There are few people in Malaysia more polarizing, more adept at capturing the nation's attention right now than Dato Seri Vida. The 46-year-old cosmetics tycoon made a mint off Qu Puteh (translation: "I'm White"), a controversial cosmetics brand that sells, among other things, skin whitening creams, some of which allegedly contain dangerous levels of mercury.
But she's more than a cosmetics kingpin. Vida is a self-marketing machine, a woman who has built a rich personal narrative around a rags-to-riches story she's spent years carefully crafting. She's "a queen," a modern Muslim woman who has been able to create an air of celebrity around herself that's inextricably tied to her very public displays of wealth. She's the largest financial backer of a local football team, enough to get their stadium painted pink in her honor, and she routinely appears on social media in bejeweled tiaras and gold rings galore.
Vida recently took the self-mythologizing a step further, releasing a self-promoting music video titled "I AM ME," that was full of candy-colored outfits, Italian sports cars, and bathtubs full of money. And she's doing all of this while presenting herself as a pious Muslim woman from Malaysia's rural Malay heartlands who still speaks with an unpolished Kelantan accent most nouveau riche would take pains to hide.
"She symbolizes all the kinds of idealized aspects of what it means to be Malay and Muslim in this country right now: wealthy, religious, pious," Alicia Izharuddin, a gender studies professor at Universiti Malaya, told VICE. "This is like Muslim femininity on steroids."
It's easy to write Vida (birth name: Hasmizah Othman) off as just another social media celeb pushing a curated image of success to her fans. She isn't exactly modest about the amount of money she has in her bank account. She leans heavily into gaudy signs of wealth—sports cars and mansions—while her social media presence plays with the bizarre in such a way that it keeps her fans guessing. She's fabulous, and unabashedly so, but in a seriously old-school gold bracelets and diamonds sort of way.
But there's more to this story than her social media feed. Izharuddin now includes a segment on Vida as part of her gender studies curriculum, in a large part because of what Vida tells Malaysians about their own culture.
It's important to first list off what Vida is not. She's not young. She's not thin. She's not the typical image of feminine beauty showcased by the Malaysian media. But she's still seen as a woman to be lusted after, a woman who makes headlines when a former personal assistant declares his undying love for her.
It's Vida's ability to balance her sexuality with her piety that has academics interested. Vida recently told the press that she performs the " solat hajat," a prayer of need, at least ten times a day "so that my life and riches are made easier to come by." She links her fat bank account to her piety, using religion to signal her status as a Malay Muslim woman of means.
"We’re obsessed with status; we equate national development with industrialization, modernization, and the creation of a broad middle class,” Izharuddin said.
So when Vida is sitting in a bathtub full of Malaysian ringgit singing "I am fun! I am pretty! I am beautiful! I’m a queen!" she's speaking to a population who wants to be all of those things too.
But there's more to Vida's popularity and independence than just being rich. Her public persona is the latest in a long-list of women who are able to achieve significant levels of fame and fortune in a typically patriarchal society by using Islam to shield themselves from criticism, explained Krishna Sen, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia.
"From the point of the view of the women, they want to acknowledge their faith but not allow it to stop them from doing what they want to do," she said, citing the prevalence of hijabi pop acts in Indonesia as another example.
When Vida is suggestively dancing in a pink hijab in "I AM ME," or singing "Come to me / Sayang, sayang, sayang," ("sayang" means "darling") she's swimming in the same waters as Indonesia's dangdut celebrities who are able to express their sexuality through dance and song without riling the country's conservative class too much.
It's Vida's piety that allows her to be so open about her own sexuality, Izharuddin explained. Remember, singing a song about your lover might not seem that extreme, but Malaysia's cultural fault lines typically skew way more sensitive than most. This is a country that banned the summer hit " Despacito" from state-owned airwaves over its "obscene lyrics," despite the fact that few Malaysians had any idea what was actually being said in the Spanish-language song. It's a nation that blamed a political rift in the opposition coalition on a Selena Gomez concert.
“By looking as a modestly dressed Malay woman, she’s protected from the visual scrutiny of others where she envelopes in this moral narrative that she is very pious, a very religious woman," Izharuddin told VICE. "She has that extra element of power and wealth on her side, so she’s protected by that, and she’s also protected by her conservative narrative."
But others argue that by leaning into the conservative elements of Malaysian society, Vida has "[smashed] the male ego," as one columnist put it, while still being a product of the patriarchy. That's because, as Izharuddin explained, Vida's success comes with a heavy dose of “patriarchal bargaining." Her obsession with the color pink, her conservative views, and her overly feminine image can all also be seen as a way to comfort Malaysian males. Vida may be successful and popular, but she's also the kind of woman a lot of conservative men want.
Her millions are the product of the same kind of bargaining. Vida is successful, but she keeps her success confined to the beauty industry. And her brand's entire push, that it's more beautiful to be white, is dangerous as a beauty standard and as a health concern. Scientific studies of popular whitening creams available in Southeast Asia found traces of mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic in most products.
So who is Vida and what does her rise all mean? She's confusing in her contradictions but she still undoubtably has a way to connect with Malaysian society like few others. How you feel about that all depends on how you balance these opposing ideas. Pop culture is often a reflection of society, and it's rarely all good or all bad, but, at least for now, Vida is what winning looks like in modern Malaysia.