Rowan Kane talks to Whulandary Herman about her humble childhood, playing a prostitute in her first film and why Bali floats her boat. Photos: Stephane Sensey.
Hi Whulan, can you tell us a little about where you’re from and how you grew up?
I grew up with my amak (grandmother) in a small village near Padang called Batang Anai. It was very traditional. I lived in a kampung house – a rumah gadang with a view of rolling hills at the front and a beach at the back. I was raised by two strong women who I still look up to: my mother and my amak. There were five other girls in the house whose parents couldn’t be with them, so it was a bit like living in a military school. Discipline was strongly enforced.
You became famous through winning Miss Universe Indonesia and going on from there to participate in the worldwide Miss Universe contest. I’m sure you learned a lot from this experience and especially interacting with women from all over the world. How do you see the position of women in Indonesia today and in the future?
I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of inspiring women during the contests. Everyone there had a strong personal ambition and a drive to succeed. I’ve met inspiring women before of course, many of them in Indonesia, where often there’s a strong will to succeed and to break through traditional glass ceilings. What’s even more admirable is that many of these women successfully juggle careers and family roles – my mother is a prime example. I can only hope to achieve what these women have done and balance both career and family successfully.
You recently starred in your first film in which you play a prostitute. Was that a difficult role to play and how did you prepare for it?
Bidadari Terakhir was my first film so I was pretty nervous, to be honest. I focused my preparation on three aspects: understanding the plot and characters of the story; getting up to speed with my acting skills and thirdly being able to identify with the role I was playing. For the first aspect I spent time with the writer to really understand who the characters were and why things turned out the way they had. On the second part – and I have my director to thank for helping me here – we talked every night and had readings of the script and he helped me to understand how to act and prepare for the role. For the third aspect, I knew that I needed to understand the perspective of sex workers in Indonesia, so I went with my mom to Kota. We got turned away repeatedly because some of them felt we were making fun of them but I did manage to speak to a few who were kind enough to share. I like to believe that I have become more understanding and respectful of others as a result. I’m not saying that I support sex-work but I do believe that we shouldn’t be judgmental of others – everyone deserves to be treated with respect. I don’t feel it’s within my right to judge others.
It looks like you’ve made quite a few trips to Bali recently, what’s your favorite part of the island and where do you like to hang out when you’re here?
Yes! Bali is one of my favourite places in the world. I’ve been visiting the island a lot recently because I’m planning to have a fashion business here and have been looking for a fashion production house. I love Berawa and I love Ubud, but there are so many beautiful spots it’s hard to choose.
What kind of projects are you looking to take on in the future? Acting? Fashion? Business?
I know this may sound ambitious but I’m planning to tackle all the things you mention. In the next two years I want to develop my acting career and also move forward with my fashion business. Acting for me is something that is out of my comfort zone, but performing excites me because it’s a new challenge and something different for me. I’m also challenging myself by taking singing lessons, just to prove to myself that nothing is out of my reach. As for fashion, a couple of years ago I started developing my own line – Whulandary Collection, which focuses a 100 percent on Indonesian techniques and materials . . . batik, songket. I see a tremendous opportunity to change the perception of these traditional techniques, which are currently seen as old-fashioned. I want to make them young and fashionable.
What inspires you?
I try to find beauty in everything in this universe. I really learned a lot from my mom and my grandmother about how to be strong and have self-worth. They always encouraged me to work hard and make my own future and told me, “If you want something you should go get it yourself. Things will not drop from the sky, so work hard.” Travel also inspires me. I like to observe and learn from different cultures. I once lost my wallet in Bali and was stuck without money. A very kind taxi driver told me he would help me and send me back to my hotel. When I arrived, he refused to accept any money, even though I knew he really needed it. He told to me he just wanted to help someone in a bad situation and that I should pass the good deed on to someone else. It just reminded me to be less calculative and to help others without expecting anything in return.
Whulan, many thanks for your time.