First it was the Stephanie Mills hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before”, now it is Pharrell coming out of the speakers. With her iPhone and playlist connected to the studio sound system, Zarah Moerad is simply owning it. The way she so effortlessly teases the camera with just a quick glance or a flick of her hair, you forget that just barely 20 minutes ago, she was anxious at the prospect of doing her first shoot and interview in nearly two years. Now, if you look closely, you’ll see her right foot ever so slightly tapping to the music. “I love all forms of music,” she says, pausing for a split second, before dropping into a whisper to confess: “But not jazz!”
Behind the smile, it hasn’t been an easy couple of years for the Indonesian who shuttles between Singapore, where her family is based, and Jakarta, where she works, once every few days. The alternating pain and numbness she had been feeling was diagnosed as spinal cord injury — at the C7 vertebra, which supports the collective weight of the head and neck. In the worst of cases, sufferers lose sensory and motor skills. Surgery in Zurich last May saw surgeons add a titanium implant at the bottom of her neck and the scars, although faded, are still visible. With the surgery a success and now on the mend, she’s finally able to speak of the ordeal with some emotional distance.
“I wasn’t thrown off a horse like Christopher Reeve,” Moerad says of the late actor who, despite becoming paralysed after shattering his first and second vertebrae, became an advocate for stem cell research. “There was no accident. My doctor suspects that the injury stems from being overweight when I was pregnant with triplets and from over-exercising post-delivery to lose the weight. When I first went in to see him, he asked: ‘How is it that you are even able to walk?’” recalls the mother of four, who had put on 43kg when she had her triplets Aleandra, Adriano and Alessia nine years ago. Her eldest daughter, Andira, is 15.
“But I’m OK now,” she says, breaking out a smile, ostensibly to allay the concern that must be written all over my face. This photo shoot, after all, had to be postponed once so that she could receive a round of injections and here, we are taxing her with a full-day shoot and incessant questions. “Do you know of a place to recommend for hot yoga? I haven’t exercised in so long because of the surgery. I need to lose 10kg,” she deftly changes topic, lightening the mood.
“It was such a tough surgery but just a few hours afterwards, she could smile and send us a picture from hospital to show us that everything went well. She’s amazing,” says close friend Nurain Mohidin, an assistant sales manager with a luxury brand, who first met Moerad in the course of her work.
Moerad’s inner strength is hardly surprising. Formerly one-half of a power duo that regularly made the society pages in Indonesia, she separated from her husband in 2011 — a fact that she has largely managed to keep private — and has successfully carved an independent identity by throwing herself into work. In 2012, she founded Radinka Quatro Land, a property development company she named after her children. (“Radinka” is the middle name of her eldest, while “quatro” represents the four kids collectively.) Its flagship development, Antasari Heights in uptown south Jakarta, is a residential skyscraper scheduled for completion in 2017.
Conceived out of her own passion for art and interior decoration, no detail in the build of Antasari Heights has been too small or insignificant for her attention, be it the design of door handles or the choice of bathroom fixtures. Though sited in the heart of the city, one of the development’s key features is its expansive gardens that make up roughly 65 percent of the entire land area. “Even though these are apartments, I want the residents to feel as if they are living in a home with a garden,” says Moerad, who already has a clear idea of how this green lung will look. “It’ll be like a botanical garden, but not overly planned or manicured. It’ll be natural.”
The reason that she has poured herself into Antasari is two-fold: Lately, she’s been thinking about “legacy” and how the development can become “a muse for the area”; and there’s also her two boys and two girls. Just as her mother and grandmother, the two most influential women in her life, informed her values and sense of style, everything she does is to become “a role model for my kids”.
“I was just reading The Straits Times on the plane yesterday. There was an article that said there are now more women who hold board seats. It’s the same in Indonesia. Even the next US president could be Hillary Clinton,” she says, for a moment swept up by a sense of female pride. (The fact that we’re chatting on March 8 — International Women’s Day — though coincidental, is nevertheless meaningful.) With a conspiratorial grin, she adds: “I like to joke that men are mono while women are stereo. Men tend to have a one-track mind, whereas a woman can juggle five different thoughts at any one time.”
Born in Jakarta in 1976, Moerad and her two sisters and brother, were raised in an art-filled environment from young. Both her late mother and grandmother collected artworks, not for their prestige but for their cultural value. Her grandmother was also highly involved in the Indonesian Cancer Foundation, one of the causes Moerad continues to support through Radinka Quatro Land’s corporate social responsibility initiatives. By entrenching the notion of giving back to society in the company DNA, she hopes her staff will likewise do their bit to support the less fortunate.
“Do what’s right. It’s about respect — respect towards our environment, respect towards culture and respect towards people, as well as our less fortunate neighbours,” she says.
It was particularly her mother’s eye for beauty and love of antiques and heritage jewellery that would influence both Moerad’s eclectic collection of paintings and her fondness for jewellery. “I saw how sophisticated my mum was when she put on her long pearl necklace to go out with my dad,” she recalls. Moerad, herself, was five when she picked out her first necklace, a simple gold chain with her initial on it. “I saw it and asked Mum to buy it for me.”
These days, she is particularly drawn to jewellery that either come with an interesting story and provenance or showcase technical mastery. Visiting the Van Cleef & Arpels atelier last year, she not only witnessed master artisans at work, but also watched one of her own pieces from the brand being assembled. “I’m not choosy when it comes to jewellery design. Anything might draw my attention. At times, it could be just physical aesthetics and at other times, it could be the spirit of the piece and the emotions it evokes through its design,” she says.
Once, while wearing a Van Cleef & Arpels Mystery Set ruby and pearl necklace inspired by the Russian Ball to a gala, she was stopped in her tracks by the event’s creative director. Curious about the necklace, he also enquired as to when she planned to wear it again. “At one of my daughters’ wedding,” she answered.
“One of the reasons I collect jewellery is to be able to pass them down to my children,” she says. “My mother always advised us to keep land, property and gold — or rather jewellery — for future use, as these are the best investments for the long term. Don’t you agree?”
Watch our behind-the-scenes video of Zarah Moerad.