“I would say it’s my choice. I could definitely lead a simpler, normal life,” says a stoic Ouyang Nana as she stares straight into the mirror before her, avoiding my gaze. It’s rather awkward to hold a conversation this way, but the 18-year-old was cautious with her responses to my questions during our interview in Beijing, right after our cover shoot. Her carefully thought-through replies are perhaps a result of being constantly under the unrelenting and hawk-eyed scrutiny of the Chinese press and the public, which have, on many occasions, picked on and criticised her every move.
Ouyang was just six years old when she took up playing the cello. At 10, she performed solo, live on national television. On her 12th birthday, she held a birthday recital at the Chinese Culture University’s concert hall in Taipei, performing a slew of classical pieces for a hundred attendees. In the same month, she pulled off her first solo cello recital at Taipei’s National Concert Hall of Taiwan. It was an admirable undertaking for such a young girl, one that the local media still mention in their articles today.
Yet, such success didn’t come easy for Ouyang. Those early years were marked by unceasing practice and tenacity in spirit to give it all she had. “Everyone has a certain determination in different fields, but especially in the things that they enjoy — that is if you are able to find that one thing. And I found something that I enjoyed when I was young,” says Ouyang.
Chanel coat and earring. Off-White dress and boots.
Since the age of 12, she has held a solo recital every year, touring numerous cities in Taiwan, mainland China and Japan — countries where she has amassed a staggering number of fans, besides the rest of the world. To her, music is a universal language. “It doesn’t require words to tell you anything, but it has the ability to move a person. Maybe it engages a certain type of brain waves,” says Ouyang.
Her teenage years were no less hectic as her musical pursuits in the classical music landscape
gathered steam. Then, at the age of 14 (in 2014), Ouyang bagged a major screen role, starring in a
Chinese romance film, “Beijing Love Story”, alongside film luminaries Tony Leung and Carina Lau. Soon after, she scored a starring role with Jackie Chan in the movie “Bleeding Steel”. Last year, Ouyang landed the lead actress role in a Chinese teenage flick, “Secret Fruit”, with fellow 18-year-old emerging actor, Chen Feiyu. And she wrapped up 2017 with a rendition of “See You Again” alongside platinum-selling American rapper, Wiz Khalifa at the 2018 Breakthrough Prize, which was hosted by actor Morgan Freeman. Ouyang is the first Asian to perform at the annual event.
In the midst of that hectic filming timetable, Ouyang made a decision to quit from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in 2015 — the acting bug had bitten — where she had been admitted with a full scholarship; a decision that drew the ire of netizens who felt that she was giving up a highly coveted spot in the school. It was a calculated move, explains Ouyang. At that juncture, she had a burgeoning career on her plate and she knew she would eventually return to college. She released her solo debut album, titled 15, that same year.
Her musical and acting pursuits aside, Ouyang has also recently been seen on the international fashion circuit. Photos of her and acclaimed fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, with French-American model and actress Lily-Rose Depp, and others, have made the rounds on social media platforms. And just last month, Ouyang was featured in the Gabrielle Chanel fragrance campaign on Instagram, alongside other Chanel veteran ambassadors Kristen Stewart and Caroline de Maigret.
Chanel shirt, jacket, skirt, tights and shoes. Chanel Fine Jewellery Coco Crush white gold rings. Chanel Watch Code Coco in steel and ceramic with diamonds (worn as choker); hanel dress, coat and shoes. Chanel Watch Code Coco in steel and ceramic with diamonds (worn as choker).
Thanks to social media, which helped cement her celebrity status, Ouyang has a following (at time of print) of well over 11 million fans on Weibo and more that 1.4 million on Instagram.
Ouyang turned 18 this year and her pace of life shows signs of slowing down. “I want to go away and ground myself,” Ouyang says to me in Mandarin Chinese, after our shoot in Beijing last month. Two weeks later, she took off for the United States. Right now, she is busy settling down in the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The idea of “going away” seems more profound coming from Ouyang. Immense public attention and pressure have swaddled her from birth. Her father, 58-year-old Ouyang Long, was a popular Taiwanese actor in the ’80s who later ventured into politics. Her mother, 56-year-old actress Fu Juan, starred in the highly popular 1984 Taiwanese iteration of “The Romance of the Condor Heroes”, a television series adapted from Chinese author Jin Yong’s novel. “When I was young, I watched my mother work and I learnt to live in this environment — living under the scrutiny of the media,” Ouyang recalls. “I knew that there will be people scrutinising me, whether they meant well or not.”
Ouyang explains it was her choice to live in the public eye. But when the heat is on, she has a choice to stay or retreat into the shadows. “In fact, I hold the rights to choose if I want these people to be criticising me. I am not saying that I will leave,” says Ouyang. “But if I were not in these shoes, I will not have to bear the weight. Because then, I will just be a normal, invisible human being. But if I chose to do this, I have to stomach all these.”
To her, life is a cerebral mind game. She feels she needs to constantly separate herself from her work and survey it with an outsider’s critical eye. “It is how you want to tune yourself to a right state of mind, so you are not bothered by what others think of you, and the pressures of being the subject of public conversation,” Ouyang says.
Chanel hoodie, jacket, trousers and shoes. Chanel Fine Jewellery Coco Crush white gold rings. Chanel Watch Code Coco in steel and ceramic with diamonds (worn as choker).
“You sound way too matured for your age,” I say to her.
“The only catch when it comes to maturing too early is the lack of time for fun,” she says ruefully.
A word that Ouyang likes to punctuate her sentences with is “choose”. She chose to play the cello, chose to perform, chose to act, chose to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and chose to drop out as well. Now, she has chosen to return to college, in a bid to hone her musical muscles and live the fun, teenage years that she feels she has “lost” to her career.
As exciting as it is, Ouyang is certain that she will not loosen her grip on her ambitions, and will return to mainland China during the summer breaks to continue with her solo cello concerts and filming jobs. “I will not completely disappear from the public’s eye,” says Ouyang. “It is not like I am only a student when I’m at school. I can still assume both identities.”
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