Michelle Yeoh Has Only One Style Rule: 'You Can't Let the Dress Wear You'

Michelle Yeoh Rollout
Michelle Yeoh Rollout

Yu Tsai

Michelle Yeoh is a winner. This we know, from her legendary film career, her recent Screen Actor's Guild Award win for Best Actress for Everything Everywhere All At Once, and, well, she won Miss Malaysia in 1983. (Her mother entered her in the competition.)

Raised in Malaysia, Yeoh and her brother grew up in the town of Ipoh, known for tin mining. Her father was a lawyer and politician and her mother, a former beauty queen.

"My mom was very young when she had us," she tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, dedicated to Women Changing the World. "One of the reasons why I am here today is really because of my mom — because she is the diva. She is the one who loves the movies."

Michelle Yeoh Rollout
Michelle Yeoh Rollout

Yu Tsai

That connection to her mother helped her develop a passion for the glamour of cinema.

"I grew up watching movies from India, from Europe, from foreign countries like America, and Chinese movies. So I've always seen people like myself on the big screen. The only difference was I never thought I would be on the big screen," she says, smiling. "I never wanted to be an actor. My mother would've made one of the greatest movie stars if she had had the chance. So she laid it on me — which is a good thing!"

Now 60, Yeoh is the busiest she's ever been as an actress (she has Transformers this summer, just wrapped shooting A Haunting in Venice with Tina Fey and Kenneth Branagh, and will be in the upcoming Avatar 3and the big-screen adaptation of Wicked).

She's also been navigating a jam-packed season of events leading up to the Oscars on March 12, for which she's nominated for best actress for Everything Everywhere All at Once. And even casual red carpet watchers know that Yeoh always delivers an ensemble that's equal parts chic and surprising, whether she's suited up for a luncheon or in head-turning black tie.

Michelle Yeoh style story
Michelle Yeoh style story

Getty (4)

"I've learned that fans crave that red carpet moment," she says. "I think that's part and parcel of what we do, is we created this magical movie or world for them, so this is an extension of that. And to be shown these amazing — almost like art — all these amazing designers to start off with, and then all the haute couture."

She's also learned what doesn't work: "At the end of the day, I know who I am. You can't let the dress wear you and you can't be walking around going, 'I'm so uncomfortable. I can't breathe.' And you are expected to sit there for three hours and you're like, 'I'm going to die. And I can't go to the bathroom.'"

"I can go absolutely wild and say, 'Yeah, bring on the crazy!'"

—michelle Yeoh

Yeoh is game to play with fashion, whether it's trying something unexpected (like an Off-White shorts suit) for a tea, or to let stylists at photoshoots dress her in outfits outside of her comfort zone. "I can go absolutely wild and say, 'Yeah, bring on the crazy!' Things that I wouldn't normally wear."

RELATED: Michelle Yeoh Revisits Her Most Iconic Roles, from Bond Girl to 'Crazy Rich Asians' and 'Shang-Chi'

Yeoh also knows that fashion isn't just fun — it's a way to have a dialogue with her fans who support her work, and to keep the conversation going around the film she is so proud of. Fashion is almost a message "to my audience, to the fans who have come out there to cheer for us, for our movies. To the critics, the media who has kept promoting our film and saying to people, 'You have to see this.' Because without them, I wouldn't have this opportunity. I wouldn't be on the red carpet."

She has the discerning eye and style instinct of a fashion editor — or of one of her most famous characters, the impeccably dressed Eleanor Young from Crazy Rich Asians. (You know that jaw-dropping emerald ring that is practically its own character in the movie? That came from Yeoh's personal collection.)

Of her favorite recent looks, she brings up what she wore to the Golden Globes: "The Armani Privé is so Armani, but it's all the hair and the whole thing. And Armani has always been one of my favorites to go to anyway."

She also loves "Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Dior, Chanel, the list continues to grow! And I would love to be able to wear Prabal Gurung, Erdem, Philip Lim more."

A favorite seems to be emerging though: Schiaparelli, which she wore to the SAG Awards and the Palm Springs International Film Festival (above, center).

"They're so out there and it's so flamboyant. You also must think about the event that you're going to. I tend to be a little low-key, so I dare not be The One. And then of course my stylist Jordan [Johnson Chung] will go, 'No, you have to look special. Go out there, so then you know you can wow them.'"

"And I say, 'Okay.'"