Mid-career folk in Malaysia would certainly not fail to recognise the name Paula Malai Ali. The international television personality first made her name as a [Channel V] veejay over two decades ago before venturing into sports reporting where, for the past 15 years, she has presented Formula 1 across the region on Fox Sports Asia. But just as the pandemic forced the world to look within, Paula took a path that always had her heart — jewellery design.
The founder and creative director of Gypsy, a brand that offers handmade, curated and commissionable jewellery and home decor, says the idea had percolated in her mind since she was in her teens. “It was in 2020 that I properly registered The Paula Malai Ali Company, with my production house forming one arm and Gypsy, the other.”
On the evocative name Gypsy, Paula explains how, growing up in England, she used to play with a girl who identified herself as a gypsy. “She was beautiful and really street-smart, a very spirited person. We are talking about someone whose name I have forgotten but whom I still think of. She just disappeared one day, literally. I asked my Nanna why they would just up and leave, to which she simply replied, ‘That’s what they do. They are travellers.’”
It is a parallel Paula draws with in her own life and way of life. “I suppose I’ve always felt slightly nomadic myself, having lived away from my family since I was 19,” she explains. “The lives of gypsies are always full of colour. And even though many did not possess a lot of money, they are a proud people. But I will admit to romanticising them quite a bit.”
It is this self-pride and free-spiritedness that Paula takes inspiration from for her jewellery collection. She also designs and curates all of the merchandise selection herself. “I think your jewellery must be something you are sincerely connected to,” she emphasises. “Jewellery is powerful and says a lot about the person. I tend to like oversized, obnoxious even, statement pieces that I couldn’t find much of anywhere. So I thought why not just make them myself! However, with shipping being so unpredictable, I have not had the metal or rough materials with which to make anything.
A glance at her Instagram page (@paulamalaialigypsy) reveals an eclectic selection — from amethyst rings to seven chakra balancers, moonstone pendants and geode bangles — but Paula isn’t shy about admitting to favourites. “It has to be an aventurine ring,” she says animatedly. “It was my first silver piece made from scratch, where I placed the aventurine in a bezel setting. Having said that, I love all jewellery ... high end to costume and, of course, handmade pieces. My jewellery-wearing philosophy? It can never be too big!”
On the pieces she creates, Paula admits to getting a thrill from knowing that people love and own the work of her hands. She does add a caveat though. “The fear of burning myself on a very hot torch is all too real,” she laughs. “But honestly, I struggled in the beginning after setting up Gypsy as I was afraid no one would like my pieces or that I would never make a sale.”
Travel is a favourite way for the budding jewellery designer to seek inspiration. “I love seeing different cultures and the way they adorn themselves. I also make it a point to buy at least one piece of jewellery wherever I go. My last overseas trip, pre-pandemic, was to Australia and I got myself a stunningly large but very simply set amber ring. I believe in letting the stone do all the talking and that’s what I want for people to feel when they wear Gypsy — that they are wearing a small piece of art.”
Having spent many successful years in Malaysia, including starring in the hit television series Kopitiam, Paula says she misses her friends here the most. On jewellery that would suit the modern Malaysian woman, she suggests her line of sterling silver pieces. “They are chic and sleek ... jewellery that’s a little more structured and speaks of courage and class.”
Paula’s inherent love of jewellery may be traced back to the very day of her birth. “When Jenny, my identical twin, and I were born, a family friend gifted us two silver bracelets with our names engraved on them. Apparently, I never wanted to take it off. I still have mine. It’s broken now, but I will always cherish it.”
It was the pandemic, though, that led to Gypsy being birthed. “I took a huge financial hit in 2020, when so many sporting events got cancelled and my freelance emceeing work came to a grinding halt,” she sighs. “I then made the decision to move back to Brunei to spend time with family while fully committing myself to Gypsy. I put a lot of money into this little passion of mine and I want whoever wears my pieces to enjoy them. Yes, Covid-19 led me down this path. But I guess it’s true what they say of the pandemic: it forces you to take a deep look inside of yourself and ask: what do you really love? For me, it was and always has been jewellery.
"So now, with very few [events and less emceeing] work, I have had ample time to make my other dream — albeit a tiny one — come true. I am also taking a course in fabric design. I would ultimately love to have my own line of pyjamas one day. Getting cosy is very much my thing as well. Looking back at how things have unfolded, I can tell you I had always wanted to be an actress and a jewellery designer. So, I guess the saying holds true: Be careful what you wish for. It may just come true!”
This article first appeared on Jan 17, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.