Nadya Hutagalung quietly but confidently moves about the staging room as she inspects the clothes our stylist has chosen for her. She discreetly pulls her aside to explain she can’t wear the suede dress shortlisted.
“I can’t wear animal skins. I’m sorry,” the model-actress says with the air of someone who is genuinely distraught that she has to inconvenience another.
“I can’t wear the acrylic dress either unfortunately. It just doesn’t align with my beliefs that fashion needs to be sustainable.”
This self-assuredness and this innate, unwavering belief in the value of the Earth and the impact of her choices on it, is exactly what Nadya projects to her fans, both through her conservation work and the principles she upholds in real life.
Last year, she published her own book, Walk With Me, which chronicles her life’s journey as an activist dedicated to environment preservation and wildlife protection. She is also an Environment Goodwill Ambassador with the United Nations.
It’s one of the reasons, the mum-of-three is often referred to as an “Earth Mother”, in addition to being the matriarch of her own family that comprises 22-year-old Tyrone, 15-year-old Fynn and 10-year-old Nyla.
“To become a mother is the beginning of your greatest learning journey. Having left home at around 12 years old to work, I never really had a defined impression of what being a parent should be.
“I was very independent and had to figure out many things for myself from my youth. I admit that I may unconsciously expect my own children to do the same at times,” says the 44-year-old.
“Being a mother has taught me that no one is perfect, that none of us is built the same way.
“I once was a very strict parent but I have loosened up over the years. I learnt by doing, and as a result, my eldest son, Ty, may have had a harder time in his upbringing than Nyla, my youngest, who I am raising in a very different way.”
Nadya describes her relationship with motherhood as a growth process. Each stage of mothering has been a learning curve for her, each with a respective set of challenges and attainment, form seed to sprout to tree.
Getting out of an abusive marriage
This growth was almost stalled by a dark episode in Nadya’s life. One that she was not prepared to talk about or publicly acknowledge until now.
While Nadya’s life has looked picture-perfect from afar, it wasn’t always this way she confesses.
Her first marriage was marred by abuse at the hands of her former husband – a period that the Indonesian-Australian beauty says changed her irrevocably.
“I left Australia under police escort with my then one-year-old baby in tow; and the reason I left under police escort was because I had been involved in a domestic abuse incident for years.
“I remember thinking that the only way I was going to get out of my situation was by being financially independent. So I worked really hard and I save up the money from my modelling jobs so that I could take the leap and leave,” she shares.
Her turning point she adds was when she got to shoot the cover for a Singapore edition of an international magazine that was set to launch.
The money she got from that job and some others gave her enough to buy a one-way airplane ticket out of her abusive relationship, and a chance at freedom.
“I was thinking ‘Where should I go?’ and I decided to go to Singapore because that’s where I had been getting most of my modelling jobs at the time so I wanted to go where the market was hot. That was more than 20 years ago,” remembers Nadya.
“The moment I realised my worth as a woman, I realised that I had to leave my marriage. I hid this story for so long but one of my proudest moments emerged from this dark time in my life.”
Allowing her kids to be photographed
To say this moment of self-awareness was life-changing is an understatement. Nadya’s life has shifted leaps and bounds and she’s now a living role model for her daughter Nyla, aged 10, from her marriage to Desmond Koh.
“I just love the way she makes me laugh and all her work with endangered species and communities inspires me to the same one day,” says Nyla, whose fiercely protective model mum has kept her out of the public eye… until now.
Asked why she decided – after years of evasion – to finally allow her children to be photographed, Nadya says she believes in leading by example.
“Both Nyla and Ty have decided that they would like a more public presence. It’s something I have taken time to do as I strongly respect their privacy.
“For me, fame or a public platform is not worth much unless you are using it to make a difference in the lives of others. It’s so special that Nyla and I are able to do this photoshoot together as I know that she is keen to embark on the path of being a change maker,” she explains.
“I don’t expect my children to follow my passions. But I hope that I’ve planted the seeds for them to become human beings who are happy and kind, and can find something the love to do and do it well.”
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Please excuse me while I take a quick break from our #backto7bc trip in Greece to share this very proud mama moment! My sweet #lilchick on her first magazine cover! I got Goosebumps watching her infront of the camera, she was an absolute natural who needed no direction at all! Now, most of you know I’m not a fan of pushing my own kids on IG nor am I rushing them to follow my footsteps but this young lady feels it in her bones! Grab a copy out on stands now! #superproudmama #lovethiskid #modellife @thesingaporewomensweekly @flyentertains
Watch this video: Mother-Daughter Challenge with Nadya Hutagalung & Nyla Koh
A version of this article first appeared in Singapore Women’s Weekly.
(Photos and video: Singapore Women’s Weekly)