Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Former Miss Malaysia Deborah Henry is a busy queen

Deborah Henry.

Despite what some people might think of beauty pageants, Deborah Henry says it afforded her a platform to promote worthwhile causes and gave her the visibility and voice to speak for those who couldn't.

As a model and former beauty queen, Henry has been Miss Malaysia twice over - representing our country first in the Miss World pageant in 2007 and later at the Miss Universe in 2011 - to say she is a veteran on the circuit would be an understatement.

Turning up for this interview in ripped skinny jeans, floral cropped top and ballerina flats - casual by beauty queen standards - Henry nevertheless looks every inch the glamorous persona she projects to the public. "It's my dress down day," she quips.

Standing at 1.77m, she towers over everyone in the room and her dazzling smile competes with the sunlight streaming in through the French doors.

She's toting a peacock print canvas bag from Nala, a Dutch designer based in Malaysia, which holds her change of outfits for the photo shoot.

"Don't you love this venue?" she asks, referring to bungalow cum event space she has chosen for us to meet.

"It's one of the venues which is registered with us and available to rent for private or corporate events."

Located in a quiet residential street in Taman Seputeh, Kuala Lumpur, this multi-level home is called Amore Lifestyle event space.

It is one of many venues which is available for rent at Venuescape (www.venuescape.my), the newly formed event-planning and location-scouting company which Henry is a director and shareholder.

"We started Venuescape about six months ago and there are six directors who each bring different strengths," explains Henry, 30.

"My role is an advisory one as well as business development. We fulfil an interesting niche where we bring together venue owners with people who wish to seek out new and different places to organise their functions."

For our interview, we settle down on a sofa and Henry starts off speaking in a low alto which exerts a calming effect.

Her zen-like demeanour is disarming and extremely engaging, an attribute she must have perfected during those gruelling rehearsals while vying for both those coveted beauty crowns.

"My idea of beauty pageants has always been positive," she says when I ask her about her experiences in both Miss World and Miss Universe.

"The kinds of women who compete in beauty pageants are not only beautiful but highly ambitious, super smart and extremely driven.

The pressure we all face while competing is quite incredible, I think even some guys would crack under the pressure."

But what about the cattiness? Surely not all the girls get along and the green-eyed monster must rear her ugly head once in a while?

"There are bad apples in every field of work. But for the most part, the competitors are such amazing and strong women.

I look at the friends I've made there on Facebook today and they are so successful in their own right, running businesses and holding high positions in companies."

Her voice goes up an octave when I ask how she counters feminists who say beauty pageants are demeaning to women and objectify the fairer sex.

"My fight for women's rights is that a woman is able to make her own choices and that has always been the fundamental voice of feminism.

Back in the day we fought for the right to vote and we are still fighting for equal pay. My fight is that women have the choice.

Whether they choose to be a stay-at-home mum or join the work force, there should exist a system which supports them and their choices."

She adds: "If a young woman wishes to enter a beauty pageant, why is that any different from someone who dreams of becoming a CEO? It's her choice and it's not for others to tell her she shouldn't because that's being judgmental."

Point taken. Henry recalls the physically and mentally demanding preparation she had to go through during the six to eight months leading up to the Miss Universe pageant.

"I was training and working out out every day at the gym and drinking protein shakes and studying current affairs for the Q&A section.

It's anything but weakening, in fact its empowering."

What bothers Henry more is not the fact that she paraded in front of millions of people in a swimsuit but that a girl somewhere in the world is not allowed to go to school.

This brings us to her charity work and the school for refugees she co-founded.

Henry established the Fugee School (www.fugeeschool.com) with a friend back in 2009 after she became aware of the unfavourable conditions refugees were living under.

Starting with just four students, today the Fugee School has 130 refugee children mainly from Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Iraq.

"There's a lot of misinformation about refugees," she muses.

"People think refugees come to a country and bring unsavoury elements with them and steal jobs. But put yourself in their shoes. If bombs are dropping all around you, would you stay put? Of course not!"

She continues: "We are facing the worst humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II today.

Children suffer the most in this kind of situation and at our school, we let them know they matter and that we want them to learn and become strong and successful. Without food and water, a child will die.

But without an education, they will also die because they would not have a fighting chance to survive in today's world."

Looking at her concerned countenance, it's evident that she cares deeply for the less fortunate and is fervent in her efforts in championing the underdogs.

She may be known for being a Miss Malaysia and consequently defined by her looks, but in Henry's case, true beauty radiates from within.