From ballet student to Hollywood icon: The education and career of Michelle Yeoh

The education of Michelle Yeoh
A cinematic icon with over three decades of filmography, Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh began as a ballerina who studied abroad at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, but had her dancing dreams cut short due to a back injury. Source: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images/AFP

Known for riveting performances in martial arts films, Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh has graced the silver screen for decades in both Asian and Hollywood cinema. From her beginnings in action-packed roles in the Hong Kong film industry, to starring in the Oscar-winning film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and becoming the first ethnic Chinese Bond girl, her immense global success is a result of talent, hard work, and charisma honed skillfully throughout her career. 

Each diamond has to be pressurised before it can shine though, and Yeoh is no different. Her upper-middle class Chinese upbringing in her home country was one that prioritised education. “My dad, you know, he always said, ‘What I’m responsible for is your education’,” the actress recalled in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) while promoting her new film, “Everything Everywhere all At Once”. 

It was her father that pushed her to defy conventions. “My father is very liberated, you know? And he thought, ‘No, you will choose and study something that you want to do,’” Yeoh mused. An active child, she took to ballet naturally and became an international student as a teenager after she was sent to the UK to pursue dance professionally.

The education of Michelle Yeoh

One of Michelle Yeoh’s memorable roles which garnered Hollywood fame was playing the female warrior Yu Shu Lien in the Oscar-winning film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” directed by Ang Lee (right). Source: Hugo Philpot/AFP

Her serious campaign to take centre stage began at a British boarding school, which eventually landed her a spot at London’s Royal Academy of Dance. “My dream came true. So I was dancing, doing ballet, you know, surrounded by music and dance. That was, like, the core education I was getting at that point,” she told NPR. She also expressed an interest to teach ballet in a separate interview with the New York Times.

Sadly, the dream came crashing down early. A back injury that got progressively worse cut her dance career short. “My dreams just literally shattered in front of me. But I was very fortunate — possibly because I was a foreign student — the principal felt that it was much more of a responsibility [to guide me]. Another door opened where I was still very much in the world that I wanted to be, so I was very blessed.”

Flying high: How dance and drama catapulted Michelle Yeoh into superstardom

Clearly, Yeoh was always fated to be a star: her love for performing arts pivoted towards a more academic pursuit in university instead. After a lifetime of practising in tutus and pointe shoes, taking up acting wasn’t exactly smooth-sailing for the future superstar. 

“At that time, I assure you, I hated it with such a passion!” Yeoh laughingly recalled in a keynote address at a 2016 ASEAN World Economic Forum event. “I never thought that one day I would be an actress because I had stage fright. The English take stage performances very seriously, and when you have stage fright, the minute you get onstage you forget your name, you forget about your lines.” The actress even remembered finding excuses to skip her drama lessons, which thankfully didn’t stop her from graduating in the UK. 

The education of Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh’s training and academic background in performing arts became an asset that helped her become a household name in Asian cinema. Source: Rich Fury/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

Thanks to years of choreography practices, dancing translated into an almost preternatural knack for martial arts despite her never having any formal training. After winning beauty pageants and a memorable television commercial stint with Jackie Chan, Yeoh’s career took off through a string of action films in the 1980s. Her breakthrough cemented her status as a bankable celebrity, made all the more impressive at a time when Hong Kong action films were overwhelmingly male-dominated

Over three decades later, Michelle Yeoh’s extensive filmography has won her numerous international accolades. Her latest work as the lead in “Everything Everywhere all At Once” is considered her best one yet by multiple film critics and entertainment media — which has sparked rumours of a potential Oscar.

I never dreamt of myself up there,” she told NPR. “But when I was given the opportunity, I just embraced it and went, you know, why not?” Yeoh’s leap of faith from dance to drama paid off handsomely, and she’s showing no sign of stopping anytime soon.