Lina Teoh can’t stop talking about bootcamp. The military-style workout that destroys you before breakfast has claimed a new disciple, a former Miss Malaysia winner and Miss World second runner-up at that. She’s smitten by the sweat, the dirt and the groans of a higher calling. “An intense hour, three times a week outdoors, it’s kind of addictive really,” she says. “It’s horrible.” Addictively horrible, to be precise, like living with a pear-sized kidney stone. Not everyone’s idea of a Saturday morning but she loves it.
After telling her this would be a casual conversation over lunch, without photographers, Lina is decidedly dressed down in a simple white blouse and blue jeans. No jewellery. This woman, I tell myself, is our most successful Miss Malaysia ever. At its tipping point, she was our Grace Kelly, our very own people’s princess whose smile could live forever, a beacon of everything we could achieve in the midst of a commotion. And yet, here she is today, twelve years on, in the most basic foundation.
There are several things every man, woman and aspiring beauty contestant should know about Lina Teoh. She’s not just a beauty queen. She’s not in it for the fame. She’s not hosting TV talk shows while flashing her cleavage. She’s married. She loves indie music, filling her iPod with The xx and Bright Eyes. She’s got a yellow-belt in martial arts, and she’ll use it if necessary. And if you try to call her bluff, she’ll thank you and just walk away. Times have certainly changed.
One of the early Greek words for the Devil was kategor, literally meaning ‘the Accuser’. It’s where the word ‘category’ comes from and goes some ways in describing the danger of squeezing people into convenient, neatly-labelled boxes. Read the tag ‘Beauty Queen’ and most of us expect her to be thin, pretty, and that she’s obsessed with world peace. No deliberating required, even if what’s inside is filled with a lot more, well, substance.
On November 26, 1998, a beautiful Thursday night in Mahe Island, Seychelles, ninety-three delegates from around the world competed for the 48th Miss World pageant crown. There, Lina emerged from her role as a legal eagle on the TV sitcom Kopitiam and was recorded into the history books as our favourite girl-next-door done good. When she placed second runner-up, before France’s Veronique Caloc and eventual winner Linor Abargil of Israel, she became the highest ranking Miss Malaysia to this day.
She returned home and was greeted with much fanfare, a moment she acknowledges as, “one of the biggest experiences in my life, a time I’ll never forget.” The party invitations came flooding in. She parlayed her victory into an anchor position on Channel [V]. And like all pageant winners, she became involved in environmental causes and charity work. She became part of that rare echelon of single-named celebrities. Everyone knew Lina. Everyone loved Lina. Everyone wanted Lina.
“To come back and be so appreciated by a whole entire nation, it sounds corny but who gets to feel that?” she says with an unapologetic shrug. “Not many people can stand on this earth and say they felt that. I will never belittle that experience.”
All this happened amidst the brouhaha of the first Anwar Ibrahim trial, a political moment that rippled across newspaper headlines and world news reports. Just days before Lina’s crowning glory, then U.S. Vice-President Al Gore called for political reforms while speaking in Malaysia and then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright cut short her trip here to protest the trial. Malaysia had become a problem child for the world, and we needed a walking, talking Espresso Martini to do damage control. By default, Lina’s tiara became more than just a beauty pageant trophy. It was a symbol of hope that the world wouldn’t have to know us for our messy politics, but for our poise and grace under pressure. Who better to lead us into the light than the natural-born beauty queen?
One small, little, tiny problem: Lina wasn’t one.
“When people saw me in T-shirt and jeans, they were like ‘Oh.’ I remember I was in a music store once and someone came up to me and said, ‘You’re not wearing your gown.’ I was thinking, this guy has got to be joking but he was deadly serious. You feel like you’re disappointing people.”
As she plays with her half-cup of coffee, the restaurant in Bangsar that we’re meeting at has welcomed its lunch crowd, but our contemplative talk continues uninterrupted. Right now, she’s opening up without a shred of worry. “It’s amazing what people’s ideals of you are. I struggled with that, the pressure of always having to live up to people’s expectations. I had to dig deep. For you yourself not to be taken away with all of these bits of glamour, and for you yourself to remember what’s real.”
She’s remarkably candid, for a celebrity, and I tell her this. She giggles like she’s just heard a dirty joke. “You think?” She pauses and takes it in, perhaps wondering if I’ve just given her a compliment or made an ironic remark. “I guess we’re just people on all levels. We’re all trying to do the best we possibly can, trying to cope with life’s challenges, difficulties and joys.”
It’s fascinating to see when square pegs meet round holes. When young, transformative politicians are pared down by the rigid structures of partisanship and congress. Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. A self-confessed outdoor junkie (who admits she’s not a “gal in the crown” kind of girl) stumble into a gown, sash, and the pressure of living up to our harsh standards of beauty. “You have the adoration of a nation, but it’s a lot for a young woman to take on and digest. To deal with that on a daily basis, it’s tough. You’re just a person, but I felt like I had to live up to that [Miss World] name.”
Lina was just twenty-two at the time—cheery, eager to please, but also a young woman who wasn’t exactly a catwalk prodigy. She grew up in Australia as a knees-in-the-mud, tree-swinging monkey, with two brothers at her side. She leans forward to enlighten me about her very boyish years growing up, but she stops short of using the T-word.
“Mum would put me in a dress and I would roll in the mud. I would refuse to wear it. I would cry and tear it off. I was one of the boys.” She developed a tough skin, stuck up for herself, and became the resident Georgina of the “Famous Five.” Lina wears this like a badge of honour. She didn’t grow out of it either, even as an adult, taking to rock-climbing, roller-blading, and wake-boarding, injuring her back, and tearing her rotator cuff doing martial arts. Give her a choice of trekking through the Parisian shopping district or trekking through a tropical jungle, and it’s not even a contest. “Oh God, give me the jungle,” she answers without hesitation.
Truth is, Lina has never felt completely at ease with her destiny as a tiara-wearing people’s princess. If we, the people, thought that this was the skin she was created to wear, then we were wrong. She did make a valiant effort to become everything to everyone, but after a few years, our expectations took their toll and Lina was exhausted.
And so she called for a personal time out, went into hiding, spent hours staring at walls and ceilings. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do” is her most honest assessment of her me-time. The statement sounds natural when Mike wants to quit his job as a stockbroker and doesn’t know how to tell his girlfriend. It sounds a little odd coming from Lina. In the spirit of things, however, it’s understandable.
Then she found out about life behind the camera, where the attention would be entirely on someone else and no one would care if she forgot her mascara. She was already an avid reader—“Eighty-five percent of my books are non-fiction”—and it felt like a fit for her curious side. “I find it fascinating what people are doing at this particular time, halfway across the world.” Lina grew more curious about telling stories that no one had heard, a result of working on the Save Belum Temenggor Campaign for the Malaysian Nature Society. Documentaries suddenly looked like the perfect new venture.
Hooking up with filmmakers Harun Rahman and Lara Ariffin, Lina started learning the craft. Engineering books were devoured for Mega Structures: Smart Tunnel. Eighteen months of grit put into the making of The Great Apes of Asia with Michelle Yeoh for the National Geographic Channel (reuniting Lina with her dream hibernation pad). Her most recent documentary, A Leaders Legacy: Tun Abdul Razak, focused on the nation’s second prime minister and—no pressure—our current PM’s father. With just three months to create a piece for the National Geographic—“Which has never been done anywhere in the world for them. Not making me feel better,” Lina says—the team banded together and produced the goods. “Your biggest critics are those who lived through that time. I’m always most afraid of the characters in the film, and what they thought of it, because it’s their story. Some of them came to the premiere and they were really touched. That was the biggest compliment.”
She’s grinning now, that title-winning smile that lights up a room, a little out of relief but also out of contentment. Those blasted expectations are disappearing.
Lina has started Running Water Documentaries, which aims to produce quality programmes for Malaysia and international audiences. But even more important is with whom she started the company with: commercial film director Jamie Quah, her husband of two years. They’ve been together since 1998, which means he’s been the silent watchman over her very public journey. “He’s been with me by my side through the whole thing, which is amazing,” she says. “It’s been a lot for him to deal with, too, but I’m very grateful for him. He’s my best friend. We’ve been through everything together. You can never replace that.” For a minute, she forgets she’s not supposed to discuss her love-life so liberally. She could care less.
There’s always an uneasy relationship between fame and its protagonists, an unspoken contract that never tells you the fine print of possible pitfalls. By the time you’re looking in the mirror, smeared make-up and all, you’re wondering how to make up for time lost and wasted. Lina isn’t an up-and-coming ingénue. At thirty-four, she seems uninterested in walking that plank again. “It’s very easy to get carried away with how important it is to be famous.”
“Yeah... yeah.” Not much empathy there.
“How important is it, actually? I mean, really?”
We talk about boxes again, and Lina sees them in a new light. “I don’t think I fit in a particular box, if that’s important to people. We do live in a society where putting people in a place makes us feel more comfortable. Everyone has to belong in a place. I don’t like to belong in a place. I don’t think anyone should be put in a box.”
By this time, it’s been two hours and the restaurant has almost emptied out. She has to go for another meeting, a good chance it’s one of a number of documentary projects lined up and primed for filming. We finish our coffee and say our goodbyes. Lina walks away, probably relieved that she’s done explaining herself for the hundredth time.
Someone from the next table taps my shoulder.
“Is that Lina Teoh?”
“Yes, it is.”
“She looks different.”
I nod. Then I remove the label, throw the box in the bin and walk out.
First published in April 2011, The Premiere Issue.