HELLO! Magazine, Issue 13, December 2007
Joanne Kam Poh Poh tells us why her decision to become a single mother is her biggest challenge ever
By Sophia Goh
As a plus-size, loudmouthed entertainer and one of Malaysia’s foremost female personalities, Joanne Kam Poh Poh is probably used to being stared at wherever she goes. Years after this vibrant woman first made her debut in the world of entertainment as a stand-up comedienne at the now defunct nightspot Boom Boom Room, Joanne has grown steadily over the years, in terms of her funniness, her personality and yes, her size.
That is, until now. While she remains as loud, irreverent and popular as ever, Joanne is being stared at for other reasons these days. Having recently been appointed the ambassador of slimming chain Unisense, she is half the woman she once was, literally, not to mention she is now also the mother of precocious two-and-a-half year old Jade.
As mother and daughter played it up for the cameras during their photo shoot for HELLO! – Jade “likes dancing and singing a lot” – passersby could perhaps be forgiven for taking a second glance, not that Joanne minds the (extra) attention at all.
In fact, where some women would have shied away from the unspoken stigma that comes with being a single mother, which she is, Joanne has embraced it all to her once-ample bosom, choosing not just to be proud of her daughter, but also to share candidly about her struggles as a single parent and the challenges she faces.
The father of Jade “is not involved at all”, says Joanne, but she has absolutely no regrets. Yes, it has been a struggle, in fact her “biggest challenge ever”, but she is also quick to point out the upside to everything.
“It has made me see the world in a different way,” she says, when asked what the best thing about being a mother is. “I’m more grounded, and I also find myself stronger and more able to deal with things that come my way. I feel that if I can survive all this, there’s nothing I cannot handle.”
Everything from the day she discovered she was pregnant has been a steady chain of challenges. “First of all, deciding that I wanted to keep the baby [was a challenge],” says Joanne. “Secondly, deciding and wanting to keep the baby even though I knew that I would have no help [was also difficult]. My friends helped me a lot but emotionally, there wasn’t someone who was going to be there for me. I had to condition myself and say, ‘Okay, it’s all me now. Nobody is going to help me so if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this on my own.’
“There’s no such thing as, ‘Oh, I can depend on my parents to bring me porridge.’ No such thing!” she adds, as both her parents had passed away some time ago. “At the time I was working at night, so my lifestyle was also taken into consideration. All of that was my personal burden that I had to get through.”
How has motherhood been treating you?
I’m still adjusting because my work schedule is not nine to five so everything is about trying to balance work and spending quality time with Jade. Right now, I’d say it’s very hectic, but I don’t think it will end, every mother will agree with that [laughs].
So how do you cope?
I try to arrange my schedule so I can go home at around five or six o’clock every afternoon and make sure Jade is asleep before I go out again at night. I spend at least two to three hours in the evening with her, and in the morning I’ll spend a few hours with her as well. She’s gotten into the routine whereby she won’t sleep unless I’m out of the house. In fact, when I’m at home she sleeps very late. She’s with my maid most of the time so that helps a lot as well.
How has becoming a mother changed you?
I’m not as frivolous as I used to be [laughs]! Because I never got married, I’m still kind of stuck in between being single and yet trying to be a good mother. I’m trying to balance that out also. Of course there are also some things I used to do as a single person that I can’t do now…
I can’t bring strange men back anymore [laughs]! Okay, for example, I have to be a bit more careful about my home. Before, I could throw a party every week and invite 20 of my friends over, but it’s no longer like that. I’m more selective of what I bring home and what I allow into my household. So there are two sides to me: when I go out and have fun I’m Joanne Kam Poh Poh, but when it comes to my house I’m very picky even about guests that come in. So it’s like a protected environment for me and Jade.
Things have definitely changed. When I was single, anytime I got bored I could say, ‘Okay, I’m bored of Kuala Lumpur, I’m going to Hong Kong for a vacation or a shopping spree.’ I can’t do that now. If I’m going away for a few days, it’s not like I can dump the maid and the baby at grandma’s house because my parents are no longer around. There’s no such thing, you know. So it’s much harder because I have to actually employ someone, like an older Chinese lady, to stay in my house while I’m away to look after the baby and the maid. As a single person you don’t have problems like this. So it’s an adjustment which I am quite adapting to so far. I just need to plan ahead a bit more.
When you say you’re more particular about your home, is that deliberate or something that’s just come along with being a mother?
I think it comes along when you become a mother. Everything falls into place, so you become wary about all these things, even like the type of kindergarten you want your daughter to go to, the type of people she hangs out with… I’ve been very lucky in the sense that I’ve got a few girlfriends who are also single mums so sometimes we send the maids off with the children to play and then the mothers can have coffee and cigarettes [laughs]! It’s a lot of adjusting but I think I’m doing pretty okay. It’s tiring, but in a way I guess it’s good as well.
What made you decide to become a single mother?
It actually happened by accident. When I found out that I was pregnant, I wanted to give my daughter up for adoption to my cousin, because I couldn’t imagine changing my whole life – it was so erratic and for me, it was like, I have to do shows at night if I have my daughter I won’t have anyone to look after her. I mean, I already knew I would have to get a maid but even if I leave the maid in the house it’s only temporary. At the time, my cousin was trying desperately for a child. She was undergoing her tenth attempt at IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation), so when I found out that I was six weeks pregnant I told her I would consider having the baby if she wanted to take it.
But the problem later on was, Malaysian adoption laws are still very… primitive. Oh my god, there was so much red tape! My cousin is an Australian citizen staying in Hong Kong and if I went to Hong Kong to deliver the baby I would be charged like almost USD10,000! And I didn’t want to give Jade to anyone I didn’t know; I wanted it to be within the family. So after the fifth month, we sort of decided, ‘Okay, this isn’t going to work. Let’s do Plan B.’
Which was me keeping the baby! Everything just kind of came at once. I never did enjoy my pregnancy period. And everybody just thought I was fat [laughs]! ‘Oh, Joanne, you put on weight!’ What’s best is when I go for shows, because I was still performing when I was pregnant, and people who have not seen me from a long time ago come up to me and are like, ‘Oh my god, you’ve lost weight.’ And I’m like, ‘Hello? I’m five months pregnant.’ But no one even knew! The day before I went into the hospital to give birth, I even did a photo shoot for a friend of mine.
Didn’t you tell anybody?
I actually told my friend a week before because she called to ask me for a photo shoot. And I was still working in a club then but I stopped smoking and drinking so I kept saying no, no, no to all my friends who kept offering me alcohol and cigarettes, up to the point where they actually thought I had some sickness. I still remember them SMS-ing me while drunk, saying, ‘Whatever it is, we will be there to support you, we know you have not been feeling very well.’ And I’m like, ‘Aiyo, I better tell these people before they think I’ve got cancer or something.’ So I told them eventually, around the fifth month. Before that, they were like, ‘Don’t tell me you turned Catholic on us,’ and ‘Oh my god, maybe she has cancer or a tumour…’ [Laughs]
So you have no regrets going with Plan B?
No regrets. I mean, the first few months were very difficult because I don’t have any older relatives – the only other older person I have is my godmother but she can’t remember how to take care of a baby anymore because it’s been so long – so I had to learn things like changing diapers and all that. My friends who had already given birth gave me tips but it was a very stressful time and straight after my one-month confinement, in fact the day my confinement ended, I was already on stage [laughs]! I was like, ‘Oh my god, my clothes still fit!’
What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt from the whole process?
I learnt that when you’re dealt with a problem, you can’t let it fester for too long. Otherwise, all you’ll do is just harp on the problem and not solve it. The best way to do it is just to take everything and try and solve it as fast as you can. It’s the same with my pregnancy. I didn’t have time to get depressed, you know how some mothers get post-pregnancy blues, some of my girlfriends took months to recover – they would look at the baby and suddenly start crying. It was very difficult for them to go back to work. For me, I had no choice because I’m also the breadwinner. You want to sit down and cry? Whatever for? Crying won’t make me money and who’s going to pay the electric bill? So there was no time to sit down and linger and think, ‘Oh it would be nice if the father was here, or if I had a husband,’ you know. I conditioned myself to just think of the positive things because if you sit down, especially during those first few months after [the birth of the baby], it can just overwhelm you.
Any plans to find a partner to share the burden?
[Laughs] There are always plans. The thing is, right now I’m also quite wary of who I date because I don’t mind having fun and all that, but when it comes to someone who perhaps wants a little bit more, he’ll really have to understand that I come with baggage. And I guess I’m not dating for one person; I’m also dating for two.
Has becoming a mother changed you in terms of your work?
No, I’m still very crude [laughs]!
You’re known for being very irreverent. Do you think that’s something people admire and relate to?
I think people admire me because I have balls enough to talk about the things that a lot of people don’t talk about. I think that has helped my popularity because I am a woman and with women celebrities here, everything they say is under scrutiny, but I go up on stage and I encourage threesomes and foursomes as part of my jokes. And because I say it up front like that, I guess people can’t create a bad reputation for me because I’m already putting it out there and not trying to hide it or anything. My shows are very open and I talk about sex and all that but it’s also very real, and I think in that way I get a lot of women supporters as well.
Do you think your irreverence is why you’re the top female comedienne in this country?
Yes. Because I talk about whatever things that are taboo, and it’s already expected of me. If another girl goes up there [and does the same thing], it will be as if she’s trying to imitate me.
In an industry that is so driven by a particular stereotype of beauty, you have emerged as one of the top female personalities…
I don’t think comediennes are known for being beautiful [laughs]! And I think the reason is because I was big. And I was rude, crude and vulgar!
Is it difficult, at the end of the day, to switch from the Joanne we know on stage to being a mother?
No, not at all. Even when I’m with my friends, I’m a different Joanne. But of course, when I go out sometimes, my other personality takes over.
What’s different Joanne like?
She’s… actually very quiet [laughs].
More quiet. More… [long pause] how should I say this? I’m definitely not as bitchy. I’m more restrained. The real Joanne has very different views from the Joanne on stage and I guess that’s one thing people who get to know me better realise. They are like two different persons.
So you created your onstage persona?
Yep. But because both personas share my name, sometimes people get confused and then, depending on how much drink I take, I also get confused lah [laughs]!
For someone who’s embraced your plus size so fully, what made you decide to lose weight?
Well, I’ve been fat all my life, even as a little girl of ten years old. That was the beginning of a big era [laughs]! I was huge when I hit Boom Boom Room, so it was very easy to say, ‘Ok, I can only be popular if I’m big, I can only be fun if I’m fat.’ Which was true, my funniness lies in me being big and other things as well. But after Jade was born, I decided I didn’t want to be the fat girl any more. That was when I started with Unisense. I was doing this slimming reality show and Unisense were the sponsors. After the programme finished, I went under them for about six to eight months.
Why did you choose Unisense?
Because we were already doing the show, and I was used to their treatments and found it effective. For me, I wanted to go to a slimming centre that I trusted rather than just any one. After my pregnancy, I did their Yummy Mummy Package, which includes a weight loss programme using their signature treatment Ultrasonolipolysis®, treatment for stretch marks, and hair regenerating treatment for post-natal hair loss.
You’ve proven that success is possible even though you don’t try to look like all the other female celebs…
I think it’s because I don’t look like them [laughs]!
Do you see yourself as a kind of role model?
I do. If you look at all the celebrities you have to be of a certain size and behave a certain way and I guess I’ve always been the underdog. Even in school I was the ugly duckling, I was always fat, never the school prefect, never in the in crowd. It only goes to prove, especially for girls, that it doesn’t mean you won’t make something out of your life if you were the ugly duckling. I think it’s perseverance as well as a lot of determination and then you can achieve almost anything. I’ve never been one to proclaim myself a great beauty but so far I’ve done quite well [laughs]. I want to tell women they don’t have to be slim and petite and pretty. Even though I’ve slimmed down, it’s because I want to be slim, not because the public wants me to or my career wants me to. In fact, my career would like it if I was 100kg but this is something I want to do for myself.
Do you worry what your fans will think of you choosing to slim down?
Not really. Lately I’ve gotten feedback that a lot of women are taking it as a role model kind of thing. Like, if I can do it, so can they [laughs].
So moving on from here, where do you see yourself five years from now?
Hopefully married [laughs]. I think everybody wants that. Five years from now I would want to have my own production, which I’m already going to start next year anyway. I have two theatre shows out next year which I’m going to produce on my own, and another one that will be produced by a friend of mine. I’m also planning a coffee table book towards the end of the year.