The controversies surrounding her has seen coverage in major newspapers and prime time news broadcast. They may have included the fiasco that surrounded her when she had exposed "two inches" of her belly during a performance in Singapore, and had been pecked on the cheek by more-than-twice-her-age Julio Iglesias during the super-playboy's visit to the country some time back.

Yep, that's Ning.

And I suppose, if one only knows Ning by the controversies that have surrounded her, then the best of Ning has yet to be known. Her voice, with tremendous ability to churn out the higher octaves, has been dubbed one of the most powerful Malaysia has heard for a while.

"She has a great voice," somebody said to me the other day. It took me by surprise. This was somebody who never knew who Sheila Majid was until she met the queen of Malaysian music in person at a music award presentation. In other words, the local music scene has never been a feature of her interest.

But Ning Baizura she knows.

It seems a friend of hers in Singapore had raved about Ning, to her and to her friends and family. This friend of hers, it seems, carries Ning's album around so that she could show to people how good Ning really is.

Other forms of flattery that Ning has received include comparisons of her to such famed singers as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. This is no hoop-la to give some quick and valuable publicity to a young and still budding singer.

The fact that she is still budding has provided for much talk to see her cross into the international threshold. She's already great now. If she improves some more on her artistic and vocal capabilities and perhaps too her reputation, she could become legendary.

Hari Krishmenon, who is producing Ning's next album and who has been working with Ning for several years, is hoping to help her make that happen. "I know what she's capable of doing if she is guided on the right track," Hari asserts. "She can make it internationally big, if she is guided properly."

Of course, that is all talk now. Ning knows that all this talk about fame can be premature. She's learned from her mistakes. Adrian Hobbs and Justin Williams, her former managers who allegedly messed-up her career, begun by first telling her how good she was and how great she could be. That had come at a time when she had needed encouragement the most.

She was going through a slump, both personally and professionally. Her parents were going through a divorce, and she, a professional crossroads. The combination of both, plus the day-to-day challenges of being a teenage entertainer, was taking a lot out of her.

Hobbs' and Williams' timely arrival provided a sense of security, and a sense of professional direction and guidance. They came with sweet words and apparently noble motives. Shortly after being hired in March last year, they became very involved with Ning's life which gradually ate even into her personal well-being. "Later, I realised that they wanted to rush that friendship as soon as possible , you know, before anything happens. They were really good at talking about loyalty, about trust, about being there for you," Ning says.

Ning felt like they started building a wall around her. It became difficult to get in touch with her, and soon enough, her reputation as the arrogant young R&B singer became rampant. The print media took little time to retaliate. The feverishly partisan local press, already a little taken aback by the then teeny bopper's flare for controversies, was none too pleased to have to deal with two foreign managers.

The press made their point. "They were trying to show that, 'Hey, we are in control here, if you don't want to work with us, that's fine. We can get rid of you.' That's the impression that I had," Ning says.

But she hung on, hoping that somehow things would work out. While useful contracts such as the one with TCS kept the professional relationship with Hobbs and Williams going, it came to a time where Ning could take no more.

"There were a lot of things that I didn't know of. Suddenly, I was told you have signed a contract with Salem, you have signed a contract with this and that. I said, 'Ya, but who represented me?' And they said, 'We did. We did everything'."

It took a while before Ning was sure enough that she did not appreciate their services anymore. In May, she filed a police report against them, claiming a reported sum of close to a million ringgit in lost revenue.

"I took a big step towards my career by just getting them working with me, and just by kicking them out also. It is so prominent, so noticeable, people have noticed that I have changed since that time."

But Ning is not going crying to everybody.

"It's a very, very expensive lesson, that's for sure," Ning says. "At that point, I lost my reputation, I lost the trust that people gave me." And she was almost declared a bankrupt, until her present recording company, BMG, stepped in to help her out.

"I am a little embarrassed now but I look at it in a positive way. I don't regret whatever I have done; I don't regret choosing them to work with me. I don't at all. This lesson has just made me stronger and I am much braver now to decide on something that I want. I am brave enough to venture into something else, something different. Now, I know who I can depend on, and who I can trust. That's what I have learned."

Ning has become much more careful with her business dealings, and will not rushed into making big decisions anymore. She plans to read through every contract before signatures are down.

Ning also seems compelled to take a more sincere professional image, where she can be more herself, and that will extend into her artistic and personal expressions. She doesn't have to be out on a show for anybody---not the press, not her fans, and especially not her managers. (Since her mother is her manager now. She says, "I am pretty much happy with my Mum managing me at this point. She's just doing it on her own. We know if there's work, then we have to work together."

"You can read whatever you want to read, you can believe whatever you want to believe because at the end of the day, if you get to meet me in person, you will get to now what I am. I am just like anybody else, except the voice---that's it."

If she's not found a precise direction in the way she wants to conduct her professional life, she certainly has found a sound modus operandi for herself. "I don't mind doing many of the shows for free because I have to live up to the contracts that were signed before that happened (the fiasco with her former managers). That's okay. I am still happy."

She is invigorated, with a fresh new energy to spur her on. She has plenty to look forward to, glad that she has the freedom to choose what she wants to do and how she wants to achieve her goals.

The future will see her delve into untried territories. Besides a much awaited English album due to be released next year, and a Malay album later this year or early next year, Ning has already involved herself in acting. Her project would be in a Broadway-type musical entitled The Storyteller. It is written by Jit Murad, and directed by Zahim Albakri and Krishnen Jit, and it promises to be something that Ning might get high on.

"The music written by Saidah Rastam is really good," she says, she glows with anticipation. Her body backs the statement, curling into a passionate meeting of her two hands as she explains what the live show is about.

"Her music is very traditional with a little touch of Broadway, which is so beautiful. The first time I heard it, I was like---I have to sing this."

Sing a few lines from it, I ask her. I could not resist that. I have been told that her voice can carry itself without any music. I wanted to hear her voice in the purest form---when there was no vibrations of any musical instruments, when she believed in the music as much as she said she did, and when there was nobody there to tell her what she should or should not be doing.

"Diamonds glimmering in the dark. The fireflies are glowing in the midnight...," as her limbs opens like a cocoon, her voice opens up into a melodious synchrony of the song Fireflies of Midnight.

The tune was soft and sweet, and her voice played exactly to its mood. If one can describe a voice as crystal clear, then I would describe Ning's as just that.

She's so enthused about the musical I had difficulty talking to her about other things. She kept going back to The Storyteller. She tells me that it is going to be a full-fledged musical Malaysian-style set in a no-certain-period village called Kampung Tak Mandi. The day scenes consume the realities of day-to-day living, and the night scene will be a conjurement of fantasies and dreams.

"The first time I saw the script, I was so amazed. I said 'Ya, I don't mind whatever part you give me'."

"I just decided that I should try theatre. After this, I will try something new. If I have to travel and leave for a while, I might.

She just might, after another acting assignment in October, this time to star in Gemilang, a movie to be directed by "six-million-dollar-man" Yusof Haslam.

"This is all about me. If at one point---the thing that comes from here (pointing to her throat)---and if this is gone and my voice is gone, that's it. Then, I have to think of something else.

"The only gift I have is my voice---only my voice box and that's it. And if I lose it or get into trouble, that is going to be the main focus of change. My whole life will change.

"I might not be that upset. I may not sing again, but somehow or rather, I know I will figure something out."

The past year has been a nightmare for her. But she knows that much work is to be done, and challenges will come not very far in between. Just last month, her former agents had counter-sued over alleged breach of contract and defamation, claiming more than RM176,000 in damages. But Ning is trying to put that behind now, so that she can concentrate on re-building herself again.

"I am trying to build my own building now. I have probably reached only my third floor. I am not thinking of just ten floors, but I am thinking of hundred floors, two hundred floors."

Part of building her mega-skyscraper for now seems to be getting herself into the international scene. Plans and negotiations are taking place to organise a concert for Ning in the cities of London and Chicago towards the end of the year.

She's fighting to build the very foundation that will ultimately decide what her transform career will be to in the course of time. What that begun as music classes and school competitions for fun has developed into potentially lifelong venture that can finally lead to international stardom.

At nine, she became a member of the national youth symphony. Then, she discovered singing at about 14 and begun attending vocal classes. At 16, she entered the international singing competition, VOICE OF ASIA.

"That was the first time I did it, and that was the first time that it worked. Then I got involved with the entertainment industry."

"Ever since I was in secondary school, people knew. Because I told everyone, 'Eh, look, I am going to be a famous singer and you are going to buy my album, and you will start claiming that you know me'."

That kid talk, as you can see, has materialised today.

Some may interpret it as arrogance, but people who has worked with her will tell you it is confidence, that is knowing you are good enough.

Tom, a drummer for almost 20 years with groups like Headwind and revolvers, is one of them. "Ning is a very good singer with a very good feel," Tom, who is a freelancer now, says. "She can go far."

"No hesitation?" I ask him.

"No hesitation," he answers.

Her producer, Hari treads a little more carefully but no less confidently. "Ning's voice, compared to other local artists here, is one of a kind." He describes Ning's voice as a mixture of black, white and Asian, but overall, she really "sounds like a black singer."

But guitarist, Rafi delivers a simpler---"Ning can sing. Period."

For now, she's enjoying the attention.

"If I wasn't famous, or if I wasn't a singer, I will probably miss that attention. Because I am so use to having a whole lot of attention from people."




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