We arrived at Amber Chia’s modern, three-storey link house in Old Klang Road before she did. Expecting Chia to come out and meet us, we were instead loudly greeted by two very excited miniature poodles. Thankfully, the supermodel drove up the driveway minutes later, giving the canines something else to focus their eager attention on.
Dressed in a black sleeveless top, the first thing you notice about Chia apart from her height – she is 5 feet 8 inches tall – are her famous pouty lips. She speaks with confidence, and although her English isn’t perfect, it has apparently improved considerably. Nine years ago, Chia didn’t speak a word of English. “I developed it through having to speak with people when I got into the [modelling] business,” she says, in between putting on her eye shadow and fake eyelashes.
Chia’s story is a rags-to-riches one. “My parents are uneducated, we didn’t have much [growing up],” she reveals. Her father was a fisherman in the small fishing village of Sekinjang in Kuala Selangor. “There is no hospital there so my mum travelled to Ipoh, where my grandmother was, to deliver me,” says Chia, who is the third out of six siblings.
When she was seven, Chia’s family moved to the remote town of Tawau on the east coast of Sabah, where she was brought up and schooled; finishing her education in Form Three – her mind was already set on becoming a model. “I would save my school money just to take photos to enter [modelling] competitions,” she discloses. At 17, and with just RM400 in her pocket, Chia moved to Kuala Lumpur to pursue her dream. “I knew what I wanted to do… but when I look back it was quite dangerous,” she says of her early casting days. “Thank God nothing bad happened to me.”
Sharing a cramped room with a friend, she spent four years chasing modelling contacts and attending casting calls. Her big break eventually came when she won the Guess Timeless Beauty contest in 1994. The rest, like they say, is history. In the years since, Chia has appeared on countless magazine covers, in innumerable fashion spreads and commercials, and also landed major endorsement deals for brands both in Malaysia and abroad. She also published her first book, Supermodel’s Secrets of Success, late last year.
Although Chia has the frequent opportunity to jet off for runway shows in global fashion capitals such as London and New York (she has worked for both Victoria Beckam and Farah Angsana in the latter) she keeps returning home to Malaysia. “I love travelling but my heart is here,” she confesses. “The reason I don’t want to move to New York is because of my parents, I can’t live without them,” adds Chia.
As well as modelling, Chia is also passionate about acting, having performed in Malaysian productions such as 3rd Generation and Possessed as well as television shows in Taiwan and China. Her next big role is in a Hong Kong kung-fu flick opposite actor Donnie Yen, a sequel to Ip Man, the blockbuster movie about the man who taught Bruce Lee martial arts. “Acting, like modelling, allows you to be a different person,” she smiles, adding emphatically, “I just love being in the entertainment industry.”
Of course, being a celebrity brings with it many challenges, such as when Chia was heavily criticised in 2006 for appearing in the Indonesian edition of Playboy. Naturally, she stood her ground. “It was organised by Celebrity Fitness, for the ‘celebrity’ section of the magazine,” she says of the non-nude photo spread. “This is what I have to face, being a celebrity. But it’s better to have publicity, good or bad, than none at all!” she exclaims.
Her drive and ambition has led Chia to found her own events and production company, Amber Creations, which is doing “very well” despite being just eight months old. In that role she recently filmed Ford Models’ Supermodel of the World Malaysia, for which she is executive producer as well as head judge. For the first time staged in Malaysia, the annual competition is run in over 50 countries, with the global winner securing a contract with Ford Agency worth USD250,000. Chia secured the franchisee rights for the reality show after a very public falling out with a supposed partner. “I never thought I could be this strong,” she says. “I have to look into every single detail, from getting sponsors to selecting food.” Canon Marketing (Malaysia) Sdn. Bhd. was the main title sponsor for the event.
With our time coming to an end, we ask what the future holds for Amber Chia, supermodel. “I can’t be Amber Chia the model forever,” she states firmly. “That is why I am working very hard. I want to make my parents proud.” Although she may travel the world, Malaysia’s most famous supermodel has never lost sight of home.