SINGAPORE (Aug 27): Look up Jamie Chua on the internet, and you will find no lack of media coverage on arguably one of Singapore’s most prominent socialites. It is especially hard to miss the international headlines she has made over the years for her 700 sq ft wardrobe and extensive collection of more than 200 Hermès handbags — as well as her 2011 divorce from Indonesian multimillionaire tycoon Nurdian Cuaca, whom she met while working as a stewardess with Singapore Airlines and subsequently married at the age of 20.

She is often referred to as the “Queen of Instagram” on social media, with over 800,000 followers on her official Instagram account (@ec24m) and more than 124,000 on her second account with the handle @iamjamiechua. The former account showcases perfectly composed and edited shots, mainly of Chua posing against picturesque outdoor landscapes and luxuriously styled interiors, some featuring endorsed products and brands. The latter account, she shares, documents her family and social life in a more casual point-and-shoot manner, and is her way of “keeping it real”.

But with fame comes unwanted attention, as evident from the inundation of unkind comments and forum discussions about Chua’s lifestyle and how she acquired her wealth. In early 2017, she was reported to have obtained protection orders against more than 60 netizens, mostly anonymous, to prohibit them from making personal attacks against her. She was also filmed dissolving into tears during a video interview with Indonesian media, which was posted on YouTube last October.

“I did not marry into a rich family. When I married my ex-husband, he was not a rich man, he was just an employee. We had to struggle for 10 years before he finally became successful,” she said on Indonesia TV programme Silet before the video cut to footage of her sobbing uncontrollably.

In contrast, Chua is all smiles from the very moment she welcomes Options into the immaculately furnished living room of her 10,000 sq ft mansion on a sweltering late afternoon. Even when she is asked — imaginably for the thousandth time — about the high-profile split from Cuaca, during which she was famously alleged to have demanded $450,000 in monthly alimony, she remains pleasant.

“It was actually the lowest point of my life. After so many years and for us to make a decision like that [to get divorced]... plus with the children and our parents involved, it would have been anyone’s lowest point in life,” she says. While she declines to comment on the exact value of assets and cash obtained from the divorce settlement, she says she has “everything she needs” at the moment, and that her relationship with Cuaca remains amicable.

True to her reputation for being a style maven, Chua is decked out in a floral-printed Dolce & Gabanna long-sleeved dress when she meets us. This is matched with a diamante belt, square-cut diamond earstuds and Dior Baby-D Mary Janestyle ballet pumps. “I usually wear shorts and a very ‘broken’ T-shirt at home,” she is quick to protest when asked whether she is always this dressed up. “I only put on a dress today because you guys were coming over, but I will definitely be changing out of it after you leave.”

The mother of two fusses over us with a warmth and hospitality that one would hardly expect of a typical tai tai (privileged, wealthy woman). “Is it too warm for you? Shall I turn down the air conditioning? Where are you more comfortable sitting — over here or at the dining table?” she asks while gesturing towards the couch dwarfed by oversized cushions, the largest being an orange one with a classic Hermès H logo plastered across it.

Chua: [My Instagram posts] have to have a certain type of quality and vibe, and I always make sure they are edited to perfection.

Crazy collections
Interestingly, Chua was asked to audition for a role in the Warner Bros film Crazy Rich Asians, which is based on the 2013 bestselling novel by local author Kevin Kwan and premiers this week. She has never read the book nor its sequels, and says she declined the offer because of time constraints. “I don’t exactly know what a ‘crazy rich Asian’ is, but if you measure it in terms of shoes and bags, then perhaps you can call me one,” she remarks.

The “craziest” purchase she has ever made in her life, she says, is a Hermès handbag that she bought for about $300,000, or the equivalent of a three-room HDB flat in Singapore. The Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Diamond Birkin has more than 240 diamonds encrusted on the hardware. According to a press release issued by Christie’s in 2016, the Diamond Himalaya — as the bag is also known — is so rare that only one or two are produced each year, making it one of the lowest production runs for handbags. “I don’t think I’ve done a lot of creative or crazy things with my money, but it was a crazy price to pay for a handbag,” laughs Chua, who admits on hindsight that the superlative piece was a rather impractical buy. “She [the bag] is still sitting there on the shelf and I don’t really take her out a lot.”

Besides designer clothing, bags and shoes, Chua shares that she also has a collection of more than 300 Barbie and Madame Alexander dolls, which she used to display at her previous home before she moved to her current home about a decade ago. “They’re all kept in cupboards now, but I’ve always loved dolls, even when I was younger. I always wished to be Barbie with a pink convertible,” she says wistfully. She also has a few hundred Alexandre de Paris hair accessories, which she began collecting when she started buying them for her daughter Calista, who is turning 20 soon, as she was growing up.

A ‘wooden’ spoon
Undoubtedly, Chua is far more affluent than the average Singaporean — or the way most would see it, swathed in fame, wealth and glamour. But this was not always the case for Chua, who jokes that she was born with a “wooden” spoon in her mouth rather than a silver one. At the age of 15 and being the eldest of three children, she was already working as a model to help her parents support her two brothers.

“I didn’t want to become a model for the sake of being one, but at that age I thought it was the best-paying part-time job I could get as a secondary school student,” she says. “When I first asked my parents about it, they were not very supportive of the idea. They thought it was a waste of their money. It was $350 for a basic deportment class, and another $450 for professional modelling classes at Mannequin Studio to obtain the certificate. They just really couldn’t afford to simply give that kind of money to me. So, I suggested that they help me pay off these upfront fees and consider it a loan. Afterwards, I worked to pay off every cent I owed them and all the other costs incurred to build my portfolio.”

For two years, Chua would spend the better part of after-school hours auditioning and modelling for TV commercials and magazine photo shoots. Upon graduating from secondary school, she also spent nearly a year selling Waterford tableware and crystal products for income before joining Singapore Airlines as a stewardess when she was barely 17.

Today, the socialite remains mindful of her finances as she continues to grow her wealth with a portfolio of investments in US and European hedge funds, bonds and equities managed by a team of private bankers. Aside from running her skincare line, Luminous1 by Jamie Chua, she plans to eventually venture into other businesses in the healthcare and F&B industries. Chua says that, for a long time, she has also been supporting non-profit organisations, including nursing homes such as Lee Ah Mooi Old Age Home in Singapore and certain orphanages in Indonesia.

Aside from running her skincare line, Chua plans to eventually venture into other businesses in the healthcare and F&B industries .

Beyond the camera
Laid out on a porcelain cake stand at the dining table are four Instagram-worthy tarts from Tarte by Cheryl Koh, each split down the middle (after she has snapped a photo of them on her iPhone, of course) so that we can try a variety of flavours without having to eat a full portion. Observing her indulge in the sweets liberally, moving on from cherry crumble to peach in a matter of minutes, I can imagine that her vast collection of food-related shots on Instagram are not just for show.

Despite her evident penchant for gourmet dining, Chua discloses that she recently embarked on an intermittent fasting regime, specifically the 16:8 method of only consuming meals within an eight hour window each day, to maintain her svelte figure on top of body contouring treatments. She adds that she also has the genes of her late father, who passed away in 2015, to thank.

“I have never, ever been to a gym,” Chua says emphatically when asked. “I refuse. I don’t want to be exercising with other people looking at me... There was a period of time when I was doing HIIT exercises alone at home, but then I got lazy. I now prefer going for machine treatments at La Source Spa [formerly known as LS Philosophy] because then I can do my work at the same time.”

Chua’s home may be immensely spacious, but it is often bustling with family and friends. She owns three dogs — a pug, border collie and Cavalier King Charles spaniel — and lives with her mother, daughter and two full-time domestic helpers. Her nieces and nephew visit the house on an almost-daily basis. Her 24-year-old son, Cleveland, is currently studying in London.

There is also her boyfriend, Terence Koh, a lawyer whom she has been dating since 2014. Netizens often refer to Koh as Chua’s “Instagram husband”, as he is the man behind the lens that captures many of her photos. These days, he is not as keen to take her pictures as often anymore, says Chua, pouting, unless the two of them are on holiday. “We met through a mutual friend in 2013. And then we realised we had many other friends in common, probably because we’re about the same age. He’s two years older than I,” says Chua, who turns 45 in October. “He’s very supportive of whatever I do, and I think that’s a rare trait to find in men, especially me, being who I am.”

It was Koh’s passion for photo-taking that has also rubbed off on Chua, who took photography as an elective subject in secondary school. The couple owns seven professional cameras, including Leica Ms, and numerous lenses mainly used to produce the flawless series of images showcased on Chua’s official Instagram account.

The fashion and beauty influencer, who says she spends a great deal of time editing her own photos and videos, does not see her social media platform as a means of bragging about her wealth. “My Instagram profile [@ec24m] features all of the things I like and love, like flowers. They have to have a certain type of quality and vibe, and I always make sure they are edited to perfection. My nights are mostly spent working on these [post-production] things with the TV on,” she says

These days, she places a greater emphasis on accumulating life experiences instead of material possessions. Following her most recent resort holiday with Koh at Anantara Kihavah in the Maldives, she shares that she plans to visit Amalfi and Positano in Italy soon, and is planning a trip to South Africa next year. Chua says she hardly ever does her shopping when she is overseas, as she would rather spend the time going sight-seeing.

“It’s kind of strange because, when I was younger, I didn’t enjoy any of these things, but I guess time really changes people,” she says. “I try to live my life without regrets and, even when bad things happen, I just take it as a chance for me to grow stronger as a person, and try not to make the same mistake again. Nobody is perfect and infallible. Certain things I used to be upset with, the unnecessary [mistakes] I used to make, they’re now all in the past. To me, these do not add value to my life in any way anymore.”

This article appeared in Issue 845 (Aug 27) of The Edge Singapore.

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