Her megawatt smile and husky voice made her a household name: Denise Keller has gone from former video jockey (VJ) for music channel MTV Asia to award-winning travel show host. She speaks to Options about her journey and how she finds that inner peace while navigating her hectic lifestyle. 

SINGAPORE (March 6): Denise Keller — model, TV host, yoga teacher cum producer and director of creative agency Keller:Media — meets with Options in a cafe in town, fresh-faced and dressed down in yoga attire, her long dark brown hair loose around her shoulders. Her megawatt smile is out in full force and she exudes genuine warmth and authenticity, greeting us like old friends.

For those among us who were teenagers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the 37-year-old is a familiar face. Back before social media created influencers, video jockeys (or VJs) — so named because they introduced and played music videos on television — like Keller were the original influencers, taking us through the biggest music hits of the days while sharing music gossip as we bopped our heads to the music of Britney Spears, Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys.

Her million-dollar smile and slightly husky voice is still as engaging today as it was when she first burst into the scene at age 21. As a model who fronted multiple international campaigns (after winning the Ford’s Supermodel of the World finals in 2000), her debut as an MTV Asia VJ a few years later further propelled her career. Since leaving the music channel, Keller has added being a host of hugely popular travel series on the Discovery Channel to her resume — these shows include Passage to Malaysia, Passage to China, Passage to Abu Dhabi and Expedition X: Silk Road Rising, where she journeys from China to Turkey along the ancient Silk Road. For her work with Passage to Malaysia, she snagged a best presenter trophy at the Asian Television Awards. She has even found time to host a litany of high-profile events, including two Singapore National Day Parades.

These days, Keller can also be found behind the camera more often than in front of it, having started her own company — where she also hosts, produces and directs social media and digital campaign content for a variety of clients including Sony, Phillips, and Genting Dream Cruises. She is also an ambassador for sports apparel brand Under Armour.

When she isn’t filming, Keller — whose father is German and mother Chinese Singaporean — can also be found on the yoga mat, practising and teaching students of all ages and backgrounds. She is a certified yoga instructor and it’s clear that this ancient Indian physical, mental, and spiritual practice resonates deeply with her. It has helped her pull through the times she was — in her words — “mentally fried”. She has since made the decision to teach yoga to those in high-stress corporate jobs. This way, Keller says she can help others the same way practising yoga helped her.

As she folds herself gracefully into the couch during our chat, Keller radiates a certain calmness and groundedness unusual for someone who’s spent a large part of their lives in the spotlight. After all, she won the Ford model competition when she was just 18.

Finding mindfulness

But this journey did not come easy, she concedes. Being a host and presenter on the Discovery Channel as well as American lifestyle channel TLC meant that in the early years, she was always on the road. “It was incredibly stressful, incredibly tiring and challenging and very physically demanding,” Keller remembers. “At times, we would have only four hours of sleep every day, just chasing the light [for filming] and chasing the story. By the time I returned home to Singapore, I was so exhausted.”

Calmness and mindfulness is, truthfully, hard to find in today’s world where everyone is always on the move and the pace is punishing. “You’ve got to bring it back to yourself, be more compassionate, more forgiving and non-judgmental [towards yourself],” she offers thoughtfully. “Give yourself a clean slate, as it were. There’s so many tabs open in our mind as well, [as if] your head is a computer, [yoga can help] close all the tabs and just clear your cache.” It was really an important thing for Keller, to be able to close those tabs amidst her hectic schedule.

“Apart from helping me from previous injuries, I had a terrible shoulder injury [in my childhood]... it was that mindfulness, in the sense of being able to pull back a little bit because some of it was getting a little crazy.” It was when she was filming in China that it dawned on her just how exhausted she was. “I realised that I was filming back to back and that we wouldn’t stay in one city longer than two nights. It was pack [your luggage], unpack, repack, and unpack again. Every airport is like a battle.” It just got too much, Keller admits. “I thought, ‘this is too much’. I’m actually feeling really overwhelmed [so much so] that I may have a meltdown. It was the first time I ever felt that way. I was struggling to enjoy what I was doing for a living. I was just pushing for the shots, thinking, ‘it’s mind over matter, you can do it’ but emotionally I was feeling really exhausted, that I don’t know how much longer I could do this.”

Thus yoga became her saviour, for it was the only way she could ground herself was to get on the mat and meditate, even if for just 10 minutes. “That was [my] only way to have that clarity, and to bring it back to self-connection, to move my body mindfully and sink all my breath into my physical body. And I always felt better,” she says. “The job demanded [me] to be physically fit, because it was about adventure; and the more adventurous it was, the more exciting it was for the viewers, the higher the mountains we climb, or the rivers we swim — you know, it always looks easy.”

In fact, Keller shares a funny (on hindsight) story of an encounter on the creepycrawly side in Borneo. “I remember I was in the jungle, and I was having a little break. I was sitting on this log, thinking I could catch a breath here, meditate a little bit. I’m in nature, connecting with nature. And then I realised I was sitting on a pile of fire ants!” “I was crying!” she adds, laughing heartily. “They were inside my pants, and they were biting ferociously, and I had to put ice [on my legs] for days. I was like, I cannot meditate in nature, nature’s clearly against me.”

Keller says she has never had regrets, however, except only maybe that she was able to have balanced between yoga (which she picked up when she was a teenager) and what she did on Discovery Channel. “I recognise how good yoga was for me. So I think at one point, I decided that I really wanted to give that back to [other people] in high performance jobs who have stress, similar to me or maybe physical stress, mental stress, or emotional stress.” As with everything she does, she threw herself into it completely, getting herself certified and now she teaches every day from morning until lunchtime. “And then I go to my production company, and go back to work. I [sort of] have this dual life,” she says, laughing.

But teaching yoga is also a learning experience for Keller. She explains: “A lot of my students ask — why do you teach, you don’t need to teach but I always say, I teach because you guys teach me about life; it goes both ways. I’m not here because I’m a teacher and I have these profound lessons of wisdom, so you must listen to me,” she says with a smile. “I’m only here to facilitate you through your physical body, and if you are able to connect with yourself through the class that I teach, then I win.”

Handling celebrityhood

Looking back, she remembers her first steps as an MTV Asia VJ as nerve-wracking. “I think when I first started being in front of the camera, I was like, this is insane, how is this happening to me? And so I had so much anxiety, because I really didn’t know how to talk to a camera,” Keller recalls. “You have to look directly at the camera and talk to the camera like it’s your best friend. And it’s very hard for someone who’s never done that. I wasn’t someone that just was on TV, I had to learn how to be on TV,” she adds. 

Yet she looks back on her 21-year-old self and she would not change a thing. “I’ve had such an amazing, incredible, and fantastic journey through life. I grew up on MTV and kids grew up with me on MTV, and that is so special and unique. I’m still connected to my MTV fans, who then followed me to Discovery,” she says.

Until today, she still can’t truly wrap her head around being a celebrity. “I grew up here, in an HDB flat, but people look at me and go, ‘yeah she’s a celebrity and that’s how you become one. But, you don’t. I don’t even know what that word means sometimes. At the end of the day, that’s just another label that people can connect with,” she adds.

After seven years with MTV Asia and a decade with the Discovery Channel, Keller feels she has had an incredible career, and still has one today. “I’m still doing what I love doing which is film production and I still get to tell travel stories but only a little bit more bespoke, a little bit more niche and on my own time,” she muses. Time, after all, is precious. “I think that was one of the things that overwhelmed me the most, back then, was that I felt like time was slipping away. It also dawned on me in China that I want to have a normal life, I want to be married and you know, live back in Singapore and live in my house, enjoy my pets. It’s like you’re missing so much of your own life,” adds Keller, who got hitched in 2015 to creative director Robert Gaxiola.

Knowing this now, Keller says she now takes on projects which are close to her heart. She recently embarked on a special project for the Gili Lankanfushi in the Maldives, where she is producing digital content for the resort. “The resort was recently rebuilt, and they have a coral line project where they are now rehabilitating the coral reefs around the resort,” she explains. “They have two marine biologists based in the resort and what they do is they have strung up these long ropes in the lagoon area, about five to eight meters deep, and little baby corals grow there.” When these corals grow to a significant size, the marine biologists will re-plant into the coral reefs to regrow. “The environmental cause is one that’s always been close to my heart,” she adds.

As to what’s next, well, for now Keller is focused on continuing to do what she loves, and in between shavasana — the usual pose for the practice of yoga nidra meditation, often used for relaxation — poses (her favourite, by the way), she’s not going to let anything stop her