NEELOFA
T Singapore: The New York Times Style Magazine|November 2020
ON THE SURFACE, NEELOFA IS A YOUNG WOMAN IN PURSUIT OF HER DREAMS. BUT THE ENDURING POWER OF HER NARRATIVE STEMS FROM A DEEPER QUESTIONING OF VALUES, DOMESTICITY AND A SOCIETY HELLBENT ON STAYING THE SAME.
BIANCA HUSODO

Amononym has always been reserved for a certain type of personality: Prince, Beyoncé, Iman. The kind of personality that renders a surname irrelevant. The kind of personality that forges a household name familiar to millions. These kinds of names withstood and will continue to stand the test of time, representing certain ideals many identify with.

And perhaps the same could be said of Neelofa. The three melodious syllables roll off the tongue. String them together and a particular face would spring to mind: One that’s both soft and sharp in its geometry; it’s cheekbones framing a set of feline eyes, eyelashes curled and full, lush lips. On the set of the cover shoot with T Singapore in Kuala Lumpur, this particular face was crowned with the glorious swath of a black leather hijab. Her petite figure — covered in an ankle-length Alexander McQueen coat, its shoulders exaggeratedly raised as if an armour — telegraphed an innate grandeur.

At 31, Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor, often shortened to Lofa by her legions of fans, is a burgeoning cultural force in her home country Malaysia as well as its neighbouring countries. She wears multiple hats, juggling roles as an actress, television host, business owner, fashion icon, and even, for a brief stint at AirAsia Group that recently ended in August, as a director of an airline. In Malaysia, her name is stamped on anything you can possibly think of. Onscreen, it’s displayed on local telemovies and popular talk shows like Next to Neelofa. Off the screen, it’s printed across the plastic lids of bubble tea, the latest collaboration between her banana milk brand, Nilofa, and the giant Taiwanese teahouse chain Chatime. Or more prominently on the clothing labels of Neelofa’s rapidly growing modest wear empire, Naelofar.

Her polymathic entrepreneurial interests translate to a ubiquitous presence that comes with a magnetic reach. The numbers speak for themselves: At the time of writing, she’s easily the most followed figure in Malaysia, racking up a staggering 12.4 million followers on her social media platforms. In an interview in 2019, she claimed that Naelofar managed to get “50 million ringgit sales [$16.3 million] within one year from Instagram itself.”

Neelofa’s devotees pay close attention to her every move. A scroll through her Instagram account would tell you why: Collectively, her 8,000-something posts form a curated, aspirational mood board of everyday modest dressing. She could be dressed sleekly in a figure-obscuring Valentino tunic one day, and coyly posing mid-grocery run in a loose-fitting, long-sleeved fuchsia top and a cascading skirt the next day (“Purposely hanging around the chiller for the cool breeze,” the caption reads). Her headscarf is always intact and in stylistic harmony — whether tied, wrapped or bundled. One post can generate thousands of fawning comments from her followers, mostly Muslim women. “You’re phenomenal,” says one whose avatar shows a hijab-wearing 20-something woman. “What a modest beauty,” gushes another.

But this constant barrage of laser-like attention is, of course, not all thumbs-ups and heart emojis.

“I was not prepared mentally and emotionally to be in this industry,” she admits in a video interview after the shoot. “My journey was quite fast, from nobody to someone yang orang kenal [who people recognise], it took me less than a year for me to put my name out there.”

Neelofa’s rise in the realm of entertainment was stratospheric, albeit unintended. In 2010, she won first place in a beauty pageant run by the Malaysian fashion magazine Dewi Remaja (which, loosely translated, means “teenage goddess”). The attention she garnered from winning the competition had one of Malaysia’s most prolific directors, Aziz M. Osman, offering her the role of the leading lady in his movie, “Azura” (2012). “When I said yes, everything changed,” Neelofa recalls. “Obviously, being someone who had no knowledge, no exposure in the industry, I was not well prepared to deal with all the unpleasant outcomes — the gossip and all those bad articles about me.”

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