Saint Laurent Jacket, T-shirt
As the camera clicks away, his brows narrow, lips purse, and golden skin glows. It is as if Benjamin Kheng is starring in an epic space opera – his favourite film genre – posing, preening, and working the camera in what turns out to be an enduring six-hour long photoshoot. The singer-actor-host-style influencer is a ball of restless energy, shuttling between joking with the crew, going into a forlorn state, brooding and oozing smirks at the photographer’s behest, before breaking into hearty laughter.
Everything seems to go according to plan for the frontman of The Sam Willows, who is enjoying his well-deserved spot in the limelight. “I try not to think about it. I just keep my head down and focus on my work,” says a humble Kheng. Or is there more than meets the eye for the blessed performer who sticks to the script, never goes out of line, and does not suffer any unfortunate scandals?
An excited yet anxious Kheng continues to light up the room with pockets of good humour between exits to the changing room. It is challenging not to roll out the clichés, but we get why he is such a cultural sensation. In fleeting moments, our candid cover star is a spitting image of James Dean – harbinger of wild youth, pop culture icon, and effortless charmer who can do no wrong. Kheng is aware that he puts a lot of effort into what he does to get to where he is now. He explains, “As long as you craft something and put thought into it, people will buy into that. But if you pander to your own ego, people can smell that from a mile away and get turned off instead.”
The likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando, and even Elvis Presley epitomise the sullen, sexy man who seldom smile or grin. In Kheng’s case, he beams for the camera on cue, evoking shades of dreamboat. He is unremittingly affable.
It is hard to keep up with the multi-hyphenate talent who turns 28 this year. He is a stage and television actor. He is also part of Singapore’s most famous folk-pop quartet, and a FLY Entertainment artiste. He wisecracks, “My life is essentially one distraction after another.” Had Kheng stuck to his sporting ambitions since young, he could have been a decorated sportsman by now instead of being one of the most recognisable and bankable celebrities in Singapore. Either way works for this rebel without a cause.
The shoot ends on a high, with a visibly perky Kheng leaping in for a banter about being a walking billboard for success, the byproduct of his superstardom and being on top of his social game. Like a wise Jedi master, he conjures his last ounce of strength and prepares himself for the next hurrah in his infinite space opera quest.
Fendi Shirt, pants, sunglasses
What have you been up to since Wonder Boy?
It’s been pretty good. I did a bit of music, and I’m starting to do more acting, especially on TV series and shows with friends who are writing good scripts and pushing boundaries.
Sounds like you have kept yourself busy.
A couple of friends and I are also writing and conceptualising content for TV and the Interwebs that is not really present online now. We’re also trying to do some stuff with a musical side to it.
You’re clearly the epitome of a multi-hyphenate. What role do you enjoy the most?
I do a bit of everything because I can’t decide. If I had to choose, it would probably be theatre. It is the most laborious but fulfilling because there’s music and a lot of character work involved. You get to spend two months in a character, and you just grow that character. It’s seasonal; right now it’s more acting for me, but there will be a period where music takes over for sure.
Have you ever considered going solo in your music career?
Yeah, but I don’t think we are the kind of band that breaks up and goes solo. We have that bone in us that wants to because we have very different influences. But for now, the band is a priority. We have the consensus that since we have an album coming out soon, we should focus on that, and do the solo projects later. When we do – and I am definitely planning for one – we are each other’s sounding board, and I help with writing a couple of their songs too. The more open we are about it, the less room for misunderstanding.
Ermenegildo Zegna Couture Sweater, pants
What are your thoughts on being Singapore’s “It” guy at the moment?
Thankfully, I’m too engrossed in my craft to think about those things. I’m just trying to keep my head down and focus on my work.
Do you consider yourself a celebrity?
I would never call myself that because I don’t think it’s a real job or title, but I understand that’s how I would be labelled. It’s not a bad thing, but I do cringe at the term “influencer”. Since I’m profiting from it, I have no right to overly criticise the trade, or mock other people whom I feel are not doing it right. It’s not like I don’t do sponsored posts or work with brands. I try to brand it differently, and as long as you put in the effort, that makes a difference. This feels like the year of influencer slip-ups, and you see some of them getting crucified for their mistakes. People are getting more woke to the idea of being genuine online. Everyone is more aware now, including me.
Have you gotten used to being in the limelight?
I’ve gotten used to negative comments for sure. Even if it’s not about you, you read the vitriol these days, and you just get so weighed down. It’s even worse when you’re embroiled in it. It just gets to you. I realised that it was so detrimental to who I was. I was always in pursuit of what is right, pure, and anti-commercial to the point that I started being upset with myself, and I forgot to appreciate the journey. I was overly critical, and that wasn’t how I fell in love with music or film or any of those things. So, it’s important to get back to that.
How do you get back to that clarity and balance?
Definitely not meditation or yoga, because I would talk through the class and people would be really annoyed. Sports help; I do a bit of fitness combat. Waking up early in the morning and putting yourself through copious amounts of pain wakes you up.
To “make it”, you either have to be fake or have a really thick skin. Is that true in your experience?
I’ve struggled a lot with that because I know I’m not the most technical musician nor do I have much formal training or amazing jazz improvisational skills. I do work hard and try to create a sound that’s mine, and the fact that I put it out there makes it open to criticism. I’m cool with that.
Has fame ever gotten to your head?
Yes! [Laughs] Interestingly enough, I’m grateful that Singaporeans are not too big about it. I get to tour around the region, and the fans are very different in comparison. Some fans really swarm you in person and interact with you a lot online. It’s been nice to strike up conversations with people even if it’s someone on the streets who recognised me.
Gucci Jacket, jeans, loafers
Do you ever get tired of seeing your face everywhere?
I’ve always been awkward about looking at myself, so I don’t have that problem. I see the point in having to put my face and name out there, and the less precarious I get about it, the better this career is going to be for me. I only get peeved when the DI [digital imaging] job is too heavy. There was a poster where they DI-ed my lips when I was totally not smiling. It was so weird that I ended up looking like the Joker [from Batman]. People were asking me if I got work done because they couldn’t recognise me.
Are you the same person on and off screen?
I think this concerns acting methodologies. A good actor is someone who borrows things from their personal life freely. I’m not that good with disappearing into a role like method acting, but I would love to be more like that.
What’s next for you? Is there a particular interest you wish to pursue?
Pottery? [Laughs] I get fidgety, so if I do one thing for too long, I get bored. I want to learn cooking this year. I swear, my life is essentially one distraction after another.
Since this is our Cinematic Issue, let’s talk favourite movies.
The works of Hayao Miyazaki like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Wes Anderson for all his visual stuff. Anything from David Fincher. And High School Musical. It’s the best. How could anyone not like that? I grew up with that stuff. I’m also a sucker for movie musicals such as Across the Universe, La La Land, and Sweeney Todd. My favourite movie is Disney’s Treasure Planet, which is weird because not many people like it. It’s an adaptation of Treasure Island but steampunk. I love retro-futurism.
Who is your onscreen crush?
I know she doesn’t play for my team, but Ellen Page. She was in Hard Candy, and she was so cool. It’s just too bad that she will never be into me. Also, Ryan Reynolds.
If you were to produce a movie about yourself, who would be playing Benjamin Kheng?
Anna Kendrick would play me. [Laughs] Why not? I’ll do a version of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and get all the Ah Boys to Men guys to play the different roles. I don’t think I’ll have a biopic about myself. I’m too young to have anyone play me, but if I were to play in another biopic, I would love to play a controversial figure in Singapore’s political sphere. That would be fun, but it would also get me into trouble.
Photography Shawn Paul Tan
Styling Wilson Lim
Grooming Sha Shamsi
Hair Junz Loke / Hairloom
Photography assistant Melvin Leong
Digital Operator Yann Cloitre / Attic Digital