Rebellious Spirit: Josie Ho On A Lifetime As A Habitual Rule-Breaker
Josie Ho arrives for our cover shoot, floating into her dressing room to ink her own jet black flicks of eyeliner while pondering out loud in a languid, smoky drawl whether London or Los Angeles is better for scoring the most badass vintage leather jackets.
“Girls!” she shouts.
Two attendants snap to attention, producing a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She exhales a plume of smoke over a poster board pasted with images of outfits Tatler’s editors have selected for the shoot—all evocative of shadows and sultriness—and chooses to wear her own clumpy black Buffalo trainers instead of a pair of patent stilettos.
“Powerful woman” is a label Ho rejects. That’s not the way she sees herself or wants to be portrayed, despite a career as a rock star, actor and film producer that reaches back 30 years. She insists her strength lies in the network she can call upon. “My sisters Pansy and Daisy are the powerful women. Me? I’m tiny,” she says, shaking her head. “My power is a strong phone book.”
Ready to Rock
While it’s true her siblings gravitated towards the business end of her family’s considerable empire, Ho has applied an impressive work ethic across Hong Kong’s film and music industries. Now, global pandemic or not, she has never been busier, preparing several films for release, as well as writing new songs with her alternative rock group, Josie and the Uni Boys. Instead of riding purely on her family name, Ho has always strived for authenticity by doing things her way and on an equal footing.
Once the studio lights are illuminated, she comes to life, her diminutive figure suddenly magnetic as she slinks through a repertoire of poses. Later, tired of endless black outfits, she pulls out her own trunk of favourite stage costumes and selects a banana yellow, Big Bird-esque, feathered, three-piece Gucci suit, neon green gloves, Saint Laurent zebra print platforms and an oversized sailor’s hat that was a gift from her father, Stanley Ho, who founded the Turbojet ferry company, among many other businesses, and who died just over two weeks after this interview took place.
She stands revelling in the stares from the assembled stylists and assistants. The ensemble isn’t just loud; it’s ear-shattering. This is how Josie Ho wants to be seen. It’s how she has always been—first as a teenager rebelling against the conformity of Hong Kong society, then as an adult reengineering a tepid beginning in Cantopop into an intimidatingly fierce and uncompromising persona closer to rock stars like Courtney Love, Joan Jett or Siouxsie Sioux.
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The following day, as she sips chamomile tea and eats cookies in the garden at The Upper House, Ho’s feline features peer out beneath her trademark Cleopatra-meets-Karen O bob, still shaggy with lacquer from the previous night’s shoot. She wears a distressed denim jacket over her own band’s T-shirt, and indigo shadows underline her eyes, owing not to rock’n’roll antics, but late nights spent on conference calls with Hollywood as her production company, called 852 Films after Hong Kong’s international dialling code, prepares a raft of pictures for release.
This includes the upcoming Habit, an indie flick set in the 1960s with a plot involving Bella Thorne playing a party girl with a Jesus fetish who pretends to be a nun to escape the fallout of a violent drug deal. Ho appears as a beehive-sporting villain alongside Paris Jackson (daughter of Michael Jackson) as Jesus, Gavin Rossdale, and Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, aka genre-defying rock duo The Kills. In short, the DNA of the film is Josie’s, through and through. “I get to torture Gavin with a meat hammer,” she says with a dirty chuckle. “It was hard to shoot because we were all having so much fun talking about music.”
The local press has long labelled Ho as the “queen of rock” in Hong Kong, though she wants it to be known that it’s the court jester she identifies with most: an itinerant entertainer who loves to cause a stir and make others laugh, even at her own expense. “Onstage, I’m a joker and do spontaneous things. I shock the hell out of the crowd and I’m funny. I don’t mind rolling on the ground. I love when people are laughing at me,” she says. “When I was 11 and the tabloids were shooting photos of my family, I already knew I’d never be able to get away from the media eye and would be judged forever. So, I thought, why not make something of myself and control my own image?”
Stanley Ho’s business dealings dated back to the Second World War when he made a fortune smuggling goods from China to Macau. He owned 20 casinos estimated to employ one in four workers in the gambling hub. The billionaire magnate was also famed for an extensive family tree spanning 17 children with four women. Lucina Lam gave birth to Ho’s eighth child and seventh daughter, Josephine “Josie” Ho Chiu-yi, in 1974, just as Hong Kong was becoming known for wealth, extravagant living and stratospheric property prices.
In an effort to prevent her from standing out, Ho’s parents sent her to school with pigtails and a hand-me-down satchel, which had the opposite effect. “I was a chubby nerd and everyone knew who my family was,” she says. “I had heavy asthma and allergies and had to eat lunch with my ah ma at school every day while my friends ran around. I just wanted to fit in but I was left out by the popular kids.”
Encouraged by her eldest sister, Pansy, and inspired by Cantopop icons and family friends like Anita Mui and Danny Chan, Ho fell in love with music and singing and would be brought onstage to entertain guests at glittering society functions, where she performed classics by crooners like Chet Baker and Tony Bennett. At the heart of one of Asia’s most private yet prominent dynasties, here was a little girl who loved to entertain—and there was little her parents could do about it.
In a city as dense and claustrophobic as Hong Kong, the scrutiny surrounding the family was suffocating, peaking with a threat of kidnapping made to Lucina targeting Josie when she was still a small child. It was only after her mother decamped the siblings to Toronto in the mid-Eighties that Ho finally felt free to express herself fully. At boarding school, she honed a rebellious streak, convincing peers to do her homework or sneaking out to smoke after dark, and creating raunchy outfits and routines to imitate her hero Madonna at school talent shows. Her grades were abysmal but she excelled in sports and the arts. By the time she returned to Hong Kong in her late teens, her sights were fixed on a future on the stage.
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She's a rebel
She credits Pansy with helping her make connections in the music industry and convincing her parents that their daughter was talented enough to perform professionally, and she signed her first music contract in her father’s office, when she was just 18. “He was a supporter of my potential, but he was also afraid of the dirty things people do, like [what would now be called] ‘Me Too’ stuff,” she says. “But that was never an issue for me.”
A sardonic glint in her eye, she adds: “Like, could you afford to screw me? It might cost more money than you have.”
Released in 1994, her first album was titled Rebel, but her look and sound by today’s standards were petal-soft and commercially safe. After years spent being proudly different, Ho found herself in a world where she was required to conform to her management Capital Artists’ idea of the performer she should be. This extended from the clothes she wore to the body beneath them, prompting her to take dangerous measures.
“The CEO liked my singing but he told my sister I was chubby and didn’t know how to dress. She took a long time before telling me, to avoid hurting my feelings. Then, I decided to lose weight no matter what. For nearly 10 years I took appetite suppressants and all kinds of stuff. I looked perfect but I felt weak. I had no voice. I couldn’t sing. I didn’t have the energy. Because the pills contained amphetamines, my brain was going 100 kilometres per second and I was jumpy.” Ho says her family was unaware of the measures she was taking. “They just thought I grew up and I lost weight.”
Finding Her Path
After her label fired her for what she claims was one off-key appearance, Ho entered a few wilderness years when she tried extreme sports and hard partying. During this time, she met the irreverent Hong Kong hip-hop group LMF and music producer and actor Conroy Chan Chi-chung, her future husband. Her new-found friends encouraged her to go independent and make the kind of music she always wanted to make, paving the way for Ho to become the unabashed icon she is today.
After dabbling in acting earlier in her career, she also began to invest more time in small roles in local films. She eventually came off the weight loss medication when director Teddy Chan cast her alongside Daniel Wu and Emile Chau in 1999’s Khmer Rouge action blockbuster Purple Storm and told her she needed to be strong enough to perform stunts. The pressure to stay thin hadn’t completely dissipated, but she found fresh confidence along with gaining physical strength and threw herself in headfirst.
“I dropped the pills but still dieted and did everything to keep my weight down, but I looked right for my role: buff. I didn’t feel weak any more. I had the courage to do new moves they taught me on this set, and I went for it. I knew people would look at me differently due to my family background, so I wanted to prove to them I was no princess. You want me to do it this way? You want me to do cartwheels? You want to put a wire on me and pull me up seven floors? I say nine. I do my own stunts,” she says, giving a defiant jerk of her chin.
A string of award nominations set the tone for her acting career from then on: she sought the most challenging, complex and edgy roles in niche pictures that excelled at international independent film festivals. She immersed herself in studying theatre, especially comedy, reading Stanislavsky and Chekhov and taking lessons with clown master Philippe Gaulier.
Her most lauded and memorable role was portraying a high-school teacher who falls in love with a female singer-songwriter in 2004’s Butterfly, which elevated her to cult status within the Chinese-speaking LGBT community. In 2007, in response to a lack of quality roles available to local female actors, she formed 852 Films with Chan, who she married in 2003, with a mission to “create films that can break barriers”.
A 2008 New York Times profile heralded Ho’s diverse portfolio and tendency to go against the grain in Hong Kong’s “commercial and conformist” entertainment industry, describing the actress as “genuinely a bright star in Asia’s burgeoning independent cinema scene”.
She also nurtured a proclivity to shock. Visitors to 852’s website are immediately greeted by a violent scene from the 2010 slasher Dream Home, in which a man having sex with a woman is knifed to death by Ho, giving a glimpse into her way of doing things, which often includes stepping in to negotiate on her husband’s behalf in meetings. “He is always Mr Nice Guy. He does not like to fight with people. I am the bad cop, which I hate because I don’t want to b**** out my manager and my agents. But someone has to do it.”
“She’s so playful as a performer and musician. I think it’s naturally part of her,” says Roger Avary, director of 2019’s Lucky Day, in which Ho plays a Beijing art snob who is bumped off in characteristically Tarantino fashion with a bullet to the crotch. “I wanted it to be cheap and fast, so I said, ‘Just shoot me in the c***’,” she says. Avary adds: “She creates this great mood on set, but she brings improvisation and wonderful ideas. We were all just laughing together by the end.”
She is herself, unapologetically
Through triumphs and setbacks, Ho has always relied on her sense of humour. With the Uni Boys, her imagination runs wild, manifesting as elaborate stage shows and sculptural costumes evoking avant-garde performers like Björk, and she is exploring electronic avenues in songwriting this year. The band’s 10th anniversary tour in 2017 found the singer at the peak of confidence in her own skin and sound, though she still couldn’t escape scathing and shallow tabloids. Two years ago, Chan was hospitalised with acute liver cirrhosis and diverticulosis and Ho had to take care of him and help him walk during his recovery. “I gained weight due to the stress and the paparazzi took pictures of me on the street without make-up. People were saying how bad I looked.”
Instead of hiding away or launching into an aggressive weight loss programme, this time Ho saw an opportunity to finally raise a giant middle finger to anyone who had ever tried to manipulate her image or make her feel ashamed of her body. During a run of concerts in 2018, she stepped out on stage wearing a dress featuring a heavily padded torso and rear end.
“It was a parody. We wanted to create ‘all-you-can-eat’ clothes,” she grins, taking a well-timed crunch into a cookie. “The crowd loved it and embraced my body.” It was a powerful gesture, symbolic of a born entertainer whose imagination is her only limit. Throughout the conversation, ideas constantly pop up and are mulled over. Maybe she’ll run a vintage store in LA? Or open a floating nightclub in Hong Kong? Or create a new gig venue-meets-art gallery-meets-Champagne-bar?
“I really can’t say I’m a power woman,” she says again. “I’m very hard-working and aggressive. And I have these beyond crazy ideas. I’m like the Joker: I’m courageous and not afraid of challenges. And I’m shameless. I’m definitely not afraid to put myself out there.” But, she adds, most of all, “I feel I’m very fortunate and spoiled. I’m living my dream.
“Yeah,” she sighs. “I’m so lucky.”
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- Styling Rosana Lai
- Photography Kiu Lau at Shyalala
- Hair Ben Lee at Coiffure Beauté
- Make-Up Angus Lee at Zing The Makeup School