PHOTOGRAPH: Csaba Deli, 123rf.com
She is better known as the winner of beauty pageant Miss Vasantham 2011, host of popular Tamil variety show Jaamai and actress in hit Vasantham dramas like Nijangal, Kalyanam and Vetri.
But the limelight isn’t the only thing Vimala Velu enjoys.
She is also a passionate advocate for cancer awareness and aspires to contribute to the field of cancer research.
Vimala, 27, graduated from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with an honours degree in biological sciences this year while juggling ad hoc acting and hosting gigs for Vasantham on the side.
She is hoping to pursue her masters in the UK next year, specialising in cancer-related research.
But the twin roads to stardom and academic success have not been smooth sailing for the beauty-queen-turned-TV star.
Vimala’s interest in cancer research was sparked by the death of her close uncle, an “inspirational figure” whom she respected.
He died of stomach cancer when she was about 10 years old.
Citing that period as the “lowest point” of her life, Vimala told The New Paper: “At first there was a lot of rage. I didn’t understand why it happened.”
She decided to channel her anger and confusion into contributing to the cancer cause, like shaving her head two years ago in support of Hair For Hope, a fund-raising event by the Children’s Cancer Foundation.
She said: “I was already on TV so I knew I could reach more people.
“I shaved my head the day I passed the crown to (my Miss Vasantham successor and the winner of 2014 title),” she said.
But nothing prepared Vimala for the sheer torrent of negativity she received on her social media profiles.
Laughing as she recalled the wild assumptions fans made about her baldness, she said: “The public thought (it was) because I was depressed after passing the crown. Some thought I was on drugs.
“A lot of older people also un-friended me on Facebook because they said I was ugly.”
But the backlash only fuelled her drive to raise more awareness for the cause.
It is this indomitable spirit of hers that got Vimala through a life littered with challenges and struggles.
While studying at Innova Junior College about 10 years ago, her parents starting facing severe financial difficulties. When they failed to make their monthly housing payments, their four-room HDB flat was sealed and their belongings were thrown out.
They moved to a rental room in Choa Chu Kang for a year, where the family of three lived amid stacked boxes of their belongings in a cramped space.
Her father was unable to work because of his heart condition and her mother had also lost her job as a cleaner at a secondary school.
The only child had to take up part-time work and become the sole breadwinner.
Vimala juggled school with numerous jobs, from waitressing to distributing newspapers.
She said: “Some days I would go without food, or I wouldn’t be able to go to school because there wasn’t enough money in my ez-link card.”
As a result, Vimala, who had been a straight-A student for her O levels, found herself floundering in junior college.
She took a year off after her A levels to work, then went on to pursue a diploma in biomedical science at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Things turned around for her in 2011 when she decided to try out for Miss Vasantham in the last year of her polytechnic studies.
The self-professed tomboy and nerd, who preferred football over Barbie dolls as a child, never expected to win the title.
When asked what the hardest part of the pageant was, she joked: “Dancing on stage in heels.”
The competition earned her $10,000 in prize money and opened up doors to a slew of acting and hosting jobs.
“My parents are more settled now,” Vimala said of her 73-year-old father and 62-year-old mother, who are holding down jobs as a security guard and cleaner, respectively.
Home is now a rented one-room HDB flat in Boon Lay.
Vimala said: “They used to be very protective of me, being a girl. But now I’m the one who protects them. They trust me… and are very proud.”
This article was originally published in The New Paper.