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.”
In the era of the Kardashians, to be seen is to be judged. And to be judged by millions, more often than not, results in losing one’s sense of self. Fame comes with a hefty price tag: the incessant spotlight, the lack of privacy, the resulting chasm between one’s real self and the self that’s displayed for thousands to double tap on. But being famous as a woman within a conservative country inadvertently raises the stakes.
People think that women like me, or those who wear the hijab, can’t offer much. But in actual fact, we have a lot more to offer.
In 2014, three years after she first appeared in TV shows and telemovies, she began wearing the hijab in public. It made headlines in local rags and online news portals. Within a few months, her followers quadrupled. For most Muslim women, the decision to don a hijab is a private matter. For Neelofa, it was one that the public continuously scrutinised. “It was not an easy decision,” she remarks, “because, you see, during that time, it was not common for someone in the industry to wear a hijab and still host entertainment shows or to play the main role in any movie or drama.”
While her fears of not landing roles or hosting jobs never materialised, people are relentless in finding fault. During a trip to the Italian resort town Bellagio in 2017, she posted an Instagram post (now removed) of herself, sitting on the plush leather seat of a yacht, her legs crossed. She had on a pair of denim jeans with ripped patches on the knees, slight slivers of her skin exposed through the tattered fabric. Harsh criticism ensued. Her sister, Noor Nabila, defensively responded in Malay to a now-removed comment: “What’s wrong with the pants? Do you have a say in what she chooses to wear? If she wore leggings underneath, must she inform you personally so that you won’t judge her?”
To Neelofa, it has a lot to do with shattering gendered stereotypes, the archaic notion of an Islamic woman’s passive demureness. “People think that women like me or those who wear the hijab can’t offer much,” she shares. “But in actual fact, we have a lot more to offer.”
Neelofa refuses to have her identity defined by the enduring preconceptions around the hijab. Rather, the multi-hyphenate has been showing the limitless heights to which a woman in a hijab can reach: While juggling several hosting and acting roles as well as running multiple businesses, she made it onto Forbes’s 2017 30 Under 30 Asia list. In 2019, merely five years after Naelofar was launched, the modest label sold more than 10 million hijabs. “It was like a dream come true moment for me because it’s like my baby,” she recalls. “It started off with just three staff, and now we have more than 50 staff working for this one particular brand. It’s also one of the ways I measure my success and my hard work that I have been usahakan [working on] for many years.”
That’s not to say her journey has been smooth sailing. Navigating the world in a woman’s body remains a fraught proposition in the most quotidian and granular of ways. More so when the spotlight continues to trail her. Which is why it’s important to note that her big successes ought to be partly credited to her pivotal sense of style. Rather than adopting a more conventionally feminine aura, Neelofa prefers to project rigour and an intellectual thoughtfulness with her clothing choices. A regular at the front rows of fashion shows at Milan and Paris Fashion Week, she does not shy away from the more masculine silhouettes of tailored suits or the use of bold, bright colours. In Neelofa’s reality, the one-dimensional rigidity often linked to the idea of modest dressing is entirely defied.
“I always use this opportunity as a way to express myself. And I feel like last time, when you wore the hijab, you felt as if you were in a bubble and you couldn’t do much,” she says. “But even if you’re wearing hijab, you can still be orang katakan ‘stylo’ lah [what people call ‘stylish’], you see?”
Always inspiring us with her many Firsts, our Founder, Neelofa, made history today when she announced her decision to wear a Niqab. Still holding on to her motto, “The only barriers to success are the ones we make ourselves”, she never fails to amaze us with how she continues to break boundaries for Muslim women. May her journey be blessed and be a start of something bigger for Naelofar and the women at large. She’s a living proof that even with your face covered, women can move the World. You do you, @Neelofa, and shine bright, no matter what 💖 Love, team Naelofar. #GoNaelofar #Naelofar
Last month in mid-October, less than a fortnight after the shoot for this feature, Neelofa’s team disclosed through an Instagram post on Naelofar’s brand account “her decision to wear a niqab.” In the photograph, Neelofa is almost completely enshrouded in a full-face white veil that drapes over her head and cascades down to her shoulders and her waist. Only her eyes are visible through a horizontal crescent-shaped slit, the veil’s only opening. On one edge of the niqab, a furtive “n”-shaped metal logo of Naelofar is discreetly placed. (A quick search on the brand’s website on the same day the post went up showed that niqabs weren’t available online just yet).
The post’s caption states: “Still holding on to her motto, “The only barriers to success are the ones we make ourselves,” she never fails to amaze us with how she continues to break boundaries for Muslim women... She’s a living proof that even with your face covered, women can move the world.”
What’s next for Neelofa is a question that looms ahead. Does fully concealing herself precede the end of a career in a world that prizes exposure? Or will it yet be another glass ceiling for her to break? Only time will tell, it seems.
“Even with my stylists, they sometimes have to crack their heads, ‘Okay, how do we do this? How do we incorporate these kinds of fashion pieces with the modest look?’” she shares in the interview a few weeks prior. “You have to be extra creative on how to play around with the baju [clothing] and the hijab to make sure that it covers my aurat [private parts], but also still be fashionable enough.”
“I think after a few years of experimenting, I feel like we have achieved a certain level in terms of bringing modest fashion to the table,” she says. “And now we can say, ‘Look, we have proved you guys wrong.’”
Photographs by Chee Wei
Creative direction by Jack Wang
Art direction and styling by Colin Sim
Makeup by Khir Khalid using Lancome
Hijab stylist: Farah Dinana