Monday, April 17, 2006

Interviewing VJ Paula

There are days when I hate my job. The day I interviewed Channel [V] VJ Paula Malai Ali, as you can probably tell from the picture to the right, was not one of them. Believe me when I say, though, that I didn't enjoy the interview because she was easy on the eyes -- although that was a definite plus, I admit -- I enjoyed it because she was smart. And funny. And gave the impression that she wasn't too concerned about saying the pat, proper thing. The interview was conducted about a year ago, and ran in FUDGE magazine. Here's the first draft of the article, in full:

Paula’s POV | VJ Paula talks about Sting, Shakespeare, and her sins | by Luis Katigbak

"I am a big fan of William Shakespeare." These are words that one does not realistically expect to be spoken with any sincerity or conviction by a TV personality in this day and age, more's the pity. But Channel [V] VJ Paula Malai Ali is no ordinary television personality.

"I think that every time you read one of his plays, one of his works, you find something different," she says, continuing to extoll the virtues of the Bard. "You understand it a bit more -- or you understand it a bit less. He was quite a clever lad." This demonstration of quick wit, flavored with a dash of sly irreverence, would perhaps not be unworthy of The Merchant of Venice's Portia -- incidentally, theatre veteran Paula's favorite Shakespearean role. It was while she was playing the lead in a production of the Willy Russell play Educating Rita, however, that an editor discovered her and decided to put her on the cover of his men's magazine.

After that, she admits, "the offers just rolled in" -- and now she is that rarity: a celebrity with substance, with an impressive list of television, radio, stage and even internet credits to her name, not to mention a number of modeling gigs. Certainly her good looks -- a happy result of her mixed Bruneian and English heritage -- would have garnered her attention in any case, but she's far more than just another pretty-smiled media darling. Her sharp intelligence, self-deprecating wit and amazing work ethic mark her as extraordinary: on the day of our shoot, despite being hampered by illness (brought on by a bad plate of pasta, one crew member theorized), she gamely struck poses and emoted for our photographer, and answered all questions with her sense of humor intact.

Paula grew up in Brunei, and moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, ten years ago; she's been a VJ for Channel [V] for about three years now. She's on no less than seven shows: The Ticket, The 10, The US Billboard Countdown, The Rock Show, Video[Scope], Remote Control and The Inter[V]iew. "I have the best job in the world," she says, in her quite frankly mesmerizing accent. "I think if you talk to a lot of VJs, they'll agree. I'm in a very privileged position; I do travel so very much. I mean, I've been traveling nearly every two weeks." Just before her stint in Manila, she had been on jaunts to Los Angeles and Singapore. "I think that could well be why I'm kind of sick today. Exhaustion."

Still, the perks of the job are undeniable: I ask her about the artists she's interviewed. "Alicia Keys was very gorgeous and very warm. Sting -- I enjoyed Sting, 'cause I'm a fan. It's nice when you're a fan of these people, and you meet them. Norah Jones gave me a nice interview." She thinks for a moment, and concludes, "A lot of the girls gave me very nice interviews... Duran Duran gave me a hard time. They were difficult." Difficult in what way? "Simon Le Bon was defensive. I don't know what he was defensive about. But, you know, there's something to be said for interviewing Duran Duran." She was, apparently, a fan of theirs, growing up.

Which leads us to the question of what she's listening to these days: "I find I'm getting really regressive with my music tastes, I think because my job calls for 'the latest, the hippest, the trendiest' music. So I've really gone back to my 80s roots -- 'cause I'm a child of the 70s -- and my 80s music has become something I really enjoy. My Wham, my Lionel Richie -- I'm quite unsophisticated like that." This amusing revelation leaves an opening for me to ask her about something one normally does not discuss with a lady. "You mentioned that you were born in the 70s," I begin. "I realize it's not polite to --"

"I'm 31," she says bluntly, saving us both some trouble. Most people think of VJs as bubbly young things in their teens and early twenties -- so I ask her what it's like, being a VJ at her age. "I'm sure I probably would have gotten this job in my early twenties as well, if the audition had come then," she muses, "but I would've not been as comfortable and confident as I am today. I just think, in terms of my personal approach, I'm glad I got this job when I was in my late twenties, because I feel a lot more dignified in it, I feel confident in it." It shows: the handful of extra years gives her a kind of casual authority that callow hosts lack. Aim a silent prayer to the gods of TV for their wisdom in bestowing VJhood on this particular thirtysomething.

"I don't ever want to be one of these VJs that is just wearing a really gorgeous top and is just talking complete rubbish," Paula continues. "'Cause you can get away with talking complete crap, you really can. But I never want to be that person that is just like 'blah blah blah, white noise white noise.' That's not my job." I ask her for more specifics on how she goes about her job. "I try to really make it my own, you know? Because I have a personality, and I want it to come through... I ad lib a lot, much to the chagrin of my crew -- they're like, aw, we have to edit that now, dammit!"

It's interesting to note that such an independent, feisty spirit is also the wife of a prince: Tengku Kudin, nephew to the Sultan Kedah, to be exact. I ask her what it's like, being married to royalty. "It's, um -- you know, I'm fascinated by it, because the particular family that my husband is from is one of the oldest royal families in the world. So it's interesting when I go back to the palace when we have to attend functions or whatever -- I see a lot of history. You know, I find it fascinating, and I love the fact that they have so much of a past... They're so proud of their heritage, and they love to tell me of their family tree. To me it's been a cultural lesson, more than anything else. I didn't suddenly change my lifestyle, and go around wearing a tiara. I drive myself to work, I'm renting a house, you know?"

As the theme of this issue of FUDGE is "Sins", our talk naturally turns towards that always-fascinating topic. "My sins are quite tame," Paula asserts. "I like salt, that's my sin. I'm a sodium-sinful girl. Anything with salt on it. I like potato chips and..." At this point she trails off, perhaps contemplating the dizzying array of salted snacks this plane of existence has to offer. She names another sin, something many Filipinos can identify with: "My phone bill is too high. That's a sin, it's sinfully high every month. There's my roaming fees, and I call my twin sister up like every day -- it's crazy. We just spend too much money on the phone."

Aiming for a nice round number of three deadly sins, I encourage Paula to talk some more about her transgressions. "Another sinful thing I do is that I have a tendency to be a bit too frank. Has this gotten me into trouble?" she asks, anticipating my next question. "Yeah. I need to really work out the wiring in my head sometimes, because -- have you seen that episode of Friends where Phoebe says, 'Did I just say that out loud?' I do that. -- 'Did I just say that out loud?'"

"I think the latest example is when I was interviewing Robin Williams two weeks ago, in L.A.," Paula says. It was time for her to wrap up her interview with the Academy Award-winning comedian and actor, when she realized -- "Well, I've got nothing. You've given me nothing," she told him. "Because he was doing his voices and his characters and not addressing my questions," she explains. (Immediately afterwards, the thought flashed in her brain: "Damn, why did I say that?") And did he give you something after that?, I ask. "No -- I don't think he was really there. He was just doing his thing."

Robin Williams doing his thing may be an interviewer's nightmare, but the exact opposite is true for Channel [V] VJ Paula Malai Ali. Long may she continue to charm and enlighten viewers and reporters alike, by bringing a unique perspective and determination to her work, by remaining true to her personality, by doing her thing.

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