Michelle Yeoh was born in Ipoh, Malaysia, on August 6, 1962. She studied at London's Royal Academy of Dance and was crowned Miss Malaysia of 1983. A commercial role with Jackie Chan sparked her film career and Yeoh became one of Hong Kong's biggest action stars. She's known to western audiences for her roles in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.
Born Yeoh Chu-Kheng in Ipoh, Malaysia, on August 6, 1962, Michelle Yeoh's parents are both of Chinese ethnicity. Malay and English were her first languages, followed only later by Cantonese and Mandarin. Yeoh would later be known as the Queen of Martial Arts, but her first passion was for dance. She began formal training as a ballerina at the age of four. When she was fifteen, she moved to England to study at London's Royal Academy of Dance. Her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina were cut short when she suffered a spinal cord injury, however. Despite the setback, Yeoh finished her bachelor's degree in London, focusing on choreography and drama.
In 1983, the former ballerina got her first taste of fame when she was crowned Miss Malaysia at the age of 21. Soon after, she would compete for, and eventually win, the title of Miss Moomba, a beauty pageant in Australia. Her stint as a beauty queen led quickly to television, where she was cast alongside stars Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat in a series of commercials. These appearances led to a multi-film contract with D&B Productions, a company headed by her future husband Dickson Poon.
While Yeoh's first role in a major film was more damsel-in-distress than martial arts superstar, she did find inspiration in the on-screen fights and action sequences on the set of The Owl vs. Dumbo in 1984. Before her next movie, she trained more than 10 hours a day to get into fighting shape for more physical roles, for which she would soon become famous. Over her next four films, Yeoh laid the groundwork for her storied action movie career, performing her own stunts and putting her body to the test.
In 1988, she married Poon, a billionaire, and briefly retired from acting. Though Yeoh and Poon divorced three years later, the two remained friends.
In 1992, Yeoh made her comeback in Jackie Chan's Police Story III: Supercop. This box office hit cemented her place as Asia's top female action star. In order to get ready for her powerhouse roles, Yeoh had to learn kung-fu, karate and other forms of hand-to-hand combat. When asked about the challenges of taking kicks and punches for a living, she replied, "I prefer to be kicked four or five times well, you know, hard, than 20 or 25 times not so good."
Yeoh's career as an action hero off was off to the races and she soon became the highest paid actress in Asia. She continued to make movies at a breakneck pace, often working alongside superstars such as Chan and Jet Li. She made her first foray into the West in 1997 when she starred with Pierce Brosnan in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Yeoh was unable to perform her own stunts for insurance reasons, but insisted on doing her own fight scenes. Co-star Brosnan noted that unlike the typical Bond Girl, Yeoh reminded him more of a female Bond.
Acclaimed Actress and Filmmaker
Yeoh's biggest success to date came in 2000 when she appeared in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Besides being a critically acclaimed, box office smash, Yeoh felt the lushly artistic film was an important addition to the martial-arts oeuvre: "I really believe that this genre deserves more respect and dignity than it's ever been given. It's so steeped in our culture, it should have more depth to it."
As in her other films, the stunts in Crouching Tiger did not come without their difficulties. The gravity-defying nature of the film was as grueling to film as it was groundbreaking on screen. In the middle of shooting, Yeoh tore a tendon in her knee after scaling a wall and had to fly to the United States for surgery. Following an abbreviated rehab, she dove right back into her rigorous schedule of training and filming. In the end, it all paid off and Yeoh was thrilled with the final product. "Usually in martial arts films the action is the focus," she said, "but in this movie there is such a balance. It's emotional, it's dramatic, it transcends everything."
In 2002, she produced her first film, Touch, through her production company Mythical Films. Her next major Western role came when she played Mameha in the popular Memoirs of a Geisha. In this important role, she played the main character's mentor, responsible for introducing the ritualized routines and practices of a real geisha to the film's protagonist, as well as to the film's Western audience. Taught by Liza Dalby, the only Western geisha, Yeoh learned exactly what it takes to appear so effortless and fragile. When asked about how her training as a ballerina prepared her for the role, Yeoh said, "I don't think I would have been able to do the task per se without the training as a ballerina or the training as a martial artist." Referencing punishing routines and bleeding toes, she drew a clear parallel between the two arts.
In 2008, Yeoh starred in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, alongside Brendan Fraser and Jet Li. In her most recent project, Yeoh acts as the voice of The Soothsayer in Kung Fu Panda 2, to be released in 2011.
While Yeoh's career seems to have taken the exact opposite trajectory, she acknowledges the unique challenge Asian actresses must confront in the stereotype that Asian women are fragile. When asked how this impacts her acting philosophy, she says, "If we stick to this very stereotype and we endorse those kinds of characters then, yes, the audience will think 'yes, the Chinese girls are like that' or 'the Japanese girls are delicate little butterflies.' We are delicate, but we are silk and steel. Put it that way."
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