Growing up in a close-knit family whose favourite pastime was to watch TV, Sheila Sim, Singaporean model and actress, never thought that she would eventually become one of the people she saw onscreen. Her entrance into the entertainment industry, when she was scouted at an aunt’s wedding, was indeed unexpected. Seeing herself as a gawky tomboy with dangly limbs, she thought it was ridiculous, but jumped at it because of the chance to be independent.
Fast forward nearly two decades, and Sim, now 36, is now acknowledged as one of the top models in Singapore, having graced the runways of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Valentino in addition to many other top fashion houses. She has also completed two diploma courses (in marketing and advertising, and positive psychology), forged a career as a local actress and more recently, added motherhood to her list of accomplishments.
I didn’t realise my childhood was significantly different from my friends until I was older and saw what it meant to have a functioning family unit.
Each time Sim branches out to a new territory, she finds herself excavating much closer to home — her own childhood. Unlike many of us, Sim feels that she had skipped the fundamental stages of self-discovery because of how her life played out in her early years. Instead, most of her life decisions were driven by the means to survive before coming to self-actualisation in the process. Now, as an adult, Sim is conditioned to live fiercely as she looks back at how the universe has always opened a way for her in the past. “Life is full of surprises,” she remarks, “and I will make sure that when the next door opens for me, I’ll be ready to receive them with open arms.”
For Sim, to reach for the stars is to defy expectations. As part of the Zenith “DreamHers” campaign, Sim lays bare her story in the hope of empowering other women to be relentless in the pursuit of their own dreams. In an interview with T Singapore, Sim opens up about her childhood experiences, her career trajectory and motherhood.
Tell us about your childhood.
My childhood was one filled with plenty of adventures and losses. I grew up with three boys who were older than I was — my cousin, my uncle and my brother. My childhood was about exploring the ’hood with them and doing what boys do, the rough and dangerous activities. I’ll never forget the time we went swimming at the oldest swimming pool in Singapore without any adult supervision. I must have been [around] five years old. We just jumped right into a 3m deep pool. The thought of my daughter doing that scares the living hell out of me! But good times don’t last long. When I was nine, I lost my brother to leukaemia. Three years later, my parents got divorced. Our family of four dwindled to two when I turned 12.
I think mistakes are essential for a person’s growth. I do not wish to ask questions about “what if” or “what could have been” when the opportunity has passed me by.
You’ve overcome a lot of adversity as a teenager. How do you think that has shaped you?
Children being children, many a time you just roll with whatever is presented without giving much thought to it. I didn’t realise my childhood was significantly different from my friends until I was older and saw what it meant to have a functioning family unit. I grew up as a child with a lot of unanswered questions. I wanted to know what made my brother sick. Why he was taken away at such a young age? Would he have lived his life any differently had he known that he was going to be gone soon? Would my family feel the same amount of sadness had I been the one who was sick? What was it about my parents’ marriage that made it crumble? Was there anything that could have been done differently? I adulted at a young age. All these unanswered questions propelled me to experience life to find answers for myself. That was probably what inspired me to take up a diploma course in psychology.
All images courtesy of Zenith
The Zenith Defy Midnight timepiece has a gradient dial with a starry sky pattern, steel bracelet and diamond bezel.
What was the most interesting thing you’ve learnt from positive psychology?
That I can enjoy life’s sufferings and adversities if I change my perspective. Instead of dwelling on how painful and miserable it was, I can learn to see uncomfortable situations as [opportunities to cultivate] growth and resilience.
You were 16 when you decided to pursue a modelling career in Hong Kong. What motivated you to take that risk?
I was young and adventurous. I had nothing to lose. [It was because] I did not have much when I was growing up, which is why the opportunity to travel for work and pleasure felt too good to decline. I yearned for financial independence; I yearned for adventure and I yearned for freedom.
Was a career in modelling or the entertainment industry something you’d always wanted?
Nope. Growing up with little confidence and self-esteem issues, I never dared dream about being in the spotlight. In fact, that still makes me nervous sometimes. My family spends a lot of time bonding in front of the television after dinner. We would openly criticise the way actors acted, the way they looked, the way their makeup was done, the clothes they wore, you name it. I never wanted to put myself in that position, knowing this was potentially what other families would be spending their free time doing.
Instead of trying to fit in and living up to people’s expectations, I started looking inwards. I learnt to rewire the way I practised self-talk.
How has your life changed since stepping into the spotlight?
I learnt that sometimes confidence can be learnt and cultivated. I’ve learnt that fame and glamour does not motivate me as much as it does for others.
What would you say was the toughest part of it all and how did you overcome it?
To believe that I’m good enough. It’s hard to stand up there on the stage, to be in front of the camera, to endorse a product, to speak knowing that someone is listening, to convince others that I am enough when I didn’t believe in myself. Many years later, I finally went to see a counsellor. That was the beginning of my self-discovery journey that I’m so very proud of. Instead of trying to fit in and living up to people’s expectations, I started looking inwards. I learnt to rewire the way I practised self-talk. Instead of giving credit to the weaknesses I knew so well, I started looking at my strength.
Television and social media have become huge mediums in shaping our understanding of the world today. As someone who started a career in this sphere, how do you think the medium has evolved in terms of spotlighting issues and new perspectives?
Back then, news and entertainment largely reached audiences through the main media channels in their respective countries. Most of the content was curated. Today, everyone can be their own content creator as long as they have a social media account. While information we get these days is more diverse and informative, it can also sometimes be challenging to differentiate fact from fiction. It is now proving to be even more important to instil the future generations with the right morals and values, and to speak in a language that they can understand.
What do you think is your role as a public personality and what is the message you’d like to send out?
Authenticity and relatability have always been key for me in the message I want to send out. It is important that my audience is able to know me for who I am and not just for the bags I carry, or the makeup and the clothes I wear. I would like to connect and grow with them, as I open my life to them. I want them to know that I had to work hard for it. I did not give up when life got challenging, did not bow down to life’s adversities. Instead, I rode through it and eventually rose above it.
How has your life experience prepared you for motherhood? How do you deal with the uncertainty of creating and being responsible for a new life?
When I was younger, I had always wanted to start a family in my mid-20s. Doing so at the age of 35 was not what I had expected. However, in retrospect, I feel so blessed and grateful to only step into motherhood now, when I’m emotionally, spiritually and mentally mature and healthy.
I believe that before raising my child, I need to first raise myself. While I’m excited for her arrival, I am also fearful of the unknown. Throughout the pregnancy, I’d been telling [her] to be patient with me. As much as it’s her first time seeing the world, it is also my first time being a mom. There’s a lot that I don’t know and I wouldn’t pretend that I do. Engaging in conscious parenting often requires parents to let the child take the lead — to be mindful as she teaches me and guides me on how to treat her and love her.
Sheila Sim as seen with Zenith Defy Midnight in stainless steel and diamonds, S$15,600.
Many people look up to you as a strong individual. What is something that scares you? And how do you think fear can transcend a person’s state of mind?
The [feeling] of regret scares me. I hope to live a life that’s meaningful and purposeful. I hope not to make decisions and actions that will cause regrets. This does not mean that I do not allow myself to make mistakes. I think mistakes are essential for a person’s growth. I do not wish to ask questions about “what if” or “what could have been” when the opportunity has passed me by. Our brain is a powerful tool. It is able to condition and control your actions and outlook in life if you keep feeding it the wrong things. To constantly live in fear can sometimes rip one of living life to its maximum potential.
How do you identify with Zenith’s “DreamHers” campaign and how does being a part of the campaign make you feel empowered as a woman?
Stepping into motherhood has once again opened me up to a new world of womanhood community. Through many generations, women have been breaking the mould and striving to pursue and become better versions of who we can be. Similarly for Zenith, the primary spirit doesn’t change. Yet in every other aspect, the technology and innovation will only keep transforming and evolving.
What does time then mean to you?
Time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters. It heals, reveals and teaches.
Video Production: Highest Kite Productions
Photographer: Katherine Ang
Creative Director: Jack Wang
Stylist: Jenine Oh
Hair: Dexter Ng
Makeup: Clarence Lee
Producer: Michelle Kok
Interview: Hanan Haddad
Subject: Sheila Sim
Subscribe to our newsletter