Walk With Me (Part I): A Mother’s Journey
“To become a mother is the beginning of your greatest learning journey,” says “earth mother” and wildlife advocate, Nadya Hutagalung, “My children are each beautiful and caring individuals who are my teachers, and who help me to push myself each day.”
The clock is ticking. And every minute, every hour, every day, there’s a woman who knows what she must do and decides to do it. Deep within, she understands that therein lies the power to make a difference. With or without the fanfare of an army behind her, she gets up and takes the steps she needs to take, to get to where she wants to go. And if she doesn’t know how to get there, she figures it out along the way.
Nadya Hutagalung is one such woman. The multi-hyphenate has juggled, amongst her many notable roles, that of: United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership (UN GRASP) Ambassador, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Ambassador, and World Wide Fund for Nature’s Earth Hour Ambassador. She is also the iconic face behind the hugely successful wildlife conservation campaign, Let Elephants Be Elephants (LEBE).
In Indonesia, Nadya is known for her hands-on work with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), and in 2014, the 45-year-old television host and eco-activist was acknowledged as one of Asia’s most powerful eco icons.
WALK WITH ME
I first met Nadya six years ago during a cover shoot for a local women’s magazine. We were at the Singapore Zoo, shooting Nadya with gentle giants, Jati and Gambir, in support of LEBE. Fully aware of the responsibilities she carries as a public figure, Nadya chooses her projects carefully. “Fame is a huge responsibility,” she states, “I honestly feel that fame for the sake of fame alone is a wasted opportunity.”
The first thing that struck me when I met her then, was how grounded and zen-like she remained, even as a flurry of activity surrounded her. I remember how she greeted me gently with a soft, “Nice to meet you.” She shook my hand, accompanying it with a little bow – it was ever so slight, but enough to convey a sense of humility, and the grounded confidence that comes with being comfortable in your own skin.
Today, Nadya is an ambassador of The Yoga School and for our interview this time round, I’m meeting her in more familiar settings over a Skype video call. She’s been traveling non-stop and has just returned from a series of back-to-back travels: Kenya, Bhutan, Vietnam, and then Greece. All that travelling must be exhausting but amazingly, Nadya looks none the worse for wear. If anything, she’s fresh-faced and relaxed, happy to be home.
The recent launch of Walk With Me (a photographic chronicle that celebrates her 30 years in the media industry), presents Nadya’s personal narrative on life in the modelling and entertainment industry. It also details her work in environmental preservation and wildlife protection, specifically in the conservation of elephants and orangutans.
Exploring myriad aspects of Nadya’s life, the seven chapters within – named after elements like Mist, Seeds, Mirror, Bamboo, Ocean, Spice, and Soil, offer a glimpse into her private life and personal relationships with close friends and family.
“I believe that we’re all on our own journey. We all have a path to walk,” she says. “One of my favourite things to do is to walk, in the evenings or at night. I always encourage people to walk with me, so the title has a few different meanings to it. It’s quite nice.
“I realise that everyone is living their own journey, each with his or her own story to tell. No one person’s story is more important than anyone else’s. Instead, I believe that we can learn from other people’s experiences, and from empathising with them – even if it is a world away from our own lives and backgrounds,” she adds. “I hope that by sharing my motivations in life, and sharing the things that I feel are important to me, others may be inspired to pursue their passions, to not be afraid of adversity, and also to fight for what is right and just.”
The mum-of-three cites her kids as her source of inspiration. “To be honest, something happened in my life, and it just made me think, what do I have to show for all of the things that I’ve done? Like where I come from, or the things that I’m passionate about. If I document these things, at least I’ve got something for my kids, something for them to hold on to if anything were to happen,” she shares.
“That was my thought process really, that’s how I ended up arriving at the idea of doing a book. But then I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea making it just about me, so I decided that if I was going to do this, then I would do it for the causes that I care about – Africa, the elephants, and the orangutans, and 15 percent of the proceeds would go to the Sumatran Elephants.”
“MUM WAS MY COMPASS”
In an industry where celebrities parade their private lives for public consumption and give us #TMI, Nadya’s Instagram merely hints at her personal life with husband, Desmond Koh, and her kids Tyrone, 25, Fynn, 17, and Nyla, 11. While she’s often been in the limelight herself, Nadya has been fiercely protective of her children. It wasn’t until February this year that she publicly posted their photos.
“Nyla, on her own, has decided that she wants to be in the media industry. For years now, she has wanted to start her own YouTube channel and I have not agreed,” Nadya revealed on her Instagram platform. “My view is that if you have a clear message and a reason to be in front of the camera then great, but if you are wanting to be in front of the camera just to be famous without a clear talent or focus, and simply an agenda to be famous, then it’s a waste of time. Anyway, here she is: my beautiful, loving, sensitive, animal-loving, creative little human, Nyla.”
Nadya herself never set out to be a top model or one of MTV Asia’s most popular VJs. Talent-spotted at a young age, she recalls her father’s best friend (one of Australia’s top photographers, and whose wife was the editor of Australian Elle magazine), predicting that she would be a model when she grew up. But then-11-year-old Nadya never believed them, because the typical ideal Australian beauty during that era was the blonde, blue-eyed, surfer babe. “I was already as tall as I am today, long-limbed and skinny, with crazy wavy hair and freckles. I certainly didn’t fit in, let alone think I was beautiful enough to stand in front of a camera.
“The strange thing is, there was never a desire within me to model and be famous, as that didn’t seem like a reality. I just wanted to be someone who was self-reliant,” she adds. The lanky beauty who, at the age of 12 already stood at 1.75m, did go on to become a model whose looks were highly sought after in Japan. Her mum, Diane, had a very liberal approach to parenting – she accompanied Nadya to Tokyo, settled her in, and left, allowing her pre-teen daughter the freedom and excitement of flying solo.
“I think the greatest lessons from my modelling days might be how I gained a sense of independence and learnt to look after myself. Because I started travelling at such a young age, I had no choice but to learn the skills to survive,” she continues. On hindsight, Nadya shares, “People would question me whether she’s a good mum or not, that she let me go, at 12 years old.” After a thoughtful pause, she adds, “I always thought that she’s my best friend, until I had a child who was that age – and then I questioned, how could she have let me go?
“I went through this process of internalising it, you know, was she really a good mum or was she a terrible mum? But the truth was, she did what she knew was right for me. She’s incredibly proud of who I am, and she’s always been there for me. I guess, she had a lot of trust.
“I don’t think I have enough words to express the gratitude I have for my mum being the mother that she has been to me,” Nadya expresses, “My mum is friendship, honesty, openness, trust. When I think about her, I think about us dancing in the kitchen, planning meals, gardening, and painting. I think about love, warmth, and sincerity. She was my compass in my early days.”
LIVING WITH INTENTION
Things are very different now, but once upon a time, Nadya’s romantic life was filled with tumultuous relationships. She’s come a long way and weathered the storms in her journey – domestic violence and the challenges of a single mum juggling work and young kids – but through it all, she held her head up high with grace and grit.
Today, Nadya stands as the embodiment of the calm after the storm. I ask her about her key to staying positive. “I think that there’s a plus side and a down side to being an optimist,” she replies, hesitating, “I’ve always been an optimist and sometimes, that has gotten me into trouble, because I always believe that people are inherently good – and I don’t always benefit from that.
“But still, I get up and carry on. It doesn’t hold me back. It’s very rare for me to be held up by much for long,” she pauses, as if to consult her memories. “In 2017, I started having panic attacks, it was the first time in my life when I was not in control of my own mind. But that’s all resolved,” she reflects.
A practising Tibetan Buddhist, Nadya diligently adheres to daily rituals every morning and night. “It is a commitment that I’m happy to keep,” she says. “Through my practice, I’ve learnt to recognise the value of this precious human life.” She takes a minute to consider her words, then emphasises, “I’m going to have to explain this very carefully so that it’s clear and doesn’t sound morbid.”
Nadya continues, “For many years, I’ve done ‘death meditations’. What you do, is you visualise yourself in your coffin or lying dead with your family members surrounding you, and you meditate on that.
Lying there, really visualising myself gone, and what happens is this: you realise, ‘I didn’t say this’; ‘I should’ve done that’; ‘I need to do this’. It makes you get up and really embrace life. It makes me think: what happens if I don’t have the time?
“And so, in studying and trying to understand the reality of life, it helps you to find meaning in life. Every moment becomes an opportunity for you to create meaningful interactions, connections, and impact, whether it’s work, in a social situation, or within the community.”
LIFE AT HOME
During our interview, Kaya and Puja (two of Nadya’s four cats), take turns to drop in for kisses and cuddles.
At one point, a sleepy Nyla walks into the room. “I fell off a horse,” she says, cosying comfortably into mummy’s lap.
“Are you ok?” I ask. She shakes her head, then covers her eyes with mummy’s palms.
“Hey you’re warm,” Nadya says, and instinctively feels her daughter’s forehead. Nyla seems to be feeling better after mummy’s touch, and shuffles away to cuddle the cats.
Within minutes, she’s back for more hugs. “Oh my goodness,” Nadya mutters under her breath, instantly reaching out for a bottle of lotion that’s already sitting on her desk.
As she quickly pumps its contents into her palms, she quips, “Sorry, multitasking mama!”
Slipping right into working mummy mode, Nadya visibly brightens as she talks about her mini-me. “Nyla’s just come back from Bali. She was with her bapak, and now her hair’s in dreadlocks,” she describes, hands gesturing in the air. Deftly detangling her daughter’s long tresses with her fingers, Nadya explains with a hearty laugh, “She gets dreadlocks overnight!”
The doting mum then turns her attention back to me, “This has got to be the most original interview you’ve had so far?” she remarks, a cheerful twinkle in her eye.
“This is real life,” I say, ‘This is what it’s like.” I get it. With three little men of my own at home, this scene is all too familiar.
“Only because you’re a mum too, I can do this,” she shares, “Because you know what it’s like to juggle.”
Moments later, Nadya has her daughter’s hair up in a bun, and lovingly bids her a playful, “Ok bye!” as Nyla scuttles off to get ready for the day ahead.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Beaming, Nadya continues, “My daughter is a super activist. She’s really pro-equality, pro-women, pro-animals – she is like an incredible little being already.” She adds, “My eldest is a life/health coach, and my middle one is a teenager so he’s just like, in his own world at the moment, doing his own thing. But I do think that the oldest and the youngest, they’re quite mindful.”
A quiet look of pride flashes across Nadya’s face as she talks about her firstborn. “Tyrone – he’s trying, it’s good for him. I hope he finds success in what he’s doing so that he’s motivated to carry on.
“He went through his period of rebellion too, but he’s come back to me in a really, really nice way. And it’s funny because he said to me one day, ‘Mum, come check out my website and have a look, and just give me your opinion and everything.’ I did, and I realised that one of the headers he used, was ‘Walk With Me’. It was so nice to see that,” she says, her eyes crinkling at the edges as she breaks into a beautiful smile.
“Our relationship is turning into something else. We share our ideas and we’ve got incredible synchronicity, like I’ll think about something and he’ll say it, or I’ll say it, and he’ll go ‘that’s just what I was thinking about’. There’s this really nice connection between the two of us now, it had to take its time to sort of get there, but it’s really nice.”
Having left home to work at a young age, Nadya discloses that she did not have a defined impression of what being a parent should be. “I was very independent and had to figure out many things for myself as a youth. I admit that I may unconsciously expect my own children to do the same at times.
“Being a mother has taught me that no one is perfect, that none of us is built the same way. I was once a very strict parent but I’ve loosened up over the years. I learnt by doing and, as a result, my eldest son, Ty, may have had a much harder time in his upbringing than Nyla, who I am raising with Desmond, a very hands-on parent.”
I tell her that I cannot imagine what it’s like to manage teens, and it’s a period that I’m not looking forward to in my parenthood journey. “I’ve got three boys and they’re in primary school,” I confide, “And I’m rapidly learning that, no matter how you hard you try to bring them up the same, they turn out different anyway, because they’re individuals with their own personalities.”
Nadya tells me kindly, “Yeah it’s not easy, everyone is different. The only thing I can say is that they do come back,” she shares encouragingly. “They come back. And so, the most important thing is, leave the light on, and tell them ‘I love you and I know that you’re mad at me but just know, I’m here’ – at some point it’s all you can do because, it’s tough. Try not to have too much anger and stress and all those things. We went through that with my eldest, and it was really hard, but it’s great now.”
A MOTHER’S DAY WISH
Something about Nadya’s unconditional love for her kids touches me on a deeper level. I feel compelled to get in touch with Tyrone, who’s currently based in Bali, Indonesia.
Growing up, Tyrone spent his time split between Singapore, Australia, and Indonesia. “To be honest, as a typical teenager, I wasn’t very interested in anything my parents wanted to teach me,” he admits frankly, when I ask him about how mum has impacted his life. “I was made to be independent from a young age – and so was she,” he explains, then adds thoughtfully, “I think the experience helped shaped my resilience a lot.”
Looking through Tyrone’s coaching website, it’s hard not to notice the similarities – like mum, he communicates that same positive and compassionate vibe.
I’ve always believed that children learn more, not from what you say, but from watching what you do. I want to know if Tyrone has been inspired by his mum to live more purposefully. Happily, he affirms, “As I’ve gotten older and learned more through my own research, I realise quite a lot of what I’ve been doing is the same as what mum does!”
Tyrone’s Instagram posts are sincere and relatable, often peppered with personal reflections and signed off with “love and light”. One of them carries a photo with the caption, “If you want to go far, go together”.
“Your family is sacred,” he writes, “No matter what happens, you must wish the best for them. Sometimes, distance can be necessary while we are on our own healing paths. But still, hold that space in your heart to send them love even while apart. This photo is of my mum and I last year – we got to spend precious little time together (2 days) but it was nice. Love you mum!”
It’s also apparent that Nadya children share their mother’s love for all sentient beings. “We really enjoy animals,” Tyrone points out, adding that they often bond over funny cat videos.
And as he reminisces about their memories as a family, Tyrone shares, “The first ones that come to mind, all involve family meals and our silly sense of humour. One Christmas, mum had personally decorated a Christmas tree in my grandma’s house in Australia. We were looking at her handy work and laughing our tails off!” he recalls fondly. “There came a point when the jokes stopped coming and we didn’t even remember why we were laughing in the first place, but we just kept laughing hysterically. We have a very weird sense of humour in our family! Especially when we have multiple generations coming together.”
“I wish for my mum clarity, vision, collaboration, and wonderful feelings of love, abundance, and gratitude.”
– Tyrone Williams
In celebration of Mother’s Day, Tyrone hopes for the joys in Nadya’s life to be plentiful. In spite of the difficult seasons they shared in the past, it’s heartening that the bond between mother and son has deepened, and come full circle.