The Evolution of Former Beauty Queen and Fugee.Org Founder Deborah Henry

On beauty standards, pressure in the spotlight and the new normal.
Friday 19 June 2020
Challenging the norm and proving beauty is not just skin deep. Photo: Syedewa Beauty

A well-known face amongst locals and in the industry, Deborah Henry is a picture of elegance and grace whether she is strutting down a catwalk, hosting an event or speaking about the plight of refugees through her work with Fugee School and Fugeelah, both of which she is co-founder.

The winner of Miss Malaysia World 2007 and Miss Malaysia Universe 2011 began her modelling career at 15 where she was catapulted to runways around the world, working with prominent luxury brands and being featured on the covers of notable fashion magazines. Since then, Henry has taken the opportunity to host a local television show and is dedicated to championing children and refugee rights.
The University of Queensland graduate who majored in Political Science and Economics, co-founded Fugee School, a non-profit education hub for refugee children in Malaysia in 2009 and subsequently Fugeelah in 2017, a social enterprise working with refugees and marginalised Malaysian communities

She has also been panel speaker at several forums to discuss refugee and women’s rights issues, is a children’s rights advocate for World Vision and refugee rights advocate for UNHCR, listed in Forbes’ list of Asian Philanthropists, and has received the Golden Heart Award: Tribute to Women in Malaysia 2016 in recognition for her work. In 2018, Henry was nominated by the US Embassy in Malaysia to represent the country in the prestigious International Visitor Leadership programme (IVLP) organised by the US State Department and more recently, she moderated a talk with Former US first lady Michelle Obama and Hollywood actor Julia Roberts in conjunction with the “Leaders: Asia-Pacific”.

UNRESERVED managed to catch the ever so busy Henry for a chat about the fashion industry, its ideals and which ‘beauty standard’ she thinks is outdated. And yes, we had to ask just how the ‘new normal’ has affected her.


How do you think the fashion industry has changed since you first started?

What I love about fashion is its artistic reflection on the socio-political and economic situations in countries. If we look back to WWI and WWII, the fashion of the era was truly representative of the events happening in the world in a most visible way. Fashion was influenced and changed due to the many limitations presented and imposed by WWII, as reflected in the silhouettes, fabrics used and designs. I particularly love how Coco Chanel elevated pants, typically worn by women who worked in factories during WWI, to a whole new level of stylish and trendy. 

Fashion is always changing, and the desire to be fashionable is growing as we enjoy more financial freedom. This has given birth to fast fashion, trying to keep up with our insatiable appetite for what’s new and trendy. 

I think the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to put the brakes on things, and this has given the industry players from the big fashion houses, to high-street brands and other retail chains the opportunity to reflect and rethink their ways. I think as consumers we too have realised we need a lot less and we certainly don’t need to over consume if it hurts the environment and humanity. While the industry has evolved tremendously over the decades, I truly believe the biggest changes are still ahead of us.


Which beauty ideals do you think are overrated?

Fair skin. It just saddens me so much that this antiquated criteria still garners so much traction in this day and age. Our industry has a very narrow definition of beauty and this is even more prominent here in Asia. Those with influence and power don’t usually question the ‘beauty norms’ in fact many just reinforce them. I think this happened because we always looked to the west for guidance without considering the local environment. So we blindly adopted distorted standards and applied them to our industry that was then still in its infancy. 

Unfortunately I myself have had far too many negative experiences with regards to fair skin. I was shunned from many beauty skin care and shampoo commercials because clients didn’t like or think my “Indian- ness” would help sell their products. 


If you could set them straight, what would you do or say?

I think we all have the power to influence the narrative because we are the consumers. We get to choose where and how we spend. And ultimately, this should dictate trends and fashion norms. The rise of smaller local brands has also played a role in changing beauty ideals as the products are designed and often made locally, and therefore the messaging on beauty is far more relatable and inclusive. 

It has been very heartening to see young Malaysians take back the power and the narrative. They are reimagining Malaysian fashion and aesthetics in many creative fields. Our Malaysian designers and artists are incredibly talented and I hope they get the support they deserve.  On a personal note, I have learnt to be more conscious about who I work with, I prefer to work with brands who share the same values as I do. I’m grateful that I am no longer in a position where I need to bend to the wills of brands but I am proud to say that even back then I tried my very best to hold to my values. 

Many years ago I said no to a certain skincare brand that promoted a fair complexion as superior and more likeable. I think more people with platforms need to stand up against harmful, racist and non-inclusive brands and messaging. We can no longer be so malleable as to conform to these unfair standards.


Do you think the typical model beauty standards have changed with the rise of social media models and new platforms like Instagram, Youtube and TikTok?

Definitely, because these beauty standards are no longer controlled by just a few key gatekeepers. The power no longer sits with magazines editor and fashions gurus, instead everyday people from all walks of life, backgrounds, colour and creed are sharing their definitions of beauty beyond the glossy magazine pages. Technology has opened our eyes to a much broader sense of beauty and I am truly happy that the world now has such easy access to all this beauty. 

However, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We must remember that what we sometimes see online isn’t always real. And the pressure to keep up with what we see becomes a morbid cycle that is destroying lives one like at a time.

Many women have found themselves battling identity issues due to the unrealistic beauty standards set by what they see on social media. Many have developed serious mental health issues, identity issues and even body dysmorphia trying to emulate the beauty standards that are simply unattainable. Yes, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes but true beauty in anchored in reality, it is amplified by the charm of the everyday and we must stay true to our roots. Find your own beauty rather than chase after beauty standards set by others. 


How diverse do you think the industry is today? Do you think standards can be improved?

Absolutely there is room for improvement. The industry is driven by sales, corporations want to maximise their sales and therefore cater to their target market and usually leave out minority communities from their campaigns, shoots and other marketing materials. I think we all know so many people, who battle with identity issues and body confidence and it’s ridiculous for brands to keep reinforcing what is hurting society.

However, having said that, I must admit that the industry has certainly come along way. I see an increasing number of brands becoming more inclusive and more real. About 2.5 years ago, I founded Fugeelah – a social enterprise. There we create jewellery made together with the refugee community in Malaysia. We celebrate imperfections, banish stigma, and strive to be real and relatable. We want our customers to wear the change they want to see in the world and create a community of change makers. Little steps like these lead to big leaps. These leaps are what we need to keep pushing the needle forward. 


What has been the best beauty advice you have received?

To find the courage to be me. That’s when your real beauty shines through. This was advice given to me at a very young age and as the years have gone by, they ring truer than ever.  Social media and ads constantly bombard us with unrealistic standards and an overwhelming amount of options. Sometimes, it is simply just much healthier to tune it all out and just embrace yourself.  


Are there any beauty rituals you adhere to?

I wish I had a miracle solution!! But in reality it is nothing so outlandish. I just remain consistent and committed to the absolute basics.  Drink lots of water, get enough sleep, keep your vitamins in check and workout on a daily basis.  At the end of the day, this is really all your body needs. The rest is just the cherry on top. 


Photo: All Is Amazing Studio for Diane Von Furstenberg


What are your fashion and beauty no-nos? 

I don’t really have any specific ones just a general rule – my biggest no-no is simply saying no. Fashion and beauty is ultimately a very personal thing, it is about self-expression and there shouldn’t be rules to self-expression. Where what makes you feel comfortable. Express yourself in ways that make you feel happy. Don’t turn down a bold fashion idea just because it doesn’t fit conventional standards. Saying no is always the easier option, instead let us all be a bit more courageous and start saying yes. 


How would you compare the Asian and Western ideal of beauty?

I wouldn’t compare them, to be honest. They are two separate concepts born out of two very different cultures with vastly different values.  Many of the beauty standard issues that we are still facing to this day – whether it be skin tone or height, arose because of Asians wrongly comparing ourselves to western ideals and trying to mimic them. We are our both our own people with different bodies, different tastes and different ideals. Let’s embrace this difference. 


Do you think you have been treated differently because of the way you look?

Yes, like I mentioned earlier. But honestly I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my looks, so on the whole I don’t regret these experiences. As a child of mixed parentage people tend to be intrigued about my heritage, as I seem like I could come from anywhere. I guess that is what got me noticed more in some ways. Sure I’ve missed out on certain opportunities because of my look but equally I have gained many opportunities for those very same looks. 


Any stories you have to share regarding your experience?

Truthfully there are dozens of experiences I could share but I want to practice what I preach, so I going to use this platform to shed light on something that deserves more attention that my old stories. Instead, I’d rather share with you the inspirational story behind so many of the refugee women that I have had the honour of working with at Fugeelah. Their passion and drive on a daily basis always fills my heart with joy.  Their adversities far outweigh all of mine yet the soldier on, they find happiness and they find a way to pursue their dreams no matter how impossible they may seem. They have been shut out and turned down at every possible turn yet they keep on going. I am just thankful that Fugeelah has given me a chance to spend more time with them and learn from them.  


As someone in the spotlight, do you feel pressured to maintain the way you look?

Yes I did when I was younger. It was a constant and draining battle until my late 20s. I would stress about every pound I put on, obsess about every bad picture. But that all changed when I started my journey of self-acceptance and appreciation. I tell myself, there will always be someone taller, prettier, smarter, better so there isn’t any point beating yourself up over it. Be your best and do your best. Life is about much more than how you look. 

Of course, my reality is a little different as I work in an industry that is based on looks. Plus I am a Miss Malaysia and I think society places different expectations on us and I have to admit that has played up every now and then especially when people make harsh comments on social media. Still, I try my best to hold true to my words and just appreciate me for who I am. I appreciate all that I am given and all that I have and frankly its more than enough. 


How do you respond to criticisms about your appearance?

I try my best to ignore it and try not to read too much into it. You never know what someone else is going through and after all appearance is subjective. So let’s just all try to be a little kinder to one another.  


How do you deal with the days when you don’t feel 100% energetic or in love with the way you look and feel?

So when I was younger, I would be hit hard by days like that. It would eat away at me the whole day long or even go on for much longer. But I’ve learnt since then that life is an ocean full of waves. There will be countless ups and downs; you just have to learn how to ride it out. Just as there are good and great days there will be not so great days. I focus on my journey of self-discovery, the more I know and grow to trust myself the less bad days I have. Being vulnerable to yourself first allows you to build the courage you need to be vulnerable with the outside world.


Have there been any challenges you have faced in your career? 

Like every other human on earth, I have had many a struggle as well. I struggled with my body image – whether it was too skinny or not skinny enough or too dark. I struggle with my career choices – from getting in to modelling and beauty pageants to my charitable endeavours.  To this day I still struggle with being in the public eye and how this plays on my own insecurities. 

I don’t regret these challenges – not even for a second. They have made me who I am today. I am continually learning to grow my resilience, courage and faith. These challenges are my stepping stones and I am grateful for them. 



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With the current pandemic, MCO and the ‘new normal’ way of living, how do you think that will affect the fashion and beauty industry? 

I think it has given the industry a much-needed pause. For decades, the industry has almost been on autopilot churning out trend after trend, continually feeling the need to evolve and iterate. This constant chase has not left any space for reflection, which I believe, would have harmed the industry in the long run. The MCO inadvertently has forced everyone in the industry to take a breath, reflect and reassess. I believe this will lead to a plethora of changes for the industry at all levels. 

Many people just want to go back to basics now and have their health and well-being prioritised. This will impact the way the industry moves forward as it seeks to meet these changing demands. It has also given rise to a ground swell of support for local and smaller businesses and I think this will help us see more and more independent designers thrive – bringing with them bold new ideas. 


How has the pandemic affected you and the way you live and work?

Like the rest of us, I’ve been stuck at home a lot more. Sure I went a little stir-crazy at the start – it was a huge shift from my usually jammed packed schedule. But given some time, I started to not only get used to it but I treasured those extra moments of alone time. It gave me the time I needed to spend more time on me. I would exercise more often and spend time just getting inspired. Inspiration is all around us, we just need to give ourselves the time to take it in. The MCO (Movement Control Order) gave me that time and I was glad for it.

When it comes to work, I was impacted as many events had to be delayed or cancelled entirely. This of course took a toll on me, but I’m glad that I got to also use this time to give back to others. There are so many who have it worse off than we do, I am happy that I got to go out during the MCO and support these communities.