In 2002, Nuraliza Osman found herself participating in the Miss Singapore Universe pageant after her then-boyfriend sent in an application on her behalf, without her knowledge.
Thinking it was a completely crazy idea, the then-25-year-old decided to give it a YOLO shot anyway — certainly not expecting to make it beyond, say, the first or second round — but lo and behold, she found herself at the finals.
She was so embarrassed by the entire situation that she withheld the news from her friends and family until she had no choice to, at the very last moment — when she learned the finals were going to be televised, whether she liked it or not.
And to her even bigger surprise, she would go on to take home the crown — unbeknownst to her, it was a win that would significantly alter the course of her life.
Katinah Yan, Nuraliza’s mother, was a beauty queen in the 1960s.
A nerdy lawyer
Now 40, Nuraliza still doesn’t look a day over 30, but you’d be sorely mistaken to assume her to be your stereotypical world-peace-seeking skin-deep pretty face.
She read law at the National University of Singapore, and in the year she took part in the Miss Universe pageant, she was already a practising commercial litigator at Rajah & Tann.
She had also passed the New York bar, and is now fluent in seven languages — English, Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, French (which she took at the ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels), German, Dutch and Spanish.
Oh, and did we mention that 2002 was also the year she was nominated by the Law Society for the accolade of Young Lawyer of the Year?
And a decade and a half on from being Miss Singapore Universe, she’s doing the typical Singaporean thing — returning to her full-time, salaried job as legal counsel at a multinational oil and gas corporation.
Profession aside, too, Nuraliza is unexpectedly humorous. In the time we spent together for this interview, she referred to herself on multiple occasions with the descriptors “nerdy”, “not glamorous” and “not fashionable”, spending a good part of our time together laughing at herself.
“I really enjoy(ed) going to school… You should have seen me with my spectacles!… When girls message me on social media telling me they want to grow up and be a star like me, I tell them ‘No, you go to school, do well.’”
Indeed, we wondered at this point — how does one become a beauty queen, and then go back to life as if nothing ever happened?
Nuraliza did try, but she realised, oddly enough, people still remembered her. And to compound her shock, admired her.
Living the beauty queen life
To understand her current “predicament” — if we may refer to the fascinating circumstances she finds herself in today — we have to look at the years that followed her title win.
After a whirlwind journey to Puerto Rico, where she discovered the Make-A-Wish Foundation (which she has since volunteered with long-term as a trained wish-granter), Nuraliza also travelled with the Singapore Tourism Board, meeting ambassadors in Japan and Sri Lanka, and then returned to dive headlong into Singapore’s entertainment industry.
On MediaCorp’s Suria channel, she fronted various shows through hosting and acting gigs, earning herself the 2004 accolade of Suria’s Best Newcomer from a role as a femme fatale in the drama series “Rahsia Perkahwinan”.
It’s also possible this beauty pageant stuff has always been in her blood — Nuraliza’s mom is herself a long-ago beauty queen who in the 1960s took part in several pageants, herself picking up a crown or two in the process.
“I watched her with all her sashes, and she also had all her crowns. She had all this makeup on, with fancy powder puffs, and she was quite glamorous.”
But with all that said and done, Nuraliza still found herself being pulled back to her legal career:
“Being in entertainment made me realise it wasn’t my calling… I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of the law. I have been a lawyer for 17 years now and I truly enjoy going to work every day — I love my work, I love my clients!”
Crazy sounding, we agree, but we soon came to accept she is quirky that way. Quite possibly, we suspect it could in part be this inherent quirkiness that draws her fans back to her, more than a decade after her retreating from the spotlight.
Still inspires people on social media
And indeed, her influence endures — inexplicably to her, despite coming to fame as well as stepping out of it prior to the Facebook era, she is nonetheless popular there and on Instagram.
Despite not having a personality or celebrity page on Facebook, or a public Instagram account, Nuraliza shares her amazement that people still find their way to her personal profiles and send her messages, telling her how much they look up to her.
She relates with a self-deprecating laugh a recent memory of someone who messaged her in response to an Instagram workout video:
“They tell me, ‘Thanks for inspiring me, a mother of two, for showing me that you are able to do this at your age!’ I mean, my back hurts and knees hurt but OK lah, I try right?”
Far from laughing at the expense of people who admire her, though, Nuraliza says it is messages like these that make her day – In everything that she does, she says she’s glad to reach out and touch lives, and in that process, spread positive values to the people around her.
And she uses the following she has by sharing things she finds inspiring — an article, a video, and often, reflections from experiences she has from her travels or volunteer work:
Ever the overachiever even outside the classroom, Nuraliza indulges in her love for animals and the ocean through free-diving — diving without an oxygen tank — as well as through ambassadorships with the likes of the Asia Diving Expo and Shark Savers. Back on the shore, she also acts pro-bono as legal counsel for Ocean Geographic magazine.
We say overachiever because in 2012, she represented Singapore in a competition in the Philippines on the encouragement of her coach and set a 25m depth dive record for Singapore. And even about this, she jokes:
“I’m very clumsy, but in water, I can’t fall!”
Nuraliza volunteering with Daughters of Tomorrow.
Touching lives, one at a time
Up till today, Nuraliza remembers the question she was asked during the pageant’s Q&A section when she was a participant: “What makes a beautiful mind?”
Her answer, she tells us, included a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “…To leave the world a better place. To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”
A firm believer in spreading positivity wherever she goes, she says this quote perfectly encapsulates her personal philosophy.
Nuraliza could have retreated to her comfortable corporate job and life after having had her fun in showbiz. She didn’t however, instead diving headfirst into any opportunities that came her way to volunteer and do good:
“Making one person smile already makes my whole year! … You just do what you can, and make your time count.”
As a wish granter with the Make-A-Wish foundation, she has carried out multiple wish parties for children suffering from life-threatening medical conditions. One example Nuraliza recalls is the creation of a Star Wars-themed bedroom for a child who had leukaemia.
She was also an Ocean Ambassador at the Asian Dive Expo in 2013, when she worked with Shark Savers on various campaigns to clamp down on the sale of shark’s fin in restaurants.
Be part of ADEX OCEAN AMBASSADOR 2014-2015ADEX AMBASSADOR 2013-2014 photo by Aaron Wong
More recently in 2017, she collaborated with Daughters of Tomorrow — a charity supporting single mothers who want to go back to work — by running an interview workshop for them:
“Some of these women have no confidence because they have not been in the workforce for years. They’re afraid of being judged, and fear that they don’t have the necessary skills.”
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In addition to her involvement with local charities, Nuraliza also brought love and hope to Syrian refugees when her work brought her to the Netherlands.
During her time there, she organised a drive to collect warm clothing and toys for refugees in the country. She also celebrated her 40th birthday at the refugee camp to lift the spirits of the children.
“When you look back at your year and ask yourself: What did you do? Shopping? Who cares? Holiday? Sure, that’s nice. Making a difference, however? Makes it count.
My last birthday in Holland, I threw a party at a refugee camp for the children. Some of them did not have parents there…And what I get back in all of these smiles makes me happy.”
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Redefining beauty with the Miss Universe Singapore brand
During Nuraliza’s time, and for a few years after, the Miss Universe pageant was an illustrious, prestigious affair that everyone looked forward to every year.
The girls were beautiful and glamorous, and the pageant was closely watched and followed — with its finals shown on national television, because there was that much public interest in it.
People also followed the eventual winners, eagerly looking forward to catching the 15 seconds of Miss Singapore in the swimsuit or country dress segments at the international pageant — our girls never made it to the finals, but it was still exciting for many Singaporeans.
For some reason, though, this fizzled out over the years. The winners seemed to be less consequential; the pageant lost its sheen and in 2015, Lisa Marie White was selected in private.
That year, Nuraliza decided she would undertake the challenging task of pulling the pageant back up to esteem, and since then, has been serving as Miss Universe Singapore’s national director.
The role, she tells us, involves planning the competition programme and process for participants, imparting the values of ambition, hard work and discipline.
This includes everything from fitness and diet regime, to one-to-one mentoring for the eventual winner — all to build up their confidence, maturity, and on the whole, to make them the best versions of themselves they can possibly be.
“I never had training in my time, I learnt through the school of hard knocks!…
Sometimes I see them cry, but I’ve been through it before so I understand the stress of competition. It’s like sports, you know, you push yourself really hard so you can become your best.”
Pulling out her phone, she shows us multiple pictures and captions from her Instagram feed that show the progression and maturity of contestants she has guided and mentored.
“Of course it can be tiring sometimes, but it’s rewarding… (It) makes me very proud when young girls have that positivity in them, to push themselves to be the best versions of themselves.”
This journey of self-improvement is facilitated by bonding and support, Nuraliza emphasises.
Since her own Miss Universe journey, she has remained friends with her batch girls, both locally and overseas. She also maintains strong relationships with contestants she has worked with, past and present:
“If there’s anything Miss Universe taught me, it’s friendship and being supportive of each other… Strong women support each other and all of us rise together.”
Girls from MUS at the Colour Run.
The values of MUS– hard work, discipline, ambition and even courage – are very much aligned with her own, but Nuraliza does note that it is but one facet of her life.
She has had her share of downs as well — some are too personal to share with us — but she has bounced back strongly and continues to live by a mantra she shares with everyone who looks up to her:
“If you believe in something, you just pursue it because you know it’s your purpose… If you want to go for something, give it your all.”
For Nuraliza, beauty has multiple dimensions — one of its largest: to work hard and to courageously strive for what you believe in.
Top image by BerryHappy Photography.