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Photo of the Day: Michelle Yeoh is a Royal Ballerina, Miss Malaysia Champion, and Queen of Kung Fu

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This week’s photo theme is Unsung Heroes of Kung Fu — we’re shouting out lesser-known legends of kung fu cinema to expand your mind beyond Jackie, Jet, and Bruce.

Michelle Yeoh just oozes success. She’s great at everything — impeccably poised, ultra-likable in every role she’s played, and delivers serious acting chops that the snobbiest film critic would find difficult to scoff at. Unlike some of the other figures we’ve spotlighted this week, Yeoh doesn’t come from any strong background in martial arts. But that’s not enough to stop her from becoming the world’s most significant female kung fu star. Today’s photo is a still from Yeoh’s performance on the 1983 Miss Malaysia competition, as we appreciate her diverse life and work.

Yeoh was born in Malaysia, and actually learned English and Malay before tackling Cantonese (she performed her Mandarin-language lines in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon phonetically). From a young age it was dance, not martial arts, that drew her attention. She started ballet at the age of four, and at fifteen moved to the UK with her parents to enroll in the Royal Academy of Dance in London. A spinal injury stopped her from achieving her ballet major, and she turned her attention to choreography and other outlets.

By 1983, she was already on a totally different wave, winning the crown at the Miss Malaysia Beauty Pageant, and representing Malaysia at the Queen of the Pacific beauty pageant in Australia that same year (which she also won, because she’s a badass). That led to a turning point for Yeoh in 1984, when she appeared in a Guy Laroche commercial, which you’re about to watch right now.

The spot caught the eye of a small Hong Kong production studio and Yeoh entered the film industry, working with other greats from this week’s series like Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-Ping. Her films were commercial successes, and her background in dance allowed her to do most of her own stunts.

International success came later. She actually retired from acting in 1987 after marrying Dickson Poon, who ran the aforementioned small production studio. The couple divorced in 1992 and Michelle Yeoh came back to become the superstar we all know and love, because we’ll be damned if some dude called Dickson Poon is going to get in the way of that. Only in the post-Poon era did we get some of Yeoh’s most iconic performances, like Tomorrow Never DiesCrouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Memoirs of a Geisha. She’ll be appearing this August opposite Constance Wu (of Fresh off the Boat fame) as the family matriarch in Crazy Rich Asians.

Michelle Yeoh has worn many hats: actor, dancer, beauty queen, conservationist, and martial artist, to name a few. We love Yeoh’s work, and so should you.

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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