Malaysian siblings take a tasty bite of the big apple
AS Ol’ Blue Eyes or Frank Sinatra sang, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”
A pair of Malaysian siblings heeded this optimistic line from New York! New York! and have taken a bite out of the big apple. Both Steven Chelliah and his big sister Christina can attest that the taste is sweet upon beginning to enjoy the fruit of their labour.
Berklee College of Music-trained Steven just released his debut album Supremacy X on iTunes while UK-law graduate Christina is turning heads on the runways and in television shows.
When met at their home in Queens, New York City last year, Steven was putting the final touches to his album, while Christina was sorting out her wardrobe for another modelling stint.
“There is a certain vibe about New York. People get you and they don’t judge. They appreciate hard work and artistry,” said Steven, who proved he is still very much a Petaling Jaya boy at heart by whipping up chicken curry as spicy as his music.
The 27-year-old who holds a dual degree in jazz composition and contemporary writing and production credits his alma mater and professors for encouraging his unique blend of jazz and eastern sounds — even blending with a little opera.
Berklee’s Professional Writing Division even organised a showcase of his compositions with a 32-piece jazz orchestra and choir.
In addition, Dr Kari Juusela, Dean of Professional Writing Division and Music Technology Division gave this seal of approval: “Many of our alumni are world-class performers, composers and authors, including singer/songwriter John Mayer, film composer Howard Shore, vocalist, bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding, producer and composer Quincy Jones and many others. Our alumni represent the top of the contemporary music industry and have been awarded over 200 Grammys. After many years of hard work and dedication, Steven Chelliah is now becoming part of this elite group of musicians.”
But it started with their parents encouraging them to be active in the church choir and enrolling them for music lessons.
Steven who describes his sound as “FuzAsian” — an ultimate form of World Jazz and Asian Jazz music” — wrote 50 songs from 2012 to 2014, but due to high production costs among others, only five tracks appear on Supremacy X.
The first single and accompanying video Burn It Down was launched stateside on Martin Luther King Day on Jan 20 and to the rest of the world on Feb 3. The song and video are a commentary on the need to burn down the walls of inequality and discrimination. The fact that his heart remains back home is evident from the inclusion of images of Tunku Abdul Rahman, alongside Luther King and Malcom X, as well as news footages of Malaysia’s May 13 riots in 1969.
“The video and song is outrage stemming from the racial injustice and religious intolerance that plague our world.
“It is important for music to mean something ... and everyone has the responsibility of bringing to the fore issues such as social justice through their respective platforms,” said Steven before performing an acoustic version of Marilyn, another track that appears on the record.
The first show for the Supremacy-X promo will be held on April 30 at The Shrine in Harlem, New York, famed as the venue for the World Music Festival.
“This will serve as the CD release show, where I will be accompanied by a live band comprising my Berklee colleagues,” he said.
Fellow Berklee alumnus Chris Murphy, Steven’s co-lyricist on Supremacy X is among his biggest supporters, often accompanying him on guitars at gigs. Murphy perhaps does not have a choice as he is dating Christina. But his support as a base and friend to the aspiring musician and model-actress certainly helps. As for all its charms, New York can be vicious to those trying to make it in the self-proclaimed “greatest city in the world”.
“I must admit it was easier to have someone to help you when you first arrive,” said Christina, 32.
“But that is where it stops. The rest is up to you. If you have your game face and work hard, you will be amazed at the doors that are opened,” she added.
Lawyer to model and ‘that girl from TV’
Leaving a steady and lucrative job as a lawyer, arbitrator and lecturer for life’s uncertainties as a model and actress would have been unthinkable for a regular person. But there is nothing ordinary about the Miss Malaysia Universe 2002 runner-up.
She struggled for years to make it big in fashion, and as a model in a society that still has a narrow view about beauty. Yet it was her parents who told her to pursue her dreams, and not to fall short of opportunities available in the West.
“So, it was easy for me to quit my job and hop on a plane to New York. I had my parents’ blessings and the will and drive to see my dreams come true,” said the Miss Malaysia Tourism World 2002 and Miss International Kebaya 2013/2014.
Steven’s presence in the city, pursuing his music career gave her a bit of courage to “swap the safe and familiar for the unknown.”
A year after her arrival in the United States, Christina has no regrets.
She has landed lucrative modelling jobs for the likes of Levi’s Jeans, Avon, Wella, Tupperware, Nokia, Tints of Nature and GNC Live Well, and is Facebook and Puma brand ambassador.
Her dream of getting into television is also being realised as she finds herself cast in shows like Law and Order: SVU and The Following.
“Here they appreciate talents and look for diversity. The colour of my skin is an asset,” said the 32-year-old, who also appeared in a commercial with Khloe Kardashian.
Although she has yet to play a dialogue role, Christina’s television appearances stretch across series like Blue Bloods, The Blacklist, Nurse Jackie, Person of Interest and Shelter, among others.
“I have shared screen time with Mariska Hargitay and Tom Selleck! I am blessed but it is also hard work as you need to socialise and develop your network. It is only by meeting people that you learn of opportunities and secure jobs,” said Christina, who is also an accomplished singer and pianist.
Dismissing her looks as being a main factor, she said her background and education were poker chips to hosting and modelling jobs.
“When they see I was a practising lawyer, they are impressed and hire me for hosting jobs. Aside from looks, you also need to be able to hold a conversation.
“At the end of the day, people remember you more for what you have to say than how you look!” said Christina who has met the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Bono and even George Soros.
Christina continues participating in beauty pageants and fashion shows like New York Fashion Week. Her most recent pageant was the Miss Global 2014 pageant in Los Angeles where she bagged the Miss Enterprise 2014 title.
Despite her foray in fashion and television, Christina keeps up with legal world developments as she still teaches part-time at an online law school.
“I still love the law,” said Christina who is among Malaysia’s top evidence students under the University of London’s law programme which she completed in 2005.
As to what the future holds, the deeply spiritual pair hopes 2015 will see them making wider strides in their chosen fields.
For Christina, the “end game” is her own talk show.
“But who knows, after that? One should never be satisfied with what one has and always strive to better oneself,” she said.
As Steven puts it, their achievements must be an impetus to showcase other Malaysian talents.
“My ambition is to show the world that Malaysians are capable of producing world-class musicians. Once it is accomplished, it will set the pace and the path for more Malaysian talents to do the same, which is to expose our talent and uniqueness.”
Terence Fernandez is an editor of the investigative and probe unit of The Edge.
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on March 11, 2015.