When hot oil exploded in her face, 23-year-old Charlene Chew hit the floor, disoriented and in searing pain.
“I didn’t understand what was going on. I was just screaming and screaming,” Chew tells Vogue Singapore. At the height of the pandemic-induced lockdown in October 2020, Charlene and her then-partner were deep frying donuts in their Melbourne apartment. What began as an innocent activity has resulted in a long journey of healing, from epidermis right down to the deepest layers of her soul.
“He was the one who forgot to turn the stove off. Not that I blame him or anything,” Chew emphasises. “But the oil was left to boil for about an hour or so.”
As plumes of smoke filled the house, Charlene panicked and dumped the pan of hot oil in the sink, running water over it. “It just exploded into my face, I was still conscious. I don’t know how to describe the pain, but it was very traumatising and confusing.”
While waiting for an ambulance, Charlene ran to the mirror in her bathroom and in a daze, realised that her self-described ‘brown marks’ on her face weren’t patches of make-up, but rather burnt areas of skin. “The ambulance came, and my eye was shut from being so swollen. I just remember my eye was drooping” she recalls. “When I was in the ambulance, I kept asking the paramedics I was, ‘Am I gonna look like this forever? Please, please, please tell me.”
The questions haven’t stopped since. Two major surgeries and multiple skin grafts both from a donor and her own scalp later, Chew reflects that one thing burns survivors need to get used to is the uncertainty. “I would speak to all the surgeons and beg them for answers.”
“It’s not just surgeons who are involved. Its occupational therapists, speech pathologists, the orthodontists—the whole shebang. And every time I would ask them, ‘what’s going on with my face? Why is my skin like this?” Fraught that she may never be able to enjoy water sports or go outdoors again, Chew pressed on: “‘When can I go in the sun again? When can I wear make-up? When can I get discharged? Tell me please!’” Her questions were answered with more variables, with Chew being told “it depends on your body, it depends on your burn. It depends on your genetics, your lifestyle.”
“At one point, I was so mad. I remember sitting with the speech paths and the doctors, and I got really angry. I felt like I was going to explode and wanted to throw something across the room. And then I just started to cry.”
For any burn survivor, the burns are just the beginning of the story. The long road ahead involves skin grafts, laser surgeries and steroid injections, graft reversal, rehabilitation and more. “When scars heal, they contract. My skin is really tight and it limits my mobility.”
As part of her rehabilitation, orthodontists captured an acrylic mold of Chew’s face to sit atop compression garments and silicone gel sheets to help flatten topical scars.
“A lot of burn survivors actually have to learn to walk or learn how to eat all over again. If you have skin grafts on your knee or if you get a body part amputated from burns, for instance, you’re going to have to learn how to do many everyday things all over again because of scar contractures” Chew explains. “That’s why there’s so many doctors involved.”
Facing a new reality
Amidst the pain, the unknowing and uncomfortable compression garments holding her new reality and identity together, Chew turned to meditation and journaling as a means of coping. Alone in the hospital ward with her Singaporean family unable to travel to Australia due to COVID measures, and in “so much grief”, she began processing her recovery. Spirituality for Charlene means “reconnecting with my self and like my body and doing inner shadow and trauma work. A holistic health perspective. I had episodes where I would go completely ballistic, yelling and crying. But at the same time, you know what, I feel like there’s a higher self guiding me all the time. I would say that friends are important too, because I would just cry really badly and they would all sit there, hold space for my emotions and listen to me. They reassured me that I would not walk this long journey alone.”
At her core, Chew’s compassion for others remains unchanged, which is how her advocacy work for burn victims began. “I’m still the same person. I like to help people. As with everyone, I relied a lot on my external environment and looks to gain validation, or permission for things I wanted to do. Now, I think that I’m more mindful about these things, I’m able to be more self-aware.
There’s that little voice. It’s like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ If I have a thought or a story that I’m continuously telling myself, like ‘what makes you think that you’re worthy’, I’ll question where it comes from. I asked myself ‘what does beauty really mean to me now that I look different?’
That’s not to say she was entirely zen about the scars on her face after multiple grafts and procedures. Was she worried? “All the time. I’m not 100 per cent happy with myself. I still care a lot about the way that I look. How people think that I’m gross. If they look at me, sometimes I still get a bit worried about that,” she shares, negotiating with her new identity.
Self-care as a survivor
While Chew’s beauty and self-care routines are pared down these days, she still revels in the thrill of beauty and has chosen to emerge stronger. “I threw out all of my make-up and hair products after I was told that I would not be able to use them for a long time” and told herself that “the next time that when I buy make-up again, it’s going to be for me, it’s not going to be for anyone else. I used to put on makeup and be like, ‘Please pay attention because I look so pretty now.’ But then I told myself: ‘the next time you wear make-up, you’re going to feel empowered. This is for you. You do whatever eye shadow you want, girl; dress however the hell you want.’
“I think that beauty is also the way that you treat other people, and the way that you treat and speak to yourself. How connected are you to your body? How do you actually take time to like, feel your emotions and assess your inner world.
These days, self-care for her looks like showing up for rehabilitation and physical therapy. Healing after all, is hard work. “Being very diligent with wearing my compression garments and skincare. Is it very uncomfortable? Yeah, I don’t like it, physically and mentally.”
She also credits gym workouts as a lifeline for her physical and psychological recovery. “Fitness is what got me through my accident as well. Once I was discharged, I went straight back to the gym to start lifting weights again. I love calisthenics and bodyweight work. I would actually go to the gym, hide in a corner cry and when I thought I was done crying, go do the workout. And then go home and cry.”
Having been forged by the life-altering experience, Chew has never been stronger. “I’ve built a lot more self-trust. I listen to my intuition more, I take the time to actually sit down. Although it’s so uncomfortable, listen to what you think. Listen to what your body has to tell you.”
Like fire, representing the dualities of both destruction and refinement, Charlene continues to not only reveal her scars, but also her healing too.
Photography: Stuart Chen
Beauty director: Alli Sim
Make-up: Airin Lee
Hair: Junie Tan
Art director: Henry Thomas Lloyd
Beauty editor: Dana Koh
Photography assistant: Darren Chan
Styling assistant: Rachel Ho
For more stories like this, subscribe to Vogue Singapore