This is a very inspiring journey of Malaysia’s electropop Queen and mental health advocate.

For Rozella Marie Mahjhrin, who was born with a vascular birthmark on her face a.k.a. ‘port wine stain’, it has been a struggle to overcome the mainstream media’s expectations of beauty, bullying, depression, and even self-doubt. Her journey of self-love and self-acceptance truly took a huge leap forward when she decided to pursue her dream of being a singer-songwriter in 2013 and founded True Complexion in 2015 – a social awareness project, which highlights individuals living with body image issues, medical conditions and disabilities who don’t fit within the traditional forms of beauty. 

True Complexion is a platform that shares incredible and uplifting stories of Malaysians from all backgrounds, spreading awareness and redefining the concept of true beauty. Rozella’s ambition to empower the marginal voices of Malaysia through this platform had opened a nation-wide conversation about body image, misconceptions about beauty and empowers the less visible communities in Malaysia: albinism, vitiligo, autism, psoriasis, being differently-abled communities etc.   And if that wasn’t enough, 2019 was a great year for Rozella as she was selected to be a part of the inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders (Asia-Pacific Programme), an Eisenhower Global Fellow, and was listed as one of the most influential women leaders under the age of 35 in UK’s Women of the Future Southeast Asia Awards. This year, Rozella became the face of IT Cosmetics (Sephora Malaysia).

Source: @sephoramy

In this exclusive interview, we highlight the singer-songwriter persona of this amazing woman. You’ll find that both her love for music and True Complexion are branches from the same journey of self- acceptance. As the winner of Tiger Jams 2016 and her single ‘Home To You’ handpicked for an exclusive remix by Chvrches, Rozella’s music career is also one to watch.

How did you find interest and love for music, and the courage to start performing in earnest?

“My dad used to be in a band when he was younger and I grew up in a house filled with music. It was such a big part of my life. I was the quiet kid who was always doodling and writing lyrics in her notebook. Writing was always the easy part. Sharing my songs with other people was the hardest part.”

“It definitely had a lot to do with the unwanted attention that I constantly received because of my birthmark. I was bullied a lot as a kid and it really affected the way I saw myself and my potential. The idea of standing on a stage and having the spotlight on me was just too scary, so I gave up on that dream a long time. I still continued to write, but not songs.”

“It wasn’t until about nine years ago that I started writing music again, and if I’m being honest, it happened because I hit rock bottom. Releasing all my pent up emotions through songwriting really helped me make sense of my depression. But after a year, writing wasn’t enough anymore. I still felt caged and the only way I could let go was to let my songs out in the world. So I guess you can say that performing happened out of necessity.”

“It was very scary. For the first two or three years, I had panic attacks before every single show. But I kept pushing myself back on stage over and over again because I knew that if I didn’t, I would lose a part of myself again.”

Congratulations for releasing your latest single on Spotify! Tell us more about your latest single ‘Body Talk’ and how you came to embed electropop and some R&B into your music?

“My music has definitely evolved over the years. It started out very sad and angry, and it started changing as I evolved as a person. I’ve always loved R&B, pop and  electronic music, and I’ve always wanted to incorporate elements of it into my own music.”

“I initially wrote ‘Body Talk’ on the keys, but even then I already knew that I wanted it to have an upbeat dance vibe. When I started working on the music with my producer The Chief, we realised that it needed a male perspective so that’s how NYK came on board. It was a really fun song to work on and I hope people can feel that when they listen to it.”

How do you find inspiration to write new songs, especially during a nationwide lockdown in Malaysia?

“I think inspiration can be found anywhere. Sometimes when I’m writing it comes from a place deep within, but other times I’m just blurting out random words and putting them together to create a mini story, which is essentially what songs are.”

“But if I’m being completely honest, I haven’t been able to write during this entire quarantine period. It’s been very frustrating because there’s so much pressure, especially from social media, to multiply productivity and creativity in such a challenging and confusing time.”

“I haven’t been inspired and I had to let go of the idea that I have to be. Instead of creating, I have been consuming a lot – reading, listening to music and podcasts, and watching Netflix. And recently, I signed up for an online non-fiction writing course that will hopefully reignite that storytelling fire in me again.”

Photography: Melissa Toh/ @melissatohshuxin

You are also the founder of a very successful social awareness project, True Complexion. How did that come about? 

“It was another thing that happened out of necessity. After performing for a few years and sharing my story in the form of songs, I decided that it was time to open up about a topic that I was too ashamed to talk about, which was my skin.”

“I wanted to tell my story, but I also wanted to create a platform where other people, who are different like me, could also share their stories without the fear of judgement. I wanted to include other medical conditions and other marginalised communities because we all live in our own bubble and the only way to burst it is to expose ourselves and learn about other people who are different from us.”

“Besides sharing community stories on our platform, we work with other individuals, organisations and brands to create content and campaigns that are more diverse and inclusive. We also do offline activities like fundraising events, talks and workshops that bring the community together.”

There are many women out there who also struggle with body image and are often pressured to live up to society’s standards of beauty. What do you think is different or the same about this in Southeast Asia? 

“Generation after generation of women from all over the world have been conditioned to believe that our worth is determined by our physical appearances. This doesn’t just stem from advertising and marketing that exploits our deepest insecurities.”

“If we look back at our history, this is linked to the fact that back in the day, women weren’t able to go to school or work. A lot of cultures and religions believed that women were created with the sole purpose to get married and have children. The more beautiful you were, the more sought after you became and the higher your bride price was, so there was a lot of pressure to be more desirable to men.”

“The difference lies in the perception of attractiveness in a particular culture, and sadly a lot of it hasn’t changed till today. In some cultures, women still force feed themselves because big is considered beautiful, and in others it’s the absolute opposite.”

“It’s twice the struggle for women who have a disability, rare disease, illness or skin condition because in certain cultures, people still believe that this is linked to witchcraft or your past life karma. In some religions, people still believe that it is a punishment for being disobedient and committing sins. There’s just so many layers to it and it’s boils down to so many different things.”

Cover Image Photography: Melissa Toh/ @melissatohshuxin

Article by Emma Khoo