Who is Steven Lim?
If you ask the man himself, he will tell you that he is a superstar, an entertainer—the “most most famous person” in Singapore.
If you ask a stranger on the street, they will tell you that he is a joke, a fame whore, a one-time viral sensation.
Of these labels, some are true while others remain debatable. Yet they say nothing about who he really is. Who is Steven Lim the human being? Who is Steven Lim when the colourful accessories and personality are shed?
Who is Steven Lim when he steps into the shower at the end of a long day, goes to bed, and wakes up alone in the morning?
When I meet Steven for the first time, I ask him to introduce me to his parents. Without hesitating, he refuses.
He tells me, “I help them to tell you, no.”
“Are they ashamed of you?” I ask.
Frowning, he purses his lips in a boyish, indulgent expression that he does a lot, and doesn’t say anything for a while. No, it’s not that, he says. They just don’t understand what he does, and they don’t want anything to do with it.
“What don’t they understand?”
“Why I have to do those things. Like … my videos, that Singapore Idol thing, all that.”
I ask him a total of three times, and each time, his answer is the same.
So I was surprised when I finally reach Steven’s father on the phone. The man speaks to me for a full ten minutes before agreeing to a meeting. He’s driving when this happens and stops the car just so I can have his undivided attention.
He makes it clear to me: he’s only agreeing to talk because Steven is his son, and he hopes I will be able to talk some sense into him.
As it happens, Steven’s father is a prominent local sculptor and painter who has done work for National Parks Board, private collectors, multinational corporations and luxury condominiums. Mr Lim is as accomplished as they come, and has built his reputation through sheer dedication to honing his craft.
He believes that one’s work will always speak for itself; that as long as you do good work, recognition will follow. So he was appalled when Steven one day told him to start his own Youtube channel to make himself more famous.
Mr Lim had questioned him at the time, “Why do I need to be so famous?”
Steven then retorted, “Why do I want to be like you when you’re so unsuccessful?”
At the time, what he really meant was that his Dad wasn’t “successful” in the way he was—a Youtube personality notorious for his public antics. For Mr Lim, it matters more that the work you do has true value for others.
In the end, they agreed to disagree.
Mr Lim tells me that about 5 years ago, Steven had been told to leave home. He clarifies that Steven wasn’t kicked out, and that until today, he still keeps Steven’s room vacant. It was just that he wanted Steven to learn some independence. He had hoped that through this, Steven would stop trying so hard to be a celebrity, and start doing something else instead.
Steven Lim was born Lim Ee Ping in 1976. All the mundane details of his life, from where he went to school to where he worked before he started plucking eyebrows on the street can be found on his website.
What most people don’t know is that he used to be a scrawny, bespectacled kid. He didn’t have many friends, and the one person who did become his best friend started out by punching him in the stomach.
Many remember him for his debut during the first Singapore Idol auditions, where he stripped down to a pair of yellow briefs in a wild, bombastic rendition of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs. But before this, there was Star Search 2003.
According to his father, it was after these two events that everything changed.
Back then, Star Search operated on a system where audience members were encouraged to call in to vote for their favourite contestants. At the time, Mr Lim and the rest of Steven’s family made the effort to do so in support of him, despite knowing full well that it was just a gimmick. Winners were ultimately chosen by the judges.
This was when Steven had his first taste of fame and performing, which likely drove him to eventually take part in Singapore Idol. Today, 14 years later, Steven still frequently quotes being “Star Search Top 100” as a landmark achievement.
“I thought that this was the end of it. If only I had known that he enjoyed this so much, I would have nurtured his talents a bit more with proper guidance,” Mr Lim says, a tinge of regret in his voice.
After all, he had found Steven’s Singapore Idol striptease shameful. As a respected artist himself, it’s easy to see why he thought that this made him “lose face.”
“When Steven was still in Secondary School, I started running an art school which lasted about 10 years. I would bring Steven and his brother with me and they would just make paintings. Otherwise, I had no idea he was ever interested in the arts.”
He speculates that it was when he first bought Steven a computer many years ago that he started getting ideas about becoming rich and famous. There was also a period of time when Steven would bring his younger brother to an arcade near where they lived in Ang Mo Kio. Mr Lim wasn’t too happy about this and told them both to spend less time hanging out there.
His rationale was that if they studied hard, they would be able to look after themselves, and eventually have the financial freedom to do whatever they want.
Steven’s brother listened, and now works in an education-related field that Steven says “has something to do with the government.” Steven, on the other hand, ended up taking a less conventional path.
Over the phone, his father says to me, “To tell the truth, it’s not that I don’t see him as my son. It’s just that seeing him like this gives me a lot of pain and heartache.”
One day, Steven hands me his phone to scroll through the messages he’s exchanged with a guy I’ll just call Daniel. Daniel is his liaison with a certain broadcasting company (I was told not to mention the name, but not much guessing is needed here), and approaches Steven whenever talent is needed for local television productions.
“This is just to prove to you that I’m real. My work is real, my agency is real,” Steven says.
One message from Daniel warns Steven not to tell anyone about the work Steven is doing for him. It’s cryptic, but not particularly alarming.
When I scroll down a bit more, I see one from Steven where he tells Daniel to help him become famous again, that it has been a long time since he was famous, and that he wants to make his comeback soon.
Later, across the course of my interactions with Steven, I hear him say many times, “I’m 41 years old. I’m not young anymore.”
He says this in relation to a couple of things. The first is that he hopes to soon find someone he can settle down with. His ideal romantic situation, he tells me, is to be married with one child, and have an additional girlfriend who lives with them.
“I like young and fair-skinned. 18 to 22 is my ideal age. You don’t like meh? Who don’t like?
Steven almost seems to be interrogating me when he says this, and so I decide to return the favour.
I ask him, “What if you can’t find anyone? How long more before you decide that it’s time to give up and maybe look for someone of a more … reasonable age?”
“Worse case scenario,” he says, “I’ll just get one of those brides from overseas. Maybe Vietnam or what. As long as got someone to love me, I don’t mind.”
In a moment of complete honesty, Steven acknowledges that it’s difficult for a man at his age to find someone this young. Over ice kachang at the Orchard Cineleisure food court, he tells me about his previous relationship. For about 11 months, he dated a domestic helper, but it didn’t work out. One wonders what it would take for him to swap his life for his brother’s, who has a stable career and is happily married with kids.
Finally, he talks about something that has to do with a series of mysterious events apparently set to happen in August. One will be a staged performance of some sort, while another will be a collaboration with certain famous musicians. Possibly an MV, he teases. These things, he maintains, will launch him back into the limelight.
“Confirm go viral!” he declares.
When I ask Steven Lim if he considers himself a rich man, all he says is, “I don’t think I’m rich enough yet.”
I ask this because he keeps saying that as long as you’re famous, people will want to give you money. To him, this is simply a fact of life, like how eating a McSpicy will surely give you diarrhoea.
Yet as much as one can’t deny that Steven Lim is indeed famous, it’s hard to see how any of this has translated into affluence.
In his two-bedroom HDB flat in Whampoa, a single certificate for Asia Pacific Brands Award hangs on the wall. It’s somewhat impressive looking, but it doesn’t really mean anything. In his bedroom, a pool table that he once did a sponsored ad for takes up nearly a quarter of the space, tucked between the door and his bed, now functioning as a desk.
It’s a reminder of better days. Of when he was, in the eyes of some, still an individual with some star power rather than just entertaining fodder.
And so, looking around his flat, I don’t see Steven Lim the celebrity or superstar. Instead, as I look at the dust that’s collected in corners and the one big television screen he has playing the highlight reel of everything he’s ever appeared in, I see the trappings of an ageing dreamer still fighting and waiting for his big break.
Steven Lim might be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. But he is, in many ways, a man on the edge. This surfaces most clearly when he talks about his Mercedes Benz, an old boxy model that he never fails to bring up at the strangest moments in casual conversation.
He says things like, “I drive a Mercedes one, I know these things,” or, “Look at me, I drive a Mercedes. Am I not successful?” It doesn’t even matter that we’re talking about his childhood or how he spends his free time. He’ll find a way to fit his car in.
It’s instances like these that make me question whether it’s really a good thing that Steven lives on his own. Sure, he’s learnt to be independent. But when I sit in his flat, having lunch with him, I see the pieces of his life, scattered in disarray, left unexamined for so long it no longer matters what they mean or where they will lead.
I wonder, does he have anyone to turn to for advice? Or for a different perspective other than his own? Has all the time he’s surely spent in his own head done him any good?
Back in 2015, Steven showed up with his then-girlfriend at Orchard Cineleisure in a highly publicised meet-and-greet. Shortly after this, the relationship ended. In the course of a few months after that, he lost a total of 18 kg to the pain of heartbreak.
If anyone has ever wondered what Steven Lim will not do or risk for attention, this provides the perfect answer. After all, if you trace the trajectory of the man’s fame, it’s easy to see that he peaked around 2012 during the Aaron Tan episode. In many ways, this stunt felt like a desperate bid to regain relevance.
As everyone later learned, Steven was then the third party in the relationship, and the woman broke up with him out of fear that her then-boyfriend would learn the truth.
In hindsight, this seems particularly tragic because it’s not as though romance has always eluded Steven. During one of our encounters, he brings along a lady that he introduces as Lynn Woo. They met when he first scouted her to be one of his artistes, and they briefly dated for about a month. In one of his Youtube videos, you can see them sharing a kiss.
Steven tells me how Lynn still continues to ask if they can get back together, even after all these years since they broke up. When I ask him why he doesn’t want to, he says that she’s not young enough. He says it with enough hesitation that it makes me wonder if he really means it, or if there’s something else going on.
After all, it’s easy to see that this woman will do anything for him.
When we finally head out to Paragon Shopping Centre to watch Steven do the street casting he’s become infamous for, Lynn willingly acts as a prop for his “sales pitches.”
He approaches a lady and says to her in Mandarin, “Are you from China? Are you from Singapore? I’m Singapore’s number 1 superstar Steven Lim! Do you want to be famous?”
“She lives in a $4m property,” he tells the lady, pointing to Lynn.
Conveniently, he leaves out the fact that Lynn lives at home with her parents. The house is not hers.
He then attempts to sell his credentials to prove he can make the lady a star: “I am famous, I am successful. I drive a Mercedes Benz. Lynn, is that true?”
This is the sort of selective engagement with reality that defines how Steven sees the world. When it comes to what he says to the people he scouts, he insists, “See, am I lying? I’m not lying what. Do I drive a Mercedes? Did I pay full cash for my house? Does Lynn live in a $4m property? This is all true.”
Through all this, Lynn is by his side, nodding and playing along. Amidst this performance, I can’t help but wonder—if it comes down to it, who will he pick? 36-year-old Lynn who is utterly devoted to him, or a mail-order bride who has been paid to love him?
At this point, I’m not even sure if Steven knows the difference.
There’s a moment during my conversation with Steven’s father when I suggest that maybe Steven has done all this simply because he wants to make him proud. I suggest that perhaps, Steven just wants to be as successful as him.
At this, he visibly perks up. He asks, “Did he say anything like that? Do you know if it’s true?”
I decide to ask Steven myself, and he reveals that when he was younger, he did indeed want to be as successful as his father. This is where things start to make sense.
We know that his brother has always been the one who did as he was told. Steven, on the other hand, was a scrawny kid who was bullied, went to ITE, then Nanyang Poly, and basically made himself into the man he is today.
His story, to me at least, feels like one of ambition gone awry. He wanted to prove himself, and before he knew it, he had tumbled down this rabbit hole of constant improvisation. When he talks about his Mercedes or how he paid 95 percent cash for his flat, it’s not showing off. It’s him reminding himself that he’s worth something.
Now, the only way forward is for him to remain convinced that the next reasonable step is to break into the rest of the Asian market. Assuming that everything goes according to plan this August, it could be Taiwan, China or some other part of South East Asia that he’s headed for next.
As much as fame is about being rich for Steven, I suspect that it’s also about ultimately proving that he’s made it on his own terms. This may not be who he set out to be, but it is who he now is. He may have trouble taking criticism, but he is, at the end of everything, just a guy trying to do his best.
In a final text exchange, he tells me, “I wanna have my own sky.”
And I can’t help thinking that we may want what we want, but the world is never under any obligation to give it to us.
This story was a collaboration with Mongrel.