Tan Kee Yun
The New Paper
March 18, 2016
There is more to life than joining - and winning - child beauty pageants.
And that is why former Singapore Idol singer Maia Lee is cutting back on competitions for her daughter, eight-year-old model and pageant champ Julka Phoenix Lee-Zidov.
Instead, Lee, 33, wants to focus on grooming The Lovettes, which she calls Singapore's youngest all-girl dance-pop group.
The group consists of Julka and her friends Nyla Qamelia and Tufaylah Norhisyam, both 8.
Formed last June and managed by Lee, the trio have done six public performances and are preparing to release a debut EP of originals and covers.
"Honestly, the girls have pretty much won whatever they could win within the local pageant circuit," Lee, who also has two sons, aged 14 and three, told The New Paper.
"Kaka (Julka's nickname) has won over 100 competitions, Nyla has won 40-over and Tufaylah has won many, too.
"How long do they want to compete against the same circle of people and with the same routines? They need to move up and look further."
Lee said: "I always tell them, 'Your rival is not this girl or that boy at local pageants. Don't put yourselves on a par with just whoever you are competing with. You should aim higher, to be like (US pop stars) Beyonce and Ariana Grande'."
The precocious girls, who cite Grande's Focus, Little Mix's Black Magic, Beyonce's Single Ladies and Fifth Harmony's Worth It as some of their favourite songs to dance to, prefer more adult pop fare over kiddie tunes.
"Kaka grew up not knowing a single nursery rhyme," said Lee with a laugh.
"I've never been a fan of kiddie songs. Also, I think kids doing kids' songs (is boring).
"In any case, although they sing and dance to modern pop, I'll check the lyrics beforehand to make sure that content-wise, they are PG-rated. Likewise, for The Lovettes' dance routines, they don't do raunchy moves. There is nothing inappropriate."
Not only does Lee choreograph the group's dance performances, she designs and sews their costumes from scratch - like glittery black-and-gold leotards with nude-coloured tights.
When asked if she feels the outfits are too sexy for their age, Lee said: "I think their costumes are not sexy, but made for concerts.
"I don't want them to wear tutus or traditional dance theatre attire, it's too typical...
"If adults don't view children as sexual objects, they won't be having thoughts such as 'Why are these kids dressed like that?' or 'Why are they prancing around on stage when they should be studying?'
"They do study and are very conscientious when it comes to their homework. If they have an upcoming performance, they only rehearse on weekends."
All the girls are in Primary 2.
Julka, who was a contestant on regional reality TV show Asia's Got Talent last year, is studying at Haig Girls' School, Nyla at Elias Park Primary School and Tufaylah at Bukit Panjang Primary.
Besides singing and dancing, they also dabble in the art of graphic poi, which involves twirling glowing LED sticks to create stunning visual effects.
It is a niche field in Singapore, said Lee, adding that she was intrigued after seeing a video of it on YouTube.
"I'm always on the lookout for out-of-the-box, eye-catching things. The Lovettes' main focus will still be on singing and dancing."
If the lead-up to the group's EP goes smoothly, she hopes the girls can "start doing some recording work" in a month or two.
Lee is in discussions with local music producers Leonard Tan and Geoffrey Low (both from electronic music outfit Club Ecstasy)to produce the EP.
As for The Lovettes, their goal is much more straightforward.
"For the next season of Asia's Got Talent, three of us are going to join," said Kaka, to which Lee shot her a slightly disapproving glance.
"Yes, but we have to see if the competition clashes with your school curriculum," Lee reminded her.
The members of The Lovettes are only eight years old, but they already know the downsides of being in the limelight.
"Within the kids' competition scene, if you are too outstanding, people do feel (threatened)," said Maia Lee, who manages the trio.
"But that is only within the competition circle. Outside of it, everyone else has been supportive."
Individually, Julka Phoenix Lee-Zidov, Nyla Qamelia and Tufaylah Norhisyam have encountered negative remarks from their peers, but it does not seem to bother them.
"There was a girl who said she hated seeing me everywhere," Julka recalled nonchalantly.
"And once, Nyla told me a girl told her that I was so ugly she (referring to the girl) wanted to slap me."
Lee added with laugh: "Kaka's immune to such (remarks)."
Tufaylah said the worst comment she received was "You are not even pretty", which made her "a little upset".
The girls have Facebook and Instagram pages, which are managed by their parents, but they do not have administrative access to them.
Lee said: "Having been in showbiz myself, I know it's not easy.
"I learnt it the hard way 12 years ago (during local reality TV show Singapore Idol) and it took me so many years to handle (the fact that you live in the public eye)."
"But it's good to start the girls early... They have a 10-year head start compared to me. I only started singing at 17.
"I communicate frequently with their mums, so that we can tell our girls what to expect.
"Also, to a certain extent, we restrict what they read online, especially comments from netizens."
She admitted she had "reservations" about starting The Lovettes as she did not know "how committed the girls would be".
"But they showed true interest and passion, plus I had some contacts in the music industry, which will be an advantage for them.
"Of course I have big hopes and dreams for The Lovettes. That said, their studies should still be top priority. Who knows, maybe this will be something for them to fall back on in the future?"
On the criticism that the girls get, Nyla's mum, Ms Norliza Ripin, 38, who works in the finance industry, said it is more important that the girls are "challenging themselves with difficult dance steps that not many children are able to execute".
Tufaylah's mum, Ms Nuraini Umar, 34, who works in IT, said some family members "make comments" about the girls' performance costumes, but she ignores them.
"Ultimately, our kids are happy and having fun and that's what we want," she said.
This article was first published on March 18, 2016.
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