“If you’re not doing something, every day, about the world your kids are growing up in, then I don’t know if you’re a responsible parent or not,” declares Nadya Hutagalung, mother of three, model, actress, TV personality, author, elephant preservationist and UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador, in an unsettling interview with Prestige.
Hutagalung is a multi-talented multi-tasker who is not afraid to speak her mind. In a discussion that becomes disquieting at times, she expresses her growing sense of unease that the struggle to save the planet might actually be losing momentum – just when we need to be doing more than ever to combat climate change, reduce pollution and save critically endangered species like Indonesia’s magnificent Sumatran elephant.
A mother of three, an outspoken eco-activist and a dedicated UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador, this beautiful and glamorous model, actress, TV personality and, now, author (she has just published a book, Walk With Me) is known and admired for her strong stand on environmental preservation and wildlife conservation – notably the fight to save the world’s remaining elephants from ivory poachers and habitat loss.
It sounds like Nadya has a lot on her plate every day – she does actually – yet she shows no signs of fatigue or stress when Prestige catches up with her at the fabulous, cliff-top Sofitel Singapore Sentosa Resort & Spa for her Cover Story shoot. Indeed, she is ever so professional and unassuming throughout the process.
“Hi I’m Nadya, nice to meet you” is the first thing she says when we meet up at the tranquil resort with its bird’s-eye views of the South China Sea. It’s not long before we find out that she has just come back from travelling around the world non-stop, quite literally. She has been visiting different continents for work and personal reasons.
During the shoot, Nadya is patience personified. Not a single complaint come out of her mouth as she changes into a lot of different outfits. It’s a typically hot and humid day in Singapore, but she moves from one look to another without missing a beat.
We can’t help wondering what a typical day is like for her, “There is no typical day,” Nadya grins. “It really depends on what I’m working on, whether I’m travelling with the UN, doing elephant and conservation work, or just being at home with the family.
“So, if I’m home, I get up and make a cup of turmeric almond milk latte with some MCT (coconut) oil in it, some vitamins – and I’m ready for the day. First, I do some writing. Then I do my meditation practice. I try to squeeze in some exercise as well, some yin yoga or Pilates.”
In Walk With Me, Nadya narrates her life journey from being a TV presenter to her work in conservation. The idea for the book came about when she realised that she had been in the entertainment industry for 30 years. She thought she needed to do something to celebrate that milestone.
Walk With Me is a coffee table book in which you can find a lot of stunning images by top photographer Davy Linggar and writings about her life. Nadya worked with fashion designer Didit Hediprasetyo, Winda Malika Siregar and Boedi Basoeki to produce the book. The project began in 2015 and part of the proceeds from it will go to Sumatran elephant conservation.
“It feels funny to do something that’s so focused on me, because I feel like I’m not that kind of person. So I’ve decided I have to do this, to share my thoughts about the causes that I think are important. In the book we focus on the plight of the Sumatran orangutan and the elephants,” says Nadya.
It was 20 to 25 years ago when Nadya realised that she needed to do something about the worsening state of the planet. It was the first time she went diving in Thailand, and she was blown away by what was under the surface – so many colourful, huge corals in all different shapes and forms. After she had had her first child, she went diving again in the same location and was shocked to find that it had changed so much in a short time. The corals were already broken and turning grey, the fish were in traps and there was disgusting plastic waste floating about.
“It hit me so hard,” says Nadya. “I wondered how in the lifetime of my child the world could change so much, in just one year change so much. How about in his entire lifetime?”
Her work as a VJ on MTV was her first platform to speak out about the issue. At that time, they were free to talk about those things on MTV, as they didn’t have any script and the environment issues were exactly what Nadya always talked about on TV. Until one day her voice finally made an impact, “One of the other VJs said to me: ‘Hey Nad, I just want to let you know that my cousin gave half of his savings to help the orangutan because of you’. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is what it’s all about! This is what it means to have a platform or a voice. It is a huge responsibility and if we don’t use for something meaningful then it’s really a waste.”
As a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador, together with Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment and actor Adrian Grenier, Nadya launched the global campaign #cleanseas to eliminate major sources of marine litter by encouraging governments to pass plastic reduction legislation.
In 2014, Nadya created a campaign called “Let Elephants Be Elephants” for the South East Asian audience which led to her spending time in Africa and Asia with elephant expert Dr. Tammie Matson, documenting the illegal ivory trade. The documentary had a great impact and has seen over 8,000 people taking the pledge against buying ivory.
“I won’t say that it’s no longer an issue, but the demand for elephant ivory has dropped a lot,” says Nadya. “Eighty percent of people in Asia didn’t know that you have to kill an elephant to get its ivory. Once they know how brutal the process is, they no longer want the ivory. So actually that was an easy conversion.
“Now it’s more of an elephant and human conflict issue in Africa. And in Asia, especially Indonesia, it’s because of habitat loss. They’re losing their habitat owing to agriculture and population growth. It’s the same problem for the orangutan. What we need to look at is the entire ecosystem. The elephants and the orangutan are like the poster children of those habitats. But we have to look at the habitats, the community and the entire ecosystem, not just one or two species.”
Nadya’s voice quivers a bit when she admits she’s losing a little bit of hope. “This year is the first time in all these years in which I’ve been talking about the environment that I have been feeling like I’m losing a little bit of hope,” she declares. “And it’s really quite scary what we’re moving towards and the fatal ignorance of the global community.
“We absolutely can’t go on like this! And we are about to face the consequences of our actions. I have always been an optimist and I think that’s why I’ve been able to do what I do for so long. But, really at the moment it’s pretty scary.”
What is it then that motivates her to continue? “My kids,” she replies. “If you are a parent, it is your responsibility to look after the place where your children are going to grow up. You can get great schools for them, you can make sure that they have nutritious food, good alumni, they’re in with who’s who, making sure that their future is secured. But what is it that we’re leaving them? If you’re a parent and you’re not doing something actively, every day, about the world that your kids are growing up in, then I don’t know if you’re a responsible parent or not.”
Nadya shares her thoughts on how easy it is to live more sustainably. “Reduce the amount of meat consumption,” she advises. “Meat has one of the highest carbon footprints and eating less of it is the easiest way for any individual to change the environment. A lot of people think organic food is expensive. But really, it’s meat that’s expensive. So if you reduce your meat eating and transfer to good organic veggies, you’re not actually going to be spending a lot.”
Towards the end of the discussion, Nadya reminisces about her life experiences and reflects on the biggest lesson she has learned. “The one thing I do know,” she declares with supreme wisdom and a huge smile, “is that I know nothing. The minute you feel like, or you think that you know everything, is the minute you stop learning. There’s so much to learn – and the more you learn, the more you realise that you really don’t know anything.”
PHOTOGRAPHER VICKY TANZIL
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