Can anyone be famous, now that we have Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, and so on? Is Insta-stardom a pipe dream for Singaporeans, even though literally anybody armed with a smartphone can promote and broadcast oneself to the entire world?

If you look like Chuando Tan, maybe. Or if you date a Kardashian. Better yet, a Jenner (but pick wisely).

The average Singaporean “social media influencer” on Instagram has between 50- to 300-thousand followers, and very few have broken 500,000. Chuando, whose handle is @chuando_chuandoandfrey, has just shy of a million.

People with social media empires work hard at it – the daily posts and furiously fast replies, the time spent on perfecting every post with every imaginable editing tools, the money spent on looking good, on keeping with the times, on traveling to Instagrammable locales, on promoters and account handlers…

With Chuando, however, it was (almost) overnight. He had a respectable fashion photography portfolio, having worked with Janet Jackson, Shu Qi, L’Officiel magazine, Jalouse, and so on. But it was only when Chinese media picked up his Instagram account (public, thank heavens) that he suddenly gained a six-digit following. The ex-model fashion photographer earned the honorific marquee “the 50-year-old hunk from Singapore”, and even the Daily Mail and New York Post featured his flawless skin and taut physique – evidence of a baffling, middle-fingered defiance to ageing.

A year on from his interview with The Straits Times, which among other things clarified that he had in fact turned fifty-one (he’s now 52, still looking fabulous), I was curious how Insta-stardom has changed his life. Since that interview, his following had more than doubled from 424,000 to 972,000. What does that do to someone? Also, how does someone do that?

Since it’s also August, what better occasion than Singapore’s birthday to celebrate a stylish Singaporean gentleman who’s recognized globally for his style and stature?

Amidst a busy travel schedule between China and a remote seaside spot in Vietnam, I finally got a chance to catch up with Chuando for a chat about his past year, and most importantly, get some insight into how he seems to defy age.

What I’ve found since chatting with him is that the working out and disciplined diet (coupled with his genes, because, let’s be real) have surely helped. But you know what else really helps? His boundless positivity, self-effacing humility, and openness to change – qualities that certainly shine through the following interview.

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WT: Has life changed since your Insta-stardom?

CD: It’s like God is giving me a second chance for not having lived fully in the last 50 years! Many more doors are opening for me, and I feel lucky for getting opportunities to try many things I’ve never done before.

WT: What about your personal life?

CD: Only a handful of people know this: I’m very shy by nature. I much prefer staying low-key. I’m getting much less privacy in public since my Instagram account went viral. I’m not complaining. It’s a good thing for my character, I guess! It kinda forces me out of my comfort zone. I have to embrace my fear, so nowadays I will make sure to talk to anyone who comes up to me and asks for a selfie with them. In the past I would’ve shied away and probably said “not today”! [laughs]

A year ago when I was approached on the street, I was so shocked that I turned and literally ran away! [laughs] I was so shy, I didn’t know how to react. Thinking about it now, it was so silly of me! I have to take this opportunity to apologize to all these people I ran away from, and I hope they get a chance to read this.

WT: What do you think of the term social media influencer? Do you consider yourself one?

CD: Like it or not, the term “social media influencer” is here to stay. I’ve never thought of myself as one. If you take a look at my Instagram account, yes, at times I could be promoting some adverts that I’ve modelled for, but my IG is still something very personal. It’s nothing like a social media influencer promoting products from clothing brands, to resorts, to eateries, and so on, post after post.

Then again, it seems like my way of life has inspired my followers. Influencer or not, I’d like to continue to inspire so that perhaps more people can live a happier “old age” like I do! [laughs]

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WT: Now that you know you’re an inspiration to your followers, how do you manage your Instagram account? How much time do you spend on it?

CD: To be honest, it has come to a point where my managers are suggesting that professionals should handle my IG, since I could be busy for weeks at a time. But I’ve put myself in my followers’ position. Don’t we all want something that’s real and personal? That’s the whole point [of social media] isn’t it? So, I will continue to insist on handling my own IG. [smiles]

For those followers whose private messages and comments I’ve failed to respond to, I’m sorry! I promise to try replying more when I get the time.

WT: As a model and photographer, who or what influences your personal style?

CD: For me, it’s more of a city or place I’d say! The feeling and vibe of a city or place can change my whole outlook towards life, and hence my personal style as well. I always like the feeling of having no boundaries…of freedom. Cities like NYC are forever inspiring. 

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WT: In your travels, I’m sure you’ve noticed people everywhere snapping with their smartphones and enhancing their photos with apps. Has that affected your trade as a professional photographer?

CD: “Digital” has basically changed the entire photography world, and everything else has rapidly adapted around it. Everything is online now. We can basically stay at home all day, for weeks, even months, if you can stand it, and not only will you not die of hunger, you can also know whatever is happening around the world. Everything is just a click away on your handphone!

Advertising doesn’t need to last more than 24 hours, so many clients are not looking for “professional”, they’re looking for good enough, cheaper, quicker results. And that’s understandable. What I can say is, now is the time for us “professionals” to learn the market’s movements, so we can make some changes to our charges. The way images are used now is different. We should adapt and evolve as well, without losing our integrity of course… I believe it can be done!

There are cases where the services and end-products from this new breed of “photographers” aren’t authentic or professional enough, and this cost-cutting backfires on the clients. My advice to clients is that there’s a very good reason professional photographers are called “professional”, because they have years of training and experience, and you can rest assured of the product. They are worth every penny!

WT: What is more important to you – anti-aging or aging well?

CD: [laughs] That’s a trick question! No doubt, they are almost the same, and they go hand in hand. But if I were forced to pick one, I’d go for aging well!

If you decide to be au naturel – no aesthetic procedures – you’ll need to watch what you eat and drink, exercise regularly, sleep sufficiently, in order to age well. All these efforts will give you the “anti-aging” result anyway!

However if you go with “anti-aging” aesthetic procedures, no matter how many procedures you have, if you don’t eat and drink right or exercise enough, you will never age well on the whole for sure, and you could develop issues with your health too. So which one would you choose?

WT: I’m guessing you’re going the au naturel route. In the ST interview, you mentioned that you have a simple skincare routine. What’s it like?

CD: A good washing of the face with clear water day and night, and if possible, in the middle of the day as well, before applying a suitable facial cream to prevent dehydration.

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WT: Is your fitness routine simple like that too? Any secrets to share? What are the three most important exercises for you?

CD: I have one fitness secret. You burn more [calories] on an empty stomach! Meaning to say, exercise first thing in the morning, especially if you want to lose that stubborn fat around the waist. My three top exercises are the bench press, shoulder press, and squats.

WT: Has your workout regimen changed over the decades?

CD: It definitely has. Years of lifting heavy weights since my teens has taken a toll on most of my joints, so I’ve had to adjust my exercise accordingly at this age.

WT: Any advice for a fitness model to look lean and sculpted on the day of his shoot?

CD: There is nothing you can do to look “sharp” on the day of the shoot, apart from doing some push-ups or other moves to “pump up” for photos. But if you’re not lean or buff enough, no number of exercises on set can give you that sculpted look! It’s just too late.

I’d say preparation starts at least a month ahead especially if the shoot requires you to bare your torso. In order to look sharp, you need to be lean, and in order to be lean, you need to eat right. The key is to lose fat and water.

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WT: What are five things you will absolutely not eat?

CD: Internal organs, blood, feet of any animal, insects, and bone or cartilage!

WT: What are your plans for the future? 

CD: I’ll no doubt continue to shoot, as that is my first love, professionally or on my own time. As long as I can still move around, I’ll do it! [laughs] I’m open to any and all opportunities.

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WT: Are your sights set on the Chinese market?

CD: In fact, I just came back from a long trip in China! I’ve recently been contracted to an artist management company there… so let’s see what comes next! [smiles broadly]

WT: Ever considered returning to full-time modelling and giving acting a shot?

CD: You’ll never know! Nothing is impossible in this world. Whatever comes my way, I’m going to welcome with open arms for sure!


Photo credits (in order of appearance): Chuando’s Instagram, Straits Times, 8 Days, Muse, Men’s Health, Chuando’s Instagram, Harper’s Bazaar  Men China.