THE L!FE INTERVIEW WITH NURUL AINI

Actress-host Nurul Aini is on a roll

Nurul Aini is able to connect with people as a show presenter and as a businesswoman

With her recent Favourite Female Personality accolade at awards show Pesta Perdana, actress and presenter Nurul Aini cemented her reputation as one of local Malay television's biggest stars.

But the 32-year-old's entry into show business was accidental and her path in life could have been very different if not for the initiative of her best friend.

When Suria, MediaCorp's Malay television station, put out a call for Juara, a talent competition in 2002, it was this friend, Diah Mastura Roslan, now her sister-in-law, who submitted an application on Nurul's behalf.

Based on her photo and application form, the producers liked her enough to call her for the first round of auditions.

Nurul, whose only acting experience up till then was in a secondary school play, had no idea that she was taking part until she got a call from Suria.

"When I found out that Diah had submitted my name without telling me, I was so angry that I slammed down the phone on her," says the mother of two, who is married to police officer Sofian Roslan. "Her reason for applying on my behalf? She said that I was suitable for TV because I was talkative and chatty."

Nurul, who was then working as a frontline staff at the now Mandarin Orchard Singapore, went for the auditions anyway. As fate would have it, her natural charisma and striking looks helped her through the first few rounds.

She did not win in the end and managed only to snag third place, but her involvement in Juara became a launching pad for her eventual ascension in the Malay television scene.

Her latest Pesta Perdana win, which was based on public voting, is her fifth trophy at the biannual awards ceremony that celebrates the best of local Malay television.

Her maiden award was Best Host in 2004 for anchoring travel show Zoom Thailand, her first major television gig after Juara.

While that first award was decided by a panel of judges, her popularity among viewers ensured her first win by public vote when she snagged Most Popular Female Personality the following year.

She repeated the feat and won the same award in 2011 and 2013.

Besides hosting prominent Suria programmes such as the upcoming edition of annual charity show Projek Kasih (Love Project) and variety show Kita Gerek, Nurul has also taken on lead roles in dramas such as Garisan Takdir (Lines Of Fate) and Di Pinggir Hati (At The Edge Of The Heart). She also has a main role in an upcoming Suria telemovie that will be aired on Mother's Day, Anakku Duniaku (My Child, My World), playing a mother seeking a child that she had given away.

Nurul, who learnt to speak Mandarin by watching Channel 8 dramas when she was young, had also taken on a supporting role as Vincent Ng's fiancee in the 2005 Channel 8 drama Love Concierge.

The trilingual actress has done Channel 5 English dramas such as this year's telemovie, Love Is Love: Sunshine, as well as the second season of crime series Code Of Law last year. Next month, she will start filming a Channel 5 drama, Lion Moms, about working mothers.

Outside of TV, Nurul is also an entrepreneur who co-runs an online women's fashion business, Studiofrost, and an eatery in Toa Payoh Lorong 6, Studio Cafe SG.

Born Nurul Aini Abdul Rahim, the slim, 1.72m-tall actress is genial and forthcoming throughout the interview at her home, a five-room flat in Pasir Ris.

When she is not out on a shoot, this is where she spends most of her time. The study area has been converted into a home office, where she does all the administrative work for her businesses.

A spare room has been converted into a makeshift photo studio and she doubles as a model and photographer for Studiofrost.

"Go ahead and write that I live in Pasir Ris; I've got nothing to hide, everybody knows where I live," she says with a smile. Indeed, she has opened up her home to clients and customers several times, whether it was to display Studiofrost's line of dresses or to style customers of a makeover business that she dabbled in a few years ago.

She also has no qualms about sharing much of her personal and professional life online and has been blogging since the early 2000s. These days, though, she is more likely to share candid pictures and videos on her Instagram account, which has 101,000 followers.

Television viewers such as Haryani Hussin, a 31-year-old secretary, love her bubbly and outgoing personality onscreen.

"There are many artists who are multi-talented like her, who can act and host, but what I like about Nurul is her willingness to take on tasks outside her comfort zone.

"For example, on the reality show Girl Power, we see her take on unglamorous tasks like cleaning portable toilets. That's not something many artists would like to do."

Television producers love Nurul because she is hardworking and versatile, says Ms Mufreha Ma'arof, a senior creative director at MediaCorp who has worked with the actress-host since her Juara days.

Ms Mufreha adds: "She has the ability to charm and connect with the audience. She simply shines and owns the stage whenever she hosts a live variety show and this is something that not many artists can do."

Being in the public spotlight is not all a bed of roses. With the adoration comes brickbats and Nurul acknowledges that she has her fair share of haters.

Right after her recent Pesta Perdana win, her detractors took to Suria's social media account and accused her of buying votes.

"I have always brushed off unfair criticisms, but these recent accusations affected me," she says. "Each viewer who wanted to vote had to key in his IC number and can only register once. It's not like I asked my fans or family to sign up multiple accounts and vote for me many times."

She has also been accused of being aloof and unfriendly to fans in public, but she insists that these criticisms were a misunderstanding.

"If fans smile at me, I will smile back and if they want to talk to me or take pictures, I don't turn them away. But sometimes I don't notice them and I can't be smiling all the time, right? I can't help it if people think I have an arrogant face."

Whether she looks smug or not is debatable, but Nurul has her mixed Malay, Peranakan, Pakistani and Dutch lineage to thank for her doe eyes, runway-model figure and angular features.

Her parents divorced when she was seven and she and her siblings - two older sisters and one younger brother - were then raised by her mother, a housewife-turned-factory worker.

Her father, who worked in the banking industry then, remarried and moved to Johor, where he now runs a cafe.

Upset by her parents' split in her younger years, she has since come to terms with the divorce and crosses the Causeway to visit her father and his new family from time to time.

Working at the Mandarin hotel was the first job for the former East View Secondary School student and it was one that she relished.

"I loved working there. I was personally attending to guests from all over the world, VIPs and ministers. I attended to the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew a few times too and he was always nice to me."

She continued holding on to the hotel job even after she started her television gigs and eventually worked her way up to an executive position.

But the toll of juggling two jobs got to her. "I would have to work from 7am to 3pm, the morning shift, and then be on set for shooting from 4pm to 2am and then sleep for only three hours."

Quitting her day job was a big risk because she knew that television work was project-based and would not guarantee her a monthly pay cheque. But with support from her family and her manager at the hotel, she took the plunge and resigned in 2005.

Her entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and she started a blogshop around that time.

"It started with shoes. People who read my blog always asked where I got my shoes from, so I ordered extra from the United States and re-sold them."

The blogshop evolved into online boutique Studiofrost, which she started with Ms Diah in 2007. It is doing brisk business - the company's monthly turnover can go up to a "six-figure sum".

They come up with their own designs and the clothes are sewn in China. "Once we organised a fashion show - for the recent Hari Raya collection - where we sold all 5,000 of our dresses."

Studio Cafe SG is her latest business venture, featuring a mix of local and international fare such as nasi goreng ayam penyet and sirloin steak. Nurul started the five-month-old cafe with fellow Suria artists Ashmi Roslan, Fadhlur Rahman and Khairudin Samsudin.

She had been toying with the idea of opening a cafe for some time, so when her fellow actors asked her to be part of the venture, she said yes.

"My main role is the presentation, design and outlook of the cafe. I'm also in charge of paperwork and accounting. The food? I leave it to Khairudin, although I do give my opinions."

Nurul met her husband, the only person she has had a serious relationship with, when she was 17. She dated his friend first and when things did not work out, Mr Sofian was there to console her and they became close.

The couple married in 2008, eight years after dating.

"We're not just husband and wife, we're best friends and I can talk to him about anything. I don't stop my husband from doing what he wants and he lets me do anything I want to do. We have 100 per cent trust in each other."

Their first child, son Shan Ehan, was born in 2010 and daughter Shaista Eman came two years later.

Just like their mother, her two cherubic kids are frequently in the limelight. They feature prominently on her social media accounts and Shan Ehan has acted in television thriller-drama Firasat (Foreboding) as a child spirit while Shaista appeared as a young daughter on docu- drama Perintis Kita (Our Pioneers).

On her parenting philosophy, Nurul says: "My mum brought my siblings and me up to be independent. When I was eight, I was taking care of my younger brother while she was at work. I want to make sure my children grow up to be independent as well."

She also admits to being a "kiasu" parent and has sent Shan Ehan, who is in kindergarten, for piano, swimming and maths classes.

She is aware of the more lucrative acting industry across the Causeway and how it has made megastars out of Singapore actors such as Aaron Aziz and Adi Putra. To date, she has taken on roles in dramas such as Kasih Berbisik (Love Whispers), a joint production between Singapore and Malaysian studio houses.

Earlier this year, she took on a role in Setulus Janji alongside an established Malaysian cast that included Azlee Khairi, Elfira Loy, Fahrin Ahmad and Dian P. Ramlee.

The only thing holding her back from being based across the Causeway, she says, is her children.

"I want them to be educated in Singapore. So for now, I don't mind taking on smaller roles which only require me to be there for a short while. If it's the holidays, my children can come along with me, but they are also old enough to cope with me being away for a few days."

For now, she seems to have found the perfect balance between family, television work and business.

"In the future, I see myself taking on more acting roles, if the opportunity arises. I also want to expand Studiofrost and open more Studio Cafe outlets."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg