It’s not easy being different in Jakarta. In the Netherlands, dark skin and exotic eyes can land you a modeling gig. But in Jakarta those same features, coupled with the fact that you’re 181 centimeters tall, warrant stares and whispers. But Laura Muljadi, 25, became a fixture at Fashion Week. Things weren’t easy for her — her mom made her shower with milk in hopes of lightening her skin. In college she weighed 82 kilograms. But instead of blaming people who put her down, she made things happen on her own. Now, when she’s not doing the catwalk, she tells kids at schools to be themselves. and stop caring about what other people think.
What does it feel like to be stared at all the time?
When I was younger my hair was really short and everybody thought I was a guy or a transvestite.
Even when I was in the Miss Indonesia pageant a blogger said I should join Miss Transvestite Indonesia.
When people stare I just smile back at them.
I’m ethnic Chinese, but you can’t tell. I stopped walking with my dad when I was 14 because I was so tall at that age people didn’t think I was his daughter.
You didn’t always think you would be a model, did you?
When I was growing up my dad only saw things as black or white. He always said: ‘There are only two types of girls in the world.
The pretty ones and the smart ones. You can’t be in the middle. If you’re in the middle you won’t survive.’
My dad always gave me books. I’ve always had books.
You have dark skin, which is normally not considered beautiful in Indonesia.
I grew up in the ethnic Chinese community. Even my cousins always thought I was different.
Once, when I was in elementary school, my teacher was talking about blood types and he said ‘Laura, it’s gonna be tough for her if she gets sick because she’s adopted and her parents might have different blood types.’
How was it even possible for him to say that in front of his students?
I was 9 years old. Of course I cried.
When I was younger, my parents would order pure milk and I would have to shower in it. They thought it would make my skin lighter.
But I always believed that things were going to happen for me.
You received a scholarship to go to school in the Netherlands. What did you study there?
I took up international communications management.
After school, I came back to Jakarta and got an office job related to my major, but modeling took over, and now things have gotten a bit carried away [laughs].
Any advice for young models ?
You need to be smart. Know what’s best for you.
You can buy all the whitening products here, but if you don’t have the confidence you’ll never be pretty.
You don’t need to be sharped- nose or anything. I go to schools and talk to kids and they say ‘You’re so lucky.’
But I tell them in this world only 5 percent of success is luck, 95 is hard work and motivation.
What do you tell the kids when you visit the schools?
I tell them ‘If you don’t want people to hate you, if you don’t like conflict, then don’t take risks.’ When I joined Miss Indonesia people were like ‘What were you thinking? They never pick people who look like you.’
I told them I’m not here to win, I’m here to pursue my dreams and to inspire people like me.
I don’t mean those who are dark-skinned, I mean different from the stereotype of what’s pretty.
When you were in college in the Netherlands you hosted a radio show that was broadcast in Indonesia.
It’s like Radio Indonesia. It’s a government-funded radio station with programs in nine languages. I did a show called ‘Voice of Women.’
The program started out as something completely different, aimed at college-age kids. Why the change?
I did my thesis on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and Taiwan.
People here know all about the bad things that happen to migrant workers in Singapore and Malaysia, but they don’t focus on or broadcast the good things.
So you were talking about good things?
I found a balance. We broadcast the good and bad stories so the people from cities and villages knew what to expect.
Sure, a lot of bad things happen, but there are success stories that no one ever hears about, especially from Saudi Arabia.
I wanted to tell the listeners what they could expect to happen — both the good and bad.
Some people benefit from going abroad. But the media never broadcast those stories.
But does anyone really want to work as a maid abroad?
That’s the thing — some people go abroad and then come back and are celebrities in their villages.
Some people are even given an inheritance from their employers.
Especially in Taiwan, Indonesians are seen as caretakers and nurses, not maids.
Some get rich and just stay in Taiwan. But you never hear that.
People only want to hear how miserable other people are.
How did you get your big break?
When I was going to school in the Netherlands, I worked as a waitress at a cafe.
I weighed 82 kilograms at the time. A regular at the restaurant owned a modeling agency.
She said ‘If you lose all this weight in six months I can assure you’ll get a job.’
I went from 82 kilos to 49 kilos in six months.
Everything went in a blender. I didn’t chew anything for three months.
So what were you having for dinner, oatmeal?
I drank juice and blended vegetables. It was disgusting. I could never do it again. Then I tried to blend rice and meat, and the second month I even blended mie goreng.
Laura was talking to Iwan Putuhena & Zack Petersen
Original interview was published in The Jakarta Globe
Pictures Courtesy of Laura Muljadi