Since Deborah Henry was in her adolescence, there has always been a gravitational pull towards doing something for humanity. Even though her life would lead her towards modelling and eventually, beauty pageants, when she was crowned Miss Malaysia World in 2007 and Miss Universe Malaysia in 2011, at the back of her head, she was always looking for opportunities to see how she could utilise any platform she was involved in to try to help other people.
“I was hosting an in-house documentary for UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], when for the first time, I met with other refugees face-to-face,” she recalls. “I mean, you read about it in newspapers, and you hear stories about them, but I think the direct human contact made me realise that I can’t just walk away from this. I can’t just give them a little bit of money, hoping they’ll have a great life because of that – it just felt so wrong.”
You could say that the establishment of Fugee School Malaysia in 2009, is the climax to the beauty queen’s studies in political science and economics at University of Queensland in Australia, as well as the countless voluntary projects she has volunteered in. Together with co-founder Shikeen Halibullah, and in partnership with UNHCR, Fugee School aims to provide education opportunities for refugee children and asylum seekers in an environment free from discrimination and exclusion.
“In a world that has so much to offer, why are there still people lacking them? In a country so blessed with so much, while I had the opportunity to go school, there are kids that cannot read and write at the age of 10,” Deborah says. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the human will to do something.”
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HOW DO YOU THINK BEING IN BEAUTY PAGEANTS HAVE HELPED YOU IN ACHIEVING THIS LIFELONG AMBITION OF YOURS IN HELPING THE UNDERPRIVILEGED?
It’s been a wonderful platform for me; I would be lying if I were to say otherwise. It’s up to you to really utilise it in a smart way. Winning the pageant is like someone giving you a blank canvas and paint; what you paint on it is the story you want to tell, which can be as big or as small as you want.
I’ve had talks with girls who aspire to become beauty queens, and they always say things like: “If I win, I’m going to do so on and so forth.” My question to them is: what happens if you don’t win? Are you still going to do what you want to do if you win? I think that’s a defining thing for anyone. If you’re really passionate about something, you should do it whether you win or not.
WOULD YOU SAY THAT BEING A WOMAN, ESPECIALLY ONE FROM BEAUTY PAGEANTS, HAS AFFECTED YOU IN ANY WAY WHEN IT COMES TO STARTING AND SUSTAINING SOMETHING ON YOUR OWN?
There are people that have questioned how real this is, and how far I will go with it. But you know, Fugee is over 10 years old now, and people have seen that it’s not some sort of a fleeting PR stunt. While not everyone does the same things to help out – some people give their money, some their time, and some their other resources, but personally, I’m a big champion of going down to the ground level and meeting the beneficiaries, to understand them and learn about their lives, empathise with them and eventually, help me do my job better for them.
That’s how you run any business nowadays. For a lot of forward thinking companies, it’s not just sitting in your fancy office with zero connections with the customers. You have to meet the people you’re working with. That’s something I believe in strongly, and I do them not to prove wrong what other people think or feel about me.
WHAT KIND OF LONG TERM IMPACT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE TRANSLATED AMONG THE GENERAL WOMENFOLK OUT THERE?
When I was in my early 20s, I went through a phase when I thought I needed to be a certain way for people to take me seriously. It was during a time I’m sure a lot of us have gone through: we may not be sure of who we are and what we value most, and we lose ourselves because of that. We end up adopting trades that we think we need to have to exist in certain spaces.
I love the word “grace”; it’s soft, yet strong. Being gracious to someone doesn’t mean you’re weak. For women in general, to embrace your femininity or your feminine grace, you don’t need to lose yourself to become someone else in order to get ahead in life. You can just be yourself. It’s important for women to be confident and self-secure, to own up to the trades and qualities that makes up who we are. If it doesn’t work for some people, then it doesn’t; we don’t need to be someone we’re not.
Photography by Nadirah Zakariya
Art direction by Joyce Lim
Assisted by Sofiyan Isaac
Makeup by Joey Yap
Hair by Angeline Low
Location by Four Points by Sheraton Kuala Lumpur, Chinatown
This article was first published in the August Man Malaysia March 2020 print issue