Let’s get it out of the way first: if you find Annette Lee familiar, it’s because you’ve probably seen her as Sue-Ann, her alter ego on SGAG’s numerous skits and parody videos. Besides her funny woman persona, the 27-year-old is also a filmmaker and singer-songwriter. This month, she’s starring in You Only Debut Once, a new web-series by Nubbad TV that’s inspired by various IRL events.

In the series, Annette plays Kandie Pok, an aspiring singer who once made public a cringey “K-pop group debut” video when she was a tween, which went viral (in a bad way) and made her the subject of online vitriol.

Again, if that sounds familiar, that’s because this premise is based on the real life story of Beaunite—a group of tween girls playing pretend by uploading a “K-pop group debut” video, only to be met with disproportionately harsh criticism and even death threats from netizens.

“I think for a lot of us, when we were younger, we all had these dreams or fantasies… whether it’s being a pop star or being a princess,” says Annette. “But to see a group of girls put out something for fun so innocently, only to get flamed so much for it, I think that had to be a huge blow for all of them.”

Which is why with “You Only Debut Once”, which Annette created, co-wrote, co-directed, and also wrote the music for, she hopes to drive home the message that cyberbullying comes with very real consequences for those on the receiving end. And more importantly, she hopes that it’ll provide some sort of encouragement for anyone with a similar experience. CLEO sat down with Annette for a chat about why she feels so passionately for the message of this show, and the real life events that inspired it.

In the process of writing “You Only Debut Once”, you actually got in touch with the Beaunite girls. How had the incident impacted them, and where are they now?

I only met up with two of them—the oldest member (who was 17 then) and the youngest member (who was 13 then). I got the sense that the incident was harder on the older girl. I mean, it definitely was traumatic for all of them. They all cried when [the bullying] happened, and they even received death threats. They’re doing so much better now. Both of the girls that I met are dancers, and they’re still dancing. It’s nice to see that they’re still in the arts and pursuing what they want to do.

The series touches on cyberbullying and its aftermath. Is this something that you feel strongly for?

My heart went out to those girls when I saw the incident unfolding back then. It’s also quite personal because I had similar aspirations when I was younger and I was bullied in school too. I know how it feels. And cyberbullying can be worse because those bullies don’t show their faces, and under the cloak of anonymity, they can be ten thousand times more brutal.

Those Beaunite girls were a cheap target for those bullies. You can’t just message someone and say “go kill yourself” and then try to pass it off as a joke. You don’t see how that affects the person on the receiving end, so you just keep going on without knowing when to stop.

In a way, those social media platforms can dehumanise the victims, right?

Exactly. If you think about it, what did those girls do that was so wrong? People were just mocking them for the sake of it. Even if someone did something wrong, there’s no need for such an extreme cancel culture. Some people just love to be virtue signalling super justice warriors. It’s important to not get carried away… and the scary thing is sometimes, these stories might not be the whole truth, and that can cause a huge mess if people are so quick to judge.

Was this series a very personal project for you?

Well, there are some scenes that were inspired by my own experience as a singer-songwriter, but exaggerated for comedic effect, of course.

There’s this one scene where my character was singing in an audition, and got cut off by the auditioner after just half a line. This was based on an actual audition I went to, where I was told to stop singing after just one verse (laughs). I didn’t even get to the part where I could show off my vocals!

Annette Lee You Only Debut Once 2
In ‘You Only Debut Once’, Annette plays Kandie Pok, an aspiring singer

Ouch. That must have hurt.

Truth to be told, I wasn’t a great singer and had to practise a lot to improve my vocals, so I had my fair share of rejections. Once, my friend and I played a gig at a bar as a substitute band—because the regular band couldn’t make it—and we were told that if we did well, we could play regular gigs there. At the end of it, the bar owner went up to my friend and said, “It was a great set, I’d love for you to be a regular band here, but can you replace your singer?”, which was me lah! I’m like, yah OK, cool, I’m not hurt at all (laughs). In these moments I’m like, “Wah I suck man, why do I even bother?”

But that ended up loosely-inspiring that scene in the first episode where Kandie, my character, played an open mic night at the café that she was working at. When I was acting in that scene, playing to nobody in the café, it really brought back memories of those days.

Jokes aside, it must have been tough putting yourself out there like that, and opening yourself up to criticism and rejection.

I’m a very anxious person. I think a part of it comes from the environment that I was in, and having the school bullies remind me that I wasn’t one of the “cool kids”. I just didn’t think that people liked me. But I’m also a creative person and I know that I want to keep producing creative work. It got so stressful to the point where I started getting anxiety attacks when I was in university.

Eventually things got better, but I have to constantly remind myself to rest. I think my colleagues at SGAG are aware of this as well, they’ve seen me just forcing myself to do deep breathing exercises to calm myself down. I’d also consciously put my phone aside because social media gives me anxiety. Social media propagates comparison—you see your peers’ accomplishments and stress out over why you’re not there yet.

Over time, I’ve learnt to not compare myself to others but to how I was yesterday. Eventually I learnt to be grateful for what I have, but that only came after a long process of growth. I know how it feels to be overcome by so much anxiety, so I hope that through my work, I am able to give some encouragement to those who are going through the same struggle.

“You Only Debut Once” is out now on Nubbad TV