"She is the sort of woman who can write a thesis on the European Union, while listening to house music,” says Datuk Setia Aubry Mennesson of his wife, Tengku Zatashah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah.
In a single sentence, he’s captured the essence of Selangor’s hardest working royal, who is quietly deconstructing every stereotype of a princess you might have.
Today, we’re shooting Zatashah (as she prefers to be called) in the newly-renovated presidential suite of Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur.
When she breezes into the hotel, she is fresh-faced and relaxed in navy capris and ballet flats. (Her makeup for the exclusive shoot is by Chia of Laura Mercier.)
Zatashah arrives without fanfare and sans entourage, empowered by a childhood of independence.
“Boarding school in Britain from the age of 10 will do that,” laughs Zatashah. “You’re thrown in the deep end and you either sink or swim – self-reliance is something you pick up really quickly!”
With her formative years shaped by British public school and early adulthood banked in both Spain and France, Zatashah returned rooted in a value system that favoured progressiveness and personal accomplishment.
“When I got home, there was a little culture shock. Journalism was a field I’d always been interested so I joined the ranks (of an English daily) as a rookie and the understanding was I’d drop my title. I was Zatashah Idris, no more, no less. Well, that proved to be a challenge. I’d show up at certain assignments and my dad would be there in an official capacity.” (“Dad”, of course, is the Sultan of Selangor).
“And if the organisers were aware I was attending, there’d be the question of where I should be seated. It was never an issue for me. I was there in my official capacity as a journalist but the organisers would have a mild heart attack at the thought of protocol not being adhered to. My father understood, though. He knew I was there on my own steam, working.”
Cut to almost a decade later and Zatashah has settled beautifully into her life in KL, where she shares an apartment with the love of her life. “Oh my, that’s a funny story, too.”
She’d been working in Paris for French cosmetics conglomerate L’Oreal and completing her Masters when she met Mennesson through mutual friends. “We started seeing each other and for a long while, he didn’t know about my title,” muses Zatashah. For that matter, neither did any of her colleagues at L’Oréal, until she was five years into the job. “There came that day he saw a card with my father in full royal regalia and asked me if there was something I’d like to share with him,” she reminisces. “I guess it didn’t faze him because here we are, married for almost a decade.”
In truth, it’s been a rather busy ten years for the princess who not only held a senior position at L’Oréal but launched her own travel blog. She is now chairman and CEO of Light Cibles Malaysia, as well as current president of the Alliance Francaise. We rather suspect she’s been allotted more hours in the day than the rest of us.
“2015 was an incredible year. Apart from getting on board with Make-A-Wish-Malaysia as royal patron, we launched the Selangor Symphony Orchestra with the brilliant and committed maestro Eugene Pook. It’s the first professional homegrown classical music orchestra, made more meaningful for me personally because it’s my home state. This year, the mission is to hold more concerts, conduct outreach programmes to schools and universities – the idea of being able to inspire the next generation that might not have had immediate access to classical music goes beyond words.”
When she talks about this musical endeavour, her excitement is palpable.
“In Europe, when the weather is perfect in the summer, the parks are alive with free classical concerts. Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Chopin come to life to inspire with their music and it would be wonderful to expose this next generation to that breathtaking musical genre. A logical progression is that it creates avenues for local professional classical musicians, too.”
Zatashah’s passion for her projects is most evident when she starts talking about her work with Make-A-Wish Malaysia. The challenge is to give hope and a positive outlook to children battling life-threatening illnesses by making a wish come true.
“It’s a long process because when we ‘adopt a wish’ we endeavor to map out a Wish Journey. It’s about enhancing the whole Wish experience and creating a magical day for the child and their family.
“Right now, we are working on something special for a little girl called Adriana. She is a brave eight-year-old fighting Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and her wish is to head to the Gold Coast of Australia to see the dolphins.
“As she’s also always wanted to meet a real-life princess, we’ve devised a plan for her to come and meet me at the palace as part of her Wish Journey – that includes maps of SeaWorld and the Gold Coast, colouring and drawing sheets, a little magnifying gift for her to spot the dolphins on the maps, the anatomy of a dolphin and a birthday card to celebrate her birthday.”
Zatashah pauses here, for a moment. “It must be the hardest thing in the world, for a parent to hear their child is seriously ill. The treatments for life-threatening illnesses can be draining and emotionally exhausting. If we can alleviate the sadness with a heartwarming experience that gives the whole family the hope to keep fighting, then we must.”
Asked to name her highlight of 2015, the princess replies: “Hard to narrow down, there were quite a few up there ... but I think it would be launching the Selangor Symphony Orchestra with a stunning gala night, then hitting the ground running the next morning at 4am to head to Angkor Wat for the international half marathon.
“It was a spectacular end to the year, because a group of us got together to run for a great cause: Make-A-Wish Malaysia. We had a target of RM30,000 and managed to hit RM40,250. What made it even more meaningful was the support we garnered from friends who made the trek with us.” She’s talking about Bella TV host Elaine Daly and her husband Dr Nick Boden, actress Debbie Goh and film producer, Red Ribbon Days founder Sherin Wong and of course, her Aubry.
“This year, our respective husbands plan to run the London Marathon. Elaine and I plan to be at the end of that 42km run holding fish and chips, radiating unconditional love and support,” laughs Zatashah.
Getting on ground to help is something Zatashah does not shy away from.
Last year, a couple of friends got her out on the streets to volunteer at Kechara Soup Kitchen.
“It was eye-opening, and a humbling experience. We did a Saturday night food distribution round and I realised that I wanted to do more to help the homeless and urban poor – of which the numbers are growing, unfortunately. “So the day after New Year’s, I volunteered with my friends and thanks to the sponsorship of SegiFresh, we distributed food and medical aid. I hope to be able to continue helping, where we can devise long-term solutions such as the food bank programme and job recruitment to get the homeless off the streets.”
There is a generosity of spirit that emanates in waves from this petite powerhouse. “Life is short,” concludes Zatashah, “and while you have breath, you have to live it to its fullest. Do your best in all your pursuits and work hard. Something my dad always told me...”