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SINGAPORE (Oct 29): From beauty and politics to entertainment and even campaigning for the democratisation of space, Eunice Olsen has conquered it all. The former Miss Singapore Universe 2000 has not only been the face of iconic television shows such as the Singapore edition of Wheel of Fortune, but she was also the youngest person to be appointed Nominated Member of Parliament at the age of 27 in 2005. She then went on to bag a number of youth awards. In 2017, she was appointed strategic adviser for Space for Humanity, a US-headquartered non-profit organisation, which aims to send non-astronauts into space from as early as 2022. Between acting gigs as well as volunteering and lobbying for causes close to her heart — women’s empowerment and special needs — Olsen has dedicated the past five years to WomenTalk TV, an online video and podcast series that she hosts and produces under her eponymous media production company, Eunice Olsen Media. The International Emmy Award-nominated digital programme features the unsung heroines of Asia who have made a difference to their lives or those around them, from social workers and doctors to mothers and caregivers.
While the Eurasian Singaporean actress, talk show host and entrepreneur’s accomplishments could easily fill a biography, Olsen says the idea of writing about herself was “slightly boring”. Instead, she decided to make her first published work a children’s book about the women she had met on the set of Women Talk TV, in hopes of inspiring young girls and boys to dream, do good and understand that anything is possible to achieve for anyone, regardless of their gender.
The first print run of I’m a girl. See what I can be! saw 2,000 copies released in August this year. It features 10 poems penned by Olsen based on the real-life stories of the women. Each poem comprises illustrations from differently abled artists whose biographies can be found at the back of the book. The project was entirely funded by a monthlong campaign launched by Olsen’s company on Indiegogo in June. Established in 2008, Indiegogo is one of the earliest internationally successful crowdfunding websites. It allows individuals to solicit funds for various purposes, such as for charities or start-up businesses, for a 5% fee on contributions.
Print copies of I’m a girl. See what I can be! are available at Kinokuniya Singapore and on www.euniceolsenmedia.com, as well as distributed to schools by Closetful of Books.
From bookworm to author
After nearly an hour of obligingly undergoing numerous outfit changes at the photographer’s request, Olsen finally descends the stairs dressed comfortably in a tube romper, apologising profusely for making us wait. “It’s so hot today,” she remarks smilingly, fanning herself with one hand in an attempt to cool herself. As we marvel at the stylish minimalist interiors and décor of her Yishun mansionette, she excitedly shares that she just moved here with her boyfriend in February after several years of renting; this marks her first purchase as a proud HDB homeowner.
Olsen’s love for the printed word is most evident in the living room, where we are seated. It is hard to miss the massive wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Nearly a quarter of these hundreds of publications are slightly yellowed with age, but nonetheless appear lovingly preserved: from Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl to even a full 22-edition collection of Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge. Gesturing to the lower corner of her shelves, Olsen says she largely credits American author Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss, as the biggest influence on the poems in her book: “Even though he always writes in rhyme, the story always has a message or a value. You always learn something from his books — whether it’s about not giving up or simply realising how fortunate you are.
“Over the years, I’ve written rhymes for people just for fun, and it’s something that I’ve never found very difficult. Because of my musical background, rhythm comes very naturally to me. A lot of stanzas in these rhymes [in the book] have a certain beat, or sometimes they come in rhyming couplets,” comments Olsen as she thumbs through a fresh copy of the book, searching for examples that she later reads aloud to us in a sing-song tone while tapping her feet. But more than her favourite childhood authors, it is the 10 women these poems are based on that Olsen says she wants to pay tribute to.
Each heroine’s journey of hardship and struggles to accomplish what she set out to do is told from the author’s perspective in prose — from Singaporean swimmer and Paralympic medalist Theresa Goh to Sangduen Chailert, the Thai animal activist known as the “Elephant Mother”. Aside from highlighting the extraordinary paths these protagonists have taken, Olsen also hopes to teach children the values that they espouse: courage, hard work and resilience.
‘Feminism should not be a label’
“I grew up with very strong female role models; my mum and her sisters were all women that I looked up to. We were a lower-middle-income family, but they were always very supportive of me. Both my parents had to work full-time to support me, but they made sure I grew up thinking I could do anything I wanted to do [career-wise]. At the time, they also taught me the values of hard work. Although they paid for my education, they wanted me to realise that money was not something you obtained at the snap of your fingers,” says Olsen, who began earning her own pocket money from the age of 16 by giving piano lessons up until her stint on Wheel of Fortune.
“Through my book, I also want to reach out to young girls and boys to share the [lessons] I have learnt not only [from] these women I met [on WomenTalk TV], but also the values I learnt growing up.” The men in her family have greatly helped to shape her world views as well, she adds. Her father, Francis Olsen, was in fact the first male feminist in her life. “He has never tried to control [my mother] or tell her what she could or couldn’t do. Even after she retired and went traveling without him, he was cool with it. That was very important to me, because I saw that she could have a life of her own [beyond marriage],” she recalls.
Olsen believes the term “feminist” has always been sadly misunderstood. “Feminism shouldn’t be a label. People think that it means you hate men, or that you think men are just really bad with all these negative connotations. If anything, the word is an expression of power and strength. To say ‘I am a feminist’ means to support the idea that women should have equal rights in society. That they should be able to do anything; not only just what men can do, but anything in this world. That applies to boys as well. Nobody should tell them that because you are a boy, you can’t be a ballet dancer or a nurse… Your gender is an expression of power and strength that anyone can take on.”
Resonating with all ages
Beyond the obvious feminist overtones in the title, the book tackles a number of other issues, which some may consider heavy for a publication targeting children aged six and above. Financial planning, for example, is a prominent topic in Nina ‘Cute’ Rotelo (The Domestic Worker and Volunteer). In another poem entitled Melissa Sarah Wee (The Physique Competitor), Olsen expounds on the subjects of bullying and bulimia. In Olsen’s view, children and youths of today are able to understand and identify with more complex issues than one might think — something that she witnessed through focus groups held with young students prior to the publishing date.
“[The focus group] wasn’t a huge sample size, but these children could instantly tell that the main message of Melissa Sarah Wee’s poem was about bullying,” says Olsen, referring to the poem she wrote about the Singapore-born physique competitor who used to be overweight. “I remember how one of them said, ‘From now on, if my classmates get bullied, I will stand up for them. I will fight bullying.’ It was very surprising to get these responses, and it really warmed my heart… One of the main things I’ve learnt is that kids relate to things you never think they would.”
Market research and writing poetry made up only a small portion of the collective effort that went into producing a publication, Olsen came to learn. “This was the first time I had written something [to be published]. It was the first time we were crowdfunding, the first time we were figuring out how to market a book… Even for the designers, I think it was a challenge to work with 10 different artists. Most of their illustrations came to us in black and white, and [we] had to figure out the colour scheme and consistency… Although I oversaw the entire project, that represented only one aspect of publishing. Everyone, from my family to the designers and my boyfriend [a copywriter, who helped to proofread Olsen’s writing], has contributed something of their own to the book.”
Now that the team from Eunice Olsen Media has achieved this first milestone, Olsen says she is not only preparing for the second print run of I’m a girl. See what I can be! as early as next year, but has even penned a few more works that she plans to make into a sequel. Her eyes sparkle with excitement as she reads one of them aloud to me; this one is about Lily Low, a full-time animal rescuer in Singapore who privately runs her own shelter for cats and was featured in the first season of WomenTalk TV in an episode entitled Selfless Founder of Lily Low Shelter.
A soft smile spreads across Olsen’s lips as she approaches the poem’s finale: “Her work doesn’t stop, it’s a one-woman show. And just how she does it, I really don’t know. But when you believe in things bigger than you, surely you’ll find, and this is so true: the resilience you’ll need to move forward and through, you’ll find despite hardship, the strength that is you.”
This article appeared in Issue 854 (Oct 29) of The Edge Singapore.