Born Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh Coo-Kheng, but known professionally as Michelle Yeoh, she’s a Malaysian actress probably best known for her roles in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Most recently, she joined the Cinemax action drama series “Strike Back.”
Born and raised in Malaysia, her dream growing up was to be a ballerina. Michelle Yeoh was a tomboy, however, and spent weekends swimming and diving, and later represented her country at the national level for swimming, diving and squash.
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When she was 15, her parents went with her to England where Michelle enrolled in a boarding school. She later entered the London Royal Academy of Dance and majored in Ballet. A spinal injury cut her dream short. “It was one of the worst times in my life. You know how they say your dreams shatter? I literally saw like a mirror going crack in front of my eyes.”
Unbeknownst to Michelle, her mother entered her into a beauty contest. Michelle went along and was crowed Miss Malaysia when she was 21. (People Magazine later named her one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” in 1997.)
With her rising fame, she got into commercials, and then films.
Michelle Yeoh has been called one of the most significant female action stars in film history. She began her acting career in martial arts film and landed in Hong Kong’s “boom years” in the early 1990’s. She did her own stunts. As to why she does them, she said, “Body language is more fascinating to me than actual language. Before you get into the mind, you have to inhabit the physicality. Body language is a great way of speaking.”
The film that first brought her international acclaim was “Police Story 3”. Her first English speaking role was in the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Pierce Bronson referred to her as “the female James Bond.” As for the roles she chooses, she said, “I gravitate towards roles where women find strength in very difficult, uncompromising situations but maintain clarity in mind, discipline at heart and a certain strength in spirit.”
Michelle Yeoh stays in shape due to a daily exercise routine. “I think it’s essential, it’s like hygiene. And when you incorporate it into your lifestyle, you don’t even think about it anymore. In many ways, I feel I’m still as physically fit as I was 20 years ago, because I’ve always been athletic.”
As to her career, she said, “I am very blessed, so I do work my hardest when I get the opportunity. Asian performers have always had to fight clichéd roles – the Suzie Wong type, the Chinatown waitress, the Chinatown-whatever.”
Though divorced once, Michelle Yeoh is engaged to her long-term partner, Jean Todt.