The big business of Indo celebrities creates illusory expectations but things may be changing
Indo-singer Rebecca and Balinese local Ketut Sari show that differences are superficial
Ni Ketut Sari
‘Why don’t you go to Jakarta and become a celebrity? You can be a model or an advertising star, be a Lux soap model or a singer! You should be a movie star, better still, why don’t you do sinetron (TV soap opera)?’ An Indo living in Indonesia often hears these things. And for many young Indos this expectation is hard to resist.
‘Indo’ is the term used by Indonesians to describe persons of mixed Indonesian-foreign (usually western) heritage. It’s not quite as derogatory as bule – the term used to describe white westerners – once was, but it is just as prescriptive. The word Indo labels people and puts them into a box with Jakarta emblazoned on the outside. For an Indo there is, it seems, only one destined career path and that is to head to the bright lights to become a famous celebrity, regardless of talent or lack thereof. This form of racial stereotyping puts pressure on Indo and non-Indo Indonesians alike. However, not every young Indonesian with Indo-looks accepts the label.
From the 1970s through the 1990s there has been a rise in the number of Indo celebrities appearing on the small screen and the silver screen. This is on a par with regional trends in neighbouring Thailand, the Philippines and India where mixed-race celebrities or models have come to the forefront of the entertainment industry as well as the cosmetics industry.
In Indonesia today, Indos dominate TV shows, films, music and advertising. Iin the 1980s we were introduced to Meriam Bellina, who began her path to stardom through the cult film Catatan si Boy (Boy’s Memoirs). Bellina is of Dutch and German descent. The 1990s brought us MTV and with it came a new wave of presenters and artists, many of them Indo. Nadya Hutagalung and Jamie Aditya, both of Australian descent, are graduates from the studios of MTV and have enjoyed a career that now spans across Asia. Dewi Sandra, a television host of English descent, has dabbled in music and product endorsements. Wulan Guritno, another Indo celebrity of English heritage, has starred in sinetrons and her face endorses many Indonesian products. On nearly every TV channel, at any given time of the day, an Indo can be seen smiling from the screen into homes in major cities and remote villages throughout Indonesia.
The heavy presence of Indos in the Indonesian entertainment industry has continued into the new millennium, although recent scandals have somewhat blemished the perfect picture. In 2005, the media introduced us to Nadine Chandrawinata, an Indo model who represented Indonesia at the Miss World contest to the dismay of some critics who doubted the legitimacy of her crowning as Miss Indonesia due to ballot fixing. Her lack of English language skills was highlighted when she made the embarrassing error of calling Indonesia a ‘beautiful city’. In 2009 controversy struck again when the Miss Indonesia pageant organisers appointed Karenina Sunny Halim, also an Indo, to represent Indonesia. In a twist of irony, this Miss Indonesia could not speak Indonesian, despite having grown up in Indonesia. A young girl named Cinta Laura has recently taken centre stage across the entertainment spectrum of music, advertising and sinetron. Making the most of her Indo appeal, Cinta Laura is infamously known for exaggerating her foreign pronunciation of the Indonesian language. Finally, we have Luna Maya, an Indo TV-host, model, soap and movie star, who recently made global headlines when a sex-tape was leaked on the Internet featuring her and the front man of the popular band Peter Pan (now known as Peter Porn). Nonetheless, the appeal of the Indo has not waned. Despite embarrassing gossip engulfing Indo celebrities, the love affair with Indo stardom continues.
For those of us born into bicultural homes in Indonesia, the phenomenon of Indo status has set a high benchmark that we are all expected to achieve. From the moment we are born our parents are told how lucky they are and that they should send us to Jakarta to become famous. In school, teachers choose us to recite poems or read the Indonesian proclamation in front of the entire school because they assume we have more talent than other students, or just think that we will look good on stage. Our own peers and friends stereotype us by wanting us to sing in their bands, thinking that an Indo singer will increase its popularity (it doesn’t matter if you sound dreadful just as long as you look good).
Young Indos wish to escape the stereotyping and follow their own
Sarieta Lorna Dawson
For Indos living in Indonesia, there remains an uphill battle against this form of stereotyping. There is also an assumption that if you are Indo your family is either affluent or regal, all of which creates expectations upon the individual that affects self-image and self-belief. Growing up in Bali as the progeny of a bicultural Indonesian-Australian marriage, I quite often came up against this stereotypical image. While many of my bicultural friends attended international schools or boarded overseas during school term, I attended a local Indonesian school. I had a wonderful experience. But I also constantly encountered, and had to resist, racial stereotyping.
It took me many years to understand that the stereotyping of mixed-race Indonesians also affected the general Indonesian population. The Indonesian entertainment and advertisement industry has for many years capitalised on the perceived charm and allure of the Indo, projecting an image of honey-milk skinned, tall, slender and strikingly good-looking individuals. The industry machine continues to churn out a plethora of Indo artists who project a standard of beauty that greatly influences the body image of young Indonesians.
With the constant bombardment of Indo images across Indonesia, it is no wonder that the cosmetic industry is making billions from whitening product sales. These products, loaded with carcinogens, promise to lighten and brighten skin. Of course the models promoting these products are typically Indo looking with natural honey-milk coloured skin. This raises serious questions about the self-image, self-worth and identity of Indonesians. The question arises, who then is being exploited? Is it the Indos who are glorified more for their looks than their talent or is it the Indonesian general public who are being sold an unattainable image? And is there a way out?
The American novelist Danzy Senna, herself of biracial descent, sarcastically writes in a 1998 essay that we have now entered the ‘mulatto millennium’ – the millennium of the adoration of the mixed generation. Advertising agencies globally have cashed in on the sales advantages of having mixed race models in advertisements. But the new millennium has also brought a global counter-trend. In a recent documentary on skin lightening products, the editor of Asiana (an Indian magazine published in the UK) said that they are taking a stance against using lighter-skinned Indian models. The Indonesian entertainment and advertising industry could take a lesson from this.
In fact, in Indonesia today, more and more people from the fashion, cosmetics and entertainment industry, including some celebrities, are calling for Indonesian women to be proud of their classic beauty and to stop trying to westernise their looks. The new call is to take pride in the many different cultures and ethnicities in Indonesia. While the push to use Indo artists and models remains, the industry has responded to current political and religious trends by embracing a more traditional Indonesian ethos. An increasing number of celebrities now proudly proclaim Indonesian heritage by wearing a jilbab, batik or traditional dress. Their outward appearance is designed to highlight their indigenous background.
For Indos, this could mean the beginning of the end of stereotyping, and with it the end of inhibition. The expectation that the road to success for young Indos is via the filmsets and catwalks of Jakarta has implicitly denied them the right to follow their own paths. Yet for those of us who chose not to go to Jakarta, Indonesia has opened many other doors and offered us the chance to showcase who we really are. It is now time for the Indonesian dream industry to portray the diversity of beauty and talent that can be found throughout Indonesia. Perhaps it is now also time for young Indos to see that there are many roads to take in life and that not all of them lead to Jakarta.
Asriana Kebon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate at Charles Darwin University, researching human trafficking and people smuggling in Indonesia.
This article is part of the Being 'Indo' miniseries