Dawn Yang doesn’t know it, but I am a terrible reporter. I generally try to keep an open mind, but I’ve already judged her harshly before we even meet for the first time at PS Cafe Palais Renaissance.
I had spent a week scrolling through her Instagram, which is way too pastel, way too flowery, and way too saccharine for my taste. After 15 minutes, I half expected my phone to explode into glitter and confetti with every additional photo I clicked through.
In most of them, she appears doe-eyed and purse-lipped, like a life-sized Barbie doll or anime character. Her head, tilted at differing angles, is framed only by her cascading locks, all meant to showcase her most flattering profile. Yet I remain neither moved nor impressed by this seeming desire to fit into conventional beauty standards.
On more than one occasion, I am convinced she has photoshopped her face and/or figure. There is no way she looks like that in real life, even if she’s had plastic surgery done.
Her entire girly ‘aesthetic’, paired with a smattering of uplifting quotes and bible verses for captions, gives me the impression that the woman behind @dawnyang is nothing more than an airhead. In other words, I mentally prepare myself for a bland, one-dimensional conversation.
Which is why I’m thrown slightly off course by the first thing Dawn Yang does.
Extending her arm, she gives me one of the firmest and warmest handshakes I’ve received. It’s not that I think ‘bimbos’ can’t give assertive handshakes, but if there were one networking stereotype I subscribe to, it’s that a person’s first handshake speaks volumes about their character.
Sure, I may be just as superficial as the judgement I’ve passed. But this much is obvious within the first minute of meeting Dawn Yang: there is clearly more than meets the eye.
So, I think, we must start from the beginning.
“Blogging started as a creative outlet; I enjoyed taking photos of my travels and penning my authentic thoughts. It was just an online journal back then, where I occasionally even wrote lovelorn poems. I didn’t expect to get a following.”
On her original Xanga blog, Clap Bang Kiss, Dawn came across as someone prettier than average, capable of stringing a decent sentence together, and relatively candid about her life. These traits might not mean anything today, but in 2005, the potent combination got her crowned as “Singapore’s Hottest Blogger”.
Eventually, Dawn got noticed by an artiste management agency and landed several sponsorships. Again, she reiterates that this sudden popularity was something that “kinda found [her]”, not something she was seeking.
Even then, Dawn remained on the periphery of mainstream public consciousness—until her public feud with fellow blogger, Xiaxue, catapulted her to infamy. As with most catfights, this was a hot mess of insults that, in hindsight, seem extremely childish.
But here’s the lowdown for those of us too young to remember: Dawn was called a liar, hypocrite, and Plasticzilla for having done plastic surgery yet refusing to come clean.
To ‘prove’ that her face had undergone plastic surgery, and to justify that this somehow meant she deserved to be cyber bullied, netizens dug up old photos of her. Which showed Dawn in her younger days, with a chubbier face and tanned skin.
In contrast, the Dawn Yang who had won “Singapore’s Hottest Blogger” was fair, possessed a sharp jawline, and had bigger eyes. Clearly, the difference wasn’t just better makeup or photo editing skills.
Amidst my research for this story, a friend reminds me that Dawn once claimed she had Eurasian heritage, hence her appearance. When I bring this up, she denies saying it. What she does have, however, are Peranakan roots, and “one of [her] grandfathers had a bit of mixed blood”.
She suggests that perhaps the misconception stemmed from her “smorgasbord of different cultures listed” on her Friendster profile. She admits she was “young and foolish” then; she’d listed various cultures because she was interested in them, not because they were her roots.
Around that time, she had also discovered how to enlarge her eyes with contact lenses, and how to use makeup to look prettier.
Regardless, it’s been a decade, and everyone knows the problem was never really about whether Dawn had gotten plastic surgery. It was that she didn’t care to admit it.
Updating her Instagram these days is less about commercial gain and more for self-expression, which explains why her feed can appear less stylised than those from top-tier influencers. There only appears to be a loose, overarching feminine aesthetic, but she doesn’t command the same reach or engagement that younger names do.
Dawn is happy to be less active now, but it’s clear the elephant in the room still looms large. With the benefit of hindsight and a recent cultural shift in mindset about a woman’s agency over her own body choices, I dredge up her past.
“Have you ever been completely open about plastic surgery online?”
“Completely open? No, I don’t think I’ve actually come out and said anything ‘officially’,” she muses.
“Back then when the drama started, plastic surgery wasn’t as mainstream or common as it is now. At that time, it was just a personal choice and I didn’t feel that it was something that needed to be broadcasted. I felt that people would think it’s crazy, and there’d be backlash.”
Dawn was hyper aware of young girls who looked up to her, and didn’t want them to feel that they too had to get plastic surgery in order to emulate her. So she chose not to address the issue.
Even then, regardless of her decision to skirt the topic or feature messages of positivity alongside her Instagram photos, Dawn is part of the cycle that perpetuates the setting of unrealistic beauty standards for impressionable youth. Yet I hesitate to call her disingenuous, since she never proclaimed to be a role model.
Unfortunately, once rumours got blown out of proportion, she explains, “People thought I changed my whole face and got a boob job, and I can’t stop them from believing what they want. A lie told often enough becomes the truth. I think Vladimir Lenin once said that.”
Well, it’s 2018, so here is the truth: yes, Dawn Yang has done plastic surgery.
Specifically, when she was “about 19 or 20”, she got her nose fixed “because she wanted it to be nicer”. Some of her friends even got their own noses done with her.
She also made her natural double eyelids look more even.
“My parents were a bit aghast at first. They wondered what was going through my head, and warned me not to do too much, in case I ended up looking like Michael Jackson. But eventually they came to support my decision,” she says.
“I was very clear from the start that I only wanted to get my eyes and nose done. Nothing else. And I paid for everything with my own savings.”
Since then, Dawn has also gotten her overbite corrected and done Botox to make her jaw slimmer, which she posits has changed her profile a bit. And at present, she goes for aesthetic treatments, but just “outer stuff” like “lasers”.
Dawn lays bare these facts so honestly that I am initially taken aback, mostly by how straightforward her admission is, as though I’d asked what she had eaten for lunch. In the sobering wake of this discovery, I’m partly upset that the truth isn’t something more sensational, more headline-grabbing, and partly ashamed that that was what I expected.
Nonetheless, I have my reservations. To me at least, cosmetic surgery and Christian values appear to be at odds with each other.
But Dawn quickly corrects my flawed and apparently outdated understanding of the phrase, ‘Your body is a temple of God’.
“I believe He doesn’t really care if we make changes to the outside, but He deeply cares about our transformation on the inside. I do my best to lead a pure and honourable life, walking with Him daily,” she says.
There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating beauty, which she states is “an essential aspect of God”. It’s crucial to strike a balance between loving our outward appearance and making vanity our idol. In her younger days, she was prone to the latter, though getting rid of her insecurities didn’t happen overnight.
From helping me understand her favourite bible verses (Proverbs 3:5-6 and Philippians 4:8) to her trust in meeting The One in God’s time, I get a sense that she’s let her guard down by the end of our conversation.
This newfound sense of comfort is also why I agree to spend Saturday evening with her at a home ministry for fellowship. Along with the address, she texts, “We are discussing 1 Peter today! So hopefully you may have a bit of time to browse through haha.”
When I arrive at the location, I realise Dawn has invited me to her home and that she’s also the one tasked with leading bible study that day. Being shown a part of her life that’s almost the direct opposite of her public persona feels unexpectedly intimate, though cynics may say she’s just practising good PR.
As I get ready to leave at the end of the session, a member in the group surprises her with a cake (Pandan Kaya from Bengawan Solo) to celebrate her belated birthday.
Surely I am in an alternate reality, where I only find out at the last minute that I’m actually in an influencer’s childhood home celebrating said influencer’s birthday. Not wanting to seem rude, I stay to celebrate the birthday of someone who, up till a few days ago, was merely a public figure to me.
Before I can ask, Dawn smiles, “It’s on 5 December.”
I note that this makes her a Sagittarius. If you believe in star signs, this means she’s used to a life of spontaneity and adventure.
If she is filled with any degree of panic, she hides it well; she calmly retraces her steps in her mind while our photographer and I sprint back to the last location we shot, a couch just outside the hotel lobby. Thank god, we find it.
She laughs with relief, “I was just thinking, like, I hope the Cloud is working.”
Then, as though the previous few minutes of shock never happened, Dawn reverts to influencer mode. She folds herself neatly into a couch in the middle of the restaurant in the lobby, eyes wide, lips pursed, ready to take direction again.
I started this article curious about what makes Dawn Yang apparently so easy to hate. The Dawn Yang I’ve come to know once went to Tokyo to track down the Shabu-Shabu restaurant featured in Lost in Translation, which seems more zany and zealous than superficial and bimbotic.
She loves playing board games like Scrabble, enjoys being near the sea, and jumps at the chance to devour any remaining chocolate topping on a cake.
She also instinctively pouts her lips whenever the camera turns on. Many times, I have to resist the urge to tell her she doesn’t have to ham it up for me. But perhaps it has become so natural because this is who she is now.
Above all, she seems to be a completely normal Christian girl. It just so happens that she’s also gotten plastic surgery.
This is a fact that inadvertently complicates how we understand ‘Dawn Yang the influencer’. It reveals our tendency to insist women fit neatly into clear definitions of what it means to be feminine, as well as our needless cruelty towards female public figures who make their own choices about their bodies without feeling obliged to inform the public.
More than anything else, Dawn Yang symbolises our expectation of a certain brand of authenticity. We believe our public figures owe it to us to be real, but we also want their looks, personality and viewpoints to come across natural and effortless. When we are able to notice the effort they put in, such as through plastic surgery to enhance their natural beauty, this turns them into desperate attention whores.
But public figures are inherently complex. They’re anchored by both their personhood and persona, two distinct concepts that sometimes make it tricky to draw the line between Dawn Yang the 34-year-old woman and Dawn Yang the influencer.
During the few days I spend with Dawn, I’m usually surprised when she reveals something about herself that doesn’t align with my preconceived notions of who I think influencers are.
As we stand at the lobby of Fullerton Bay Hotel, chatting after the shoot, I am overcome with an inexplicable urge to apologise, even though I’m not entirely sure what for.
Of course, before I say anything, her father pulls up in the driveway to give her a lift to her next location. With that, Dawn touches my arm and tells me she’ll see me soon.
Hours after we part ways, her perfume, Calvin Klein’s Eternity Moment, continues to linger on me. It’s an elaborate, multi-layered scent, and I catch varying notes depending on how the wind blows. I can’t place my finger on whether it’s fruity or musky.
After a quick Google search, I realise it’s both.