Narelle Kheng likes to use the word “like”, like, a lot. “I’m sorry. Like, I’m a bimbo, okay,” she says self-deprecatingly when we bring this up – a big reminder of why she’s one of today’s most well-loved and followed female personalities, both by the media and fellow young millennials.
Not because she’s a ditz, of course. Beyond being the bassist and vocalist of local pop band The Sam Willows, the 24-year-old has interests and endeavours that let on that she’s anything but. A science student in junior college who also dabbled in drama, she lights up expounding on the work and theories of award-winning science fiction writer Ted Chiang.
Last year, she revealed her entrepreneurial side, co-founding the co-working space/bar 21 Moonstone atop an old industrial building near Serangoon Road. Her goal, she says, is to have it become a community space for like-minded creatives. Around press time, it held its first public event, Xiao Kopitiam – a cheeky nod to the space’s former use as a canteen – that offered beers and affordable artisanal grub, alongside wares and services by independent local labels. Like her, the mood was fun, casual, and downright unpretentious.
Therein lies Kheng’s most endearing appeal: that she’s plainly, unapologetically millennial. It’s something that she’s declared repeatedly in interviews, so much so that it could seem perfunctory – except that in person, she exudes many of the best traits associated with Generation Y.
Her ambitiousness and media-savvy – honed through years of being in the public eye as a performer in the band as well as Youtube videos – is grounded by a sharp dose of pragmatism. “I work in the business-entertainment world. Sometimes, what you need to do (for social media) can be really cut throat, but if it works for you, then good,” she says of the significance of social media in her life. “I (also) think everybody kind of understands that Instagram is a curated front these days, and (that it should be taken) with a pinch of salt.”
It might explain her humorous, at times offbeat, Instagram persona. While she admits to being image-conscious, her 137K-followers-strong account (@narellekheng) is peppered with wacky quotes and self-portraits. To accompany an out-take – stamped with a heart motif – of her and bandmate Sandra Riley Tang in awkward, mannequin-like mid-pose: a blithe “caption this”.
I’m starting to realise that it’s easier to be who you are,” she says. “I don’t want to have a trashy image, but it has to be one that’s truthful.”
And it says plenty about her views on fashion. Like many of her age, she gravitates towards street wear, less so for hype than comfort. “(I could be) in a really tight skirt or high heels and look really pretty, but if somebody were to ask me a question, I wouldn’t even be able to move,” she says. “(But) anything that (allows me to) sit on a plane for 25 hours, or go to the movies and hug my legs without worry – that’s great.”
And when we invited her along to Paris Fashion Week F/W ’18 in February and have the experience – her first – documented, she agreed readily, but was quick to point out that she has no intention of becoming a fashion influencer. She explains: “I don’t want to be cast under just this one umbrella… (Plus) I’m a jeans and sneakers kind of girl – I like fashion that’s relatable.” Okay, Narelle, like, “Like”.
This story first appeared in Female’s April 2018 issue.