SHE’S one to put her best foot forward. Sans make-up. “Please don’t mind me putting on my make-up while we chat. I’ve hardly had time today,” she says, apologising profusely as she whips out her make-up bag.
She’s nothing if not distinctive: leather jacketed, tight jeans, colourful accessories, trendy hairdo with red highlights, familiar toothy grin, and with an uninhibited laughter that slides out by surprise.
Paradoxically, this contrives to make the doyen of musical theatre seem even more regal.
At 49, Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina (“Just call me Tiara!”) is lively and très chic in an unfussy way; gesticulating and moaning, well, theatrically.
“Oh my Gooooddd, that was 13 years ago!” she wails when I tell her that I loved her in Puteri Gunung Ledang.
“I’m so honoured. I hope I didn’t disappoint you!” she adds with a laugh waving at her bare face.
But don’t be fooled by that self-deprecating one-liner. The former feisty Javanese princess Gusti Putri Retno Dumillah of Gunung Ledang fame is one of the most respected professionals in the performing arts industry.
Her image drives her business — with or without make-up. And she takes the business of being Tiara Jacquelina very seriously.
Her legendary status is primarily built upon her many roles — model, movie actress, producer of iconic stage productions, including Puteri Gunung Ledang and P. Ramlee The Musical,
dogged champion of the performing arts and soon, her new role in the director’s seat for the upcoming theatre remake of the epochal Ola Bola movie.
Now that versatility is in vogue, they don’t make them like Tiara anymore; but then again, there never was anyone like her to begin with.
“I was always the odd one out growing up. I got noticed for all sorts of reasons. I had a way of looking at things differently than most people and stood out for the way I did things and the way I talked,” she recalls, adding that her innate confidence led her to the world of theatre back in school.
She attributes her foray into theatre plays to the drama club she was involved in at her alma mater St Mary.
The school was well-known for its notable plays and musicals with its history of public theatre performances dating all the way back to 1947.
“We had dedicated teachers who’d put on musicals for us. I loved it! I was in every musical,” enthuses Tiara.
When she first performed in school theatres, she found that “... the power of entertaining an audience was addictive. And you never forget it once you do it.”
It was here she cut her teeth as a producer, volunteering to market her school’s play to draw in the crowd.
“I asked if we could open it up to other schools and volunteered shamelessly to sell!” she says, grinning.
And so she did. Inexperienced but with plenty of chutzpah, she visited nearby schools, knocked on doors, presented her sales pitch and sold tickets.
“That set me up to believe that if you could just put your mind to it and have a thick-skinned approach to challenges, you could do anything,” she recalls candidly, before adding: “These memories impacted me. I grew up thinking like an entrepreneur.”
PITCHING A GOOD STORM
The same entrepreneurial spirit led Tiara to forming her own company when she was barely 18 and in college.
“I set it up with my friend Jennifer Ong thinking it’d help with our Business Administration course by applying the principles we learnt to running a literal company,” she shares, pointing out that her hare-brained plan worked.
“We passed! I had a ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ (something we learnt at marketing) and was determined to market our RM2 company with Jennifer in tow, shivering in her pants!” she says gleefully.
Modelling since 16, her experience opened her eyes to the gap for a talent casting service provided to advertising agencies.
“They didn’t have a proper system back then,” she recalls.
Using a borrowed camera, the duo compiled a portfolio of photographs and promptly made an appointment to visit the Leo Burnett Agency that had used her for commercials before.
Laughing, she recalls that she asked to see Leo Burnett (“He’d passed away in 71!”) while declaring she had a proposal that “would change the face of advertising.”
Chuckling, she recounts: “We nearly got laughed out of there but somehow, as Providence would have it, we got hired instead to cast for a commercial!”
Remarkably, they were soon running one of the first talent casting agencies in Malaysia even before they completed college.
“When I look at myself back then and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same,” she tells me after a pause. “The temperament isn’t all that different.”
It’s that very temperament that got her embarking on a mammoth project of bringing a mythical princess to life years later.
Puteri Gunung Ledang was a 2004 epic fantasy period film produced by Tiara and her company Enfiniti Vision Media.
The multiple-award-winning film created a phenomenon in the local film industry and was Malaysia’s official entry to the 2004 Academy Awards.
“Nothing of that scale had been done before and nobody had the skill of marketing a film like that. We tried opening doors for Malaysia internationally but how do you market a Malaysian film in markets that had never heard of the country before?” she recollects.
She and director Saw Teong Hin sought to improvise when they were pitching their film for the Academy awards.
“We went to Tourism Malaysia, got a map, pointed out Thailand and Singapore, and told them that we were located in between! We learnt a lot of tough lessons along the way. Still, we did it. It was a brilliant movie ahead of its time,” she says softly.
Two years later, Tiara went on to make a theatre version of the movie. The musical starring Tiara as the titular princess and Stephen Rahman-Hughes as Hang Tuah debuted at Istana Budaya in KL in February 2006. It was well-received and earned critical acclaim, something Tiara hadn’t expected.
QUEEN OF CAN-DO
Most significantly, the musical bridged the gap between the Malaysian public and theatre performances at Istana Budaya.
In fact, such was the success of Puteri Gunung Ledang The Musical that encore shows were sold out weeks before the curtain was raised.
Recalls Tiara: “Not many knew back then that we had a national theatre! It was tough getting people and companies to buy tickets initially. I had to go and sell like I did before. But we pulled it off.
“Did you tell them you were going to change the face of theatre?” I deadpan, reminding her of her infamous Leo Burnett sales pitch.
She replies tongue-in-cheek: “Let’s just say it was another one of my Big Hairy Audacious Goals!”
It was her can-do attitude that got her exploring new frontiers.
The musical, she shares, was put together with “zero experience, just like how we did the movie! How we pulled it off? We bought books from Amazon on how to produce musicals,” she replies blithely, half-laughing at my incredulous face.
“There was very little expertise locally. We learnt to improvise a lot. For example, we discovered from the books we needed a scenographer. So we got hold of the art director and literally turned him into one. Such was our experience but the beauty is that those people who sweated it out during our initial foray are still working with us today,” she confides, not without a little pride.
BEST FOOT FORWARD
While it’s taken quite a while for the nation’s entertainment machinery to find ways to integrate musical theatre into the mainstream consumer’s diet, it took Tiara’s vision and her productions like Puteri Gunung Ledang, P. Ramlee The Musical and MUD: The Story Of Kuala Lumpur to carve inroads into the Malaysian consciousness.
Maintaining its legacy and, at the same time, pushing the form forward is a challenge being taken up anew by her with remarkable gusto. And there’s no stopping Tiara.
She’ll soon be making her directorial debut with Ola Bola The Musical, based on the much-lauded football-themed film which was a box-office hit in 2016.
The present resurgent enthusiasm in musicals seems to be down, in part, to the extraordinary adaptability of this art form and its ability to absorb new melodic styles which remains a fitting metaphor for a nation of ever-evolving makeup and character: “That’s why Ola Bola will be the first musical to incorporate rap and hip-hop!”
“The movie was beautiful and inspiring,” says Tiara, adding that she’s aware that expectations are high for her to present a show that’ll live up to the standards set by the film.
However, she remains unfazed. “I want to re-enact the same atmosphere. I tell my team that if people aren’t standing up and cheering at the end of the show, we’d have failed!”
Is she nervous? “How could you not be? But if we have good stuff, people will come,” she replies, emphatically. Somehow one gets the feeling that she’ll pull it off again with remarkable results.
After all, her ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’ worked for her in the past. And as long as Tiara is on the forefront doing what she does best — taking an idea and spinning it into tangibility — she’s ready and raring to put her best foot forward.
For more information, visit www.olabolamusical.com
What Casting for Ola Bola The Musical
When Today, 1pm to 6pm
where Enfinity HQ, 28, Ground Floor, The Strand, Jalan PJU 5/22, Kota Damansara, PJ