Grace Quek learned how to code in a strip club. It was 2000: six years after she entered the adult film industry, five years after she starred in a notorious flick that skyrocketed her to infamy, and two years after she graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Southern California (USC).
“Looking back, that was my best hourly rate ever,” Quek told VICE over Zoom recently. “I never got $800 an hour to write code ever again.”
The client went away, and Quek moved on to a stint at the notorious San Francisco gentlemen’s club and Market Street institution, the Crazy Horse. She sat in the back between dances, tooling around with the club website’s code. She was updating it, making it better, with a dawning awareness that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
That would mean leaving her old life behind, and with it, her alter ego Annabel Chong. Under this screen name, she has been called “Singapore’s most notorious citizen,” used as an expletive in the most recent Crazy Rich Asians book (“Holy Annabel Chong!”) and is, for some, a symbol of the country the way the Merlion is. But for anybody who wasn’t an avid porn consumer in the mid-to-late 90s, the name may not ring a bell.
In January 1995, a 22-year-old Quek, using the name Annabel Chong starred in an adult film called World’s Biggest Gang Bang. Over the course of 10 hours, she had sex with about 70 men a total of 251 times.
It set a world record (defeated the next year) and became one of the best-selling adult films of that decade. The story went mainstream and was reported internationally, splashed across much of the burgeoning internet. As Annabel Chong, Quek went on Jerry Springer, where he demanded she explain herself, and Esquire granted her a 1995 ‘Dubious Achievement Award’ (“Talk About A Sore Winner,” the headline read). There was a documentary in 1999, a play in 2007, and a 2008 novel by Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote sweatily about a fictional porn star trying to surpass Chong’s record for 200 pages.
“You have to admit … that for a tiny country eternally obsessed with punching above its weight, Annabel put Singapore on the world map in a big way,” a former classmate of Quek’s wrote in Singapore’s biggest newspaper in 2005, asking if she could be considered “a national hero” for her feat. In response to this article, more than a dozen strongly-worded letters were sent to the paper, comparing Annabel Chong to everything from an “ex-convict” to “Adolf Hitler.”
Her controversiality may have stemmed from the fact that Annabel Chong was a liberated and uncensored figure from a nation that was supposed to be anything but. Maybe more than that, her story was that of a golden girl fallen from grace — an extremely gifted student, a product of Singapore’s strict value system who went off to college and was corrupted by the allure of pornography. That was the gossamer myth overlaid on Quek’s real life. She did attend Hwa Chong and Raffles, two of Singapore’s top schools, and scored well enough to start studying law at King’s College, before realizing it wasn’t what she wanted. She dropped out and enrolled at USC in 1994 to study fine arts and a major called the “Study of Women and Men in Society.”
“I found that the more I talked about who I really was and what sex meant to me, the less I wanted to hide the real me,” she told The New Paper in 1997. Her adult film debut, in More Dirty Debutantes #37, came about after she answered an advertisement in LA Weekly. Before 1994 was over, she was a full-time student who also happened to be a full-fledged porn star. Her college friends watched all her movies.
“They just loved how terrible these films were. It was just so cheesy,” Quek said.
Quek saw her decision to start starring in adult films as more of an exercise in intellectual curiosity than something deliberately provocative. She cobbled together the name Annabel Chong out of references to an Edgar Allan Poe poem and a stoner comedy act from the 1970s. She called the porn world “a playground of the id.” After making World’s Biggest Gang Bang, Jerry Springer brought her on the show and asked, “Why?” She shot back immediately, grinning: “Why not?” The studio audience whooped and cheered. Their reaction grew considerably more muted as she went on, describing the film as a reclamation of female sexuality and a challenge to the notion of women as passive objects.
“I do think that [that explanation] still holds true,” Quek said, “although I feel that I was somewhat naive about how my actions would be perceived, portrayed or interpreted by the media and the general public.”
There was no social media in 1995 with which to explain herself, unfiltered, and Quek learned quickly that the print and film interviews she gave were slashed down to the most salacious details in their final cuts.
“Fair enough. My dad used to be a newspaper editor, so … when I read my own press, I [didn’t] get all bent out of shape.”
But that was why Gough Lewis’ proposal was so intriguing. Lewis, a filmmaker from Canada, had seen her on Jerry Springer in May 1995. He had tracked Quek down by September to ask her if he could make a documentary about her. In their first meeting, they hit it off, sensing a kindred spirit in each other. Quek agreed to the project, thinking a documentary would give her a platform and a voice. She and Lewis also dated for about a year during production. The filmmaker followed her with a camera and a crew for more than two years, from Las Vegas to Cambridge, collecting 120 hours of footage.
Lewis pared what the film crew had captured down to 86 minutes, and they all — Quek included — brought it to 1999’s Sundance Film Festival. There, SEX: The Annabel Chong Story, was the first of the festival’s 200 films to sell out, and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. Just as quickly, however, the documentary came under fire.
Quek said that the film left too many details out. It didn’t mention that she had been in a relationship with Lewis for half of the production. On the day they broke up, the director captured a particularly disturbing sequence of Quek harming herself, but failed to show that he was just off-camera, doing the same thing to himself. This, along with other important details, rapidly emerged during the Q&As and interviews that Quek gave after screenings.
The ending of the documentary was perhaps the most egregious twisting of the truth. It showed Quek returning to Singapore to reveal to her parents her porn career, tearfully promising them that she would make them proud. “One Year Later,” a subsequent chyron declared grimly, “Grace decides to return to the porn industry.” Quek is frustrated by that version of events now, as she was back in 1999.
“I did not ‘return’ to the industry — the documentary maker made up that timeline,” she said. “The ‘return’ scene actually happened before the trip to Singapore, and was very misleading. I did bring up this discrepancy in my past interviews, but very few writers chose to include this fact.”
Cumulatively, however, the fragments of missing context were damning enough for critics to begin calling SEX “vacuous,” “superficial,” and “dishonest.” Quek stuck it out, answering as best she could the glib and cheeky “so-Annabel-did-you-come” questions that journalists felt entitled to ask her. Then she went back to California.
“It was exhausting,” she said.
“The whole film festival circuit was exhausting.”
She lost friends, mainly those from Singapore, as a result of the documentary and the negative attention that was flying her way. A few close friends stuck by her, however, and helped her cope. One friend from USC used to come over to read bad reviews and hateful forum posts in funny voices with her. They would dress in drag — the friend in an orange wig and Quek as her drag king persona, Robert Ziller — Bobzilla.
“So we would just dress up, get some cheap jug wine, and clown around the living room for three hours,” Quek said. “That would be our entertainment for the evening.”
After a while, though, “I stopped Googling myself … because there [were] all these Singaporean discussion boards. Yeah. So vicious. I was like, ‘I don’t even know this person. And they want me to die from AIDS?’ I was upset for two weeks,” Quek laughed — because, 20 years later, she can laugh about it.
Leaving the spotlight
“Being famous quickly wasn’t fun anymore,” Quek said. “It was never all that fun to begin with.”
Her parents — who had been very supportive when their daughter came home with a film crew and told them she had been starring in porn films for the last few years — were getting harassed over the telephone, and Quek said she was “kind of” getting stalked.
After the release of SEX, Quek thought about making another documentary to set the record straight, revenge-of-the-muse style, about the experience of being the subject of a documentary. She and the producers of SEX were already talking about the meta-doc at Sundance, but it never got made.
“I abandoned it simply because I felt I needed to step away entirely from that fame,” she said. “You know, even if I’m trying to address that fame, I’m still caught up in that whole web of being this famous person …. For me to be able to grow as a person, I needed to let it go.”
Quek had also been chafing against the adult film industry, and how much control she had over a project as an actor. She said people also spread rumors about her being a drug addict and producers degraded her to her face.
“Up to this day, I can’t really figure out why [the industry was] so hostile [to me],” she said. “But I was never considered one of them. And maybe it’s my background. I don’t know.”
After Sundance, Quek started dancing at strip clubs in the U.S., which she juggled with her media appearances and personal clients. She also found an avenue of control in porn, producing and directing a few features and private videos. But, “making a porn movie is like herding cats,” she explained, and she was rapidly tiring of the long hours and messy cleanup (literally, in the case of a glitter fetish video she directed). Besides, Annabel Chong, who blithely declared to the camera that she believed that sex was good enough to die for, simply wasn’t Grace Quek — who had just discovered a knack for coding.
“I had seen what fame did to a lot of people, and how stressful it was,” she said.
“I [was] like, ‘I really don’t need this in my life.’ I’d rather be able to do something where people treasured me for my ability, for my brains, rather than the way I looked.”
So she quit dancing, touring, and directing, and signed up for an intense 10-month engineering crash course at Westwood College in 2001.
“I needed a more solid foundation in order to make that transition into becoming an engineer,” she explained, adding a little later that, “it was a huge leap of faith, simply because I had just bought a house with my stripper money.”
In 2020, it was in this same house that Quek spoke to VICE. Her home still had the stripper pole she had installed back in 2000, but she hasn’t used it a whole lot over the last two decades. She’s been busy doing other things.
From porn to tech
At Westwood College’s Mid-Wilshire campus in the early aughts, Quek was a full-time student again. Her software programming course taught her front end, back end, network, and database engineering. She graduated with an associate’s degree and, while she looked for work as a consultant, lived off the earnings that her website pulled in. Every month, people bought her autographed DVDs (including SEX), photographs, personal souvenirs, and a comic book featuring one of her cornier porn personas, the Pink Stiletto. By 2003, though, she was scoring enough work as a web developer that she felt comfortable closing down the website permanently.
“Eventually, I [was] like, well, I can’t have this thing floating around if I want to seriously work as an engineer,” she said. “It’s a liability. So I put the goodbye message up and then I moved on.”
That sudden announcement came in May, and declared that, “Annabel is dead, and is now replaced full time by her Evil Doppelganger, who is incredibly bored with the entire concept of Annabel, and would prefer to do something different for a change.”
That “something different” led her to a full-time job as a software and user interface engineer at a digital consulting agency with an office a five-minute walk from Venice Beach, by 2006. There, Quek spent the next decade as the company’s “resident code queen.” Developing new interfaces and refactoring legacy code for clients all around Los Angeles, Quek sat behind a screen and revelled in the anonymity.
“Nobody needs to know who wrote that code. They just need to know the code works,” Quek said.
However, she was the only member of the team who had their own Wikipedia page — and worried about clients accidentally stumbling across it. To add to that, Quek was often the only woman in the room; it took a decade before she started to see more women around her. She was left to herself to learn the ropes, and the industry’s virulent sexism didn’t help.
“It was basically sink or swim,” she remembered.
That sexism in the tech industry was often distastefully similar to what she’d experienced in the porn industry in the 90s.
“You name it, I’ve seen it,” she said.
Sometimes she’d go onsite to meet with a client, who would only speak to the male junior engineer who had come with her. She said she once consulted at a company with a senior manager who would come into her cubicle every day, without fail. The manager, who was married, would play his guitar, sing songs he’d written for Quek, and recite her Chinese poetry.
“I’m trying to prove my worth. I’m trying to get the respect of the engineers around me,” she remembered.
“It was horrible. And you can hear the rest of the male engineers snickering from their cubes.”
If she’d complained, she, as the consultant, would have been the one out the door.
“I was just told to deal with it, and that didn’t sit well with me,” Quek said. “And I decided, no more working in consultancy. I’m going to be an employee.”
So when her company was bought out in 2015, she moved on to a major media company as a senior frontend engineer for its ticketing platform.
“It probably took around 10 years of working as a consultant for me to have the courage to step out and interview for a new job,” she said. “To just go in there as Grace. ‘I’m Grace, I’m a software engineer, and I want this job.’”
If anybody recognized her at her new job — and a few certainly did, given some of the looks she got — they mostly kept it to themselves. The workplace harassment she experienced and witnessed was industry-wide, however, and didn’t abate with a switch of companies. The tide didn’t really turn until 2016, after the #MeToo movement. The situation, Quek said, still isn’t perfect, but has radically improved since.
She worked at this new company for about five years, until she was laid off in August due to the coronavirus pandemic. She now works as a senior front end developer for a major entertainment company.
Quek has made a habit, since leaving the porn industry, of surrounding herself with good people. Though her father passed away a few years ago, she talks to her mother on the phone every day. She has three cats she dotes on (Scully, Ptero, and Nori) and the friends she’s made over her time as an engineer come over to cook with her and try out her stripper pole.
“I appreciate them a lot. They make me feel safe. They make me feel seen. They make me feel accepted,” she said.
“They see me as myself at this given point in time — irrespective of what happened prior to this, they see me as Grace.”
There was a club that Quek, as Annabel Chong, used to dance at in Hawaii back in the 90s. She remembers it partially because of one particularly strange customer, a man who used to try to discuss Foucault with her when she was giving him a lap dance. She tried to find the club again recently, when she was on vacation in Honolulu, but couldn’t. Some parts of her old life still linger, however; while reorganizing her home a few years back, she pulled out a box of all her old Annabel costumes. The Spice Girl, the Barbie, the Pink Stiletto, the nurse, the cop, the bride. She still fit into most of them.
“I look back upon that period of my life, and I just don’t know where all the energy came from,” Quek said. “I guess I’m getting old. I’m nearly 50, you know, so I probably don’t have that sort of drive anymore. I’m learning the benefits of work-life balance. Because early in my life, it was all work, work, work. Now I do like to have time to do other things, and just spend more time with friends because I’ve realized the value of having these guys in my life.”
On social media, Quek often refers to herself as her own wife. It’s a self-care commitment to herself, to make sure she doesn’t get lost in her work, and to remind herself that she is enough. She isn’t married, though she briefly was in the 90s, after World’s Biggest and before SEX. As a matter of fact, she’s on good terms with all of her exes.
“Boyfriends may come and go, but ex-boyfriends are forever. So you might as well have good ex-boyfriends,” she said, adding later, “I’m a very live-in-the-moment sort of person. I’m with somebody because I like them. I don’t have any sort of agenda where I want to, like, get married, have children, that sort of thing.”
Her agenda, if she has one, lies in her career aspirations. Quek wants to be a software architect, to be a designer, as well as a builder. Maybe, later, she’ll be a teacher, like her parents were. After all, if she can teach her mother to digitize and arrange her church hymns, she can handle a classroom of high schoolers. All these years later, though, she still wonders if the people she encounters know about her past.
“Anybody could just go to Google and type in my real name, and on the right-hand column would be my Wikipedia page,” Quek explained. “If they’re going to find out, they’re going to find out. I can only control what I do. And I’m here to work.”
Nobody can ever make her feel ashamed of her decisions. Quek doesn’t seem like the kind of person to have regrets. But in 2007, after a Singaporean theater company spent six months snapping at her heels to consult on a play based on her life, she shut them down unambiguously. In an email to them through a friend, she wrote: “Do whatever you want to Annabel Chong because this person doesn’t exist anymore. Grace Quek just wants to stay out of this.”
But now she’s ready to speak. Quek has watched the porn industry — and how people write and think about women — shift encouragingly in what she believes is the right direction. Singapore’s changed; it’s not just that she can’t rush down to Tower Records anymore to buy the newest Oasis album when it drops, but that it’s nothing like the country she remembers it to be. When Quek last went back three years ago, to visit her mother, she stayed at the Marina Bay Sands and marvelled at the city’s new skyline.
“It’s been quite a journey, I would say. And it took me some time to be prepared to look back and talk about it,” she explained.
In the years since leaving the world of porn, Quek has walked back her assertion that she — the Evil Doppelganger incarnate — put Annabel Chong in “a shallow grave.” Annabel Chong is her performative self, she said, and there’s still a little bit of her in Grace Quek.
“Sometimes [I] have to give a presentation and I have to just dig deep … to go up there and put on a show. I definitely think that she’s still there. And,” Quek added, grinning, “I think … I still have my Annabel nights.”
Follow AJ McDougall on Twitter.