Michelle Yeoh was not someone who grew up aspiring to become a martial arts master or a movie star. Instead, her dream was to become a part of the world of ballet...

left: three month old Michelle; lower left: at her third birthday; middle: one year old;
two at right: with her mother and brother (click each picture to see larger version)

Michelle was born to a lawyer's family in Ipoh, Malaysia at August 6, 1962. Her ethnic Chinese parents bestowed on her the Chinese name of Yeoh Choo Kheng. Growing up in the tropical tin-mining town, young Michelle spent countless weekends swimming and diving with her friends at the Ipoh Swimming Club, which was located right next door to her parents' house. Michelle was a tomboy and loved many sports. As a teenager, she represented Malaysia at national level for swimming, diving, and squash. She was the Perak state representative for squash and once the Malaysian Junior Squash Champion.

Michelle was also very into playing piano and loved Chinese painting. However her real passion was in dance, particularly - but not exclusively - ballet. Her mother recalls that Michelle started to dance before she could even walk. Michelle then started her ballet training when she was at the age of four years.

young Michelle in ballet dancing
(click to see larger version)

seven year old Michelle

Young Michelle was sent to a Convent school in Malaysia where she received her early education in English. At the age of 15, her parents accompanied her to England and enrolled her at a boarding school there. Later Michelle entered the London Royal Academy of Dance, majoring in Ballet.

teenage Michelle. left photo: Michelle at age of fourteen
(click on photos to enlarge)

Michelle's first exposure to the world of entertainment...

Michelle's dream of being a prima ballerina was abruptly cut short by a spinal injury which she suffered during a ballet practicing session at her college years. The doctor she consulted announced that a rotated disk in her spine would not be able to stand the daily intensive ballet workout.

Michelle consequently had to switch her focus away from dance to choreography and other arts. Sadly, Michelle never did get a chance to perform ballet professionally on stage. Instead, she set her sights on running her own school to teach ballet.

In 1982, Michelle received a B.A. degree in Creative Arts with a minor in Drama. After receiving her B.A. degree, she continued her graduate study in England.

When Michelle returned to Malaysia for summer vacation in 1983, she did not have any advance knowledge that her mother had entered her for the national beauty contest (by way of submitting photos of her for the perusal of the competition judges). By the time she got home, she already had made it past the qualifying rounds. To please her mother, the then still self-confessed tomboy went ahead with the rest of the competition. She was subsequently crowned Miss Malaysia at the age of 21.

Miss Malaysia/World 1983. Michelle (winner, center) with runners-up (from left) Dotty Kamaludin, Chew Mee Lee and Jennifer Yong (click to enlarge)

The following year, Michelle did not return to England to continue her advanced studies. Instead, she served her one-year term as Miss Malaysia (a post which she has likened to being a goodwill ambassador for her country). Somewhere along the line, she also earned the Miss Moomba title that same year in Australia.

Towards the end of her term as Miss Malaysia, she got introduced to a Hong Kong businessman named Dickson Poon who was looking for someone to do a commercial with the action star Jackie Chan for the brand of watches one of his companies sold . Michelle was invited to Hong Kong and did the commercial. She also appeared in another one with Chow Yun-Fat (who years later, was to co-star with her in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). After doing those commercials, Michelle was offered a film contract by Dickson Poon in his newly founded film production company, D&B Films. (N.B. Its 'D' stands for Dickson and 'B' comes from one part of the Chinese personal name of his partner, Sammo Hung Kam Bo.)

commercials with Jackie Chan, 1984
(click the middle picture to enlarge)

watch commercial with Chow Yun-Fat

With "Yes, Madam" Michelle became a symbol of the Girls with Guns genre...

Michelle's first movie role was in Sammo Hung's action comedy, The Owl vs Dumbo (1984). She did not have an action role. Instead, she was given a stereotypically pathetic female to play in a film that wouldn't be memorable if not for its making Michelle's movie debut.

Owl vs Dumbo, 1984
One (more) good thing that came out of her participating in The Owl vs Dumbo is that Michelle had the opportunity to see action being staged and filmed in that special Hong Kong movie way. Looking into how Sammo Hung and other guys fight fascinated Michelle. Rather than being intimidated or over-awed by the men she saw doing this, her reaction was to reckon that since she had the same number of arms, legs and such as them, she could do it too. When D&B Films gave her a choice of what to do next, Michelle unhesitatingly opted to do action work.

To prepare herself for an action role, Michelle went under intensive physical training - ten to twelve hours a day in a gym with a bunch of guys to practice all kinds of kicks, punches, and martial moves. In 1985, Michelle participated in her first on screen fight in a cameo role as a Judo instructor in Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan's Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars.

Yes, Madam, 1985
Also in 1985, Michelle had her second major screen appearance in Yes, Madam, co-starring with Cynthia Rothrock. In the film, Michelle - playing a fearless policewoman - performed her first major stunt.
This involved her flipping backwards on a railing and smashing her head through glass while simultaneously throwing two thugs off the balcony! Showing her willingness and ability to do the difficult acts, Michelle kicked her way in a male-dominated world of actions.

Yes, Madam was a breakthrough and pioneering film. It marked the birth of the Girls with Guns genre and its brightest star - Michelle Khan/Yeoh. (for more on the use of Khan as Michelle's surname during this stage of her career, go to Q & A)

After Yes, Madam, Michelle again played a feisty female police officer in another contemporary action film Royal Warriors (1986). This film features one of the best yet brutal fight sequences I've ever seen.

During the filming of Michelle's third action film, Magnificent Warriors in 1986, she ruptured an artery in her leg. This rather serious injury put her off action films for a while. Consequently, and somewhat understandably, her by then fiance Dickson Poon gave her a non-action role in the next movie,

Michelle and Dickson Poon at their wedding, 1988
Easy Money (1987) - which turned out to be her final film for D&B Films.

A brief marriage and retirement...

In February of 1988, Michelle got married to Dickson Poon. The wedding was huge. On the surface, the billionaire and the (former) beauty queen seemed to be a perfect as well as glamorous match. At the insistence of Poon, Michelle retired from acting and became a fixture in Hong Kong's fashion boutiques and on the society pages as Dickson Poon's wife. But the marriage lasted for only a little more than three years. Though rumors and juicy stories abound, nobody except the once married pair seem to know the reason behind their decision to separate. Soon after the divorce, Dickson Poon dissolved his film company. The two of them remain as friends.

With her unique determination and dedication, her incredible power and grace, our heroine is back...

Michelle and Jackie Chan at the
premiere of Police Story III: Supercop
(photo courtesy of Aythe)

Michelle in The Heroic Trio
In 1992, after four years away from it, the Hong Kong film industry warmly greeted Michelle's comeback. From the several offers she received (including one to co-star with Jet Li), Michelle chose the third installment of Jackie Chan's Police Story series to be her comeback film. Police Story III: Supercop was supposed to be a Jackie Chan vehicle,

MTV for Butterfly & Sword (photo courtesy of Aythe)
but history will remember it more as Michelle Yeoh's "Hello, I'm back" announcement. To the chagrin of some Jackie Chan fans (and probably Jackie himself!), Michelle stole every scene she was in and easily matched him fight by fight, stunt by stunt.

In truth, the two superstars shone together, brought out the best in each other and got motivated to perform their most fantastic and dangerous stunts. Jackie jumps and hangs onto a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter that proceeds to fly over the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur (a stunt which Michelle wanted to do but was told she would not be allowed to do). As 'compensation', Michelle got to ride a motorbike and land it onto an actual speeding train in pursuit of said helicopter (and keep in mind that at the time Michelle did not know how to ride a motorbike)! The film broke the box record in Asia.

Later that same year, Michelle made two more movies (released in 1993): a stunning super-heroine action fantasy entitled The Heroic Trio (in which Michelle teams up with two other top Hong Kong female stars, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung) and her first classical costume swordfighting tale Butterfly & Sword. Michelle even sung the endsong for Butterfly & Sword and made a MTV video appearance.

In 1993, Michelle starred in a total of six movies: a spinoff of her Director Yang character from the Police Story III called Project S; a dark sequel of the Heroic Trio named Executioners; the all-star costume action comedy Holy Weapon; an action adventure Wonder Seven; and two Yuen Wo-Ping's fantastic martial art semi-historic stories Tai Chi Master (co-starring with Jet Li) and Wing Chun. Two of them, Wing Chun and Wonder Seven, were released in the next year (1994).

Wing Chun

She's not a flower vase with a pretty face, nor only a tough girl who could kick and punch. We have plenty of evidence that Michelle is the greatest action actress working today, an action but also movie - no longer only a beauty - queen. With the combination of her incredible power, grace, and beauty, with her unique personal charisma and action style, Michelle has conquered the world of action and provided the world at large with a wonderful new version of a woman who can be simultaneously beautiful, capable, talented, and intelligent.

Tears, blood, and pain...

For a while now, Michelle has been the highest paid actress in Asia. But it is also hard to forget what prices she has paid. Though action films strongly depend on choreography, cinematography, and editing to look good, it must never be forgotten that in Hong Kong, the blows actors throw and receive in the course of filmed combat are real (in the sense that they involve full contact and done without CGI/blue screens).

Michelle is known for doing her own fights and stunts.

Early in her career, in 1986, the young lady who had trained to be a ballerina dislocated her shoulder and got burned during the shooting of Royal Warriors. When filming Magnificent Warriors in Taiwan, the former beauty queen got kicked so hard that an artery in her leg was ruptured.

Michelle, spring 1993

1993 was a successful yet a hard year for Michelle. The extremely tight and sometimes overlapping shooting schedules led to her having no time to stay in the hospital even when that might have been the best thing to have done. At the beginning of the year, the final action sequence of Holy Weapon triggered her old spinal injury. During her final scene in Executioners, the actor who was lifting her in the air accidentally touched the spot on her injured spine. The pressure and pain made her twitch and vomit.

In the shooting of Wing Chun, Michelle dislocated her elbow in a fight scene. Also while filming the movie, her old spinal injury recurred as the result of falling from a horse. One day at the shooting location in Beijing the pain was so bad that she could not move at all.

Upon her return to Hong Kong, Ching Siu-Tung's Wonder Seven had been waiting for her. Not wanting to disturb that film crew's plans, she went to work as scheduled. She ended up re-injuring her spine while shooting a scene of that required her to fall into water. When she finally went to see doctor, the doctor was surprised at how she had managed to stand the pre-existing pain for so long without seeking medical attention. She was ordered to stay in hospital for a week.

Ah Kam crew. from left: Michelle, Ann Hui (director), Jimmy Wong, and Crystal Kwok, 1995
In the following year, 1994, Michelle planned to take a small break. But while on holiday, an Alpine skiing accident landed her once more in a hospital bed. This time, she tore her right knee ligaments and had to undergo surgery to repair this injury. Up to today she still has a screw in her knee (she later got a "matching" screw in her left knee from another injury sustained while filming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). It took a few months for Michelle to recover. In that year, Michelle only made a cameo appearance in Shaolin Popey II: Messy Temple.

Michelle in The Soong Sisters
Worse was to come. In 1995, Michelle sustained her worst injury when starring in Ann Hui's film about a stunt woman - Ah Kam. It is a more dramatic flavored role. But things went wrong during the filming of what was considered by Michelle to be a not very difficult stunt. In an 18 foot fall Michelle landed from a wrong angle and the accident nearly cost her life. It is effectively a miracle that she escaped with 'only' deep-tissue bruising and a cracked rib. Michelle spent three weeks in hospital. (for more details see Q & A.) Some post accident scenes are actually shown at the end credit part of the film which was released in 1996.

When resting in bed, Michelle had time to think about her future career. It doesn't seem to be entirely coincidental that in her next film, she had a purely dramatic role. Mabel Cheung's historic drama The Soong Sisters (filmed in 1996, released in 1997) was Michelle's first non-action movie. She was nominated as the Best Supporting Actress (Hong Kong Film Award) for her remarkable performance.

It's the time when the whole world gets to know this phenomenal talent...

Of the handful of female action actresses who came to prominence in Hong Kong films, Michelle is the first - and thus far, the only real one -- to make significant inroads into the West. Her first American release was Supercop. Jackie Chan's 1992 Police Story III was re-dubbed in English and released in the U.S. in 1996 under that title.

Colonel Wai Lin, Tomorrow Never Dies
If by some reason the film didn't make waves as it should have (I missed the film myself at that time!), Michelle's Colonel Wai Lin role in the 18th James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) definitely put her in the global spotlight - for the first time in the history of that popular series, Bond got his female equal! She's intelligent. She's beautiful and sexy. She is powerful and she literally kicks butt! Michelle, in the late 1990s, provided the Bond series - and films in general - with an ideal female representation that we can comfortably take with us into the 21st century.

In the year 1998, Michelle was busy with the Bond movie tour, traveling all over the world. Although she was approached by different filmmakers, she didn't take any Hollywood offers. Instead, Michelle guest starred - for free, as a favor to a friend - in a Hong Kong action romance, Moonlight Express (released in 1999). She did not do any action or stunt in the film but her fans won't be disappointed (except by the short length - only about ten minutes - of her appearance). It is one of her best dramatic performances.

Meanwhile, Ang Lee approached Michelle and asked her to star in his new martial art epic drama, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the sensational film was later nominated for 10 Oscars and went on winning 4 of them, including the Best Foreign Language Film), which the director described to Michelle as "Sense and Sensibility meeting martial arts". Michelle always had her faith in Ang Lee despite the director never having done any martial arts films. She was the first actor who signed on the project and in fact, the only one who agreed to star in the film among the four actors Ang Lee initially wanted for the four main roles.

Michelle in Moonlight Express

Michelle and Ang Lee at CTHD press conference, New York, Oct. 2000

CTHD crew. from left: Chang Chen, Zhang Ziyi, Ang Lee, Michelle. Nov. 1999 (click to enlarge)

The five month shooting of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was not an easy experience for Michelle in 1999. Not only did she injure her knee at the beginning of the shooting (see Q & A for details), but she also had to deal with the constant nightmare of memorizing lines in a language she did not speak (the film is in Mandarin). However, Michelle did an extraordinary job for the film. She gives one of her most mature performances of her already impressive career, one which allows her to rise both physically and emotionally to a new level. She was nominated as the Best Actress for a number of awards (Hong Kong Film Awards, Golden Horse Awards, British Academy Film Awards, Saturn Awards, etc.) and won the title at the EMMA Awards and AMMY Awards. She was also named International Star of the Year at ShoWest, the world's largest motion picture industry convention.

Seeking new challenges in the new millennium

In 1999, Michelle was engaged to Dr. Alan Heldman, an American cardiologist who lives in Baltimore. They met each other in London when Michelle was doing her Bond movie tour. After that Dr. Heldman accompanied Michelle to many public activities and Michelle was frequently traveling between Hong Kong and Baltimore. But the couple announced their disengagement in June 2000. Michelle, at the end of the day, can not give up filmmaking.

"I love the thrill and I love the challenge", the action heroine cum star actress said at one point. Michelle set herself a new and additional challenge in the new millennium - that which comes with being a film producer. Michelle started her own film production company "Mythical Films" (Hong Kong) in the spring 2000. The company's first film, entitled The Touch, is a romantic action adventure in which Michelle stars as an acrobatic circus performer. This is the first film Michelle ever produced. The film was released in August 2002 in Asia (and later in other territories) and it was Hong Kong's official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2002. The film was awarded as the Best Co-Production Film at China's Huabiao Awards. Also, Michelle and co-producer Thomas Chung were named the Producers of the Year at CineAsia Awards 2002. In January 2004, Mythical's second film, Silver Hawk, which stars Michelle as a comic-book style heroine, was released in Asia. The film was also awarded as the Best Co-Production Film at the Huabiao Awards.

After several years of preparation of Hua Mulan, a story of the historic Chinese heroine, Michelle has abandoned plans to star as Mulan herself. She may still appear in the film and will likely be an executive producer.

(L to R) The Touch, Silver Hawk, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Sunshine

While best known for her action work, Michelle has always been interested in more variety in the range of roles she takes on. In 2005, she starred in Memoirs of a Geisha, a Hollywood produced ensemble drama based on a story of Japanese geisha. Michelle's character is not the central focus, but "it is Yeoh who quietly holds the screen with her warmth, grace, and wit," as said in a film review. In the fall of 2005, Michelle filmed a space mission science fiction thriller with director Danny Boyle in London. Sunshine was released in 2007 and Michelle starred as a botanist / astronaut / scientist.

Far North, 2007
In August 2007, Michelle's "North Pole" film, Far North, a psychological, dark romance set in the Arctic, was premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The independent, small-budgeted film was filmed in fall 2006 in Norway and London with British director Asif Kapadia. It is highly praised by critics and has been released in various territories.

In 2008, The Children of Huang Shi, a WWII drama directed by Roger Spottiswoode in which Michelle has a guest star role, was released in the spring. Fans of Michelle's action films were treated with two big summer releases. In The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third installment of the Hollywood Mummy series which was filmed in summer and fall of 2007 in Canada and China, Michelle played a sorceress and her performance was said as one of the brightest spots. "Best of all is Michelle Yeoh, who radiates integrity in every role she takes on and who holds our attention as a powerful sorceress," wrote "Los Angeles Times." Another film, Babylon A.D., is a U.S.-French action thriller which was based on Maurice Dantec's genetic manipulation novel "Babylon Babies" and was filmed mainly in the Czech Republic for five months at the beginning of 2007. Michelle played a kickboxing nun.

Michelle Yeoh and John Woo at the world premiere of Reign of Assassins, Venice Film Festival (click to enlarge)
Since 2007, Michelle Yeoh has been the global ambassador for the Make Roads Safe campaign. She has traveled to different regions in Asia, Africa and Latin America for promoting global road safety in developing countries. Turning Point - A Journey on the World's Killer Roads, the documentary Michelle made for the campaign, premiered in Rome in May 2009, during the launch of the 'Make Roads Safe: A decade of Action for Road Safety.' In June 2009, Michelle filmed a documentary on orangutans rescue in Malaysia for the National Geographic Channel, Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh. She also guest starred in Yuen Wo-Ping's new martial arts film True Legend.

Michelle then starred in the Chinese language period costume martial arts thriller, Reign of Assassins, produced by John Woo and co-directed by Woo and Taiwanese director and scriptwriter Su Chao-Pin, The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2010 and it was described by critics as the best martial arts film since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She also lent her voice for a character in the Academy nominated animation Kung Fu Panda 2, released in May 2011.

In 2011 and 2012, Michelle traveled around the globe promoting The Lady, a biopic on the Burmese democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Directed by French director Luc Besson, the film production took place in Thailand, London, and Paris from October 2010 to January 2011. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall 2011. "I am very proud of this movie. We believe this is a very important story to tell, because of who Daw Suu is and because of what she's fighting for - with words - for freedom, for democracy, for human rights," said Michelle who considered the film as a "role of a lifetime". The film was awarded The International Human Rights Film Award by Amnesty International, Cinema for Peace, and The Human Rights Film Network at the 2012 Cinema for Peace Gala in Berlin in early 2012. Michelle was conferred the Officier de la Legion d'Honneur, France's highest civilian honour, by the President of France.

Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady

After The Lady, Michelle starred and produced a family drama Final Recipe, directed by American-Korean writer-director Gina Kim. The film premiered in 2013 and showed on film festivals around the wold. In summer 2015, the final season of CINEMAX (U.S.) and Sky (U.K.)'s action/drama series Strike Back aired globally. This was Michelle's first ever role for television.

Michelle's upcoming release will be Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon II: Sword Of Destiny in which she will reprise her warrior Yu Shu Lien role. Filmed in New Zealand in 2014, the sequel to the award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will premiere simultaneously in selected IMAX theaters and on Netflix in early 2016. Also coming in the summer of 2016 is the action thriller Mechanic: Resurrection in which Michelle will star along with Jason Statham and Tommy Lee Jones.

Michelle has been filming her second (U.S.) TV series in Europe and Malaysia.

Michelle is engaged to Jean Todt, previous general manager and CEO of Ferrari and now president of the FIA.

(to be continued. As time goes by we will get more stories of our Michelle... )  
[last modified: October 2015]

Birth Name    Yeoh Choo Kheng Nationality    Malaysian 
Birth Date    August 6, 1962 Ethnicity    Chinese 
Birth Place    Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia Religion    Buddhism 
Height    5'4"   (165cm) Education    Postgraduate  
Weight    106 lb   (48kg) Occupation    Actress, Producer 
Filmography    Complete Movie List 
Summary of
  - Commander of the Legion of Honour, France, 2017
  - Officier des Arts et des Lettres, France, 2016
  - Cinema Legend Award, Singapore International Film Festival, 2015
  - Panglima Setia Mahkota Malaysia Award, Malaysia, 2013
  - Lifetime Achievement Award, Asean International Film Festival and Awards, 2013
  - Excellence in Asian Cinema, Asian Film Awards, 2013
  - Darjah Seri Paduka Mahkota Perak Award, Malaysia, 2012
  - Officier de la Legion d'Honneur, France, 2011
  - Trophee du Festival de Cannes, Cannes International Film Festival, 2009
  - Achievement Award, Marrakech International Film Festival, 2008
  - Chevalier de Legion d'Honneur, France, 2007
  - The Asian Film Award, MTV Asia, 2004
  - International Actor of The Year, MTV & SMG Style Awards (China), 2003
  - Producer of the Year Award, CineAsia, 2002
  - The Outstanding Young Persons of the World  (Cultural Achievement), 2002
  - The Outstanding Young Malaysian Awards, 2002
  - Montblanc Arts Patronage Award  (Hong Kong Winner), 2002
  - Datuk Paduka Mahkota Perak Award, Malaysia, 2001
  - International Star of the Year Award, ShoWest, 2001
  - Best Film Actress, Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards (EMMA), 2001
  - Best Actress in a Cinematic Production, Ammy Awards, 2001
  - Award of Excellence in Acting, CineAsia, 1999
Charities     - Ambassador to United Nations Development Programme
  - Board of Director to Suu Foundation
  - Commissioner to UNAIDS
  - Ambassador to Make Roads Safe
  - Ambassador to amfAR AIDS Research
  - Ambassador to Live To Love
  - Patron to Aids Concern, Hong Kong
  - Patron to the Hong Kong Cancer Fund
  - Ambassador to Mercy Malaysia, Malaysia
  - Ambassador to Institute for Cerebral and Medullary Disorders, France

- Special thanks to Michelle's mother, Datin Yeoh, who generously provided us many precious photos.
- Special thanks to Kit for sharing her newspaper collection on older Michelle news.
- Special thanks to YTSL, who encouraged me to write this page and helped with text editing and many details.

Go to   MICHELLE YEOH Q & A   for more topics
Go to   NEWS   for latest Michelle news
( page created: 12/21/00,   last modified: 10/18/15 )