A quick glance at Amber Chia’s Instagram account and you see a short video clip of this model-actress sashaying down the catwalk like only she knows how – the rhythmic swaying of her hips, the momentary pause at the end of the runway followed by an upper body recline, a few more high steps and then the classic haute couture pose where she gives her killer looks over her right shoulder. In the words of fellow model Tyra Banks, Chia looks as fierce as any panther would be, prowling the grasslands of Africa, except this is the middle of KL Fashion Week and Chia is closing the Jovian Mandagie show.
At an age where most models have submitted to motherhood or retired from the catwalk, Chia is still at the top of her game. “I’ve actually scaled down my modelling assignments of late,” she reveals in a suite in the swanky RuMa Hotel, where our interview takes place. “Life is really all about balance and as I have a family and son now, my priorities have shifted.”
But with her modelling and school (the Amber Chia Academy) as well as her numerous brand ambassadorship, endorsement deals and her dabble in acting, no one can accuse Chia of lying idle. She’s just wrapped-up a four-hour photo shoot for this magazine and she hasn’t had lunch yet, but she’s bright as a lark and her energy levels hover around the fifth bar. Exuding pure professionalism while prettily packaged with a veneer of affability, it’s no wonder Chia’s career in this fickle industry has had the longevity it enjoys.
Born into a family with six siblings (Chia is the third child) in Ipoh, Chia grew up in Sekinchan but had to uproot to Tawau, Sabah when she was seven years old. “We had to leave because my dad was facing financial difficulty…. that was also the reason why my two elder siblings and I were fostered.”
Being so honest about her less than favourable background makes her more endearing and is itself a revelation of her straight-forward personality. “I’m not from a wealthy family and so I couldn’t finish school and do what I wanted as we didn’t have the resources. It wasn’t easy but I believe because of all these challenges I faced, it made me stronger.”
So Chia dropped out of school at 14 years old to start work. She recalls washing dishes as well as plucking prawns in a restaurant in Sekinchan. “From young, I knew my goal was to earn enough money to help my family out.” This determination of hers was what propelled her to leave Tawau at age 17 to come to the big city to chase her dream of becoming a model.
Landing in KL, she realised that the streets weren’t paved with gold. It took her a good year to establish herself or even get a modelling gig. “For my very first casting, I was rejected,” Chia says with a smile. “In fact I was rejected about 40 times before I landed my first modelling job.” She says she felt dejected and sad and wondered if this path was the right career choice. In the meantime, she supported herself by doing odd jobs like being a promoter and usher.
A person with less resolve and grit might have given up but Chia soldered on. “I kept telling myself to go on and kept positive when I faced rejection. I reminded myself of why I left Sabah in the first place – to pursue my dream – and that kept me going.”
Looking back at those salad days, Chia said she was totally unprepared. “I didn’t know how to walk, strike a pose, dress-up or make-up,” she recalls. “But I persevered and changed and improved myself. Up to today, I’m always learning from my past mistakes and experiences.” Finally, she got her first job in 1999 for a huge fashion show which took place along Jalan Bukit Bintang. “That show had over 200 models and I was just one of many but after I did it, more doors opened for me.”
In the meantime, she enrolled in make-up courses in between her modelling jobs to improve her skills. Luck must have been on her side because Chia entered the Guess Watches Timeless Beauty International Model Search in 2004 which would prove to change the course of her life. She won the Asian round which catapulted her to the international competition held in Switzerland. She emerged victorious as the first Asian to win this prestigious model competition and in effect put herself and Malaysia on the international modelling map.
“People said I was very daring to join the Guess model competition but for me, it wasn’t so much about winning but gaining the experience. In this business, you cannot worry about what people say or how they will judge you.”
And not worrying about what others say is how Chia lives her life today, dividing it equally between her family, business and work. She’s embarking on a new business venture where she will launch a collagen-infused jelly called “A Perfection” later in the year. She has made cameo appearances in movies but says at the moment she can’t just leave her son for one or twos. “Maybe when Ashton is older, I will pursue it further.”
Turning 38 this December, Chia can easily pass off as someone a decade younger. Having been in the business for 20 years, there must be a few tricks Chia has up her sleeves. What beauty or fitness tips can Chia share? “I don’t have just one beauty secret but several,” she reveals. “I believe what you consume is very important. You have to drink enough water and keep your skin hydrated. If you don’t have enough sleep, the best cream cannot absorb. I do yoga regularly and try to get seven to eight hours sleep every night. If I don’t, then I take a nap in the afternoon the next day. I avoid oily food and try to eat light and if I have to drop a few pounds, then I just cut the carbs.”
Imparting her knowledge is something she enjoys doing at the Amber Chia Academy. Her modelling and beauty school will be 10 years old next year and she is as passionate about it as she was on day one. “I’ll be teaching a class tonight at my academy which I really enjoy,” she says, naming Amelia Henderson and Sheena Liam as prime examples of past students who have gone on to make a name for themselves.
For those who are intent on following her stiletto-shod footsteps, Chia’s advice is as realistic as they come: “Whatever you want to do in life, don’t overthink it and just go and do it. Just thinking about it won’t make it happen … if I had just kept thinking whether I should leave my hometown and come to KL, I would have never left and would probably still be in Sabah helping my dad sell fish.”
And what does she think is the key to becoming a successful model? “Whether you are in the modelling industry or any other industry, the most important thing is your attitude. The second most important is your professionalism. Your attitude determines your personality and that plays a big part in becoming successful. You can be the best looking model but if you have an attitude problem, you wouldn’t go far.”