I’m thinking of my little sisters. I’ve got two. Actually neither is little. One is 18 and the other is 30. How would I feel if they decided to strip off, get all smokey-eyed on a beach and put those images in a public space? My first impulse is to clench my fists and sock it to the first asshole that says something stupid about moral decay. Secondly, I want to tell you how smart they are. How they can critically dissect everything from sugary rom-coms to complications of gender binaries to contemporary Judeo-Christian cultures. They are fucking brilliant.
The hankering for violence comes from the fact that people are cruel. Needlessly, mindlessly, cruel. I’ve passed repugnant comments myself, towards people I couldn’t relate to, out of sheer ignorance or indifference. So my fears are keenly felt. Secondly, I want the world to know they are so much deeper than a contentious image might suggest. Their minds would warp yours simply by enunciating words accurately, much less their ideas about universal principles of morality and eternal judgment being founded on the gloopy sand that religious apologists stand on. See what I mean?
Speaking with Alicia Amin for the first time… Actually, no. Listening to her speak for the first time, I can tell you while most were running-of-the-mill, she probably sashayed out the front door. Superbly intelligent, and thoughtful, and sincere and articulate; ‘rebel’ comes up too quickly if we played a round of word association, but she’s got some of the most level-headed and sensible politics any cover girl has thrown my way. And mind you, while those virtues don’t read like a big deal, entire empires have been built on these pillars.
So yes, she was nude on a beach, baring gracefulness and capability. As opposed to sex kitten pouts and come-fuck-me eyes. However far apart people might stand on a scale of decorum versus depravity, we can at least recognize these contrasting narratives. Of course local yokels set out to shame her into submission (though not necessarily contrition). And no, there won’t be a cowering retraction. Instead she’s using her notoriety to remind all Malaysians that we have a right to a different opinion without being lynched for it. How’s that for sticking it to the man?
I sit opposite her in a brightly lit powder room as she scrapes off an ultra-deep burgundy lipstick – it’s from our final shot because we wanted something that popped on print. She’s getting ready for another engagement, a launch of some brand’s something or rather. So she’s got to change and then take on the evening grind to get there.
“Hey Alicia, I know you gotta run and I’m sorry the shoot ran over schedule. We still have our interview so is it okay if I email the questions over?”
“No worries, I still have time. Let’s do what we can for now, and you can email me the rest,” she doesn’t skip a beat.
“You sure? Okay. Tell me something about your personality that isn’t obvious,”
“A lot of people don’t know I’m a shy person,”
“No way that’s remotely true,” knowing full well I’m denouncing exactly what I asked for.
“Sure I am. There were times when I’m get really anxious. And I’ve even taken medication for my anxiety,”
“Do you still get nervous at shoots?”
“For sure. I can get nervous when I’m working with a photographer who doesn’t overtly tell me what he wants. Because I have no idea if my work is up to par or he’s just being nice. The ones that shout at you, at least you have a clearer idea,” she grins, bright teeth, big brown eyes, and burnished skin.
“Okay. I get that. People who don’t know you have been talking some crazy smack about you. So instead tell me about the most encouraging thing someone has said to you,”
“Well, people tell me I’m brave. That’s something that’s always picked me up although I can be a timid person. One of the most important parts of being brave is always facing yourself. Sometimes it takes bravery to forgive yourself or to make up for your mistakes. Other times bravery is just doing whatever scares you,”
“What’s the worst criticism?”
“I would say the aimless and pointless hate comments. That’s the worst. And I have to hear it, whether or not it affects me. If it’s constructive, that’s fine. But this is critique for the sake of critique. Bringing that hate to life by expressing it to others, that’s just bad vibes. It’s just noise and there’s nothing I can do.”
Alicia’s dojo of hard knocks was the fashion industry. She goes on to tell me how lucky she’s been to have enrolled at age 15. Because while she’s thankful and honoured to be part of the Malaysian scene, politicking elements inherent in every human interaction have only made her grittier. Now I hear this all the time because it makes interviewees sound bad-ass. But if you could see how Alicia talks with her eyes, how she leans in strenuously to make a point, exposing the crook of her neck… It’s hard not to root for her.
“I might read something and be like ‘what the fuck’ for the first five seconds but I realise hate generates hate. I don’t want that kind of negative energy turning me into something I detest. If people don’t like peaches, you can be the juiciest peace and they still won’t like you,”
And continues, “I do what I believe in. I could be wrong. But I believe in it right now. I can only act according to what I know,”
I venture, “What exactly do you believe in?”
“I believe in women taking charge of their own lives. Not being governed by bodies telling them they can’t have sex education. I believe in the right to information. The right to be in a society that understands opinions will vary. And for those whose views do vary, they won’t be attacked for having different ideas. I feel we are fighting so hard to be right about something that’s very personal. And that’s a reflection of an inferiority complex. Sometimes it’s just about validating our own mistakes in life,”
She also talks about one of her heroes, lawyer and social activist Siti Kasim, who dropped her a message that more or less amounted to a very gangster, “You do you, girl.”
“Siti Kasim is amazing! I was so excited to get a message from her. Why can’t we live and let live? Why attack the trans-community for instance? Progress is about tolerance and the ability to live with different people. It’s not natural to hate. If there’s something you see that you don’t like, just move on. What’s up with the hate speech?” she says, referring to the unconstitutional crackdown that made Siti Kasim the target of every fundamentalist crosshair in town.
Still, she’s putting the commotion to good use.
“The only bad publicity is no publicity. Thanks to all the noise, I’ve gotten all kinds of opportunities. They took what I did out of context and demonized me. They made it a scandal. Big applause for that. Now I get to talk about the things I care about,”
Obviously this fiasco has only accelerated her growth as a person. She offers a couple of pointers: don’t get emotional online; you don’t always have to prove your point with a tempestuous response. And how telling your side of the story can be just as much of a minefield, because even journalists from reputable national dailies – whose existence is prosaic reporting – can misquote you.
“When the story first broke, I gave an interview to a national newspaper who got my story wrong. They said I was doing a lingerie shoot for Victoria’s Secret. How can you be doing a lingerie shoot if you’re naked? And then other newspapers started lifting incorrect information from that story, and it made me look like a liar. And they didn’t want to retract it at first,” Alicia says, perplexed.
I ask if she’s bitter about anything.
“We’re known to be very close knit as Malaysians. And in the fashion industry, that’s kinda what it’s like. Everyone depends on one another, we take cues from each other. We’re all cogs in one big machine. I’ve become more inclusive now than when I was younger. If you want to be in this business, if you want to contribute and make a change, you need people behind you. People who will work with you and teach you. That’s my message, be real, be nice, and treat everyone respectfully no matter who they are.”