Insider: A Malaysian In Sydney
Melati Kesuma Kamaruddin calls herself a mum, wife and writer on her Facebook profile. I would call her all that as well as an entrepreneur, content creator, fashion stylist, painter, cake decorator, golfer, violinist, go-getter, super-achiever, and friend. Yes, I am interviewing my own friend for the first Insider segment on Gadabout. But not without merit! Melati had always been on the list, but when International Women’s Day was rolling around the corner the other day and I had failed to schedule in the first interviewee the team had agreed on, who better than your own (successful) friend to goad into answering your interview questions over Facebook Messenger ASAP? Ah the perks of being well-connected (enough)!
I have known Melati since our university years, together studying at the Faculty of Mass Communication & Media Studies at Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam – she in Public Relations while I took up Publishing. After graduating with an honours degree, Melati did a fair bit of PR work, including at acclaimed firms Grey PR and Naga-DDB. However, she soon found out more about what us magazine publishing professionals do and realised she was on the wrong side. I could have told ya that, earlier, friend!
“I had worked in public relations with some really great PR agencies,” Melati shared. “But one day, a client of mine mentioned that The Malaysian Women’s Weekly (MWW) was looking for a junior fashion and beauty writer.”
“I thought, “Could this be something I would enjoy?” So, I went for an interview with the then editor, Sunita Chhabra, and the next thing I knew, I was the new fashion and beauty writer for MWW,” shared Melati. “Ever since I started interning at Grey PR, servicing brands like P&G and Nike, I knew I enjoyed the content side of things, but didn’t pursue it until much later,” she adds.
Was it glamorous? Was it tough? Her answer: “Well, both. It was an entry level role that involved both creativity and hard work. Before I was allowed to even manage my own fashion shoots, my job actually started with steaming garments, helping models change into and out of outfits, taping the bottom of loaned shoes and going out to shops to select and pick up all sorts of outfits and accessories for fashion shoots.”
At the time, MWW was under Australian-based publishing company, ACP Magazines Ltd, which also published the Malaysian editions of CLEO, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan magazines. The company had an office in Singapore, which was older than the Malaysian branch, and there were constant collaborations between the two offices. (For clarification, all the ACP magazines were later acquired by Blu Inc Media following the parent company’s financial situation in Australia).
The Trendy Jetsetter
“Every month, I would fly to Singapore for fashion shoots,” Melati shares. “I would be at KLIA at 5am, reach Singapore at 8am, start shooting at 10am, pack up and be back home by dinner time. It was really tiring but I really didn’t mind it because I enjoyed choosing the looks and seeing how the shoots worked.”
“After a year of flying back and forth, I was given the green light to oversee and direct my own shoots,” she reminisces. “Once I started styling and directing MWW magazine cover shoots, the opportunity to work with Cosmopolitan soon opened up. I didn’t even know that it was possible to work on two magazines at the same time. Nonetheless, I welcomed the challenge. Before long, I was shooting covers and directing the fashion content for both magazines.”
We writers and editors often complain of being underpaid most of the time, but oh! The perks were priceless! Even in my days working at CLEO magazine as a lowly editorial assistant in 2005, I had enjoyed a working trip to Phuket for the reopening of Club Med after the 2004 tsunami tragedy. For writers and editors specialising in fashion and beauty, the trips were more covetable. Working at MWW and Cosmopolitan, Melati would go to Paris and Tokyo every year for either a brand launch or fashion shoot. Back then, it was almost a given when you work with brands such as Lancome, Shiseido, Shu Uemura, Yves Saint Laurent and the likes. Among other cities, Melati has also travelled to Shanghai for a Clarins event, and to Bangkok for Origins.
However, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Well, in Melati’s case, to be enjoyed elsewhere. As she advanced to the next chapter in her life and career, she then pursued a role in corporate communications. “After five promotions, numerous international shoots and overseas assignments, I left my final role – as Senior Fashion and Beauty Editor at MWW and Senior Fashion Editor at Cosmopolitan,” she shares. “My time at the magazines can be described as the best time of my publishing career. The teamwork, the training and the sisterhood were real.”
Creating Opportunities For Herself In Brisbane
After some time at RHB Bank and Kraft Foods, Melati, her husband and then 1-year-old Mika moved to Brisbane, Australia following a job opportunity for her other half, Aizat Mohd Mustapa. While exciting, moving to another country couldn’t have been easy for her, especially when it comes to practically starting over, career-wise. Melati wasn’t one to simply give up or just accept what life doled out, however. Once she and her family were well-settled in Brissy, she set about creating opportunities for herself.
This was when she created Wondermika.com – a lifestyle blog that focused on fashion and beauty. Melati took the things that she had already excelled at, and turned them into a full-on online publication that had the same panache and excitement that made magazines like the Malaysian Women’s Weekly and Cosmopolitan readers’ faves. With carefully curated content, both original and from press releases, Wondermika blew up in a big way and even became a point of reference for spotting fake branded handbags thanks to Melati’s knowledge in ascertaining the little details.
“That story went so viral and has been read more than half a million times,” Melati enthuses (our last check, there were at least 700,000 views for one of the “How To Spot A Fake <insert brand name>” story. “At one point I was making RM1000 a day from Google Ads alone.”
Of course, as any successful techpreneur would tell you, it wasn’t all easy and rainbows and ponies.
“I think what I’ve learnt over the years is that opportunities don’t create themselves. We create opportunities.”
“I launched Wondermika with zero digital knowledge and remember crying in front of my laptop trying to learn HTML from Youtube,” shares Melati. “Imagine making the jump from traditional publishing to digital with no formal training.”
“So I forced myself to watch the videos over and over again. And eventually I started to understand how WordPress worked, what HTML is, how to earn with Google and what SEO is.” And this, at a time when we didn’t yet have apps like Canva or FilmoraGo at the tip of our fingers.
Nonetheless, Melati’s work on Wondermika certainly helped open up opportunities for her in Brisbane. As she shares, “Once I knew how to publish blogs, I approached the Brisbane Times and presented my blog. I showed them all the stories I had worked on and what I was capable of. The next thing I knew, I was given my own column to write for. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if I had just given up on learning WordPress? I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now!”
From her own style column in the Brisbane Times, Melati then landed a gig at APN News Media, an Australian media company, where she was a native content producer. “That’s where I made my leap from traditional publishing into digital media thanks to my boss Henry who was willing to coach me,” she says. “For me, I feel that small opportunities can sometimes be a start of something really special. I think what I’ve learnt over the years is that opportunities don’t create themselves. We create opportunities.”
Starting An Online Business During COVID-19
After a few years in Brisbane, Melati and her family relocated to Sydney. Here, she started her own content marketing agency, Colab Digital, in 2016. Initially, it was just a platform for her to take on small writing jobs while looking for a more permanent role in Sydney. However, as fate had it, Colab Digital became more than a freelancing gig. One client turned into two, two turned into three and the rest is history. Today, Colab Digital produces content for numerous clients in the tech, healthcare and the lifestyle sector. According to Melati, they also have a design, SEM and web development arm to produce stunning designs, manage Google Ads and develop amazing websites.
“And you would think that I would stop there,” Melati adds. “But my family and friends know me as someone who always comes up with new ideas and ventures.” And she did not disappoint.
“In November 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I launched yaay.com.au, a gifting company that offers wellbeing products that are natural and crafted by Australian artisans,” Melati shares. “By January 2021, we had successfully sold 100 boxes of our gift sets. We’re in the process of launching our next 100 boxes.”
How She Does It All
It does seem as if Melati has more than the 24 hours the rest of us mortals are allocated. As mentioned before, other than running her businesses and being a wife and mother, she also golfs, bakes, paints and plays the violin. It seems almost impossible to allocate time to be able to do it all, but Melati holds on to one philosophy in pursuing all her interests: “We only have one life! And I have promised myself that I don’t want to live with regrets. I don’t want to tell myself, “Oh I wish I had tried that, I wish I had given that a shot.” Personally, I don’t allocate the time. I just do it! There are 24 hours in a day and to me personally, 24 is a big number! I start my day early by hitting the gym at 7am, then I send my son to school, work for 5 hours, pick my son up and then take him to his extra curricular activities. At the end of the day, I play a few holes of golf with my friends and finish just in time for dinner.”
“I don’t stress myself out trying to do all these things. Instead, I do all these things so I won’t get stressed.”
“Once a week, I have violin lessons, golf coaching and if I feel like it I’ll paint or bake,” she shares. “It really depends on what inspires me and how I feel. I started playing the violin two years ago when I read a blog by this lady who learnt how to play at 55. She said that she was glad she decided to learn how to play because it’s never too late for anyone to learn the violin. And I told myself, she was 55 when she started… I’m a lot younger, if I’m persistent I can do it, too!”
Melati also says that doing all these things is a way to destress, “I don’t stress myself out trying to do all these things. Instead, I do all these things so I won’t get stressed. It’s all part of maintaining my wellbeing, challenging myself and keeping the mind occupied.”
“I read a piece by Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA, that we only need 20 hours to learn a new skill,” she continues. “Kaufman says that the human brain is optimised to pick up new skills extremely quickly and a little persistence can result in huge increases in skill. I find this to be true in my case. I am naturally inquisitive and I don’t give up very easily!”
Melati’s Sydney Insider Tips
Of course, we had to get the deets from someone who actually lives in Sydney on what’s worth checking out once we’re there. Here’s what she shares with us about NOT skipping the Sydney Opera House and where the best beaches and views are when we ask, “What are the quintessential Sydney things to do?”
Inside the Sydney Opera House – “Often, people leave the Sydney Opera House still wondering what it looks like on the inside! If you find yourself in front of the Sydney Opera House, may I suggest that you book a show and go enjoy what’s offered inside. The Sydney Opera House is famed for its magnificent architecture but inside are plenty of performances that will entertain and inspire you. It’s not all Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, so don’t worry if classical is not your thing. There are theaters, dances and fun performances you should not miss. So if someone asks you, have you been to the Sydney Opera House, you can say yes, you have and you have also been inside and watched something spectacular.”
Harbour Bridge Kayak – “The Harbour Bridge is unmistakably Sydney and you absolutely must not leave here without getting a snap. But if you want to see this majestic structure from a completely different angle, try kayaking under the bridge at sunrise. My family and I really enjoyed kayaking in the harbour and going underneath the bridge. Once you get past the bridge, you will have an uninterrupted view of the Opera House.”
Dobroyd Head – “If you have the time and energy, I would definitely recommend the Spit To Manly Wharf walk. But if you only have 2 hours to spare, Dobroyd Head is a must-see. Dobroyd Head is actually just a small section of the walk but offers amazing views of the Manly coastline and, not to mention, bush land surroundings. During whale season, if you are lucky, you might just spot whales.”
Dine up In Infinity – “I actually discovered this restaurant when my husband took me here for lunch and can I just say that the food is really good. Infinity Sydney Tower is 81 levels above Sydney so you can imagine just how incredible the views are. The restaurant is revolving so you’re always looking at something different from the Opera House, to Harbour Bridge and the rivers that flow through Greater Sydney. On a cloudy day you do feel like you’re up in the clouds and if you come and dine at night, you will see the entire city light up. It’s just amazing.”
Bronte Beach – “I know that everyone talks about Bondi Beach, and yes, it is iconic. But just 3.5km away from Bondi is another beach which I think has the most stunning views! It’s less crowded than Bondi but has a similar charm with little cafes and a small rock pool to bathe in. We love climbing up the cliff and just enjoying the breathtaking views. If you get the chance, try the Bondi to Bronte walk. It’s great exercise coupled with gorgeous coastal outlooks.”
Travelling For Work And Leisure
If ever anyone was wondering just how important is travelling is to Melati, here’s what she has to say: “Travelling is right up there with brushing my teeth, for me. Not as important as breathing but definitely as important as dental hygiene. I had always loved travelling but it was my job at the magazines that really made me want to continue exploring the world. Again, it goes back to my motto of no regrets. If we can help it, we should try and see as much of the world as we can.”
Growing up in Berkeley, California in the 1980s (where she once met Michael Jackson!), Melati can be considered a third culture kid and has little problem fitting in at any country she travels to. Having travelled extensively thanks to work and her own passion for travel, Melati is more than happy to share with us about her favourite places to visit and things to do. Like many fashionistas, she loves France but it’s the south of France instead of Paris that does it for her. Here, she also shares what she loves about Tokyo and Tasmania.
The Spectacular South Of France
Speaking of her travels, she says, “I especially loved the South of France, specifically the area surrounding Les Baux-de-Provence. Les Baux is a super interesting medieval village built on a fortified rocky site between Arles and St Remy-de-Provence and there was so much to learn about the history of the community. We stayed at this hotel called Le Mas D’aigret just a 5-minute walk from the old town and you absolutely have to experience it. The cave room we stayed in was carved out of a massive boulder which was part of the mountain mass – just mind-blowing.”
“My next favourite would be Tokyo,” Melati enthuses. “Although I have travelled to Japan many times, unfortunately due to the nature of the trips (work trips), I have only managed to stay within Tokyo. However, having said that, Tokyo can never get boring. It’s too interesting a city that you are constantly surprised by the juxtaposition of tradition and technology. I really enjoyed strolling down Omotesando Avenue, which goes through Shibuya, Minato and Harajuku. Omotesando has this unique mix of haute couture, good food and cutting edge architecture.”
Hangin’ Ten In Hawaii
Taking advantage of the closer distance to the United States from Sydney (as opposed to from Kuala Lumpur), Melati and family visited Hawaii, flying in Melati’s mother from Richmond, California to spend time with them – making it a truly memorable family trip for the albums.
“I would definitely recommend Hawaii,” says Melati. We stayed in Waikiki but spent 8 days exploring Oahu. I love Hawaii because the people are warm and friendly, the island is unbelievably beautiful, the culture is rich and the food is exquisite. You’ll find authentic Japanese dishes and Hawaiian delicacies alongside the typical American food. Hawaiians are generally polite and welcoming and the energy is really positive.
“Like Tokyo, Hawaii is a really interesting juxtaposition between the rich traditions of the Polynesian people and the western influence. Imagine enjoying a Hula dance one minute and then grabbing a meal at Taco Bell the next,” she enthuses.
This Sydney-sider has no qualms about promoting other Australian cities. In fact, you can say she is practically enamored with Tasmania.
“If you find yourself in Australia, I would highly recommend that you make a trip to Tasmania. Tasmania is absolutely stunning,” she enthuses. “We made the 10-hour Great Eastern Drive, which we broke into two days so we could enjoy some hiking and quiet lunches.”
“If you are looking for a pitstop in between Hobart and Launceston, I recommend The Pyrmont Retreat. It’s a small Provincial style resort overlooking the beautiful Freycinet Peninsula with beautiful grounds and ocean views. When in Hobart, you absolutely have to take a ferry to Bruny Island, drive down to Port Arthur and up Mount Wellington. And if you’re looking for the best place to stay in the Hobart town area, check out Australia’s first ‘storytelling hotel’ the Macq01 Hotel. Not only are the interiors ultra luxe, imagine the hotel has its own museum integrated with the lobby, corridors and even rooms. You’ll see so many artefacts from axes, a Napoleonic sabre, whaling hooks, an engraved whale tooth, a 19th-century stockwhip handle and digging sticks. You can probably see a common theme with all my favourite travels – history and culture,” Melati adds, finishing the interview.
From an avid magazine reader in her teens to a writer and editor today, Zurien honed her skills at various publications including CLEO, K-Zone, Prestige, The Malaysian Women’s Weekly, LISA Malaysia, MSN.com.my, GLAM Junior, Going Places, kayak.com, HerInspirasi.com, Harper’s Bazaar Malaysia, Tropicana Magazine and Convergence by Malaysia Airports. Zurien hopes to inspire readers to enjoy the best of travel and lifestyle experiences at Gadabout.