Karen Mok is quite possibly the most famous person you’d walk past in the street. Unless you’ve spent any significant time in China, that is, where walking past Mok would be like walking past Beyoncé: a stadium-level pop megastar, one of the highest-paid actresses in the world, a reality TV show judge, a fashion designer, a record label boss... you name it in showbiz and Mok has done it. Born with the slightly less glamorous name of Karen Morris, she may be China’s leading lady but her roots stretch all the way back to Wales, where her paternal grandfather was born. But if you want to catch her pop show in the UK, you’re running out of time; her September dates at London’s Palladium will be her last.
It’s hard to square the friendly, guarded woman I meet in a west London hotel room with the huge, untouchable star that she is in China. Mok plays to sold-out stadia, her dedicated fans travel with gifts and wait hours to meet her, weep at the ballads, belt out every word of her shows “turning the whole thing into a huge karaoke”.
You have to remind yourself that the woman sitting across from you is worth (approximately) $215 million. When I casually compliment her trainers, she smiles and thanks me – “They’re mine,” she says, reaching down to stroke the velvet edging. And on closer inspection you can see, on the tongue, a little cat picked out in diamantes, its ears made from an ‘M’, its face an ‘O’ and its legs a sideways ‘K’.
But H&M collab this is not: in 2019 she partnered with Replay for a range of athleisure-wear sold exclusively at Harvey Nichols –Karen Mok is a high value name. It’s also one with a fondness for wordplay; her record label is called Mok-A-Bye-Baby, her 20th anniversary tour and greatest hits record were called The Age of MOKnificence.
You don’t make it to Mok’s level of stardom (or a staggering 14 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter) without a firm idea of who and what you are. From the age of three, she had her heart set on a career in entertainment, as a child begging her TV producer mum to take her to the studio as a child extra.
Though she came to London to study Italian literature at university, she was always on the lookout for stage auditions in the West End, catching a break when she was invited to join the training group for Miss Saigon. Her first albums were released in her native Hong Kong in the Nineties, mixing gentle balladry with bubblegum pop and a kind of post-grunge attitude; unafraid to push the envelope for attention.
For example, the cover of 1997’s Cantonese-language Karen Mok In Totality features Mok laid out fully naked on a seedy-looking couch – a controversial move for any woman in 1990s China (a more demure cover showing just her face was also produced for some areas) but one that paid off. Mixing traditional Chinese elements with western mainstream sounds has always been part of her gameplan, and even now, with 25 years of material under her belt, Mok’s shows incorporate everything from the guzheng and traditional Chinese dress to jazz and tango.
“I love to put really contrasting elements together, and juxtapose them because I think that creates something new, something different,” she says now, admitting that, unsurprisingly, whittling more than 20 albums’ worth of wildly different songs into a two hour show can be a “nightmare”.
As her music career was starting to take off, so too was her acting one. There are over 40 films on Mok’s CV – she’s worked with Chinese auteur Wong Kar Wei, enjoyed a fruitful long-term collaboration with Stephen Chow (who she was also romantically involved with for some time) and starred alongside Jackie Chan in Around The World In 80 Days.
In 2019, People With Money magazine named her the highest-paid actress in the world, supposedly pulling in $75m between July 2018 and July 2019. Though she plans to continue acting, the intimate show at the London Palladium next month will be one of the last pop shows she will ever perform. Retiring from music is another bold move from a popstar who could basically release any old rubbish and still make millions off it.
So what do you do after decades of success in the pop game? To the next big frontier, which also happens to take her back to her roots: the theatre. Mok’s big ambition is to bring the campy glitz of the West End to the Chinese market. “That's quite a job because China hasn't really got that West End or Broadway industry – but I think that that's just a matter of time. I mean, it will happen at some point. I'd love to be able to contribute towards that,” she says.
Step one is to write her own musical. “The idea is to create something from scratch so I'm still kind of torn between whether it should be something light hearted, like Mamma Mia, or whether it should be like a huge Shakespearean tragedy.” With Mok’s knack for a ballad, one suspects that the tragedy might come more naturally – but it seems, at this point, impossible for her to fail.