SINGAPORE - With her colourful hijab and non-Chinese features, Malaysian singer Shila Amzah stood out in the China TV contest, I Am A Singer 2.
She blew everyone away with her soulful renditions - in Mandarin - of ballads such as Wang Leehom's Forever Love and Aska Yang's Onion.
It took a while for her to be comfortable with who she was on stage though.
Speaking in English, Shila, 24, says over the telephone that she regretted taking off her hijab for a TV show once. "When I went home, I felt so empty. I felt that there was something weird, that something was not complete."
Her father said it could be a call for her to put on the hijab for good. It has been two years since she made the decision to do so.
She says: "I feel that I'm treated differently sometimes but it's a good different. People may not know where I come from or remember me. But people recognise me when I wear my hijab and I gain this respect from them. So it's a really good thing."
Joining the China contest has opened up many doors for her and she will be performing in Singapore tomorrow (Friday) as part of the regional music line-up at the Skechers Sundown Festival.
Her fame rocketed when she came in third in I Am A Singer 2, but she is no stranger to reality competitions.
In 2009, she was the first runner-up in the Malaysian show, One In A Million. In 2012, veteran music producer Ong Peng Chu encouraged her to break into China and she walked away as champion of the Shanghai talent show Asian Wave.
She says reality contests are "a good platform to rebrand myself". As she was not getting much attention from the Malaysian music industry, she decided to strike out further afield. "I wanted to go abroad to learn new things and push myself to be better in my performances."
While she grew up listening to Mandopop by Wang, JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun, she did not understand the lyrics and there was no push factor for her to learn Mandarin.
But as Asian Wave was based in China, she thought it would be nice to sing at least one Mandarin song. She picked Wang's Forever Love and it took her about one week to learn the song. And well, Shila made waves all right.
For someone whose grasp of Mandarin was minimal, appearing on a China TV show came with extra challenges.
"I practised my Mandarin and tried to understand each word they were saying, but they spoke really fast," she recalls with a laugh. "When you're left with no choice, you will push yourself harder to learn something."
At other times, after practising a song, she would be told three days before taping that she had to choose another song. She says: "It really tested my patience and passion for music."
For I Am A Singer 2, she was brought in as a challenger to existing contestants, including China's Han Lei, the eventual winner, and Hong Kong's G.E.M., the first runner-up.
G.E.M. also spoke English, but Shila says that as a result of "people saying this and that", things were a bit tense between them in the first few weeks. Then they found themselves on a three-hour flight together and started talking.
Shila recalls happily: "That's when we realised that whatever I said, she could finish my sentence and vice versa. It was really, really weird. And that's how we got closer."
They gabbed about everything from music to men. She says: "We can hardly find time for our families and for ourselves, so when it comes to boys and being in a relationship, it's kind of difficult. It will be long-distance and most of the time, I'd say, it's not going to work."
The contest has ended but it looks like men will continue to take a backseat for Shila.
She was speaking to Life! from Beijing where she is recording her album. The process is a time-consuming one and in some cases, she was still not satisfied after having a song's lyrics amended six times.
She says: "I'm not easily satisfied with something and I'll keep re-doing it. It's really important for me to give my best on my first Mandarin album." - Singapore Straits Times/ANN