Lee Lin’s double life
Lee Lin Chin’s rise from SBS newsreader to queen of satire
By October 2015
It’s often said you should never meet your heroes, as they’ll invariably disappoint. Occasionally, though, you meet someone famous who doesn’t so much disappoint as disorientate, leaving you unsure as to whether you’ve actually just met them or a counterfeit version from another dimension.
On the day I meet Lee Lin Chin – SBS newsreader for more than 20 years and Australian fashion icon – she’s in Sydney in a Surry Hills apartment block, her hands around a woman’s throat. When Chin sees I’m watching, she breaks into a maniacal grin, the eerie effect amplified by her all-white wardrobe, hollowed-out kohl eyes and ghoulish foundation that makes her look dead. Glamorous, but dead.
“Annnnnd cut,” calls writer-director Chris Leben. “A little bit more evil this time, Lee Lin,” he suggests. Chin nods dutifully.
They are filming the latest instalment in a series of savage and surreal comedy sketches for SBS 2’s youth current-affairs show The Feed, in which Chin stars as a contemptuous, man-crazy, beer-swilling – often murderous – version of herself.
Nick Hayden, The Feed’s executive producer, came up with the idea of recruiting Chin for regular comedy spots at the end of 2013. “I thought she was going to say ‘No way’, ‘That sounds ridiculous’ and ‘Why would I ever want to be involved in that?’” Hayden says. “But from the get-go, she was happy to play.”
Initially, the sketches involved Chin presenting a fake entertainment segment called ‘Celebrity Chin-Wag’. The premise was that SBS had forced Chin into a new degrading presenter’s role out of contractual obligation, or as Chin notes in the sketch, “a person of some 20 years’ journalistic experience … and look where it’s got me”.
‘Celebrity Chin-Wag’ took off, especially on YouTube, and as Chin became more confident acting out this sociopathic cartoon double, Leben and writer-director Nick McDougall started scripting even more outlandish scenarios for her, including co-starring with Channel Ten’s Sandra Sully and Channel Seven’s Natalie Barr in a Real Housewives parody, and breaking into the kitchen of celebrity cook Maggie Beer.
On a break from today’s shooting, Chin saunters over with a beer, cadaver-white make-up still slathered on. Fiercely private, Chin rarely grants interviews and dryly remarks she’ll only talk to me if everything is off the record. (She’s only joking, and later okays the story through the SBS publicity department.)
Why is she so happy to take the piss out of herself?
“I do enjoy it,” she says. “It’s not something I imagined I’d be doing, say, two years ago, [or that] I was aware was within me. I’m grateful.”
The sketches are only half of The Feed’s Operation Lee Lin Chin. The other is the official Twitter account that bears her name and is written in her Feed character’s voice. It has amassed more than 42,000 followers on the back of such tweets as “There’s no point in acting your age. If I did I wouldn’t be at the pub right now with two 25 year old models” and “I’m going to the Logies for the first time tonight, which one of the @HomeandAwayTV boys is most likely to put out?”
Or, at the height of the Bronwyn Bishop expenses scandal: “Seems like parliament needs a new fashionable lady. Guess my time has come #LeeLinforSpeaker”.
In real life, Chin doesn’t even have a mobile phone (“I see it no less than the potential destroyer of human civilisation,” she tells me) let alone use Twitter. Instead, Leben manages the account and composes most of the tweets – some of which are based on things Chin has told him. He says Chin approves everything he writes. Later, when I ask her to confirm this, she widens her eyes at him.
“I do not,” she says.
“You do!” Leben says, mortified.
“No. I have never seen one single—”
Chin thinks, then shakes her head. “No.”
“Oh dear god …”
Chin turns to me conspiratorially and raises an eyebrow. “He’s going to get us both sacked. Watch for the headlines.”
Hayden later clarifies that while Chin might not approve each tweet, the parody account has her approval. “None of it works unless Lee Lin is complicit,” says Hayden, who himself runs a parody Twitter account of ABC journalist Tony Jones in his spare time.
What makes @LeeLinChinSBS even more discombobulating is its blue tick of authenticity from Twitter (something Hayden lobbied for). In the early days, even SBS managing director Michael Ebeid needed reassurance that the tweets weren’t coming from Chin herself. As Leben is often in close proximity to Chin, he can upload photos of her to the account live from events like the Logies.
Leben recalls how Channel Nine’s Karl Stefanovic once tweeted @LeeLinChinSBS about how much he loved her and wanted to do something together at the Logies.
“And you said …?” Chin asks Leben.
“I said, ‘I’ll put my people in touch with your people.’”
Chin raises an eyebrow and turns to me.
“You see, I have no idea about this,” she says. “Karl could be going around holding a grudge—”
“Karl loves you!” Leben interrupts. Then he pauses. “Do you know who Karl is?”
Chin thinks. “Vaguely.”
“We acted with him!” Leben says, appalled. “He acted with us!”
“I know, but that was a cast of thousands,” Chin says. “Is he the tall man?”
The sketch they’re referring to is 2014’s ‘Broadcast Battleground’, which featured a cavalcade of Australian newsreaders and journalists (including Juanita Phillips, Sandra Sully, Lisa Wilkinson, David Marr and, yes, Karl Stefanovic) meeting Chin in an abandoned warehouse for a death match. (If you’ve ever wanted to see what Annabel Crabb looks like feasting on the blood of the conquered, it’s all on YouTube.) ‘Broadcast Battleground’ is the series’ most successful video so far, with more than 250,000 views.
Hayden notes, “newsreaders are all perceived to be a little bit stiff – and serious, because they’re reporting on serious stuff”, which only made the idiocy of ‘Broadcast Battleground’ even more irresistible. This loosening of collars appears to be contagious. ABC presenter Leigh Sales can be heard singing show tunes on her podcast, Annabel Crabb deftly combines politics with baking on Kitchen Cabinet, and Jennifer Byrne has been spotted performing erotic fan fiction about Paul Keating and Germaine Greer.
Still, Chin has an inimitable quality that draws people in. Even before ‘Celebrity Chin-Wag’ and ‘Broadcast Battleground’, she already had a cult following on social media. A Facebook page for ‘Lee Lin Chin’s Asymmetrical Outfits’ has more than 33,000 fans, and a blooper video of Chin eyeing off a British reporter mid-segment and absent-mindedly remarking “Who is that handsome—” has racked up 120,000 YouTube views.
Even so, Chin’s ever-growing fan base is something she feels ambivalent about, if not outright hostile. First and foremost, she’s still a newsreader and journalist obsessed by world affairs. She is an avowed lover of the works of William Faulkner. She could talk all day about radical left politics in Greece, and bemoans the fact some people who ask for her photo don’t know who Alexis Tsipras is.
“With all this obsession with selfies, it’s gotten to a point where I’m almost too frightened to go out,” she adds. “Most people have no manners. They just come up to me, without so much as a hello, and the first words are ‘Can we have a photo?’ I have been known to say, ‘Why?’ They have no answer to that.”
Depending on her mood, though, she sometimes just plays with them.
“Why do you want a photo?” she asked two young men in Hong Kong.
“But you are Lee Lin Chin?”
“No, not really,” Chin said mysteriously. “Have you heard of the concept of the doppelganger? We all have a double in this world.”
Chin scoffs at the recollection now.
“They went away literally scratching their heads,” she says. Then she laughs with what I suspect is mild but genuine evil, blurring the line between the make-believe and real-life Lee Lin Chin.