See Deborah Henry In A Different Light

Model, humanitarian and former Miss Malaysia Deborah Henry is a woman we love. Here's why...

BY Shermian Lim | Feb 23, 2016 | Women We Love

Her last shoot appeared in the Dubious Achievements Issue in December 2011. Then associate editor, Jon Chew wrote: “On a grey Saturday morning, in a tiny room, in a place far away from the centre of civilisation, Deborah Henry is trying her darnest to take a picture.” She was fresh from her experience competing in Miss Universe that year. Styled, lit and shot by a talented crew, she looked like the Malaysian version of an English rose, in a mauve top and rose pink, embellished-edged sari. But the setup ended up being more chaotic than expected—with a group of children and a couple of actors as part of the scene and the focus on her was all but lost.

This time, the shoot takes place in a studio, with a grey wall as the backdrop. She wears two looks—the first, a power suit in black and the second, a turtleneck with jeans. “For someone like her who doesn’t just have a nice face, but also a strong character, she needs to have a look that matches her character,” explains Joey, the make-up artist. So the shades applied are vintage, dark nude tones, with some colour added to give texture in images that would be processed as black and white. After modelling and emceeing consistently for the past few years, she works effortlessly—graceful neck extended, eyes smouldering with intent, confidence in every change of pose—producing high fashion images, one after another. There’s a moment when she has to flex her arm, revealing lean definition. Everyone gasps with admiration. (Horse riding, yoga, eating right and minimising junk food is how she maintains those biceps, her G-Talent manager later reveals via e-mail.)

The national spotlight first fell on her when she was crowned Miss Malaysia in 2007, and subsequently, succeeded in earning a spot in the top 16 in Miss World 2007. She would later make headlines again in 2011 for being a shoo-in and a favourite in the Miss Universe competition, but despite her best efforts, was not selected for the finals. Calm, focused and sharp-witted, Henry never flinched when she didn’t hear her name called and she bore the disappointment as expected of her—like a beauty queen. The nation afforded her a hero’s welcome, a winner in our eyes and—for her work with refugees—a queen with a heart for the underdogs. But because there is no charitable agreement on the plight of refugees in Malaysia (read our feature on Rohingyas in this issue to know more) it’s easy to turn cold to those problems in our surroundings. As Henry notes, “ignorance is bliss,” but she herself shows no interest in being indifferent—her work as a humanitarian and an activist in providing an education for refugee children is a long-term mission. The result has been Fugee School, the organisation she co-founded to educate refugee children from Somalia. About 250 students have benefited from this initiative since the school started in 2009, and together with her co-founder, Shikeen Halibullah, they continue to work to fund the school for incoming refugee children.

It’s been four years since her involvement with the Miss Universe Pageant, and work hasn’t stopped for her. Six years since the Fugee School started, it’s like a “baby that never grows up”, with all the funding initiatives, overall direction and partnership negotiations and she’s helping her boyfriend expand the non-profit arm of his company, H2Go, which specialises in a water treatment system that converts dirty water into sterile drinking water. It fits with her goals as a humanitarian and an activist to lend whatever knowledge she has. “What’s nice is that it’s something I’m genuinely interested in.” And she’s just turned 30 this year, but who’s counting? She’s not one who asks questions like, “Where do I see myself in five years?” She reckons she could do a bit more of that but doesn’t. “I’ve always had a general direction of what I want, what I like, what makes me happy.” She feels young. She is young. “People tell me I look like I’m still in school, so I’m happy.” She’d like to start a foundation someday, focused on children. Making people feel valued is important, “no matter where they’re from.”

For now, it’s one day at a time, pursuing her modelling, as well as duties for the school and in life. After her shoot with Esquire, she’s headed off to film a cooking show, where she’s been roped in to cook fish and chips. It’s something she’s looking forward to because cooking makes her happy, as evidenced by a warm smile spreading across her face at the thought. It’s a simple dish, but situations often call for simplicity. Like this second shoot—stripped down, no fancy location and less confusion. “It was fun,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s just nice to see you as you.” Similarly, we wanted to hear Henry’s thoughts without a filter of reinterpretation, but in her own words.

Her work with the Fugee School

It started when I visited four refugee families in Malaysia. One of them was a Somali family, and I remember that when I left the house that day, it was one of those moments where you give some money, say go buy some food, think about it for a day, and then walk away. Or, you say, I can’t walk away, I have to do something more.

My university friend Shikeen and I co-founded the school. We were 24 and had very purist intentions of “these kids deserve an education and they have the right to go to school, and we’re gonna help them do that.”

We started with limited funds. We didn’t know how the heck it was going to work and what we were going to teach. We had nothing. We just said, gotta do it, and gotta do it now. I remember the day before we started, we had no furniture. Thank God a donation came through that was just enough to buy a bunch of tables and chairs in time for school.

As you grow, you have to be more structured and have more processes. It’s a very blessed project and we’ve had so many of these little moments where just when you need something, it appears. We’ve relied a lot on those kinds of blessings that come to the school.

What keeps me going is that I see kid who started with us who was so shy and so shut down, and now, they’re engaging and they’re smart. I love it. They’re representatives of Fugee School.They go around and talk about what the school is about. Such transformation that makes me go “This is what this is about.”

On politics and mindsets

Just as much as we raise funds for the school, it’s also awareness and advocating that every child, regardless of their religion or race, matters, and they all deserve the same access.

In this country, we go on about 1Malaysia, 1Malaysia, but it’s very much a façade sometimes, because we go on about it, but when it comes to helping it’s, oh, help your kind first. I’m half-Irish, half-Malaysian, which is my own kind?  So many people have this attitude of, oh, help your own poor Malaysians first. Malaysians should be helped by the government first. That’s the reason you have a government, to serve the people in your country.

When do you just help someone because it’s the right thing to do? Because they’re humans? Do you know what I mean? I think it’s very sad, but culture plays a role and religion plays a role. Yes, they’re [culture and religion] good things to have ,but they become too dominant. We don’t think and we don’t rationalise; we just blindly follow.

This is not judgement and this is not finding fault. This is asking questions. This is getting people to think beyond what they’re thinking.

What it’s like doing humanitarian work

The thing with refugees is that when they fall, there’s no safety net for them. They’re like an invisible people. They have nowhere to go. Part of what I do is talk about the issue because people need to understand. You don’t know what you don’t know. Now that you know? What are you going to do?

I’d been dealing with some Rohingya boys in another shelter. They were all trafficked. They cant walk. It’s scary. These are fully able male teens who literally are limping now. Because of the conditions they were kept in—cramped in those cramped in those busses when they were being trafficked that they lost abilities in their legs. It was a wake-up call for Malaysians because we were like, “Wow, this is happening in our own country. S**t, we have to do something about it.”

It sounds a bit sadistic, but I like to feel. I want to feel the emotions and the pain sometimes. I went with World Vision to India, and we were looking at families in the rural areas—granddad has HIV, mother died of AIDS, the kids are not in school, but working to support the family.

Unfortunately, it takes a shocking story to cause a reaction. It takes a Syrian kid who’s washed up on the beach to say, oh my God. Because the world is so desensitised. But can’t blame ’em. Watch CNN for three hours a day and you’re like… (laughs ironically.)

I travelled to Lebanon recently, where I met a mother who talked about carrying her dead child across the mountains from Syria to Lebanon. “I buried my child just there, 10 metres from my house. You want to see?” She didn’t know where Malaysia is and was begging, “Please, please, help us. Why are our own people doing this to us? It takes a lot for me to get emotional, but that kind of hopelessness was something I couldn’t handle.

It’s sad and devastating, but when you’ve seen it with your own eyes and experienced it, you appreciate the strength and the resilience of humanity.

You look for the reason why things happen, the politics, the economics and you just go, what the hell? How were these systems made for humanity and they don’t serve its purpose? If anything, it just creates more problems.

Moving on from Miss Universe

You certainly move on. Miss World was in 2007. That was eight years ago. And Miss Universe was in 2011, so time has already moved on. It’s a bit of a distant memory, but you can’t run away from it. I’ll be at an event and be introduced as Miss Malaysia or Miss Universe. It happens so frequently that you’re not allowed to forget it. I could probably be 40 and still be called Miss Malaysia.

I never wanted to be a beauty queen. I was actually against pageants. I never dreamt of being a model; I was a little bit tomboyish in school. It kind of happened very much by chance. It’s not a bad thing. It’s an achievement. It’s not defining. But unfortunately, or fortunately, it carries the title of Miss Malaysia, which still excites people. It’s something that just follows you.

I don’t like to be defined by it in terms of the assumption of a beauty queen being—you know, stupid. The assumption is here [she gestures below her knees indicating low intelligence level] and you have to work your way up to a sense of “oh, she’s actually got a brain, she’s actually got substance.” They almost start you in a negative. Being Miss Malaysia is a negative (in that sense). It’s still gonna be about [the looks]. You have to work to earn all the rest of that.

I think fighting to redefine yourself or trying to distance yourself from the image or the stereotype of it wouldn’t work. It’s a big part of my life. It gave me the platform to do a lot of what I do today. If it makes someone happy to go on about me being Miss Malaysia, it doesn’t bother me in too big a way.

On not making it to the top 16 in Miss Universe: It’s still a little bit of a sore spot for me. You don’t really think about it, but you get reminded of these things constantly—the pageant fans on Facebook remind you of it randomly. I put so much into it. It’s not like a race where if you’re the fastest, you win. It’s subjective and their parameters are vague. I really thought I could make it into the top 10 or top 16 and that didn’t happen so… what do you do, right?

After that, I conquered a fear of failure that can be applied in relationships and life in general. Standing on that stage and you’re like [strikes a mock beauty queen pose], I felt my insides crumbling as we went to commercial break. It really was very emotional. It did take me a long while to deal with it. But things happen for a reason. What mattered more was that I felt like I had the nation’s support behind me. That was a really nice feeling.

Thoughts on turning 30

The hype is more coming from everyone else. But I don’t feel any different; it’s just a state of mind.

It’s more that buildup of what other people say of the experiences you’ve gone through in the past few years. It culminates in a sense of “everything I’ve been through in my twenties and I’m entering a new decade” that did get me a bit nostalgic and emotional.

The last big party I had was when I was 21. I kinda like smaller things nowadays, so I didn’t have a ginormous party. My boyfriend organised a party at Aziamendi88 with my group of close friends—quite an intimate dinner. He decorated the restaurant and everything looked very pretty. I knew it was happening, but it was quite a pleasant surprise to turn up and see everyone there.

There are many things that get on my nerves and put me off or bug me. But I realise that rather than being the person that gets bugged as I’ve grown up… things are not what they seem. You can’t judge a book by its cover. There’s always another story, so you learn not to get affected and judgmental.

Life’s an adventure. It’s a series of collective experiences and achievements. I think it’s more about, what are your interests? If it’s something that you enjoy then it doesn’t matter even if you’re in the corporate sector or you’re a banker. I like the balance of artistic and creative with a sense of business.

My family keeps me very grounded. Half the time, they couldn’t care less. They support me, but they’re not overenthusiastic. I have to be like, “Mum, did you buy my magazine?” It’s very much them, as well as the fact that I think the school keeps me sane. If I just had this [glamorous] side of my life and not the other, I think I would not be a happy person today.

You should do more of the things that give you pleasure and satisfaction. I love travelling; it feeds me. Rather than going out and buying handbags and shoes and stuff—which I like—I’d rather dedicate my time to going and having these beautiful adventures. My point is that it’s important to do things that make you happy. It’s important to think about others, but you have to think of yourself as well.

First published in Esquire Malaysia's December 2015 issue. Photograph by Vincent Paul Yong. Styling by Ian Loh. Art direction by Rebecca Chew. Turtleneck top by Versace Jeans. Other outfits by Tsyahmi. Hair by Mesh Subra. Make-up by Joey Yap. Stylist assisted by Lolly Mamdouh.