As one of Singapore’s prominent influencers, Naomi Neo is constantly on the move. Having had to deal with the pressures of her online exposure, school and her career at a tender age of 15, Naomi’s tenacity and humility is admirable, to say the least. We sat down with the youthful and vibrant lady as she candidly speaks of how she manages her hectic schedule, her love for spicy food and how she hopes to inspire her fellow readers and youths through the written word.
What inspired your career choice?
Naomi Neo: Actually, it was accidental – in the sense that it’s been my passion to write. When I had something to share, like a personal experience, I’d go online to pen down my thoughts. I think the very first post that went viral was dedicated to a friend of mine, who was going through a very low period in his life and was thinking of committing suicide. He was telling me how he felt his mum didn’t care about him. When people share with me their stories, I will have a lot of my own thoughts, and I will be inspired to write something. People started reading my writing, and that’s where things picked up.
What was the biggest challenge you have had to overcome professionally? Do you feel your youth has made people take you less seriously?
Naomi Neo: There are a lot of problems to deal with, with one of the biggest problems I faced when I was 15 or 16, when it was the peak of my career. Back then I was sitting for my ‘O’ levels, and I was juggling school and the blog. It was a love-hate relationship with some of my readers; those who loved me, really did, and those who didn’t, would send me negative comments online. Many people would tell me not to care about what these people were saying, but it did affect me quite badly. It got so bad that I didn’t dare step out of my house for a while because I was so afraid of people judging me, and made me insecure. In public, I would keep my head down and avoid eye contact.
But I matured a little more around 17 or 18 years old, and I deal with the pressure better, being at a stage where I don’t really care anymore. So I guess one of the biggest challenges is to handle this career as well as studying.
What common misconceptions do people hold about your job? What is true, and what is not?
Naomi Neo: I guess everyone thinks that it’s something that’s easy. I wouldn’t say it’s tough, but unlike regular jobs that have fixed hours and possible overtime, our time is in our hands so we can manage our schedules how we like. But I guess every single job has its own obstacles. Personally I feel like if you’re doing this full-time, it’s a lot less difficult because you have more time on your hands. But when you’re studying and doing this, like I was back then, I would sometimes have clients call me in the middle of class and I would rush out of class and handle the issue. It’s easy, but not a walk in the park for sure. I guess it’s easy if you do this for fun, but if you see it as a real job, it’s definitely harder.
What is the funniest thing you have read about yourself in the media?
Naomi Neo: One very common topic people like to discuss about me is my relationships. They always say I’m sleeping with someone, who I most likely don’t even know! There were also weird rumours like me having plastic surgery when I was 15. I guess these rumours will always exist, but it depends on how you handle it. But I think I’ve grown to handle them better as I’ve grown. There was a time when I was reckless with my responses because I’m quite an outspoken person. It got me into a lot of trouble because some people can’t handle my honesty. So I learned that you have to filter your comments online and be a little more sensitive to your audience.
Singaporean influencers have been incremental in adopting early to a variety of social media platforms. Apart from your website, your brand is also shown on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. How important do you think these platforms are in getting your message across?
Naomi Neo: I wouldn’t say it helped me because back then when social media wasn’t so common, the competition was lesser. You didn’t have to worry about posting something similar to someone else. I guess over time, if you’re consistent, you’ll be able to grow. Being an influencer, it’s important that you don’t stagnate, and once you’ve reached your peak, you should continue to work on evolving with the times and your audience.
I was 15 when I started writing, and there were readers back then who have followed me till today, so my readers grew up with me as well. So I can’t be writing the same things that I did back when I was 15. How you relate to your readers is very important to me, and it’s much more than just branding.
What do you personally believe to be the secret ingredient to a restaurant’s success?
Naomi Neo: To me, one, besides delicious food, plating is important. Secondly, service is extremely important because I think how the wait staff serve their diners is crucial. There have been a lot of times, I’ve visited places where I don’t return to a place just because it has bad service. When I go overseas, I see how their customer service is like and I realise that’s an area that Singapore needs to improve on. Even if the food is good, but the service was below par, you don’t like the experience of feeling really mistreated after a good meal. So, service is very, very important.
What is your favourite food in Singapore?
Naomi Neo: I love chicken rice. If there was one meal I had to have for the rest of my life, it would be chicken rice. It’s very weird, but I like the food court chicken rice at Orchard Cineleisure basement! Maybe because I’m always hungry when I go there, and it does the job.
Your biggest epicurean sin (whether homemade or when eating out)?
Naomi Neo: I think it would be ramen. I like spicy food, and I would sometimes go up to a level 3 or 4 or 5 spiciness, and I would still add extra condiments and ingredients to my bowl. It’s not very healthy food, but I love to indulge in it.
History typically plays an intrinsic role in the cuisines a nation eats – how has this affected Singaporean food and/or its food scene in general?
Naomi Neo: Because of how diverse our history is, we have food inspirations from all over the world, allowing our food culture to stand out. Let’s say you go to Taiwan – you’ll only eat what it’s known for. But in Singapore, it’s very different in the sense that you have amazing Thai, Japanese, Korean and other cuisines. We have such a rich, diverse history, and people from around the world contribute to our local flavours as well as introduce us to their own food, so it really is a food paradise here.
I definitely miss the food here when I travel abroad for an extended period of time. Even when I travel to other countries that serve cuisines other than their local fare, it just doesn’t seem as authentic, and authenticity is very important. I think ingredients play a part as well, so if you’re outside Asia trying to look for Asian food, it won’t be the same.
Which are your 5 favourite places to enjoy good food globally?
Naomi Neo: Thailand, Japan (for ramen) and Australia. In Australia I dined by the beach, so that made it memorable. Due to my biasness towards Asian food, Taiwanese street food is something I love. In Malaysia, I love their street stalls as well. I have this weird theory, like the dirtier the place is, the better the food! Most of the rundown places I’ve been to serve amazing food. Oh, and I love Vietnam as well, especially Hanoi and Ho Chin Minh.
Which latest food trend do we have to try right now?
Naomi Neo: I think desserts are becoming more and more popular, like Korean bingsu. In fact, one of our local YouTubers is in the midst of planning to set up his own dessert place. Back in the day, we would be more than satisfied with local desserts, but these days a lot of desserts are inspired by food trends abroad like Japan and Korea, especially over the last two years. So I would say having dessert now after a meal is almost a must!
What is the oddest food you’ve eaten?
Naomi Neo: I don’t think this food item is odd because it’s common and everywhere, but I just don’t like it personally – Vietnamese spring rolls. I really hate it! It’s something that comes to my mind when someone asks me what’s the one food that I hate. It’s full of raw vegetables, and I just cannot take it! I never touched it again, since I took my first bite, which I think was 6 years ago.
What was the funniest / most surprising / best / most gruesome dining experience you have had so far?
Naomi Neo: I was really young so I can’t remember if it was in Singapore or Malaysia, but I dined at this place, and it was horrendous because it was filled with rats! It was so bad that within a few metres of the table, there were rats running around. I was really, really young, but it left such an impression on me. That’s why hygiene in a restaurant is so important! It was just horrible; I felt like vomiting. I didn’t eat the entire time, I was staring at the rats the whole time and in shock. But surprisingly, the place had a lot of people patronising the restaurant, so I don’t know how that’s possible. (I reminded her about her previous comment about how she felt the dirtier the place, the better the food) Oh, that’s a really bad analogy of my theory!
Which traits and characteristics of service, based on your own experiences, matter most when it comes to dining out?
Naomi Neo: When you dine in countries that aren’t that built up, or the place is rundown, it would really help to make the place more inviting and keep the dining area clean and fresh. I can deal with poor furnishing or bad lighting, but I don’t think I could put up with foul odours or dirty/wet floors.
Complete the sentence: On Saturdays, I am most likely to…
Naomi Neo: Go out and have a good meal. On weekdays I’m mostly at home working, so weekends are when I go out and indulge in a good cheat meal.
What is your biggest dream for the future, and how are you hoping to achieve it?
Naomi Neo: Hopefully by this year I’ll be able to focus more on branding and start up my own line of products, like a cosmetic line or something that I’ll be proud of having my name on. Something that I’ve been wanting to do for years is actually to have a line of notebooks for teenagers. On each page there would an inspirational line written by me. This has been a dream that I’ve had for quite a long time. In recent years, fewer people are into reading and writing, and I feel it’s something very important in life. So I hope to encourage people to write, and motivate them to express themselves.
With this notebook project, I hope to have teenagers talk about their issues and insecurities and I guess that’s what people follow me for. So hopefully in the next one year, I’ll be able to make that happen. If I can use my platform to help others and make a difference in other people’s lives, why not?
Finally, share with our readers one of your most favourite eating places in Singapore, and why.
Naomi Neo: It would be Orchard Towers for Thai food. It’s on the third floor, and right beside the lift. They only open in the evening, and I brought many of my friends there and they were never disappointed.
All images credited to naomineo.com
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Wani’s writing has always spoken on her behalf far more than the spoken word. Her emotional relationship with food is almost as intense as her crazy love for HIIT workouts. Having written all things lifestyle, Wani now embarks on her freelance journey, journalling her epicurean trails and sweaty gym sessions with relentless fervor.