The Fabulous Adventures Of Former Supermodel Ethel Fong And Her Musician Daughter Tanis Chalopin

The first Singaporean signed on to Ford Models brought along a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels on her Mount Kilimanjaro climb.

The Fabulous Adventures Of Former Supermodel Ethel Fong And Her Musician Daughter Tanis Chalopin
Ethel Fong with her daughter Tanis Chalopin.

Ethel Fong decided she wanted to mark her half century on this planet by accomplishing something spectacular. She scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. It’s a magnificent dormant volcano, towering 5,895 metres above sea level and a significant challenge even for those in peak physical condition. Fong brought a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels along. “I wanted to wear them when I reached the top and be fabulous no matter where I was,” Fong, now 58, reminisces with a laugh.

She didn’t go alone. Twenty-one friends and relatives, including her daughter, Tanis Chalopin, came along on the trip. Only 19 reached the peak; the three who didn’t either felt unwell because of the altitude or lacked the confidence to tackle the final ascent. Fong admitted that she, too, had doubts. After all, prior to the climb, she had never slept in a tent or walked for longer than 15 minutes on the treadmill.

But Fong persevered, reaching the top just in time to watch the sun rise, with her Manolo Blahniks in hand and her daughter by her side.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Ethel Fong and daughter Tanis Chalopin
Ethel Fong is wearing Clash de Cartier hoop earrings, and a set of Panthère de Cartier necklace, ring and bracelet.
Her daughter Tanis Chalopin is wearing Clash de Cartier single earring and ring, and LOVE necklace and ring.

This tenacity has been a mainstay in Fong’s life. One of seven children, Fong grew up in Pasir Panjang next to the old Haw Par Villa. She recalls sneaking into the theme park with her siblings and looking in awe at the depictions of heaven and hell and the mythical characters that occupy both planes.

At 15, Fong went for a three-month grooming course. The trainers noticed her height and asked if she was interested in modelling for fashion shows. From there, it was a slow but steady climb to the top of the modelling world, culminating in that Giorgio Armani campaign. Yes, the famous 1986 Spring/Summer campaign with Fong staring into the camera with her piercing eyes.

Chalopin has certainly inherited this trait. When she was 13, she asked to go to a top boarding school in the UK. She joined the swim team and competed in the 100m and 200m breaststroke. She also qualified for the junior nationals skiing team, specialising in the giant slalom. While the 27-year-old is no longer competing, Tanis still occasionally teaches people to ski. She’s also a free diver and reveals that she’s one of the models on the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Free Diving campaign shoot. Oh, and she completed the New York marathon in 4 hours and 13 minutes.

“I like to challenge myself. I have a completionist personality,” Chalopin says.

Both mother and daughter admit that they have very different personalities. But that and distance — Fong is residing in Nassau in the Bahamas while Chalopin is currently holed up in the Swiss mountains — haven’t dampened their strong connection with each other.

“We have a wonderful relationship. It’s like a dream. She has been an amiable child since day one. When we meet, we dine with each other and have long conversations,” says Fong. The two of them meet four to five times a year in different countries around the globe, depending on each other’s schedules.

Chalopin does the planning while “I just show up”, Fong says with a laugh. Last year, they spent the festive season in Switzerland with the rest of the family, and spent a lot of time in the kitchen whipping up a feast to entertain their guests. Fong professes that she’s a lazy cook, but Chalopin pushes her to be adventurous. “Sometimes, we’re far too adventurous though,” Chalopin jokes.

Separate Pursuits

Fong is in the midst of another challenge — building her home in Nassau. The project has occupied her for the better part of five years and she envisions that it will take at least another 18 months before it’s completed.

“We’re working without a master plan, that’s why it’s taking so long. We’re just building it along the way, like Lego. I’m a full-time contractor now!” Fong adds.

Ethel Fong
Ethel Fong is wearing Reflection de Cartier earrings, Geometry & Contrast necklace, Reflection de Cartier ring, and LOVE ring.

The plan is for it to be a family home “so our two children and their significant others can stay with us,” Fong explains. There are separate buildings so everyone can have their own space, with a large common area meant for mingling.When she’s not busy with her home project, Fong is a philanthropist. She leads the Deltec Initiatives Foundation, which is part of the Deltec group where her husband, Jean Chalopin, is chairperson.

The Foundation empowers Bahamians through the power of the arts, entrepreneurship and education, either by giving out scholarships or supporting them in their individual pursuits. Fong doesn’t believe in writing out big cheques to large charitable organisations, having witnessed the waste and hubris present in these entities. Instead, she prefers the personal touch and tries to get to know every person whom the Foundation supports.

“I realised that many were doing it just for their own ego, with a lot of money being spent unnecessarily. So I got a bit discouraged and did smaller initiatives that can go a longer way and still leave me satisfied,” Fong says.

She donates money every year to a small school in Burkina Faso. While $12,000 may be a considerably small sum, it goes towards providing breakfast for 350 children.

“The money buys grains for the parents, who then plant and grow them and harvest the crops so they can cook food for the family, including the children. I think this is a more sustainable way of doing charity instead of just buying food,” says Fong, adding that she’s been doing this for 15 years. She’s also proud to share that the passing rate in the school is close to 100 per cent.

As for Chalopin, she’s been busy making a name for herself as a film and television composer. Look up her name on IMDB and you’ll see a string of credits to her name, including the China remake of Singapore’s very own The Little Nyonya and a Japanese-Filipino anime series Barangay 143. She also composed music for Disney film Trail of the Panda when she was just 14.

Her favourite work to date, however, is a YouTube series made for children called Miraculous: Chibi, a spin-off of Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir that’s available on the Disney+ streaming service.

“That was really fun because the characters don’t speak, so the music had to drive the whole thing forward. I had to match the music to the gestures. It’s one of the hardest challenges I’ve had so far as a composer,” she shares.

Music has always been a big part of Chalopin’s life. As a child, she remembers thumbing through her father’s Beatles collection and repeatedly listening to them.

Right now, she’s hard at work scoring for an undisclosed Amazon Prime television show. She’s also planning on releasing new music after being on hiatus for close to five years.

“I wasn’t proud of the music I was releasing in 2017, so I took a step back and focused on composing and music production while working on my skill as an artist. I realised that when I started writing music for pleasure during my free time, I created more tracks. Now I’m slowly releasing this large backlog,” she explains.

Last month saw Chalopin releasing a track Je T’aime and there’s more to come in both French and English this year. Whether it’ll be a full LP remains to be seen.

Less Talk, More Action

Tanis Chalopin
Tanis Chalopin is wearing a Santos de Cartier watch, Juste un Clou necklace and ring, and LOVE wedding band and ring.

Hard work is something that Fong and Chalopin clearly practise, but they’ve never preached it. Incidentally, the duo agree that people need to get off their soapboxes and log off their social media accounts.

“It’s a very polarised world now,” Fong remarks. “We need more respect and understanding. Everyone insists that their way is the only way and get into big fights because they become so emotional about it.”

Chalopin concurs. “There’s so much talk on social media, but after they’ve said their piece, they just sit back. But has any change been enacted? Probably not. We talk too much, but do too little.”

Fong’s solution is simple — more leaders and lesser politicians. But she acknowledges that it’s easier said than done. Democratic systems are designed in such a way that those who are ambitious and crave for power receive it when, ironically, it should probably go to those who don’t want such responsibilities in their hands.

In the meantime, mother and daughter are focused on the here and now. Chalopin wants to continue creating music that she hopes will be remembered long after she’s gone; Fong too wants to continue making a positive impact on the lives of people she’s met along the way through her work and social interactions.

“Oh, and high heels and glamour. I want people to remember me for that too,” Fong chortles. “In fact, I’ve told my children that when I pass away, I want them to cremate me, throw my ashes into the sea and then throw a party!”

Even in death, Fong wants the spectacular, much like how her life has been. The tall, gawky teenager from Pasir Panjang has certainly made her mark on the world, literally, with a Manolo Blahnik heel.

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