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Malaysian goes from beauty queen to New York lawyer

Sheela Vijayan  Free Malaysia Today May 28, 2022

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It has been a fruitful time for Christina Chelliah after moving to New York almost nine years ago. (Muhaimin Marwan @ FMT Lifestyle)

PETALING JAYA: The song, “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys describes New York as “the concrete jungle where dreams are made of” and that “there’s nothing you can’t do now you’re in New York”.

And as Christina Chelliah touched down in New York in the late summer of 2013, one can’t help but wonder if those were the words running through her mind.

After all, this 2002 Miss Tourism World Malaysia and first runner-up of the 2002 Miss Universe Malaysia, had left her job as a corporate lawyer at a leading law firm in Malaysia to start life anew in the US.

It was also an emotional time for her as she had left behind family and dear friends. For many, this would have been a huge risk. So, what led her to make such a bold decision?

“I couldn’t explain it, but I knew that this was the door that God was opening for me. And even though I didn’t have all the answers, I was just supposed to take a step of faith,” said Christina, 39, who returned to Malaysia for her grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration.

Thankfully, she was not completely alone in New York. Her brother, Steven, and her boyfriend, Chris Murphy, whom she would later marry, were already living there.

Upon her arrival, she wasted no time securing modelling and entertainment jobs and before she knew it, she landed the job as hostess at businessman and philanthropist George Soros’s wedding.

“I spoke to and welcomed Martha Stewart, Kofi Annan and his wife, as well as Bono,” she shared of the many celebrities and public figures she met at the event.

She told FMT that in that first year alone, she attended roughly 200 interviews, auditions, and castings for jobs as hostess, spokesmodel, and brand ambassador. Needless to say, competition was stiff.

Her hard work was not in vain as she eventually added an impressive list of accomplishments under her belt, such as walking the runways during New York Fashion Week, shooting a commercial with reality star Khloe Kardashian, and securing a role in the television series Law & Order SVU.

However, she never forgot her roots in the legal field. The former part-time law lecturer at Malaysia’s Brickfield’s College recalled, “I knew, at the back of my mind, that at some point I was going to go back to law. The modelling jobs were meant to help me land on my feet, earn money and establish myself.”

One day, she received a call from a headhunter to work as a foreign attorney for a big firm. “At that time, I didn’t know that you could do part-time lawyer work because, in Malaysia, there was no such thing. I got the position and worked as a foreign-barred attorney.”

She also eventually sat for the bar examination in the US. “I did go through a lot during that period because I couldn’t work and my husband, who is a musician, had to carry the load for at least six months when I was intently studying for the bar.”

But it paid off when she successfully passed the exam and was admitted to the New York State Bar in December 2019 – certainly a sweet achievement for a foreign attorney who did not have an American law degree.

Today, she is a staff attorney team leader with an award-winning firm and practising in the area of litigation in mergers and acquisitions. Additionally, she teaches part-time at an online law school.

There are other feathers in her cap, as the beauty was also sworn in to serve as a Special Master to the Supreme Court of New York on March 22.

 “It’s an appointment to serve in the Supreme Court. It is uncompensated but it gives you a lot of visibility and it is very difficult to get selected. A Special Master is someone who helps to reduce the backlog of the courts so that cases can be heard faster,” she explained, adding that she is still employed at her current firm even with the appointment.

Additionally, she also successfully passed the Qualifying Lawyer Exams for Admission to the Roll of Solicitors in England and Wales. She is expected to be admitted in the UK this summer, making her a triple-qualified attorney admitted on three continents.

However, for Christina who comes from a close-knit family, being away from them is admittedly hard.

“This is one of the most difficult things about being away. On one hand, I know that I am doing the right thing, but at the same time, it comes with a very high price. I last saw my grandmother five years ago, and my parents in December 2019.”

Looking back on her decision to move to New York, she shared with a laugh, “It was a kamikaze mission.”

“When I look back at everything that I have done, I feel liberated because I honestly feel like I can do anything now. Each one of us has a purpose, and you have to be true to yourself to know what that purpose is. Don’t compete with anyone and just keep trying to become a better version of yourself.”

SOURCE: Free Malaysia Today, Malaysia May 28, 2022

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