Man behind Lee Lin ‘monster’
CHRIS Leben tweeted last week that he was up at 4.30 in the morning working for Lee Lin Chin. He was supposed to be on holiday in Europe, but Chin was busy getting acupuncture. "I made this bed," he typed, from what I can only assume is a ruffled hotel double, while the sun began to rise over Denmark's capital.
Lee Lin Chin is a newsreader who has become a superstar. Her public adoration extends far beyond her role behind the newsdesk. Chin's fan base has grown steadily and can largely be found through her Twitter following, which stands at more than 233,000 followers.
It's through this platform that her reach has grown exponentially. Her tweets are acerbic, aggressive, sexy, often unprofessional and incendiary, and always very funny.
So how did Chin become SBS's provocateur newsreader: a beer swilling, sexualised, foul-mouthed renegade? It's notoriously difficult for newsreaders to establish themselves in dual roles as both respected and giggled at - so how did Chin manage to do it?
It's down to her collaborative working relationship with Chris Leben, who is a comedian, TV writer and director, and Chin's collaborative partner.
"It was all luck and had absolutely nothing to do with me," says Leben, who chatted to news.com.au from his hotel room in Copenhagen. "Nick Hayden, who at the time was the executive producer of (SBS news panel show) The Feed, had just hired me as a writer and told me he'd signed Lee Lin Chin to do a weekly comedy sketch.
"The head writer was out on a shoot so he asked me to do the first one. Miss Chin - or "My Chinderella", as I now know her - and I just bonded over our mutual love of nine-hour-long beer drinking sessions and (our) general disappointment in the world."
Leben hosted a TedxYouth talk at the beginning of 2018 on the topic of "Creating a social media icon", which he begins by saying, "Behind every iconic Asian Australian newsreader is a straight white man desperately grabbing a hold of her coat-tails and claiming credit for all of her success."
This is how he explained the process of building the caricature.
"I went around and asked her colleagues for stories about her, little tidbits of information that I could use to write this character," Leben says.
"And they told me that she was a fashionista, an avid lover of beer and that she regularly went to backpacker hotels to pick up international hotties as she'd depleted Australia's supply.
"That last bit sounds like a joke, but I didn't write that. Someone actually told me that."
Leben used these tidbits to craft a character that he described as an "alcoholic, fashion-obsessed, violent, sexual monster". He attributes the success of the character not to the strength of his own writing, but the nicheness of Chin's appearance on Australian TV.
But despite his heavy involvement, Leben takes little credit for Chin's success, and is quick to assert that his relationship with Chin is wholly collaborative.
It's been reported that Leben writes all Lee Lin Chin's tweets and was the ghostwriter of her 2016 book, Iced Beer and Other Tantalising Tips for Life, but Leben insists these assertions were misreported.
"I don't exactly write her tweets; that story was leaked by a former SBS journalist who didn't actually know what they were talking about," he says.
"The Twitter account is more of a collaboration. Lee Lin doesn't own a mobile phone and can barely use a computer, so I post everything. Some tweets are written by her, some by me and the rest are written together."
The book is a guide-to-life style satire based on Chin's own interests and the character Leben created based on their relationship. "When she got offered the book, the publisher requested I co-write it with her."
Iced Beer includes tips on drinking, children and the housing market. It also recommends putting ice in your beer and, I've got to say, don't knock it till you've tried it.
The satirical book and the satirical character have helped propel Chin to a new level of stardom. Leben puts this down to the originality of the space that Chin and his character occupy in the minds of contemporary Australians.
She remains the only older Asian Australian woman of this ilk who occupied such a space on Australian screens and within the larger Australian media landscape. "Being a straight white man and talking about this stuff is problematic; I am part of the problem," Leben admits. "But diversity is important."
Leben, always funny and relentlessly self-effacing, continues to downplay the role he has played in the growth of Chin's social media success.
"It's not entirely down to me," he insists. "I don't even think it's mainly down to me. It's mainly down to (Chin). I couldn't possibly tell you why it's connected with people. Maybe because Lee Lin is completely unique but also represents all of us in a weird way … I don't know, that's a complete guess."
Chin's resignation last week, which she attributed to "small to medium sized reasons" without offering further insight, attracted large coverage across Australia. She added: "Working two days a week didn't give me enough time to devote to the pub and re-reading the complete works of Shakespeare. So now that I work zero days that issue has been addressed."
So, was Leben aware Chin was planning to resign? "Of course, I was at the pub with her when she drafted her resignation letter. If you go onto her Twitter page, there's a series of photos of her demanding her fans buy her beer. Those were taken just after she sent the letter off."
A tweet went out from Chin's account in the days after her resignation, clarifying her movements: "I have not retired, simply resigned," she wrote. "Retirement is death."
When I asked Leben if he was behind this particular tweet, he insisted, "I didn't write that. She did. It's something she's said to me on multiple occasions, even before she was considering leaving SBS. She hated that people were reporting on her resignation as if she were retiring. Her statements and the statements from SBS never once mentioned the word retirement. So we decided to tweet that."
Now that her final broadcast at SBS is complete, Chin's plans remain bright but nebulous, according to Leben. "I wish I could tell you her plans for the future, but other than go to Singapore to visit her family there's really nothing locked in," her says.
"She's got a couple of her own projects in development and a hell of a lot of offers but who knows what will come from them."
As the former head comedy writer for The Feed, and also a stand-up comedian, writer, biographer, Ted Talker, director, and now Chin's manager, Leben explains that there are no standard days. "I could be rushing through three freelance scripts that I've over-committed to or be getting a call from Lee Lin demanding I meet her at the pub in 15 minutes … even though she knows it takes me 40 minutes to get from my house to her favourite pub," he explains.
Beyond regularly hitting the pub with Chin, the pair also run a production company together called All The Chin's Men. He also runs a monthly comedy night and is developing two separate programs.
Leben also offers a sage piece of advice for any fans of Chin who are lucky enough to meet her. "If you see Lee Lin on the street, say hi, buy her a beer, she'd love to talk to you," he says. "But if you ask for a selfie she'll immediately shut down.
"She hates selfies, and if you ask for one she'll hate you too."