By Rebecca Louie
She's survived suicidal urges, blacklisting in China and a family rift over a Playboy pictorial.
Now, actress Bai Ling faces life's latest challenge: singing Madonna's "Like a Virgin" on reality TV.
"I have never heard that song before - in China, we knew Madonna's name but not her music," says Ling, one of six stars competing on the new VH1 series "But Can They Sing?" Sunday night.
"The melody is very hard, and I asked if I could change it," she adds. "The producer said I have no choice. So -" and she inhales before riffing on the song's opening line - "I'll make it through the wilderness. Somehow I'll make it through."
Luckily, Ling warmed her pipes in "Three Extremes," due out Friday. In the trilogy of Asian horror shorts, she plays a woman who sings after feeding clients beauty-boosting dumplings made from, well, human fetuses. The role won Ling a Best Supporting Actress nod at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards.
"This film is about lost souls," says Ling, 35. "Nature made us the way we are, and it's a perfect fit for the individual. If you start to change that, you lose yourself - the original beauty of your heart."
After three years as a teen in Tibet, performing for the People's Liberation Army of China, Ling felt lost herself. She checked into a mental hospital when she was 17.
"I was ready to commit suicide," she says. "I felt meaningless, scared of life and people. I thought it would be more beautiful to go to another world."
But in time, she found peace and a way "to cherish life." Even when the Chinese government banned her from China - deeming her a traitor for her portrayal of a Chinese lawyer in the 1997 Richard Gere thriller "Red Corner" - she persevered, ultimately gaining a pardon after many meetings and apologies.
Now, Ling lives by the water in California's Marina Del Rey. A new beau, who works in the music industry, has her feeling "madly in love." She's become a red-carpet regular, strutting in outrageous - and often barely there - ensembles, providing rich fodder for the gleeful fashion police.
"We are individuals and have our own spirit, style and journey in life," she says unapologetically."
"Designers make us look beautiful, but I am more wild than that," she adds. "I dress the way I want. No matter how they criticize me, it's from their perspective. And I live from my perspective."
She shared that - and a whole lot more - as Playboy's cover girl last June. To date, her parents, who live in Asia, have not acknowledged her choice. They avoid the topic during phone calls, and once even hung up on her when she tried to discuss it.
"They probably think I am going insane," says Ling. "But the human body needs to be celebrated. It's nothing bad to be embarrassed about."
"Bai Ling is smart and artistic and has nerves of steel," says Christopher Napolitano, editorial director of Playboy. "She's not out of a mythical China - she's a real, strong, contemporary woman."