Paula Malai Ali

HELLO! Magazine, Issue 9, October 2007

Television personality Paula Malai Ali talks candidly about the next chapter of her life

By Sophia Goh

She’s one of the sexiest women on television and one of the most beautiful – and recognizable – faces in front of a camera. But life isn’t a bed of roses, even when you are Paula Malai Ali. Having made some major adjustments to her life in recent months, Paula is reluctant to talk about her divorce to husband of five years, Tengku Azudinshah Tunku Anuar, more familiarly known as Tengku Kudin. “There’s nothing to talk about,” she says. Instead, she chooses to focus on her career as a television presenter with Star Sports, as well as her new life now that she has moved to Singapore.

Strikingly beautiful up close, she is, as expected, extremely eloquent. But she’s also not afraid to say exactly what she thinks. Self-admittedly serious, Paula is down-to-earth, nice, and brutally honest. “That’s a crap answer right there, I’m sorry,” she says after a question. It wasn’t, but Paula takes her work seriously, and interviews are part of work. She also admits to being her worst critic, and is surprisingly self-deprecating when she talks about the group of beautiful, sexy presenters Star Sports brought onto the scene, herself included. “We… not we, they, can be pretty and sexy and still [host a sports show],” she corrects herself.

As co-host of Formula 1 races on Star Sports, among other roles for the channel, Paula is the first to admit that she’s had to do quite a bit of learning for the job. Formerly a VJ on Channel [V], she is a world away from talking about the latest songs rising to the top of the charts. Not that she has any intention of backing down from the challenge. “I took this on knowing full well what was ahead of me, knowing I was coming into a completely new area of work,” she says.

Besides, sports, like entertainment, too have their fair share of good-looking men. “James Blake, my god, how hot is he?” she laughs, when asked about her favourite tennis player. “He’s just one hunky piece of ass right there. That’s it. I’m that shallow.” She also refers to Formula 1 as a “sexy” sport, and admits to always having been a McLaren girl. So does she have a favourite Formula 1 driver? “I was feeling Lewis [Hamilton] for a while,” she admits, “but not anymore.”

Hello Paula, how have you been?
I’m feeling fantastic. I’ve been working at Star Sports and coming to the end of my first year there. I just started a new show called Seven@7 so that’s something I’ve slotted into my schedule. And I’m back in KL just to catch up with some friends.

Did you ever think you would be a sports host?
Never ever in my wildest dreams. And the funny thing is that, when you apply yourself, I suppose you can do anything, not that I am totally killing it, but I know that with a little bit of work, you can get into any field and get by if you’re prepared to put some work into it, which is something I’ve had to do for Star Sports, totally. Sport is really quite an amazing part of life. It really pulls people together; it’s a great sort of conversation at any dinner party or cocktail party. And also what I do like about Star Sports is that their foray is very much into Asian football. That’s really interesting to know, I mean, you may well know how Arsenal is doing in the English Premier League (EPL), but to know how Selangor is doing, or Iraq, who has just won the Asian Cup, it’s like, wow. EPL is given so much attention but we also have a lot of great football in the region.

Do you enjoy what you’re doing?
I do. I think with my job, you kind of have to put on a couple of hats. One is the lifestyle thing and one is studio-based. And both are as fun as the other. And Formula 1 has so many aspects about it – it’s a really sexy sport. And then you’ve got the technical aspects of it and the internal battle between teammates, between teams… it’s really like a soap opera.

What has been the hardest learning curve for you going into this role?
For the people who knew me as a VJ or an entertainment-based presenter, for them to see me try on this sporting hat, it’s been difficult. I think a lot of guys feel that I need to prove myself, and sure I do. That’s been emotionally quite difficult at times, but overall the way that we work at the channel is there’s a lot of support production-wise, there’s a lot of help before you go on air. You’re a team and you don’t go live on air if your presenter’s not comfortable or your producer’s not comfortable. So I think it’s about pulling together as a presenter, working really hard before you get on air, knowing your stuff, and researching your work. It’s just good old-fashioned Googling, scripting, talking to your co-hosts, to your producer, and getting the best you can for your show. As a presenter it’s been a steep learning curve.

What about the real Paula? Is she into sport at all?
I’m getting there. I think you have to be. I owe it to our viewers to make an effort and to understand my shortcomings and embrace my strengths with every month I work at the channel. I have to know that, okay, I’m getting better at this, I’m getting more knowledgeable, and my ears are more open to the world of sport. The real Paula this time two years ago would never have expected this. But I’m not scared of the challenge. I’m not shy to admit what I know and don’t know, and I know that I love TV and that it’s in my blood.
Sometimes you go home at the end of the day and you go, I didn’t do such a great job today, as you would with any job; but as long as you ask yourself, did I do the best I could, and I can say, sure, I think I did the best I could, that’s all you can do. And if everybody loves you then that’s cool, but chances are they won’t. I’m very sensitive about my work and I take it very seriously, but I’m more of trying to deal with the fact that not everybody agrees with me doing this show, but that’s not my problem. In the beginning I was like, oh people don’t respond to me. I have to now show them why they should be responding to me. I am a TV presenter and I can learn. I shouldn’t be shy to learn something new at this stage of my career.

Have you actually come across vocal opposition towards your role, or has it all been a more subtle vibe that you’re getting?
There have been some subtle and some not so subtle. When I joined the channel there was a whole new intake of girl presenters and people were like, what’s going on here? Actually, we were broadcasting and a lot of them were very pretty, sexy girls, and people were just thinking, well just because you’re pretty and sexy doesn’t mean you can do this. You’re in the line of fire in show business and it’s sport, it’s something a lot of guys want to do. So there’s this funny dynamic there.

You’ve been in showbiz for many years. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from it?
You just have to know that you’re always learning. If you go into a job thinking, I’ve got ten years under my belt I can do this, you’re just going to fall and you should. Because whether you’ve had ten or twenty [years’ experience], you have to know that when you come into a new job, you learn. You have to learn to deal with a new crew, with a new area of TV. And you’re never too old or too experienced to eat humble pie. For me, going into Star Sports from Channel [V], I was like, yeah I know TV. Well, I know TV but I don’t know the people in Star Sports and it’s a new family. You must always, always know you need to learn with every week that you do this kind of stuff.

Have there been any embarrassing moments so far?
No. Oh god, don’t say that. [Touches wood] I’m jinxing it. But like I say, our production team is so supportive, the shows are so heavily produced, obviously when you go live you can’t control everything and that’s also the magic of live TV, but no, nothing yet, and the thing is if something does go wrong, you just have to scramble your way out of it. Your viewers know that things are going to go wrong, you’re not perfect.

So at the end of the day when the cameras have stopped rolling and you go home, what are you like as a person?
I like silence when I get home; I don’t need to have my stereo or my TV on. I need a lot of time to myself to regroup. When you give yourself up [on TV], you get drained. It’s live and you get pumped, then you just go home. I’m really good at just sitting, staring at my living room and just like, decompress. I’m a very serious person at the end of the day. A person that likes to cook myself dinner, call my sisters in Brunei and go to bed early with a book. Not very sexy, but that’s it.

Do you write?
Cheques, yes. All the time. I have to blog for work and I do like writing but I’m not a confident writer. I wish I could say, oh I write poetry when I’m feeling down but I don’t. When I’m feeling down I’ll do something like… eat. It’ll be nice to write a song, though.

Tell us about your beauty and fitness routine.
I run four times a week, about five to seven kilometres each time. I go to the gym twice a week with a trainer, which I absolutely hate. I think lifting weights is the most ridiculous thing in the world, you’re just there lifting heavy things and counting to twenty and doing it three times over, but it burns fat. I try to keep very active for vanity reasons and for good vibe reasons. I think there’s nothing better than a good run when you’re stressed. Beauty-wise, as a TV personality you’re wearing so much make-up that if you don’t wash your face, you’re asking for adult acne in a heartbeat. And you need to sleep. I work really funky hours and that’s a luxury that sometimes doesn’t happen but sleep is the best thing in the world.

So are you the type who doesn’t eat so you don’t have to work it off, or the type who eats first and then worries…
I’m that type of person. I eat. I wish I had an eating disorder, I totally wish I could make myself puke now, you know what I mean? I don’t get eating disorders. I like my food, and that’s why I work out. I have to, otherwise I’d just be one heffer (an overweight girl) rolling around.

What’s your secret indulgence?
I’m a sodium girl – cheddar chips, really salty food… I’m asking for hypertension. I’m not a chocolate girl. And I like burgers. It really is a serious weakness. I wish I could say, oh I feel like a big salad, but never, ever.

What do you like doing in your free time?
I love running.

Do you run long-distance?
Well, I live just off Orchard Road in Singapore so I love running up to Orchard and grabbing a coffee. I love being alone and I’m very, very happy being in my own company. I like having coffee or breakfast by myself, or lunch or dinner… I sound a bit sad. Maybe I should just rewind that. Yes, I sound exclusive and a bit weird, right? Because a lot of people can’t have meals by themselves and I find that a bit strange.

Would you ever run a marathon?
You know, I was going to run a half-marathon, and then I realised how far it was and I was like, screw that, I’m not going to do that. So I’ll do 10km. I did the Petaling Jaya 10km run the other day, came in 95th, got a certificate.

If you hadn’t become a TV host, what would you have become?
I really like fabrics so I would have loved to deal with making furniture and interior design. I really love the idea of making a shell a home. And I love jewellery. I like gems, clothes, colours and textures, so probably a jewellery designer.

Is being a TV host something you’ve always wanted to do?
I always knew I would do it.

How did you know that?
I’m a show-off. Even when I was in school, my twin sister and I would always be the emcees for events and the people reading things and I was like, okay, maybe there’s something here. And I got comfortable with the idea of going on stage in front of a mike very early. I knew I could do it. I just knew I’d be doing this. I think I really wanted to be an actress but obviously that’s not going to happen.

Is acting something for later on maybe?
Well, I’ve done a lot of theatre, I’ve done TV, I’ve done a couple of movies and I realised that I’m a TV host. I do love it. I’m so blessed that I’ve had a chance to live in Malaysia for the last 13 years, I’ve had the chance to do a lot of things – sitcoms, theatre, dramas and telemovies, I’ve been so lucky. At the end of the day, I think TV is what I do, it’s who I am.

Do you think having a twin sister helped your career at all – people liking the novelty of twins, maybe?
No, my sister and I have never worked that angle. It’s not that we’re opposed to it, it’s just a bit cheesy as well, like, look at us we look the same. We’re different. We have worked together a couple of times but we’ll kill each other if we work together. She wants to be the boss and I want to be the boss. I don’t think having a twin really has had much to do with what I’ve done today. It’s certainly helped who I am today, but not career-wise, no.

Who’s older?
She is, by 25 minutes.

Does she try to pull the ‘I’m the bigger sister thing’ on you?
No. She can’t. Never.

Is having Jenny in the same industry a good or bad thing?
It’s a bit of both, to be really honest with you. We work in different markets but there was one time when she came to Malaysia and we did a TV show together. You’d think in an ideal world that would be perfect – two twins doing a TV show and hosting together, and we thought it would be amazing. Like, this is just a recipe for success and we’re going to kill it. But we wanted to kill each other instead. It became quite an emotional thing. We did four episodes together and we hated each other. We realised that we were actually quite competitive and that we couldn’t do it. It was difficult on a lot of levels. All the ingredients were there for a great show and we could do it, we could give our producers what they wanted, but when we got home, she’ll say, oh I really hated you today, you busted my groove, and I’d be like, you busted mine! It was really petty and immature and it was something I wish did not exist but it did so it’s like, okay, we can’t work together. We can work together on a one-off project and it would be really amazing and bubbly and sparkly and it would work for two hours. But if you put us in a room together for four hours working, we can’t do it. I don’t know what it is… it’s a really human thing, we got a bit competitive.

What does your mum think of her showbiz twin daughters?
[Pauses] I have no idea. I think she likes us. My mum will watch all my shows and Jenny’s a newsreader so she’ll watch all Jenny’s news bulletins. I’m sure there’s a part of her that sits back and is amazed at the complete opposite directions we’ve taken. Jenny wears a tudung for her news bulletin. My mum calls me up after a Formula 1 show and says, your dress is very low, I can see your bosom, what are you doing? And I’m like, mum, chill out. But she had a point. She’s just watched her other daughter on TV with a tudung and now my tits are hanging out. So I think she finds it quite amusing, I mean, I’m talking about fast cars and Jenny is talking about a minister who came and visited a garden in Brunei or something.

Do you have any regrets after all these years in the industry?
I really wish I spoke better Malay. It’s appalling; embarrassing. I’m half Malay and I think what’s happened is I’ve allowed myself to be swallowed up by the stigma that I don’t speak Malay, and now it’s too late. I just feel embarrassed. If I start speaking Malay now, people will be like, is she… speaking Malay?

You could learn now…
I know. I just sound like a real Mat Salleh [Caucasian] trying to speak Malay. I think I sound like a complete dumb-ass. I wish that I’d been a little bit more… linguistically… proactive. [Laughs] There you go, how’s that for a sound byte? [It] came from nowhere.

How many languages do you speak?
I speak English and blasphemy and I do them both extremely well.

Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
I’ll be 38. [Pauses] No doubt doing the same thing, if I’m lucky. I think… I don’t know.

Where do you want to see yourself in 5 years?
I really don’t know. I haven’t thought about it because I’ve just done this big move to Singapore. I hope to still be doing TV and just getting better and better every year. It’d be great to be a 40-year-old and still be on top of the game, you know. And still be somebody that people enjoy watching, somebody that people are comfortable watching. That would be nice. Maybe even produce my own show and host my own show…

What would the topic be about?
God knows. I would love to come up with a completely new idea for TV and have people say, oh why didn’t I think of that? That’s what I’d like to do. People ask if I want to be the next Oprah. I don’t want to be the next anyone, I want people to want to become the next Paula.

What drives you each day?
[Thinks really long] I think, not letting anybody down. When you work for a channel like Star Sports, you’ve got a reputation behind you. Sure, you get your days where you’re like, I don’t want to wake up, I don’t want to go to work; but you’ve got to count your blessings, and again, I’m still learning a lot. I’m in a relatively new job and I don’t want to let anybody down, I don’t want to let anybody regret having me on board. Don’t let yourself down. And when all else fails, wear a wonderbra, I don’t know [laughs].

Do you find that you have to constantly please people in this industry?
No, and the moment you do that, that’s when you’ll start hating it. It’s a really weird world we live in, this TV showbiz world, you’re not going to please everyone. I think that if you please the people that matter – your viewers, your boss, yourself, you’re doing okay. I don’t mean to sound so ‘hello kitty’ about it, I know it’s a bit cheesy, but we get fan mail. If I want to get upset about one guy, then I’m going to be shot for the day, I’m going to be so obsessed with this guy. We get 10 good mails for one bad mail most of the time, and human nature’s such that we harp on that one bad mail. We can’t please everyone. Some people like my British accent and some people don’t like me for my British accent, I don’t know, it’s not my fault. I think at the end of the day, if what I’m doing is credible, it’s the best I can do. And just be genuine about it. And to not take the piss out of my viewers thinking, oh I’m going to try and get away with what I can. No, I’m going to go in there and be as prepared as I can be.

What’s one thing you can’t live without?
Eggs… and Evian mineral water. I’m a bit of an Evian freak. I panic if my house doesn’t have either of those two things.

One person you cannot live without?
My twin. When you have a twin it’s really the most amazing thing your mother can give you. You have a person in your life who understands you 110%, no matter how screwed up you sound, she’s like, I get it, Paula, I get it. And you know that she’s not being dismissive about you, it’s I hear you, I know how you feel, and I know that this will not matter in a week’s time. My twin is my everything. I’ll call her from a restaurant in Singapore and say, should I have naan or chapatti? Nothing is too stupid and never is.

What do you think: life begins at 20 or life begins at 30?
Life begins at 30. No, 33, because I’m 33!

[Laughs] Why else?
I think 30s are the new 20s now. It’s just the way life has progressed. I think that I’m a much better person today than when I was 20, and I think most women are. We have to prove something when we’re 20. At 30 we’re like, I give up. I can’t prove anything any more, I’m just going to let it ride. Boobs are going to sag, ass is going to drop, not everybody loves you, suck it up.

What do you think of plastic surgery?
Bring it on. Haven’t had any yet but it’s there for the taking. It hurts, though.

What do you look for in a partner?
[Pauses] Generosity of spirit. I think it’s such a tangible, lovely thing when you see somebody that’s so generous. They can be the hottest guy in the world but if that person is so magnanimous about allowing you to be wrong sometimes, about allowing you to be ugly at times and still loving you for that – that’s amazing, because then it allows me to be the same person back to them, and I think that’s a great thing.

Some women have a physical attribute they always look for in men. What’s yours?
I like them to smell good. I have so many things I look for. I like to make them laugh, if they can find me funny then I dig it – it’s all about me [laughs]. And I like generous people, if the guy’s stingy and won’t pull out of his wallet to pay, it’s like, ugh. Because I will pay anyway. It’s not that I expect him to but at least pretend, you know what I mean. I really hate that.

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