“Zling is very good!”
Those were the first words I’d uttered last week, when I finally met Zling’s boss, Michelle, after all these years. She was surprised by my sudden declaration, but agreed with me.
“Yes, you’re right; Zling is fabulous!” Michelle replied, with a hearty laugh.
You see, rather than talk about the brands my friend handled in her position as Brand General Manager of Kiehl’s, YSL Beauty and Urban Decay, I could only think of her…as did many people in the Singapore beauty sphere. Zling was, for us, the face of her brands.
And it was never in a superficial way: She fiercely supported the makeup artists, the press and the beauty influencers by way of products, as well as tête-à-têtes where she took the time to get to know us on a personal level.
Her mantra, which she often emphasised colloquially to her staff: “When people use your brands, they’re supporting you. Don’t wait until people no longer want to use your brands…by then, you give them also they don’t want!”
Such astute observation and far-sightedness set her apart from her peers, many of whom handle PR based on popularity and numbers. That was not her way. She worked with people, first and foremost, and saw their worth beyond mere figures.
Her belief won her unwavering support, which translated into numerous mentions (online, in print and by word of mouth) and for some, like me, brand loyalty. It was never clouded by shrewdness or ulterior motives, though. She approached everyone with sincerity and warmth because it came very naturally to her – she believed in her brands and genuinely wanted to spread the beauty joy.
Kiehl’s, her 娘家, had been her first love. She would constantly laud the brand, her devotion a marvel to see.
Yves Saint Laurent Beauty was her second undertaking, and what a success it has been! Under her watch, the brand grew and grew. We now have several department-store counters, and I hear yet another YSL Beauty boutique will open soon on our island.
Finally, there was Urban Decay, whose tagline, “beauty with an edge”, seemed quite fitting a description for my inimitable friend.
3 disparate beauty brands, each with distinctive characteristics. And yet she handled them deftly.
As “头“, Zling was well-loved. By all accounts, she took wonderful care of her staff and made sure she knew everyone and how they were doing both at work and in their private lives. When she scolded them, it was often for their own good.
Once, she confided in me about a member of her staff who had apparently been hurt by her chastising, and who had felt attacked. Zling was indignant and upset, as was I, knowing she would never admonish anyone without reason.
She explained how she’d wanted that subordinate to be more active in her role, not just to fulfill her duties but also as a means of learning. Clearly, she tried to advance her people’s careers. It was a pity that her goodwill had been misconstrued.
My friend worked hard and played hard. Team dinners and incentive trips were always a riot with her presence; she was noisy and vivacious, a pint-sized force of energy to be reckoned with.
“You always knew when she was around and when she wasn’t,” a close friend and colleague* told me. The latter half of this observation is all the more poignant now.
In the numerous eulogies to her, the phrase “my boss, my mentor, my friend” repeatedly came up. How many people truly consider their boss a friend?
Her goodness reached everyone far and wide, evident from the intense outpouring of grief. I cannot imagine the immeasurable pain of her colleagues and how much it must hurt just to pass by her desk.
And now, comes the hardest part for me. I’d wondered, as I was writing the paragraphs above, if I was avoiding this bit by writing lengthily about her work. It’s all true, granted, but I think I couldn’t bring myself to write immediately about how she touched my life personally because this would mean facing the loss.
Finding out about her passing on Monday was startling. Her beautiful face jumped out at me from her family’s Facebook announcement, and seeing her name, together with the words “passed on”, was surreal. It wasn’t a truth I could easily comprehend and I spent the rest of the day in shock. I was only finally able to cry at the wake the next day on a rainy afternoon, when I saw her portrait and looked at her body in stillness, eyes closed. It was dreadful seeing her like that.
What was even more heart-wrenching was seeing her mother’s silent tears trickle down her weary face. How excruciating it must be for her to lose her beloved daughter so soon, someone whom she’d birthed, and nurtured all these years. How agonising it must be for her, I thought, as my heart broke all over again. I could only quietly thank her for blessing me with a friend like Zling.
I’d known Zling from the time she’d taken on YSL Beauty in 2012. I’d found her extremely familiar, though I was certain I’d never met her before or known her by beauty association. This peculiar affinity could perhaps be attributed to her 人缘…(人气?)
She was incredibly warm, and generous with press samples. When I tried to return pieces I knew I wouldn’t use, she said to keep them and to share the love with friends and family.
I really got to know her better when I later bumped into her at the YSL Beauty ION boutique—I, browsing; she, on a store visit—where she suddenly said, “Come! Let’s have lunch!”.
She treated me to a delicious Italian meal – I can’t remember what I had but I’ll always remember that spontaneous leisurely lunch in the balmy breeze, during which she described with candour how she’d eked out a living in her youth, inadvertently revealing her capabilities at handling a dining establishment in the past, while I spoke about my life and beauty obsession.
Subsequently, we would text each other and share the beauty goss (she was particularly averse to b.s., and would call out people who did her brands a disservice). As in the beginning, she would support me with products for my occasional freelance makeup assignments, and for my website – hers was one of the first luxury brands to sponsor gifts for my mega Christmas giveaways in the early 2010s. She was also always forthcoming with information when I was writing for a niche beauty magazine.
She used to enjoy TVB series then, and I recall chatting about them with her. Her emails were endearing; one that particularly stood out had a subject that read: “Greetings from the tiny cubicle!”.
I once mused aloud on our friendship, and I’ll never forget how she’d smilingly said she felt she could click with me. Mind you, we were as different as could be: I, a laidback beauty-junkie mummy with a love for words and she, a glamorous career woman who admitted to being a “closet Lian”. This only added to her charm, of course, and is probably part of the reason she was such a people person – it made her seem so real and down-to earth.
But I suppose we had that beauty bond, and more importantly, as many would testify, she got along with everybody. Zling always exuded warmth, and had a way of making a person feel cared for.
Now and then, we would randomly meet for lunch, always with Claire—my elder daughter—in tow and later, my littlest one. Zling declared that she was a “Claire fan” and was ever so sweet to her, basing our meals on my daughter’s preferences. She never forgot what Claire enjoyed, and would always promise to treat her to her favourite food.
I would sometimes pop into her office at her invitation, where she would show me the latest hush-hush-don’t-tell-anyone-yet launches. Sometimes, my girls would be with me, and she was always happy to have them at her workspace. Her table usually had a tasteful array of heels beneath it, ready to be worn when she had to make a professional appearance.
I remember how she’d enjoyed painting my daughter’s nails, and how she’d gleefully applied a range of YSL lip tints on my girl. She once gave Claire a limited-edition YSL Beauty La Laque Couture in Rose Baby Doll, my daughter’s very first luxury beauty product (luckily for me, she was happy to share it). We still have the nail colour, and I will treasure it.
Interestingly, though Zling had no lack of YSL nail lacquers—I vividly recall the pretty rows of La Laque Couture that used to line her cubicle—she had a soft spot for OPI Malaga Wine which flattered her skintone.
As Zling’s portfolio grew and as my family commitments increased, we spent less time together. We would still keep in touch via WhatsApp, and social media platforms where she would post updates of her life. I particularly enjoyed her quirky Instagram stories, a reflection of her no-holds-barred self.
As my youngest child approaches 3, I’ve been easing back into the beauty scene and was able to attend more of Zling’s brand events this latter half of the year.
This is something I am grateful for, for they allowed me to somewhat catch up with her, and take keepsake photos of our final moments together.
When she last met Claire, who was with me at a Kiehl’s event, she was as gentle and loving as she’d always been.
I haven’t told my girl about Zling’s passing yet. My heart aches but I’m not sure how she would take it, knowing that she had enjoyed her time with my friend despite being a bashful child. I will certainly remind her in the future of these memorable encounters with Zling.
When I started writing this tribute to you, it was only a few hours to your final journey here. It’s now long past that, and as I keep going through what I’ve written—adding more memories of you as they appear—how fitting it is that I’m seeing an ad for Rouge Pur Couture The Slim Matte Lipstick, your latest, and last, YSL Beauty launch. Are you reminding me that you’re still around in spirit?
I wish you peace. You were not only a staunch beauty ally but also someone who touched my life in the way you cared for my daughter and me. You were big-hearted and generous, and more than the tangible things, I will never forget how you made me feel. Thank you for being the person whom you were.
The beauty lights have dimmed here but I hope you’re shining up there for us. I’m sorry that this reminiscence is born of your departure and that I have to speak of you in the past tense. As such, I want to tell you this:
Zling, you are, indeed, very good.
* Special thanks to Zling’s beauty cadre (Andy Chin, Francis Lim, Linda Soon, Ray Lee and Tracey Chee) for sharing their photos and anecdotes with me.