It was barely six in the morning. Nia Atasha, bundled up in an Emporio Armani grey suit jacket, sat silently in the makeup chair. Given that her star power had been rising as of late—booking international campaigns, landing film and TV roles, and gracing magazine covers—it wasn’t hard to imagine that the whole thing might now be considered an inconvenience; that her ego might have become as inflated as the cheques she has been cashing.
“This is me in my element. Waking up at 4.30 AM and being on set by six,” she said with an unreadable, deadpan expression before bursting into a familiar laughter. Even in such an ungodly hour, her dry wit stayed unaffected. “I have very sarcastic humour but I always mean well! I meant to say that I’m in my element when I’m working. I’m a huge workaholic and I really can’t imagine my life not being busy or working,” she explained.
And boy, has she been working. The 27-year-old has clocked some impressive feats throughout her decade-spanning career including starring in Victoria’s Secret global campaign just months ago—an achievement that further cemented her place in the modelling industry. The empowering, all-female production was particularly a dream come true for the Kuala Lumpur-born who grew up watching the models she looked up to strutting down the runway in stunning lingerie and equally spectacular wings.
“You just couldn’t help but feel mesmerised,” she recalled. “It’s the feeling it gave me…it stuck with me to this day. It’s something that probably no other show could recreate,” she added, before describing the show’s demise as “really sad”. For context, the yearly fashion spectacle that’s the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was cancelled in 2019 due to a myriad of controversies, notably the accusation that the brand was perpetuating a culture of misogyny, bullying, and harassment.
The recent #BeAuthenticBeYou campaign, which Nia fronted alongside Miss Universe Malaysia 2018 Jane Teoh and Thai model-actress Janie Tienphosuwan, was also not without its share of backlash due to the lack of colour and size diversity. On this, Nia admitted that it was a trepidation shared by the team during the shoot. The brand’s direction, which included the number of models to be featured, somewhat soothed the moral concerns.
“The campaign was really about the stories of the models involved. They [Victoria’s Secret] wanted to tell the stories that we [the featured models] went through,” she said after taking a beat. “Did we wish we had more models? Of course, we did. But that was the best that we could do at the moment,” she added, expressing her confidence that the embattled brand has more up its sleeve when it comes to inclusivity.
But the brand was not the only one subjected to criticisms. Nia herself was dragged through the mud. The Malay-Muslim model angered a faction of Malaysians—mostly the brassbound Malays—by partaking in such a project. More than a handful of netizens were quick to stoke the flames by posting hurtful comments that she was an example of a ‘Muslim human who was set for hell’ and that her actions were ‘fuel for her fate in the afterlife’.
“This line of work has always been something that’s frowned upon. I’m very much aware of that but there’s only so much I can do to change it,” she mulled. Reiterating her passion for fashion and modelling, Nia added that she has accepted that it’s her lot in life. “I went into this career knowing what’s coming for me. I expected all of this. I cannot force people to understand or accept it, and I’m okay with that,” she said.
Be that as it may, Nia is breaking out the niched fashion scene and fast becoming a staple in the mainstream entertainment industry. Her professional acting debut with 2020’s Inikah Dikatakan Cinta has put her on the radar and her profile continues to rise with every subsequent undertaking. The question now is: does she feel conscious about selecting projects to appease the ultraconservative market, the bread and butter of her most successful peers?
“Oh, that’s tricky,” her eyes squinted as her mind searched for an answer. “That’s something I’m fighting with a lot. But I do things for myself and not for other people. So, I guess the decision-making is really about how I would feel about a project because I feel like I can’t live a truly fulfilled life if I don’t do what I love,” she said. Nia then added that negative impressions are the risks she’s willing to take for something she’s passionate about.
Yes, the stylish Nia Atasha is passionate about acting and she refuses to be just another model who thinks she could pose and pout through a scene. Proving her commitment to the craft, she disclosed that she took acting lessons from fellow actor, Pekin, for six months. She also picked up a thing or two from award-winning actress Umie Aida and director Erma Fatima while working with them on an unreleased film back in 2018.
“The most valuable lesson I have learned about acting is to not be concerned about looking pretty,” she summarised her experience working with the greats. “Don’t think too much about how good you’re going to look on screen because things are supposed to be genuine and to feel real. That’s what acting is about—showcasing those emotions,” she said. Nia, however, conceded that there’s a lot more in the world of acting for her to learn.
Her latest screen outing in Riot!: Rebel With a Cause was particularly eye-opening. In the 10-episode series, Nia played Tita who is a manifestation of the main character’s traumas. She exists and she disappears. “It’s probably the most challenging role that I have taken on, so far,” she said. “It is tough because she doesn’t really have emotions but she feels a lot. There’s always a fine line that I cannot cross between being too human and too non-human,” she added.
A timely and thought-provoking series based on actual events that occurred in the country, Riot!: Rebel With a Cause is an important piece of storytelling that demands to be heard. It exposes the reality of sexual harassment and assault incidents happening to the youth in Malaysia. Nia, via a post on her Instagram page, shared that the project was ‘especially personal to me’ and that ‘the message hits too close to home’.
“As a young woman, you will come across all kinds of people who would try to take advantage of you. Sometimes you only realise it when it’s too late or when someone else tells you that that’s wrong,” she said, introspectively. “That’s why the show is very meaningful because it tells you that it is not right and you should do something about it. I wish I had that growing up,” she divulged, before stopping herself, hesitant to revisit the murky corners of her memory.
Holding her head up high and her gaze on what lies beyond the horizon, Nia shared her excitement about what she has in store. Action flick Legasi Wira Merah, for instance, is heading to the cinemas next year. “I’m not allowed to say much but it’s about our firefighters and will star Ben Amir and Nas-T,” she teased. But for now, Nia is revelling in the fact that she is now part of the exclusive club of game changers who have been immortalised on the cover of GRAZIA Malaysia.
“It’s my first GRAZIA Malaysia cover. I’m excited!” she said gleefully.
Director Roanne Woo
Assistant Director Adam Zainal
Director of Photography Yazeid Suhaimi
Assistant Camera Sky Iskandar
Gaffer Aqil Hamidun
Movement Director Natasha P
Art Director Danial Yap
Prop Master Adzmi Zawawi
BTS Videographer Farna Syida
Editor Roanne Woo
Sound Design Roanne Woo, Zolt Studios
Choreography Music Shelhiel
Colourist Beh Jing Qiang
Hair V V Chan, Zac Lee
Hair Assistant Avriel Ger Jing
Makeup Sheng Saw, David CK