Karen Seah, the founder and executive producer of Refinery Media, is obsessed with entertainment, particularly reality television. She is the brain behind some of Asia’s most popular shows including Asia’s Next Top Model Cycles 5 and 6, Cesar’s Recruit Asia Season 3, Asian Dream and Street to Kitchen.
Karen is also passionate about being a woman in the entertainment industry working in television production.
“I feel really privileged to be one of the few producers in Asia who are able to broaden the realm of reality television. The versatility of my job is what excites me the most, my role differs on a day to day basis and I get to meet more people with a refreshing perspective,” says Karen.
“It is also nice to be working with a growing number of women in the television industry, who share the same passion and enthusiasm for the craft.”
While the passion remains, Karen says that it hasn’t always been easy and she has actually second-guessed herself, even if it was only once.
“When I first set out to be an executive producer, I was filled with doubt but only once did I come pretty close to quitting,” she explains.
“We were shooting in Hong Kong and their production culture was something I hadn’t been previously exposed to, and varied significantly from how we had been doing things in Singapore. Initially, we set out to find a balance between the two teams but it was discouraging and frustrating when we couldn’t reach any middle grounds.
“It very quickly dawned on me that I had to either follow their ways or risk a cancelled schedule. Emotions were at its peak and to make matters more challenging, we were shooting the opening title at a Pig Farm with heavy downpour that posed even more challenges to our schedule.
“I felt that the odds were just stacked against us with one thing after another and we ended up shooting close to 20 hours that day. When we packed up, I went back to my hotel in a daze and felt exhausted and defeated like never before and I thought about quitting which was hard to come to terms with.
“I washed off the odour of the farm and went to sleep rethinking my purpose and anchoring myself to the present. When I woke up, I felt a renewed sense of responsibility towards my dreams which translated to enthusiasm to start the day afresh. Since then, I’ve believed in focusing on the present tasks on hand instead of dwelling on past setbacks and obstacles.”
A catalyst for fulfilling dreams
Overcoming that setback, Karen powered on to become one of the top producers in the region, something she is justifiably proud of.
“I feel truly accomplished when I have changed someone else’s life by doing what I do. Often, I am reminded that I am a catalyst for other young girls to fulfil their dreams and it gives me great pleasure to be a part of their success stories,” she says.
“Many participants on our shows have been able to pursue modelling, acting, hosting and other opportunities due to the exposure that they’ve gotten through our shows.
“This was important to me because I value dreams and appreciate opportunities that help me fulfil mine. I relish the responsibility that comes with being an Executive Producer but I cherish our Refinery community even more.
“Each person that I’ve worked with has shaped me into the person that I am today and it feels good to know that I was able to positively contribute to their passions too,” says Karen.
While there are certainly positive experiences in the industry, Karen is aware that certain of her shows need to be handled with care at times, particularly when it comes to sensitive issues.
When asked about her thoughts about issues surrounding the focus on bodily beauty in programmes like Next Top Model, she admits to needing to be more sensitive: “I think there is now a greater appreciation and sensitivity to different body shapes and types amongst the audiences,” she says.
“Programmes need to highlight that for greater representation and inclusion. Reality TV is often a reflection of society and the audience also consists of young, perceptible teens who should be taught that there are different definitions of beauty. Shows should not discourage young women from pursuing their dream career but instead, reflect that beauty is not just skin deep and that brains and brawn could work in their favour too.
“Whenever we brainstorm concepts and formats, we make it a point to find participants who have more to offer than just runway looks. We believe that shows should promote health consciousness, not body consciousness or dysmorphia.
“Women should be inspired and empowered to achieve greater things by adopting healthy and conscious lifestyles instead of being looked down upon because they don’t fit a stereotypical build,” Karen says.
Advice from the top
Karen has some great advice for young women interested in working in entertainment production, and the skills they might need.
“Have a path but be flexible and don’t let the unforeseen challenges throw you off balance. Production is a very abstract concept with many tiny intricacies that will hone different skills. As no two days in production are the same, I think it is important to truly grasp the operations aspect as well as creativity.
“The job also entails learning something new everyday and my advice would be to just keep seeking opportunities to learn without any inhibitions. And most importantly, be patient with yourself as success doesn’t come overnight.
“There’ll be tears, there’ll be laughter and the growth is not always linear but just keep at it and strive for constant improvement, not perfection.”
Refinery Media’s next programme will be on Netflix, ‘The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition Season 1 (Reality competition)’, go to https://www.onefc.com/theapprentice for more information.
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