It’s a sweltering morning in eastern Singapore, and I’m sandwiched in between our videographer and makeup artist in a cab as we make our way to Changi Beach Club for our photoshoot with Nadya when my phone beeps.

Earrings, Nadya’s own; Necklace, pendant and rings, all from Marilyn Tan Jewellery; Dress from Marni.

It’s Ling, her manager at Fly Entertainment. Though Nadya is travelling a lot at the moment thanks to her work with the United Nations as an Environment Goodwill Ambassador, she is also making her rounds in Asia promoting her new coffee table book, Walk With Me, which chronicles her life’s journey as an activist dedicated to environment preservation and wildlife protection.


Mother-Daughter Challenge with Nadya Hutagalung & Nyla Koh

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Ling is calling me to say Nadya’s already making her way to the location as we speak. “She’ll be there early,” she explains, a remark which delights the crew who are used to waiting much longer for a celebrity to make their eventual appearance.

In person, Nadya keeps bucking expectations. She quietly but confidently moves about the staging room as she inspects the clothes our stylist has chosen for her, and discreetly pulls her aside to explain she can’t wear the suede dress shortlisted.

“I can’t wear animal skins. I’m sorry,” she says with the air of someone who is genuinely distraught that she has to inconvenience another. “I can’t wear the acrylic dress either unfortunately. It just doesn’t align with my beliefs that fashion needs to be sustainable.”

Maternal Figure

This self-assuredness and this innate, unwavering belief in the value of the Earth and the impact of her choices on it, is exactly what Nadya projects to her fans, both through her conservation work and the principles she upholds in real life.

It’s one of the reasons, the mum-of-three is often referred to as an ‘Earth Mother’, in addition to being the matriarch of her own family that comprises 22-year-old Tyrone, 15-year-old Fynn and 10-year-old Nyla.

On Nadya: Earrings, bracelet and ring, all from Marilyn Tan Jewellery; Bralette and beaded top, from Dries van Noten; Pants from MSGM. On Nyla: Necklace, from Marni; Dress and top, Nyla’s own.

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“To become a mother is the beginning of your greatest learning journey. Having left home at around 12-years-old to work, I never really had a defined impression of what being a parent should be. I was very independent and had to figure out many things for myself from my youth. I admit that I may unconsciously expect my own children to do the same at times,” says the 44-year-old.

“To become a mother is the beginning of your greatest learning journey”

“Being a mother has taught me that no one is perfect, that none of us is built the same way. I once was a very strict parent but I have loosened up over the years. I learnt by doing, and as a result, my eldest son, Ty, may have had a harder time in his upbringing than Nyla, my youngest, who I am raising in a very different way.”

Nadya describes her relationship with motherhood as a growth process. Each stage of mothering has been a learning curve for her, each with a respective set of challenges and attainment, form seed to sprout to tree.

Dark Matter

This growth was almost stalled by a dark episode in Nadya’s life. One that she was not prepared to talk about or publicly acknowledge until now.

While Nadya’s life has looked picture perfect from afar, it wasn’t always this way she confesses. Her first marriage was marred by abuse at the hands of her former husband – a period that the Indonesian-Australian beauty says changed her irrevocably.

Necklace and rings, from Marilyn Tan Jewellery; Dress from Tory Burch.

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“I left Australia under police escort with my then one-year-old baby in tow; and the reason I left under police escort was because I had been involved in a domestic abuse incident for years. I remember thinking that the only way I was going to get out of my situation was by being financially independent. So I worked really hard and I save up the money from my modelling jobs so that I could take the leap and leave,” she shares.

Her turning point she adds was when she got to shoot the cover for a Singapore edition of an international magazine that was set to launch. The money she got from that job and some others gave her enough to buy a one-way airplane ticket out of her abusive relationship, and a chance at freedom.

“The moment I realised my worth as a woman, I realised that I had to leave my [abusive first] marriage”

“I was thinking ‘Where should I go?’ and I decided to go to Singapore because that’s where I had been getting most of my modelling jobs at the time so I wanted to go where the market was hot. That was more than 20 years ago,” remembers Nadya.

“The moment I realised my worth as a woman, I realised that I had to leave my marriage. I hid this story for so long but one of my proudest moments emerged from this dark time in my life.”

A Fresh Start

To say this moment of self-awareness was life-changing is an understatement. Nadya’s life has shifted leaps and bounds and she’s now a living role model for her daughter Nyla, aged 10, from her marriage to Desmond Koh.

“I just love the way she makes me laugh and all her work with endangered species and communities inspires me to the same one day,” says Nyla, whose fiercely protective model mum has kept her out of the public eye… until now.

On Nadya: Necklace and rings, from Marilyn Tan Jewellery; Dress from Tory Burch. On Nyla: Necklace and bracelets, stylist’s own; Dress, Nyla’s own.

Asked why she decided – after years of evasion – to finally allow her children to be photographed, Nadya says she believes in leading by example.

“Both Nyla and Ty have decided that they would like a more public presence. It’s something I have taken time to do as I strongly respect their privacy. For me, fame or a public platform is not worth much unless you are using it to make a difference in the lives of others. it’s so special that Nyla and I are able to do this photoshoot together as I know that she is keen to embark on the path of being a change maker,” she explains.

“I don’t expect my children to follow my passions but I hope that I’ve planted the seeds for them to become human beings who are happy and kind, and can find something the love to do and do it well.”

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(This story first appeared in the May 2019 print edition of The Singapore Women’s Weekly.)

Fashion Direction: Janice Pidduck
Photos: Joel Low, assisted by Alfie Pan
Styling: Lauren Alexa
Hair: Rick Yang, using Revlon Professional
Makeup: Keith Bryant Lee, using Dior
Location: Changi Beach Club