop. During production, Yeoh proved she could hold her own—and made one particular castmate feel the heat. Allegedly, Chan had concerns she would outshine him.
So, the action star choreographed riskier stunt scenes for himself. The success of the movie led to a career revival. The Queen of Hong Kong action movies was back.
Soon, Hollywood came calling. Yeoh’s illustrious career in Asia caught the attention of Bond film producers. She landed the role of the lead Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies, starring opposite Pierce Brosnan. It was a major milestone for the actress as it was the first time an Asian woman played a Bond girl. But this wasn’t the only first for Michelle.
When Michelle got her first Hollywood role, she did make one change. For her Hollywood movie debut, the actress decided it was time to make a name change. Instead of being credited as Michelle Khan, the actress insisted on using her real surname. She didn’t see the point of using a stage name, citing Arnold Schwarzenegger as an example.
But she still had to deal with another age-old problem in Hollywood.
In the late 90s, Asian actresses were few and far between. So, when Yeoh arrived on the Hollywood scene, many saw her as a novelty and labeled her the “m” word—minority. People would ask her questions about her ethnic background, which stunned the actress.
Navigating the racial politics of Hollywood was new territory for her. However, there was a silver lining to her new predicament.
Yeoh’s early experiences in Hollywood lit a fire in her. They led her to become a champion for all Asian representation in all meaningful forms, especially at a time when Asians seldom had starring roles in non-action movies.
Over time, she learned to successfully work through Hollywood’s social climate. Her first role there marked the beginning of a new chapter for her.
Up until this point in her career, Yeoh primarily acted in action films. But in 1997, she showed her acting range when she portrayed Soong Ai-Ling in the critically acclaimed movie, The Soong Sisters. Based on the lives of the Soong sisters, the historical drama was a change in direction for the actress.
Then, in another departure from action films, she acted in a romance movie, Moonlight Express.
Michelle’s acting skills soon attracted the attention of Ang Lee. While casting for his dramatic project, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the renowned Taiwanese director sought out Yeoh to play a main part. The actress jumped at the chance to act in the Ang Lee-helmed movie. But her role involved more than just acting in front of the camera.
Michelle’s role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was different. This time, she had to perform the same role twice for the same movie. The actress provided the voice of her on-screen character for the video game accompaniment of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was the first time a video game featured her voice. Other than that, the role required her to deal with a familiar problem.
Yeoh was no stranger to having to learn another language for a role. Early in her career, the actress had to learn to properly communicate in written and spoken Cantonese. Well, she had to do it again—this time, in Mandarin. Her role in the movie required her to learn her lines in the language phonetically.
Interestingly enough, she almost didn’t have to do it. Ang Lee had other ideas.
Something needed to be done about the language issue. When Ang Lee cast Yeoh, his initial plan was to have a Chinese star dub her lines. However, his recording engineer didn’t think it was a good idea and advised him not to. So, it fell on Yeoh to learn how to say her lines in Mandarin, which she found to be the hardest part of the role. But in the end, it was all worth it.
All of Michelle’s hard work paid off. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a critical and commercial success around the world, becoming the first foreign-language movie to earn $100 million at the US box office. It earned a whopping 10 Oscar nominations.
Yeoh’s performance garnered her first BAFTA nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. But she wanted more.
Never one to rest on her laurels, the actress continued to find ways to challenge herself. Yeoh added a new title to her resume. She formed a production company called Mythical Films and produced her first movie, The Touch, in 2002.
Now a veteran actress, the esteemed thespian continued to work in Asian and western movie productions, ranging from action films to dramas. She also got animated about her roles.
In a departure from live-action films, Yeoh landed her first voice acting role. In 2011, she made an appearance in the animated DreamWorks movie Kung Fu Panda 2, the sequel to the 2008 hit film. She provided the voice of the soothsayer, a contrast to her other movie role—one that landed her in hot soup that very same year.
For the most part, Yeoh hasn’t attracted much controversy, except one time. In 2011, she played Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady. The movie drew the Burmese government’s ire.
Apparently, when she tried to enter the country in June of that year, they banned her from entering the country and deported her on the same day. Still, 2011 wasn’t all that bad of a year for Yeoh.
2011 was a roller coaster for Michelle. Later that year, she became the spokesman for the French beauty brand Guerlain. Looking to build its presence in Asia, the company turned to Yeoh to be the face of its Orchidée Impériale skincare line. As the Asian brand ambassador, the actress traveled to China to see the gold orchid, a key ingredient in the product.
Sometimes, there are no greater honors than the ones given by your own people. Although she has yet to appear in a Malaysian movie, the country has recognized the international acclaim she has earned. Yeoh has received several honorary titles similar to a knighthood in her home country, with the latest one being Tan Sri. The first time was a memorable one, but not because it was the first one.
When Michelle received her first Malaysian title, she wasn’t the first to find out. Her father told her she received the title Dato’, the first given to a Malaysian Chinese actress, while she was scouting locations in China for a film. Yeoh nearly didn’t make it for the ceremony as she had trouble returning to Malaysia on time.
Luckily, everything worked out, and she received her award in person.
Considering she played a politician and is the daughter of one in real life, it’s not a shock she has had an interest in politics. However, her opinions have occasionally gotten her into trouble.
In 2013, her attendance at a rally for Malaysia’s divisive then-Prime Minister Najib Razak drew criticism from her fellow countrymen. Many urged the Malaysian actress to rethink her support. But Yeoh had something to say in response to the controversy.
Yeoh showed her strong will. When faced with public calls to retract her support for Najib, she expressed her belief in the right to free speech, noting that she didn’t have a problem with calling out things if she thought there was something wrong.
Her father also backed her up, saying the actress’ political leanings should have been respected.
Ever adventurous, Michelle Yeoh ventured into new territory—television. In the mid-2010s, the actress landed her first television role when she played a spy on the series Strike Back. In 2016, she joined the Star Trek franchise when she won the role of Starfleet Captain Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek: Discovery.
In 2018, Michelle became part of a cultural phenomenon. She was cast in the role of Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians, the most successful romantic comedy of the 2010s. The critically acclaimed movie featured a cast mostly made up of actors of Chinese descent.
Yeoh herself received rave reviews for her performance, which boosted her prominence with a western audience.
Michelle’s successful run in Hollywood didn’t stop with Crazy Rich Asians. In 2019, she played a supporting role in the Christmas-themed movie, Last Christmas. It saw her reunite with Henry Golding, her on-screen son in Crazy Rich Asians.
Although the film received mixed reviews, it was still a commercial success, earning $123 million worldwide. But there was no slowing down. She followed it with a major blockbuster.
In 2021, Yeoh became part of another Tinseltown franchise. In a return to her action film roots, she joined the cast of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as the title character’s aunt. Like Crazy Rich Asians, critics lauded the film, which is part of the Marvel Comic Universe, for its strong Asian representation.
That said, perhaps it comes as no surprise that the actress is also a hero in real life.
Despite her busy schedule, Yeoh has found time to do good. Throughout her career, she has supported various causes. Yeoh visited Vietnam in 2008 to shoot a documentary promoting road safety. The actress is also a long-time wildlife conservation supporter.
Yeoh has served as an ambassador for Save China’s Tigers—a joint British and American foundation—for the past 20 years.
Once again, Michelle Yeoh broke barriers with her Oscar nomination. The honor is a cultural and historical breakthrough on two points. First, it makes her the first Malaysian nominee for an Academy Award. Second, Yeoh is the first Asian nominee in the category of Best Actress.
If she wins the big prize on Oscar night, she will make history again. Not bad for a girl from Ipoh, Malaysia.
For the most part, Yeoh has kept her love life under wraps. After her divorce from her first husband, she had a relationship with an American cardiologist which eventually ended. Finally, in 2005, she met her current partner, the former head of Ferrari and Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, Jean Todt, in 2004—and their love story started in a rather dramatic manner.
In her movies, Michelle Yeoh usually kicks the bad guys’ butts. But when she met Jean Todt, he came to her rescue. The actress was on stage at an event in Shanghai when a man rudely tried to get her to leave. Todt wasn’t having any of it. The diminutive man had a few words with him, which really impressed the actress.
The couple has been together since then and are currently engaged.
Michelle Yeoh isn’t ready to call it a day. Riding on her recent popularity, she has more projects lined up. Later this year, she will star in A Haunting in Venice, a Kenneth Branagh-directed film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel. She will reunite with Crazy Rich Asians director, Jon Chu, for his film version of the musical Wicked. But there’s more to come.
There are plans for Michelle’s return to television. A spin-off series of Star Trek: Discovery with Yeoh in the lead role is currently in development. She is also slated to make an appearance in the Disney+ series American Born Chinese as well as the upcoming Netflix series The Brothers Sun.
With all these grand accomplishments under her belt, Michelle Yeoh has undoubtedly hit her stride.
Yeoh’s latest movie role is bringing her lots of attention. In 2022’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, a movie that crosses multiple genre lines, Michelle acts as an embattled owner of a laundromat. Her performance in the film has garnered her a level of critical respect long overdue, with some critics stating that it's her best one yet.
And they aren’t the only ones who have noticed.
Yeoh just keeps getting better. After years of being in the entertainment industry, the actress has finally received the attention of award committees. For her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, she received her first Oscar nomination and won her first Golden Globe trophy. She savored the historical moment in a mischievous way.
Nobody was going to stop Michelle from enjoying her moment. When Yeoh accepted the Golden Globe Award, she remained on stage past the time limit. As the exit music began to play, her wit was on full display when she jokingly said, “Shut up, please. I can beat you up, OK? And I’m serious".
Of course, the significance of this accolade is more than just a personal one.
Though she got her start as an action star alongside Jackie Chan and the two remain friends, Michelle Yeoh didn't mince words when David Letterman asked about him. "Actually he’s a male chauvinistic pig...[we're] very good friends. I say this to him, you know, to his face...He always believes that women should stay at home and cook and don’t do anything and be the victim."
Women aside from Yeoh herself, apparently!
In the 90s, just as Yeoh’s successful action movie career got back on track, one action scene almost derailed her career. During the production of The Stunt Woman, the actress got hurt in a major accident that ended with her neck and torso in braces. Yeoh fell into a depression as she pondered her career choices.
But like many of the pivotal points in her life, something unexpected happened.
Thanks to a surprise visitor, Michelle eventually recovered from her bout of melancholy. Who was this mysterious man? It was none other than Quentin Tarantino.
Due to Yeoh’s physical limits, Tarantino sat down on a pillow at her feet. He spent the next few minutes discussing his favorite action scenes. As she listened, Yeoh’s state of mind changed, and the meeting renewed her love for action movies.
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