Asha Gill: possibly the most beautiful poster girl for fearless, outspoken and liberated Malaysian women. The Editor grills her during the photo shoot, nonetheless.
Frankly, it is not about looks with her. She’s not concerned about the aesthetics of a person. She’s not shallow like that. This might seem strange for those accustomed to seeing her on Channel [V], Lonely Planet’s Six Degrees and as the Malaysian brand ambassador of TAG Heuer: these being media and industries that are meticulous about physical perfection.
But, truly: she just doesn’t buy into the whole glamour game.
That is the impression one gets within five minutes of meeting her, and it is one that is reinforced time and again by others.
She is down-to-earth and just one big ball of warmth and affection. It is all uncontrived and feels nothing like a well-rehearsed exercise in PR. Instead of an interview, we fall into an easy conversation that feels more like girly chat over coffee. Frank, brash and refreshing: it is all true what you’ve heard about Asha the person.
Do not be fooled into thinking she is all charm and nothing more, because she isn’t. She is all that, and much, much more than some are able to digest.
So who is her poster girl? She mulls over this.
“I think in Malaysia, Ivy Josiah is my poster girl: always has been. She is somebody who kind of woke me up many, may years ago and she still does. What she achieves and how she does it and who she is as a person balancing the kind of work that she does. And I think all the women that work for her,” she continues forcefully, “are poster girls for me but I just don’t know them all. I use [Ivy] as a representation of all women as she does what she does.”
“Internationally speaking: wow.” She thinks some more, while the make-up artist is busy flitting around her. “I’m thinking what (Al) Gore is doing right now with the planet. He’s definitely my poster boy because – and I know people are cynical or skeptical about him doing it – but I have to say, our world is just collapsing. And I think with the environment it is NEVER too late to start a world movement and the fact that he’s trying his best. There are other Americans who are other people’s poster people.”
What she means here is that she does not like Bush, and she makes this clear in a five-minute long vitriolic outburst.
When I play Devil’s advocate and suggest that perhaps it’s too little too late for Gore and company to be brandishing the environment card, she says diplomatically “I don’t rate Gore as a person: I just like the fact that he’s doing something with the environment when people like [insert multinational oil company name here] are spending six hundred million to refute any evidence of global warming.” She fixes me with a stare that would make lesser mortals crumble.
See, I told you: don’t be fooled by the charm. This is her real beauty.
She is also a vociferous animal lover who will not tolerate cruelty to animals. “I don’t have a problem with people eating meat per se, but I do have a problem with people eating tiger, or people eating beluga caviar: what they do to the animals!” She is on a roll, and I don’t want to stop her. “If you want to eat the whole animal, then I say ‘OK’, but this is a waste thing: it’s like, they catch the sturgeon, take out the caviar and throw the carcass back into the ocean. It’s the same thing with sharks and sharks’ fins.”
So naturally she would see herself entering politics, no?
“I wouldn’t be able to get away with saying what I do! People don’t print what I say now, anyway: everyone’s so afraid!”
She then talks at length about the NEP, likens it to apartheid, which enrages her. She bemoans the fact that reality here does not truly reflect the multiracial, multicultural harmony and how we cannot have religious talks, and how getting ahead by merit is important.
So what makes her happy? Let’s get girly for a moment.
“If I’m feeling really glum and lethargic and like, ‘I don’t want to leave my house’, one thing that helps me get myself up, pacified and brought to a calm place is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan [world-renowned Pakistani musician]. I looooove Nusrat,” she gushes unabashedly. “The man is just a genius. I blast his music in my house when I’m having a shower or pottering around. It works like a dream and I come out and I’m like hypnotised and very calm, very positive and very awake.”
I ask her if somebody were to make a movie about her, what would it be like? She brightens. “I love Drew Barrymore. She rocks and I’m not saying this because she looks like me but because I think she’s cool. It’s have to be some kind of a Clumsy Jane movie, I think. I’m so clumsy.”
“God, yes! Oh yes: if there’s something for me to trip over, I’ll do it.”
She delivers this in such a deadpan tone that she has us all rolling with laughter.
She’d love to go back to film, but something a little bit “more meatier.” she qualifies politely.
And what of her personal infatuations?
“I’m infatuated by machinery: I love hardware stores!” She is so excited and physically animated that both hairstylist and make-up artist and trying not to poke her accidentally with their instruments.
“I can be at a hardware store for hours and hours. If I was really rich I think I’d waste my money – not on high-heeled shoes – but drill bits and Black ‘N’ Decker stuff and sawing machines and having my own fully-equipped carpentry workshop. God, I’d love that: to be sitting in there and be able to twiddle and mend and fiddle and just hide from the world – ohhhh! Heaven,” she punctuates with a sigh of pleasure.
So, point to note: she’s handy with sharp instruments so be sure not to piss her off when she’s holding one.
She loves kaftans, has swum with wild dolphins, is genuinely self-deprecating about her own appearance (“I have greasy hair and I dress like a slob!”), and she craves for the day when she can travel for pleasure – not for work – to a deserted island with crystal clear water and drink wine or beers under a coconut palm. She does not tire of telling all and sundry about the episode of Six Degrees, shot in Istanbul, where her mum appeared (it was the first time her mum had seen her filming) which is clearly a happy story for her. She doesn’t seem the tough-cookie 34-year-old at all when she relates this story: more like a little girl in her candy store. It is all so natural, you’d feel bad for thinking otherwise.
Who does she think is beautiful?
“I see beautiful people everyday. I think Audrey Hepburn is beautiful, and what she went on to do afterwards, the humanitarian work. I don’t look at actresses and think, ‘Wow, you’re so beautiful’, ‘cos you know it’s like, camera, make-up, personal trainers.”
She leans forward as if to divulge some personal confidence: “I was in India recently and there was this mature woman and she had these lines around her eyes and her mouth that made her look like all she ever did was smile. She was wearing this beautiful cream sari, and I had to stop her and say, ‘You look absolutely stunning’. Those are the moments that you come across someone stunning.”
The real beauty of Asha is that she is not afraid to say what she means, because she knows people will listen because of who she is. The thing is: she knows only the people that truly matter will never hold it against her. And that is why everyone loves her. She is the real McCoy. Pretenders to the throne need no longer bother.