Sippin’ on some freshly brewed tea in a trendy neighbourhood café on a Friday evening while listening to stories from a legendary supermodel is certainly not something we get to do very often (if not ever), so forgive us for still reeling with excitement from this unforgettable late afternoon.
This legend of a model we’re speaking of is Tengku Azura. She is someone who has earned devout adoration of those within the Malaysian fashion industry, as she hustled her way up to become a successful supermodel since the 90s.
Azura has graced countless fashion magazine covers, jet-setted across the world to strut down major runways. All this experience makes for interesting stories that are both intriguing and inspirational for the younger generation.
Perhaps what makes her so admirable besides her looks to kill (have you seen those exquisitely sculpted cheekbones?), is also the fact that she is a woman who speaks with a degree of candour. She stays truthful to herself but is careful to not provoke those around her.
So what led her path to the world of modelling? Well, let’s just say the model life chose her, and not the other way around. She may live the supermodel dream but the start of her journey was purely accidental.
Back in 1993, a young and carefree Azura was minding her own business, walking around a famous shopping complex called Lot 10 in Kuala Lumpur with a friend, when a woman named Cilla Foong approached and asked if she was a model.
“Do I look like a model?” said Azura chuckling.
“Modelling never crossed my mind, but she passed me her card anyway and convinced me to think about it.
“I went home and talked to my mother about it. It was a challenge at first because I come from a conservative family. But I did my research and asked for opinions on this company. Eventually I decided to give it a try, in hopes of earning some extra income.
“That’s how it all began. If that opportunity never came, I would’ve pursued my interest in becoming a flight attendant,” she said.
Do you remember your first ever catwalk? We ask her.
“Of course! How can I forget. It took place at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, for a hi-tea session. Back then, fashion shows during hi-tea sessions or luncheons were common.
“Backstage was nothing fancy and pure chaos, we had to change in the restroom! And I remember how horrible and nerve-wracking my first walk was.
“Things back then were very much different than how it is now. Models are expected to bring their own shoes, accessories and make-up as opposed to now, where everything is prepared for.
“Mind you, a single pair of shoes was not enough for a whole show. If there were 6 rounds of outfit changes, we had to bring 6 types of shoes to match the outfits.
“I remember tugging a luggage full of shoes and accessories as I rush here and there for shows via the public bus because I didn’t own a car.
“For the hi-tea show, we were required to wear black heels. I had never worn high heels before what more own one, so I resorted to borrow my aunt’s shoes but it wasn’t black.
“Out of desperation, I actually painted her shoes black! That backfired on me because I left back spots on stage after every step. That was hilarious,” she laughed.
That same year in 1993, she was whisked away to Rome, Italy for her first job abroad.
“I had never traveled abroad before so I had no passport. I was young, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Well, she was surely in for a thrilling ride of a lifetime.
FACE OF DIOR
Azura is the only Malaysian supermodel to have ever landed the appointment of becoming the face of luxurious fashion house, Dior.
“That happened by chance too,” she said.
Apparently, a General Manager for the brand who happened to attend a show Azura walked for was captivated by her supermodel aura.
“When Cilla told me about it, I couldn’t believe it!”
“Admittedly, I went through a rebellious phase at that time. I was like a black sheep in the whole agency because I was always late to shows.
“I had my ups and downs but hey we all make mistakes, so I was determined to not repeat them again,” she said.
“I signed a one-year contract with the brand and traveled the whole year. I was supposed to walk for a show in Paris, but unfortunately the casting for that show was over by then.
“In the end, I attended the show as a guest, sitting front row alongside names like Naomi Campbell.
“Of course, being in that era there was no such thing as smartphones made it impossible for us to document moments like that! But overall it was a really good experience.”
As her career progressed, Azura received more offers from agencies abroad.
“I was supposed to sign up with IMG London but unfortunately my portfolio wasn’t relevant to what they were looking for.
“They convinced me to return and do a test shoot, but my parents weren’t keen on the idea of me being based abroad.
“When I started modelling, I promised my mother I would adhere to her terms and conditions and carry the family name well and high.
“Coming from a conservative family, that meant no modelling in swimming suits, lingerie or anything too sexy.
“Of course, I felt sad that I couldn’t pursue my career abroad, but I have no regrets listening to my parents. I always believed that Allah will grant you blessings in other ways, and He did,” she said.
THOUGHTS ON THE FASHION INDUSTRY
The fashion industry has certainly evolved from the 90s, but if there is one thing Azura stressed on is the welfare of the models.
“Without the models, shows will not go on. Just how it’s important to put up a great show on the front, it’s equally important to care for the model’s welfare backstage.
“This is how models earn a living. People often think that modelling is brainless job and that models are bimbos, but that’s far from the truth.
“A lot of preparation and synchronising goes into making sure the shows are well executed. Don’t just think about what matters on the forefront.”
THE TRANSITION TO HIJAB
It has been five years since Azura went from that supermodel flaunting her gorgeous locks, to sporting the hijab.
She may have her head covered with a scarf now, but Azura prefers to be labeled ‘modest’ as opposed to a full-fledged hijabi.
“To me, the hijab signifies a person who covers up their ‘aurat’ completely. With the term ‘modest’ people cover up themselves up but not completely. There is less pressure to that label.
“I don’t want to change things drastically; I am still on this journey of self-discovery. I’m still learning.”
“The first designer I worked with after changing my appearance was with Zang Toi. He called me one day from New York, saying he was coming home and had a show booked for me.
“I told him about my new appearance and that I wouldn’t be able to model how I used to before donning the headscarf. That meant no revealing clothes – it had to be loose and something that covered the neck.
“He assured me that wasn’t a problem and even customised a dress just for me. Even though he isn’t Muslim, he respected my religion and I admire him for that,” she said.
Azura admits that even after 5 years of wearing the hijab, she’s still on a journey to finding a style that suits her best. “I do a lot of research to experiment what I’m most comfortable with. If I am not sure about something, I would immediately ask my ustazah (religious teacher).
“But most importantly, what matters most is our intention. We have to remind ourselves that what we do what we wear, it is for Allah SWT,” she said.
What transpired her decision to wear the hijab? “I just felt it was time. There wasn’t any life-changing revelations, there wasn’t an epiphany – I just felt it was time to do it.”
At the age of 44, Azura likes to think she’s not relevant in the fashion industry no more.
“My time is over, I think it’s very awkward to do shoots especially with my appearance now, there is a lot of limitations. All of that makes me wonder if I am still relevant in the industry,” she said with a laugh.
Tell that to fashion lovers in Malaysia and they’ll find that absurd because to them, she’s a visionary.
If she were to pour in some words of advice for the younger generation, it would be to stay grounded and keep pursuing their passion.
“It took me years to gain some recognition from the industry. Keep working hard, because one day you will reap the rewards.
“It’s okay if people don’t recognise you now. Just keep going and persevering because one day your time will come,” she said.
“No matter how great you are, always believe there’s someone out there who is far better than you,” she said.
“What’s most important is to stay humble because if not, it’s easy to get drifted away.”
Behind the Face of Salam
- Face of Salam : Tengku Azura Tengku Awang
Project Manager & Co-ordinator : Shah Shamshiri
- Text: Syahirah Mokhtazar
- Editor : Ili Farhana Mohamed
Photographer: Bustamam Mokhtar, White Studio
- Graphic Designer: Asyraf Tamam
Stylist : Min Luna
- Hijab Stylist : Didiyana Ehsan
Make-up Artiste : Khir Khalid
- Jewellery: Osare Design
- Top: PU3
- Dress: Maarimaia
- Jewellery: Osare Design
- Cape: Behati