It’s not that happy people lead happy lives. They just chose to be happy.
Such is the life of 47-year-old Indie Lee. In 2008, Lee realised that her vision was blurring and decided to pop by the doctors for a check. At the hospital, the doctor ran some tests and an MRI scan on Lee before she packed up and left the hospital.
“That was November 4th, 2008,” Lee recalls vividly. “I got home 45 minutes later, the phone rang. And my doctor asked me to come in.” Lee asked the doctor what was going on. “You have a brain tumour,” the doctor broke the news to her over the phone.
Lee didn’t call or tell anyone. She got into her car alone and started driving. “So I’m from New York, and it was a beautiful fall day — gorgeous foliage,” Lee recounts that emotional afternoon. “As I was driving, I realised this was happening for a reason.”
Throughout the 15-minute drive, Lee was taking stock of her life. It seemed like she had it all — children, a home, career, and a car. Yet, deep down, Lee knew there was something missing. “I forgot what it meant to live and be fully present,” says Lee. She was like, perhaps, most of us — chasing careers, dreams, and all the materialistic goals in life that don’t actually matter.
There and then, she decided to get rid of this tumour and relive her life. “I am going to figure this out and I’m never going to take another day for granted.”
However, when she arrived at the hospital, she found out that the brain tumour growing fast. It was non-cancerous, but it was located at a difficult spot at the front of her brain, near the eyes, behind her pituitary gland — otherwise where the “third eye” is. Lee was advised to not take on what would be a high-risk brain surgery and was given six months to live.
Lee didn’t accept that.
“I asked one of my doctors how was this happening,” Lee recalls. “No one in my family has this.” The doctor told Lee that the medical community is witnessing more of such cases — and they are linked to the environment.
That perturbed Lee, “Environment? I eat organic. I have a greenhouse right in my backyard! What are you talking about?”
The doctor replied, “What do you put on your skin?”
Lee had no answers — she had no idea which ingredients she was piling on her skin. She didn’t know that many of the ingredients and chemicals in skincare and cosmetic products were toxic to the body. She wasn’t aware that the skin — the largest organ of the body — was actively drinking in these toxic chemicals day on day.
“Some scientists are saying 60 or even 70 percent of what you’re putting on your body can be absorbed into your bloodstream. And in some cases, in less than 26 seconds,” says Lee.
It wasn’t a definite cause. It was a possibility. And it was enough for Indie Lee.
Whether she was angered by her own ignorance or at the beauty industry’s lack of transparency and clean skincare products, Lee went back home, opened up her beauty drawers, took a bin bag and trashed all her products. She bought natural botanical products like avocado kernel, lavender, and jojoba oils to concoct her own skincare products and found herself a surgeon who was willing to remove the brain tumour in a major operation through her nose in April 2009, five months after her first diagnosis. It was a risky and long surgery but Lee woke up eventually, her eyes wide open.
“You’re done,” her surgeon came by her hospital bed and told her. “We got everything. Welcome to the rest of your life.”
Lee changed her life. Yet, that wasn’t enough. She was determined to change fellow women’s lives and the beauty industry with a new clean skincare line. She launched her eponymous line, Indie Lee, in 2009.
“I started developing before I even had surgery,” recounts Lee. She was concocting natural formulas from her own kitchen in 2008 and 2009. “The coconut citrus scrub is one of the first products I formulated.” Outside of her own home, she was meeting scientists, therapists, homoeopathic doctors for research, and chemists to develop her own skincare products based on “product and ingredient technology”.
She launched the brand with a slim list of products, including a lavender chamomile body oil which has been dropped from the brand, a coconut citrus face body scrub (S$56), an olive-derived squalane facial oil (S$47) — both of which are soon available at Sephora in Singapore.
Today, Lee’s range boasts up to 20 products spread across several different face and body skin types and concerns — from purifying, clarifying, sensitive, moisturising, exfoliating, acne-prone, repair and renewing, to generic daily skincare. “My gosh,” she exclaims as she lists all the products she has developed in the past decade.
“It’s surreal to think about how my life has changed in the past ten years… I’m tired,” she admits before she starts laughing. “But I think that’s okay!”
In 2009, exactly ten years ago, she sold all of her jewellery to raise funds to start her own skincare brand after she recovered from the surgery. “Ten years later, I’m sitting here and I’m launching in Sephora. It doesn’t get much better than that,” says Lee as we spoke in a private interview in Sephora Singapore.
Lee pulled a long silence and, for a very brief moment, that characteristic beaming smile of hers vanished from her face. Lee stared at the ceiling, in search of words. “I have never looked back. I have never taken a day for granted,” she says carefully. “Every person who has come to me, I’ve listened to and focussed on… I’m not going to let one minute of that slip by and take it for granted. It’s not going to happen.”
“I think the difference is, I’m grateful for a bad day,” she continues. “When you come from that place, you realise that a bad day is just a bad day. And I think you don’t know what happiness is unless you experience the opposite.”
Happiness is a choice. Yet, more importantly, living is a choice as well — although, for some struggling with diagnosis and illnesses, this is a difficult decision to make every single morning.
If you’re one of them, Indie Lee has a word or two: “Direct message me on Instagram. You’re not alone.” And Lee means it. ”You can choose joy even at the darkest moments. It takes some courage, but you have that power.”