Cold sweat, clammy hands, chaotic energy—I felt like an ocean wave crashing and retreating between anxiety and excitement. Then the clock struck seven. My heart, previously beating like a drum, came to a sudden stop. There she was, wide-eyed with a bright smile—Cinta Laura Kiehl. For a moment, I was transported back to my childhood home living room in the 2000s, watching Kiehl from a tank-like CRT TV. But it was different this time. Kiehl was not acting as her iconic character in the Indonesian soap Cinderella, or singing her hit song Oh Baby. She was here as herself, the German-Indonesian actress, singer, social activist, and entrepreneur that Indonesia has grown to love (yes, pun intended as ‘cinta’ translates to ‘love’ in Indonesian).
"Can you believe it? I've been working in the entertainment industry for 16 years—that's over half my life," Kiehl remarked as she reflected on her past. "I was just a regular student and an athlete... but I think the universe had other plans." At the age of 12, Kiehl unexpectedly had appendicitis and was forced to take a break from her athletic endeavors. Her dance teacher at school suggested she sign up for a modeling competition, and serendipitously, she won and was scouted to star in one of the country's most notable soaps. "I became an overnight success... I won Best Actress [at the SCTV Awards, a prestigious Indonesian award] at the age of 13. It only went uphill from there.".
There is no denying that Kiehl is extremely accomplished—a trifecta of beauty, brains, and benevolence. One may think she has led a picture-perfect life, but all that glitters is not gold. Behind the glitz and glamor and glossy magazine covers, her life was far from flawless. The price of fame for Kiehl was the harassment and bullying that came with being under the microscope of the media. "I feel like I've been slightly taken advantage of. I was marketed as this PopSugar teen. People didn't think I had much depth," she said.
In addition, in the 2000s, there was an obsession with biracial people (especially those of Indonesian-Caucasian descent) in the Indonesian media due to their “foreign” look. Ironically, they also made fun of and ostracized Kiehl for carrying herself “differently” and having a unique accent when speaking Indonesian. “I grew up in many different countries due to my dad's occupation in the hotel industry,” Kiehl stated. As a result, she grew up not speaking Indonesian or German as her first language, but rather English. “I feel like society had a very… misconstrued perception of me and that hurt me as a teenager because it made me feel like I needed to work my ass off to attain validation from others to prove that no, I'm not just someone who got this opportunity because of my looks. Yes, I do have a brain. Yes, I do have my own opinions… I am worthy.”
What Kiehl experienced was tough, even for an adult. But for someone who, at the time, just started their teens and began undergoing puberty, gruel is an understatement. The constant bullying and harassment spiraled Kiehl into finding ways to refute the media’s viewpoint of her. She went on to attain the coveted Ivy League degree from Columbia University because she thought it would finally clear her case. But after receiving the accreditation, she realized all the validation in the world did not make her feel fulfilled nor did it bring the joy she thought it would. Instead, it made her feel empty.
In retrospect, Kiehl admitted, “I realized that my creativity and productivity had been stunted because of my resentment. When you're resentful, you’re going to be hyper-aware of whether what you're doing is right or wrong… good enough or not. I was holding myself back from being happy… being the best version of myself… creating the best pieces of work… You deserve to not be constantly dragged down by all the anger and fear, and sadness that you harbor in your heart.”
In 2019, after eight years in the United States, she took a leap of faith and returned to Indonesia. “All this time in the states, I was running away,” Kiehl confessed. Her mentality took a sudden shift; she realized she could contribute more in Indonesia than in the United States. “I have a platform [and] I would like to hope that my legacy could be something along the lines of helping people, someone who has used her platform for the greater good of others.” Her experience emboldened her to be an activist in the bullying and sexual harassment space. “I think it's quite evident why I started voicing my concerns about bullying given my experiences as a teen.” When asked “Why sexual harassment?”, she said: “Call me extreme. Call me dramatic… but it is just like bullying… You carry it with you for the rest of your life.” She felt it was time people learn to be more emotionally intelligent as she believes that “bullies [and harassers] are those who usually hurt themselves and don't know how to deal with the pain. Inside their hearts, they feel the need to hurt others for temporary relief… [and the fact stands that] Indonesia apparently has one of the highest rates of bullying and it's time for people to realize that.”
Since launching her YouTube channel, Puella, Kiehl’s content has garnered over 19 million views, and she has brought in people from different backgrounds to talk about the matter. “I even had conversations with Islamic scholars,” Kiehl explained. “I tried to discuss if science and religion can go hand in hand. I'm not afraid to ask pretty bold questions because again, people need to hear that.” Counter-intuitively, she came to the conclusion that the more vulnerable, authentic, and loud she was, the more opportunities actually opened up to her. She realized her “ability to convey complex ideas and not be scared of what society thinks when [she] would say something controversial, whether it's about religion or women's rights or harassment or abuse. Having that bravery could be an asset to Indonesia.”
Moreover, in a world full of filters and constant push for consumerism at a time of economic turmoil, Kiehl is a breath of fresh air. She is the antithesis of the extravagant influencer. “You know how social media suggests content for you… I recently saw a video of an adorable child, who was crying because he was bullied at school for wearing shoes that were completely damaged. The sole was completely off… because he's so poor... He and his mom only make less than 10,000 rupiahs a day (equivalent to USD 0.67) [selling sweet potatoes].” Moved, Kiehl set out to meet him and ended up meeting four other kids like him too. She spent time with them, treated them to a new wardrobe, educational supplies, a hotel stay, and everything they wanted. “They are so happy despite what they have. It also makes me mad that I can even have the audacity to complain about the slightest things or be depressed about things that don't matter. And I think it's a really grounding experience.” She also added that although she enjoys the luxuries in life, nothing beats the experience she had with the boys. “Don’t get me wrong… I like and own nice things… but I could be doing this for the rest of my life… I miss those boys, Habib, Erna, Fauzan, Subhan, and Reza.”
While Kiehl has added activism to her list, she’s not bidding goodbye to entertainment—though she seems to be taking a different approach to it this time, forging her path of channeling activism through entertainment. Her show, Scandal 2, a series centering on prostitution, launched late last year on the Indonesian streaming platform Vidio. “Most people I feel in my position would be scared to take up that role because they're afraid that netizens or society would judge them for it. But I actually embraced that role and was so down to be part of that series because I'm trying to open the conversation in the commercial market about the fact that prostitution does exist.” Kiehl stated that people should not be so easy to judge prostitutes, as there could be a multitude of reasons as to why an individual might choose to enter the occupation. “Maybe [it’s] trafficking, [maybe] they're forced to, maybe it’s due to threats, maybe because they don't feel like they have any other choice and they need to feed their families, and there are some women who completely embrace it and feel like.”
Cool, calm, and composed–I could not help but notice how the energy has shifted as I started to wrap up my conversation with Kiehl. My nerves have been replaced with immense pride–pride for how Kiehl's real-life character arc has developed, and pride to be born at a time when Indonesia has a strong female role model who is bold, bright, brave, unapologetic, and empathetic. “My goal is to broaden the horizon of the youth in this country and that's how I believe we can combat all the biases that exist out there by being consistent with the content that we make. And ensuring that… we use our platform to help inform and open the minds of others… I really feel like consistency does pay off because if you look at history, revolutions are started by small groups of people who refuse to give up and choose to keep moving forward even if the majority is against them.” Cinta professed. On the 17th of August, 1945, Indonesia became independent after many revolutions spanning centuries. Exactly 48 years later, Kiehl was born. Today, she is setting off a revolution of her own—helping Indonesia become a better place, sharing its wonders with the world, and spreading cinta along the way.