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February 2009

Back to Basics

She’s travelled all over the world as a model and VJ. Now Denise Keller is changing track and celebrating her lineage via Passage to Malaysia

Back to Basics


Curled up on the sofa and wearing an unassuming grey and black striped pullover with dark black pants, Denise Keller stops her conversation with a colleague and rises to greet me warmly with two quick kisses to each cheek and a handshake. “How are you?” she asks, her signature grin lighting up the bistro. I can’t help but experience a sense of déjà vu. When I first spoke to Denise for her very first media interview some eight years ago, her brows were constantly creased with concentration as she responded carefully to questions. Today, at 26, she has blossomed into a confident young woman who is enjoying what can only be described thus far as a stellar career.

Having kicked off a career in modelling in her teens, Denise’s rise to international stardom started when she represented Singapore at the 2000 Ford Supermodel of the World contest. Her fabulous smile, typical Aries personality and German-Chinese looks saw her blow the competition out of the water, take the coveted crown and change her life forever.

A whirlwind of achievements followed, including appearances on the covers of local and international magazines such as ELLE, lead roles in music videos for Hong Kong stars Victor Chen and Aaron Kwok, and commercial modelling assignments across the globe.

Her international work is managed by IMG, the sports, entertainment and media conglomerate, while her local work is managed by the modelling agency Avenue, along with Singaporean talent agency Artiste. Entertainment.

Denise’s commitment to her work, which includes a healthy passion for yoga and running, has seen her become a firm fixture on MTV Asia, where she’s been a VJ (video jockey) for some five years. She’s dabbled in television programmes including Mediacorp Channel 5’s The Finer Side, and as a recent winner of the ELLE (Singapore) Style Awards’ Fashion Icon award, she has become a popular fashion ambassador for MasterCard’s Asia Pacific fashion events.

It may seem a busy and charmed life, but Denise insists it’s all down to “serendipity and timing”. “I don’t plan my year, I take on projects as they come,” she says. “Each one has to be right. I have to feel a passion for it and not have to try too hard so that it all comes naturally.”

Now living in Singapore, Denise says her latest labour of love is Discovery Travel and Living’s Passage to Malaysia, a series that is set to run until May 2009.

Also featuring former VJ Jamie Aditya, the show takes viewers across Malaysia’s multicultural landscape. Denise’s involvement came about following a chat with long-time friend and Discovery Networks Asia’s vice president of content, Vikram Channa.

With cultural roots that suit the show, the line-up will see Denise swap her favourite stilettos for rough-and- tough trekking boots as she explores the likes of Langkawi, Penang and Malacca. The programme will film her visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, getting up-close and personal with monkeys and elephants on the banks of Borneo’s Kinabatangan River, and sailing across the Andaman Sea.

Denise’s eyes start to sparkle when she explains how the show is providing an opportunity for her to not only visit fabulous destinations, but to discover more about her ancestry. Her maternal grandmother was a midwife and a seamstress from the Malyasian state of Negeri Sembilan. “The combination of going to German European School and Chinese upbringing, has given me the best of both worlds,” Denise says. “But I never really understood my cultural roots until I sat down with my mum recently to find out more about my grandmother.”

In addition to some lessons around her own family history, Denise says she’s been “voraciously” reading literature from around the region.

“Culture is one of those things you can either preserve or squander,” she says, “I am already so fascinated about my culture, I truly believe my passion will translate on screen and my work will speak for itself,” she says. “It’s my first travel show and it will be very personal. I can’t ask for more really.”

Denise’s two episodes on Passage to Malaysia premieres 20 April (“Across the Seas”, 9pm Singapore time) and 22 June (“Into the Wild”, 9pm Singapore time) respectively on Discovery Travel and Living.

Denise’s Picks

The self-professed happy wanderer with a penchant for spontaneous trips lists her top tips for enjoying her favourite Jetstar Asia destinations.

Cambodia: “Rent a bicycle, explore the town and head for Angkor Wat.”

Hong Kong: “For a view of the harbour and where quirky birdcages dress the ceiling, visit Maxim’s for delicious dim sum.”

Macau: “Win at the Wynn, where I have made some 'kerching’ (money) at the Blackjack tables. The Venetian resort is also nice, with the shops, the gondola and the singing ... romantic.”

Kuching: “Discover the tribal areas in Sarawak and get to know the last remaining tribal families in South- East Asia. And attend the annual Rainforest World Music Festival, held in the heart of the Borneo jungle.”

Kuala Lumpur: “Shop at KLCC. I also enjoy the restaurants and bars along Jalan Doraisamy, also known as Asian Heritage Row.”


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