A group of jet-skiers coast by in the distance. Seconds later, a tiny rowboat jerks and sways as the ripples hit the hull, much to the discomfort of its cargo. Cristina Suzanne is reclined on her back, sheltering her eyes from the sunlight directly overhead as the photographer tries to steady himself, precariously balancing his footing on the frame of the boat.
Her lithe frame is adorned with nothing more than a simple white shirtdress—apropos, given her indifference towards the fussier aspects of celebrity glitz and gloss. And while she performs every instruction to a tee, she’d be the first to admit that smouldering, sexy or lascivious aren’t her munitions of choice.
With a predilection for messy, short bobs and side-swept bangs and nude (if at all, any) make-up, she is the real-life Adrian Tomine Manic Pixie Dream Girl caricature—armed with a distaste for the mainstream and an admirably retro nouveau #nowplaying playlist.
“Okay, sekarang senyum manis!” the photographer commands. She tilts her head to the side and pulls the edge of her lips towards the balls of her cheeks. “Too much, too much. Cuba kurangkan manis, sikit?” She closes her eyes and exhales, as if to hit some illusory facial reset button.
Done. Cloying sweetness, bumped down a couple of notches and the money shot is in the bag.
The sun beats down mercilessly and the crew, slowly but surely, start turning a deeper shade of brown. It’s an intrusive type of heat, the kind that might knock into your trolley at the grocers or ring you up at 11pm to offer credit card upgrades. And let’s not forget the lake flies—congregating in a frenzied cluster like they’re in the thick of a Dave Chappelle block party.
In spite of the unpleasant conditions—the glare of the sun and the sweat beads gathering on everyone’s upper lips and foreheads, Cristina keeps humming a happy tune throughout—the type you’d likely hear on a Parisian river cruise, as an obscenely handsome Frenchman paddles the boat, clad in a swanky beret and striped sailor shirt.
And it’s not just to set the mood for the shot —she is, after all, sat in a rowboat dressed up like a darling damsel from an old-timey Disney flick. The uplifting ditties are but a small gesture of paying it forward, knowing that if she seems bummed or moody on set, that trickles down to the rest of the crew. It’s her way of doing her part to keep spirits high.
“Crissie, chin up sikit and look into the lake. Look at the fishes,” the photographer remarks. “Hai, ikan!” she quips, her eyes alight as she waves her hands at the water, as if to greet a crowd of fans. No one can be certain if the fishes came up to the surface to reciprocate. But if they did, you can be certain the sight of her would’ve made the murky waters feel a little less dreary.
“You know, I actually wanted to join the Malaysian Air Force,” Cristina reveals. As the hijinks of her youth unfold, it’s difficult to reconcile the Cristina we’ve come to know—delicate good looks and an aura of capricious whimsy—with the notion of Cristina, the hard-nosed and soulless army trooper.
“In the end, my application got turned down because I had recently broken my arm (prior to applying) and my SPM results weren’t too great,” she confesses, before revealing a colourful catalogue of odd-jobs that included waitressing, working the hotel front desk and manning cybercafé counters during the heady days of MIRC, Counter-Strike and dial-up internet. Ever one to lighten up the mood, she mimics the grating buzz and squeal of a 52kbps modem without any cajoling.
An extended stint as a Malaysia Airlines flight attendant would bring her financial stability and presumably, would go a long way in shaping her sound work ethic. “Just like the entertainment industry, people think air stewardesses lead very charmed lives, but there’s a lot that goes unseen,” she muses. Heaving heavy luggage bags onto overhead compartments and occasionally having to wash the passengers’ toilets are stark reminders that tend to water down any delusions of grandeur, on the return flight back from Seychelles.
Where some celebrities are capable of forgetting the bourgeois details in anecdotes of their humble beginnings, Cristina’s candour is comforting and should serve as an encouragement for young starlets who might have to take the less charming trail to the top.
“I have to admit, I don’t really do plans. I never planned to be an actress, never set out to model or to appear on covers of magazines,” she asserts. “And yea, it may sound really clichéd, but I just feel truly blessed that I can make a career doing what I’m doing.” She stresses, “Whatever comes with the job, I do. Ask me to do some weird pose? I’ll do it. Ask me to stand in the sun the whole morning? Sure. Whatever. As long as it doesn’t cross the line, I’m fine with it.”
“All the things I’ve done since high school, I was really just going with the flow. I think it helped that I was open to trying out new things and it was also good that I didn’t really have any plans,” she says, before a quizzical pause—“Although, now that I’m heading deeper into my thirties, maybe I’ve gotta start planning out the second phase of my life a bit better!”
When living off the cuff has worked so well, so far, one could wonder—why start now?
It’s 11am the day after the photo shoot and there’s coffee and tea instead of tadpole-laden lake water. Cristina strides into the café as some nondescript, yet appropriately anthemic Taylor Swift song kicks into its climax over the speakers.
The café is empty, save for the staff. And the way she’s dressed—a peach-coloured shirt with a dark grey cardigan on top, skinny jeans and trainers—you’d forgive the waiters for being oblivious to the fact that an award-winning film star (Anugerah Skrin 2013’s Best Actress Award for her role in KIL) just sauntered into their establishment. But low-key is exactly the way Cristina rolls.
Certainly, with it being her day off from any figurative work commitments that list eyeliner and blush as minimum pre-requisites, looking the slightest smidgen of celebrity is something she can’t be arsed about. “Outside of fashion spreads or red carpet appearances, I rarely bother combing my hair or putting on make-up,” she admits. Meeting at one of Kota Damansara’s busier malls over the weekend brunch-lunch window, she would’ve likely blended into the crowd.
Flip through her catalogue of fashion spreads and the variety of roles she’s portrayed on film and it’s clear that she has the capacity to stretch beyond her comfort zone—her Pan-Asian looks allowing her to traverse the spectrum between precocious ingénue to smouldering glamourpuss.
“I can appreciate not being recognised when I go out. It doesn’t bother me. For that matter, I don’t really go out much—you’re more likely to bump into me at the grocers instead of the hipster café du jour,” she says. “I like people guessing about me, you know? Keeping some level of mystery about who I really am or what I’m really like. And if they find out what I’m really like—that I’m nowhere near as glamorous or as pretty as the girl in the fashion spreads—I’m totally fine with that.”
She makes no false proclamations when it comes to her indifference to celebrity trappings. Even in her faultless conduct in what was an uncomfortable outdoor shoot (one that other starlets might’ve protested about via their managers), Cristina operated without any entourage to fuss over her every whim and fancy. No formalities, no managerial red tape to jump over.
“I lead a very simple life. For me, I boil it down to needs and wants—the majority of the time, I just take care of the needs ’cos the reality is, you’ll never run out of wants in your life,” she opines. “I sleep on the upper bunk of a double decker bed. Underneath is my gaming console, my entertainment lounge. I go to work, and when I’m back, I mess around with art or play the guitar. I listen to music and do my thing. I don’t really bother so much with the partying or Chanel bags and all that.”
Her passage from unpretentious small-town life to this new domain of glitzy gala events, red carpets and gossip rag headlines hasn’t sullied her uncomplicated approach to life. “Let’s be honest, everyone enjoys a bit of fame and glamour. Everyone aspires to be the star—I do too, but perhaps in much smaller doses compared to others,” she explains. “I do what I gotta do as part of the job, but I don’t crave being under the spotlight all the time. Sure, I’ll savour it for like, five minutes, but then, I head home straight afterwards.”
She divulges her travails into middle-adulthood, the impeding dread of managing investment portfolios and property purchases. “Things have changed. If I had money to blow, I used to have no second thoughts about jetting somewhere for a vacation,” she laughs, perhaps at how uncomplicated things used to be. “I’m at a stage now where I’m counting every dollar and sen so I can eventually afford a place I can call my own.”
“Every day, I remind myself—Cris, don’t change.” Perhaps it’s a determination anchored by a fear of how her family or friends would react, if she were to suddenly start acting like a bit of a diva—faux Western accent, rouge red lipstick and all. “I’m very conscious that all of this is temporary. In time, prettier and more talented girls are gonna appear on the scene to replace us all. That’s just how the cycle works, kan?"
Cristina talks with the expression dial turned up to 11. It’s a manner of delivery that you’d encounter from early-day MTV VJs—there’s the upturned lilt and emphasis of words towards the end of a sentence, there are the squinted eyes to relay melodrama, there are the finger pistols of goofy charm. This surge of expressiveness, when out socialising, is probably the yang to the ying of solitude she savours when that she’s at home and left to her own devices.
Professionally, she clearly prefers to keep a low profile and allow her body of work to do the talking. When asked about her dealings with the sometimes sensationalist Malay media scene, she finds their obsession with her love life mildly amusing and often predictable—always prone to one or two superficial introductory questions before launching into the “Are you seeing someone?” assault.
“I can empathise—I know most of them are doing what their bosses tell them to do. Korek the info, get the scoop. It just gets silly when some things are completely misreported or made up.”
She’s at ease with bringing up her engagement that has been called off. “Some girls might feel like they need a guy in their life to feel okay with themselves. Me, I don’t mind being single—I’ve got hobbies galore that keep me occupied, and between my family and close friends, I’ve got more than enough love in my life to go around.”
“And look, in future, kalau I dapat husband bukan VIP (if I marry a non-celebrity Average Joe), I’d be fine. If I no longer had work in the industry, I’d be fine, I can work anywhere. I could work in Starbucks, I could work in a hotel or I could work in a call centre. Oooh, I could work in a zoo, even!” she springs up in her seat, hands gesticulating excitedly.
“I’d rather makan gaji than makan hati, you know?” she says, with a wry smile.
It’s almost unsettling how humble and down-to-earth Cristina can be, and there’s even a slightly perverse hope that she’ll rip off a mask, revealing a creepy Stepford Wives-like cyborg underneath. Or perhaps it should be more unsettling that so few of the industry’s starlets are as grounded and as unpretentious as she is.
No airs about being a millionaire or stockpiling industry awards. Just a simple desire to settle down, take care of her mom and charm her way into our hearts with a smile and a couple of shots from her finger pistols.
First published in Esquire Malaysia's January 2016 Issue. Photography by Delvin Xian. Styling and art direction by Ian Loh. Stylist assisted by Alaa Lolly Mamdouth. All clothes by Monki. Hair by Ckay Liow. Makeup by Sheng Saw.