In Person: Ella
FOR someone whose achievements include being the highest-selling female artiste in the country ever, the only Malaysian who sang the theme song for the 1998 Commonwealth Games and, er, the only Malaysian artiste thanked by Robbie Williams for `being beautiful’, Ella has every right to behave like a Diva (even if this word seems to have lost its meaning lately).
You’d also be forgiven if you think that Ella would carry with her that `diva baggage’ everywhere she goes.
“Diva? Like `Hey! If you want to talk to me, then be nice to me’ kind of thing? Come on lah! This is Malaysia. I don’t think anyone needs to have the feeling of being a diva,” smirked Jojie, her sister who is also her ever-so-loyal manager/chaperon and permanent sidekick.
Clad in a white tank top emblazoned with `I’m a Mango Girl’ (whatever that means) and of course, Levi’s (don’t call yourself a rocker if you don’t own one), Ella arrived at Planet Hollywood for the interview like a true star.
Outside the restaurant, an elderly Chinese portrait artist couldn’t resist taking pictures of her.
Inside, three patrons in tudung couldn’t stop themselves from saying hi to her. Joining them were two Chinese ladies from Singapore, probably a mom and her daughter. Yes, they also asked for a picture with her.
To us mere mortals, it was just another ordinary Wednesday afternoon at Planet Hollywood.
Downstairs, at the pool room, as both Ella and Jojie settled down, this writer seemed prepared for a thorough and detailed conversation.
Well, after all, Ella has been in the business for 20 years. She’s a very successful singer too. We can’t just go for that five-minute simple questions treatment, right?
“You know what, she hasn’t changed that much as a person actually. She has always been this manja girl,” pointed out Jojie before Ella interrupted.
“It’s not manja! How can I be manja when my star sign is Leo?,” she said with a big laugh.
For someone who is bubbly, colourful and (sometimes) witty, that seemed a bit unbelievable when she said that she was a loner, who was very quiet and shy when she was growing up.
“Not just that. She also liked to berangan (daydream). You know, she would sit alone in the garden, pick up the flowers and sing,” spilled Jojie with a laugh.
Born Norzila Aminuddin on July 31, 1966, singing has always been her passion. At the age of seven, she represented her school, Sekolah Kebangsaan Sirusa, Port Dickson in a singing competition.
During her free time she would sing almost everywhere and her favourite tune (believe it!) was Sealed With A Kiss. Her idols? They were mainly non-rockers like (get this) Cindy Lauper, Madonna, Sade and Phil Collins. Only later she added Sting, Aerosmith and Guns `n’ Roses to the list.
While waiting for her SPM results in 1985, a relative offered her to sing at his rest house in Klang. From there, she went on to sing at the Portuguese Lounge in Subang Jaya (God knows what’s happened to this place now) after being invited by Lokman, (better known as Lord in the local rock community). “When Abang Lord and his wife approached me, I said I needed to seek permission from my dad who was not so keen on the idea.”
“Being the stubborn girl that I am, I told my dad that my intention was only to sing. So, he agreed to it and ended up accompanying me most of the time,” Ella said.
She went on to sing at the now defunct Moonraker Club in Bangsar, long before the area became trendy.
The same place gave birth to Ella and the Boys. “Singing in the club back then was fun. But at the same time, it was also scary.
“I didn’t really mix around with the crowd. After singing, I would hide either in the kitchen or the bathroom,” she said with a chuckle.
As Ella and the Boys, they also performed at the legendary Battle of the Bands concert at Stadium Merdeka together with Headwind, Bloodshed, Rahim Hamzah & The Viet Blues, dR Sam & Musafir and the late Hamzah Dolmat.
Ella soon found herself becoming the centre of attraction among the rock fans especially when the song Dua Insan Bercinta became a hit.
And she never actually paid that much attention to the limelight. “I never felt like I was a star. I only felt that way when I became a solo artiste with Warner Music, when people would write just about anything and everything that I did. That changed my life a bit. Now, I have to keep looking over my shoulder,” she sighed.
After one album with The Boys, Ella left to pursue a solo career. That was the biggest (and perhaps the best) decision she had to make.
“When my debut solo album, Pengemis Cinta, was about to be released, I did feel afraid of how people would react, although at one point, I think I didn’t really care that much. I thought, if they liked it then, so be it. If they didn’t, then too bad.
“I figured, if the album tanked, I’d just go back to being a nine-to-five type of girl. A secretary in high heels, maybe,” she added (yes, with an even more naughty trademark laugh).
“I would be the type who loves to dress up. You know, walking around with Gucci bags and stuff… Now, that is so not me (laughs)!
“Well, I can only dream about that. Then again, I would like to wake up early in the morning, and try working from nine to five. Some people said it’s boring but I feel that it’s really fun to do. You know, walking around in tight skirts (laughs),” she said with a piercing stare.
Well, thank God she made it big. Life would have been difficult for any of her employers!
By then, the interview also became more relaxed. Perhaps this writer was earlier a little uptight, and Ella sensed it. The ice needed to be broken. Ella did it very well.
“You know what’s the best thing people ever said about me? `Ella is demanding. She’s a spoilt brat who requests for a lot of things’. That really made me feel like J.Lo, you know,” she said with a smirk.
“I just couldn’t help myself from laughing my head off. And the thing that I really don’t like is when people accuse me of things that I don’t do. Also, when people who don’t actually know a lot about music think that they know it all, and make nonsensical comments.”
Since she was on a roll, it felt like the right time to ask something `less formal’.
Like perhaps telling Buzz something that she had never told anyone before.
“You are trying to give me a hard time eh? Jojie, help me! Secrets? How about this one, once Robbie Williams came to me and said, thanks for being so beautiful,” she said, after taking a while to find that suitable (and safe) secret to share.
“It was during last year’s MTV Asia Awards. He even asked all his bodyguards to look after us. So it was only me and him. I was like…”
Before she could even finish her sentence, Jojie was quick to interrupt.
“I saw all that. I have to admit that it was not easy to get close to him. She was just lucky.
“He came to Ella, took her hands, stared at her for quite a while before he said `Thank you for being beautiful.’ I was like `Lawa sangat ke (is she that pretty?)’,” Jojie teased.
The following 30 minutes with Ella got even more real and warm. The interview was peppered with bigger laughs. It could have been the first time in a long while that both felt so comfortable in an interview.
Ella began to show even more of her true colours, in a vibrant, yet calming way.
If one expected cliched answers like `I worked very hard to be where I am right now’ or `I put pressure on myself to topple my previous achievements’, worry not. That won’t happen.
Ella wouldn’t give you one of those. Like when she was asked if she felt any pressure while working on U.S.A., the follow-up to the highly successful 30110. Her answer was a flat `Not at all’.
Obviously she doesn’t take herself as seriously as some stars. For her, it’s all about her work, not her.
“To work hard to improve yourself as an artiste, that’s fine. But if you keep on wanting more sales and stuff, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You just have to keep on delivering your best and the rest will follow,” Ella said.
“For me, nowadays, there’s a lot of choices if you’re looking for entertainment.
“If you want to sell albums in hundreds of thousands, it’s not as easy as before.
“Malaysia is a very small country. Even if you’re the most popular artiste in this country and you hope to sell more than 300,000 copies of your album, sorry to say, but you can keep the dream. Get real.”
One can also tell that she doesn’t actually pay that much attention to what the Press says about her.
“For instance, I ventured into acting because of my fans. Yes, the first, Pemburu Bayang, became a box-office hit, but honestly, I still don’t really know how it became a blockbuster! I just don’t understand. I can’t act. I can’t even watch myself!”
After that `success’, Ella ventured with some friends into Hanya Kawan. It tanked. After all, it was a film made by friends for friends, right?
Did Ella falter? Of course not. She still walks around as if the word `ego’ never existed.
She looks frail, yet invincible. Fragile yet strong and knowing what to do to survive – instinctively. Ella has gone through all the cycles and knows too well that the only wise thing to do is to go with the flow. And that’s why she rocks!
* This was originally published in The Malay Mail on March 6, 2004