Multi-faceted talent is in high demand in the region with a preference, it seems, for pan-Asian faces. So, how well can an Italian-American fare on our shores?
Introducing Robert Tonelli – more fondly known as Bobby Tonelli – a runway model, actor and radio deejay.
He is also currently the host for new TV series Celebrity Car Wars.
Having lived in Singapore for nine years, the 40-year-old has had his share of ups and downs.
The Las Vegas-born Tonelli first came to the Lion City in 1997 as a model and stayed on for seven months. He travelled back and forth several times before finding himself back again in 2007, which was when he thought about staying put for a while.
“People thought I was crazy as they weren’t sure why an ang moh (Caucasian) would move to Singapore to do movies and TV series,” he shared humorously.
Adapting to the culture and food was not a problem. It’s a quality he credits his grandparents who had moved to the United States from Italy.
“They had to adapt to the food and culture and that is the lesson I brought with me. My parents taught me that when you go to a friend’s house and they serve food, you eat because it is respectful and the right thing to do. You may even realise you like the food. It was a simple lesson that sticks with me,” he divulged.
Having never left the US prior to his Singapore trips, Tonelli revealed that he was “super American” and was not really exposed to much outside the country.
For his first time in Asia, he moved in with a Muslim family. Tonelli admitted he had no clue about the religion but came with an open mind. Watching, learning and asking many questions, he quickly learnt that it was always better to ask than to assume.
With much to learn still, he looked to friends who shared with him that while he was vocal in communicating grievances, Asians typically communicate without words.
“When I first got here, my humour was very sarcastic and taken as disrespectful. This was something I had to unlearn and re-learn, in order to adapt to the Asian culture.”
About the food, Tonelli’s personal favourites include laksa (but not the cockles), popiah, carrot cake, chicken rice and nasi lemak.
“I only don’t take anything fish head-related although it’s a big Asian thing. Give me a fish fillet anytime. Also, as much as I love chili crab, I don’t understand the work (required) to get so little meat. It’s like slaughtering a cow just for a steak!”
What’s most interesting about Tonelli is his humility.
While it does not immediately come across in conversation, he reveals his gratitude for all the opportunities he has received in Asia.
Stating that he never wants to be treated better than others, he has witnessed many expatriates who move to the continent but refuse to adopt the local culture.
“You see a lot of Asians move to America and Europe and adapt to the Western culture but you don’t see many Americans or Europeans coming here and doing the same. I believe that is just disrespectful to the Asian culture,” he mused.
Where his latest foray is concerned, Tonelli has taken over the wheel for Celebrity Car Wars show. A never-before-seen format of reality TV, it features six celebrities from the region compete in various automative challenges.
For gearheads, Tonelli also reviews exotic cars such as Mercedes AMG55, McLaren, Ferrari California, Corvet 01s, Aston Martin and even a jeepney between challenges.
The celebrity contestants are Allan Wu, Andrea Fonseka, Joey Mead King, KC Montero, Marc Nelson and PK Piyawat Kempetch.
Tonelli joked that celebrities were chosen for the show for the plain fact that “there is this ego thing that comes into play”.
“They are good at what they do but they come with a certain bravado and ‘chip on their shoulder’. So it’s interesting to see them get deconstructed and then reconstructed into a different person on the show,” said Tonelli of his peers.
Some of the challenges include drifting, extreme 4×4 with custom buggies, rally cars on tracks, driving jeepneys as well as blindfolded reverse parking – all of which make for a suspenseful but fun watch.
Being a car guy himself, Tonelli shared that was probably what landed him the job in the first place. While he isn’t the mechanic type, he enjoys driving.
Unfortunately, with car prices in Singapore being expensive, he currently moves around on a motorbike.
Naturally, Tonelli hopes that the show will be a ratings success with more seasons to come. Having shot the first season in the Philippines, he expressed a hope to have a season filmed in Malaysia.
Being a foreigner, he is without pre-conceived notions that success comes easy.
“Long term, the true challenge is people just giving me a chance. There have been times when I’ve almost landed a job but they end up saying they prefer an Asian or pan-Asian.
“I’d rather they just give me a chance and they’ll see that I’m more Asian and adaptable than it seems,” he concluded.
Celebrity Car Wars airs every Monday at 10pm on the History Channel (Astro Ch 555 and HD 575).