There is an air of elegance and swagger when you see Ong Bee Yan pose for the camera. With her svelte figure, carven cheekbones, elfin eyes, and a full head of silverish grey hair, the model, often decked in luxury wears in the studio, easily commands one’s attention. While one might have expected Bee Yan, or as she prefers to be referred to as “Yan”, to be a long-time professional, she is in fact new to the modelling industry.
The public relations account director was first scouted at the age of 63 for a local designer who wanted Yan and her husband Richard Koh to model for her range of tie-dyed shirts. That was when she had decided to give up dyeing her hair and embrace the grey. The designer, who had fancied Yan’s gorgeous hair, decided to hit her up. Recounting the incident, Yan says: “I remember blurting out ‘Why not?’”
“My thinking, then, went along the lines of ‘I’m already 63, what is the big deal? Ugly, ugly lor!’,” she adds.
At 66, where most women her age would likely feel pressed up to retire and withdraw from the public consciousness, Yan is far from shying away. Now emboldened to be experimental and learn new tricks, the sexagenarian eschews the stereotypes that “old dogs cannot learn new tricks”.
“I am a firm believer that the silver generation should embrace their age and not let age define them,” she explains. She has since hosted her first workshop for seniors and hopes to organise more of these in the future.
Yan also calls herself an “elderpreneur”. She, along with her husband, runs an artisanal homegrown coffee brewery 1degreeC. On the days she is not modelling, the grandmother of two can be seen concocting artisanal cold brew coffee, with flavours such as matcha and oat milk, at home.
On Instagram (@grey_evolution), she shares snippets of her life as a part-time model, a grandmother, and herself. Her following, thousands strong, skews toward the younger demographic, who seem to vibe well with her personality and aesthetic.
Shedding away the imagery of an elderly lady saddled in a nursing home in dishevelled, blue-rinsed hair, Yan wants to be an advocate for those in the silver generation. She wants to empower these elderlies to get out of their comfort zone and try new things.
This International Women’s Day, read on to find our exclusive interview with Yan as she shares with SNCF her transition to becoming a model at 63 years old, how she wants to try new things, and her two cents on ageism.
Ler Jun: You mentioned in an interview before that you are an introvert who is not accustomed to being in front of the camera. What made you try out modelling then? How long did it take for you to get comfortable in front of the lens?
Bee Yan: I have always been camera shy and an introvert. When I am with my family, I would ask them to not take photos of me. Once, I was even chided by my son who could not understand why I would make it such a big deal. His remark stuck with me.
When I turned 63, I started to grow out my silver hair which caught the attention of a fashion designer. She approached my husband and me to model a range of her tie-dye T-shirts. In what seemed like a surprising move, I remember blurting out, “Why not?”
My thinking, then, went along the lines of ‘I’m already 63, what is the big deal? Ugly, ugly lor!’ But I am also thankful that this fashion designer believed in me. That gave me courage. Plus, remembering my son’s remark, I really wanted to face my fear and get out of my comfort zone.
That eventually led to more modelling opportunities. Today, I still get butterflies in my stomach at every shoot. Each shoot poses its own set of challenges. I’d always say a prayer thanking God for the opportunity and asking Him to help me do my best.
LJ: You are also an entrepreneur who, along with your husband Richard, set up a cold brew coffee business. You were 60 then. In many ways, you have dismissed the stereotypes/expectations attributed to seniors, such as being caretakers to their grandkids. What do you have to say about that?
BY: We, the silver generation, often stereotype ourselves. We tend to think that we are old and nobody is willing to look at us. As a result, we usually don’t bother grooming ourselves.
Technological advancements have made it even more difficult for us to keep up and we tend to give up easily. Our excuse has always been ubiquitous: “Old already,” we’d complain. I am guilty of it too, but I’ve learnt to try. I have come to accept that it is okay to be slow in learning and it is also okay to not succeed. That’s all that it matters because we are not perfect.
LJ: What about the stereotypes society have of the silver generation?
BY: Some people feel that the elderly should stay home and chill, but many don’t realise this affects our mental and physical health. I have heard one netizen commenting how it is the grandparents’ duty to look after their grandchildren. I have also read another comment from a gentleman that he is not willing to hire an older person because we are set in our ways and incapable of learning new things.
LJ: What are your thoughts on ageism?
BY: I am a firm believer that the silver generation should embrace their age and not let age define them. Never let anyone define who we are or dictate what we can or should do. We should be given choices to choose from and decisions to make. We may be senior, but we are still capable of learning new things. It is imperative that we stay active physically and mentally, learn to get out of our comfort zone, face our fears, and challenge ourselves to learn new things. Or as the idiom goes “One can teach old dogs new tricks”.
LJ: What does it mean to find purpose at different phases in life?
BY: Finding a purpose in life gives meaning to our existence. At different phases of our life, our purpose may differ and change as we face different challenges. But these sets of challenges give us direction, help us take control of our destiny and can lead us to a happy and purposeful life.
LJ: What does it mean to age gracefully?
BY: Ageing gracefully means feeling confident and good about ourselves – looking good outside and feeling good inside. If anything, it’s leading a purposeful and meaningful life, staying mentally alert and active, keeping ourselves active as long as we can.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.