It takes a nation to protect the nation
Published Date: 01 August 2010 By Norimitsu Onischi
HER left hand flitting between the BlackBerry and Starbucks cappuccino on the table before her, Julia Perez spoke with rising urgency into her mobile phone.
The singer, actress, model — and soon, perhaps, politician — whose overt use of her sexuality has won her legions of fans in Indonesia but also condemnation from social conservatives, needed a traditional dress, a kebaya, she told her designer at the other end of the line. The ruler of Solo, in central Java, was conferring a title on her at a formal ceremony, she explained.
"Et voilà!" said Perez, who speaks in a mix of Indonesian, English and French. "It's a big honour for me."
Since returning to Indonesia three years ago after a decade in France and the Netherlands, Perez, 30, better known as Jupe, has become one of the nation's most sought-after celebrities. In a society increasingly polarised between political Islam and Western-style openness, Perez has led the charge one way with music videos celebrating female sexuality and frank talk about sex. Her bestselling album, Kamasutra, included a free condom, which earned her a ban on performing in some cities outside Jakarta, the capital.
Perez was rebuked after announcing her intention to stand in a local election in December in Pacitan, a town in east Java that also happens to be the hometown of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Officials proposed changing regional election laws to forbid candidates with "moral flaws" from running. But critics in the news media and on social-networking websites counter-attacked, pointing out that Indonesian politicians are hardly known for their ethics.
"So what if I'm sexy?" Perez said. "You can still eat tomorrow if you see me and find me sexy. But if I steal your money, tomorrow you cannot eat and tomorrow you cannot go to school and tomorrow you'll be a hopeless man."
Perez is both excited by the possibilities of Indonesia's young democracy and aware of its limitations.
"Maybe 30 per cent of the people feel this is a democracy," she said, suggesting that poverty and lack of opportunities still prevent 70 per cent of the population from enjoying meaningful options.
Born Yuli Rachmawati, the eldest of three sisters in a household led by a single mother, she often ate only rice with fried shallots. Growing up under Suharto, the longtime military ruler who fell in 1998, she saw little for herself here.
"Finding enough to eat was our only dream," she said. She joked that she would now be hawking gado-gado, a traditional dish often sold on the street, if she had not befriended a slightly older Indonesian woman as she was about to finish high school.
The woman, a secretary at an international hotel who was married to an Australian, offered to send Perez to secretarial school and advised her to find a bule, as white foreigners are called.
She went to work as a junior secretary at a Dutch-owned furniture company here and began dating the owner's son. "He was such a gentleman, always giving me flowers. So voilà! I'm falling in love, and I'm going to Holland."
Three years later, on holiday in Spain, Perez met her future husband, a Frenchman who introduced her to the fashion business. She soon appeared in men's magazines like Maxim and FHM.
While back here on holiday in 2006, Perez accompanied a younger sister to a casting call for a television soap opera and ended up being recruited by the director. In a newly democratic Indonesia, she found filmmakers and singers pushing previously rigid boundaries of sexuality in pop culture, even as increasingly powerful Islamic groups, repressed under Suharto, were advancing a strict version of Islam in a country long known for its moderate Muslims.
Perez, who is Muslim, soon found herself deluged with offers. In 2007, she left her husband and returned home.
The invitation to run as Pacitan's deputy leader was unexpected. Sutikno, the local head of Hanura, an opposition party, said his party and a coalition of others were searching for a celebrity to attract investors to the region.
"Perez is honest about who she is," said Sutikno. "She's willing to work hard and to learn. We don't care if she's a sex bomb."
But Julia Suryakusuma, an author who has written about sex and politics, said Perez's selection was calculated to draw attention to a local race that would otherwise be ignored.
Because Pacitan is President Yudhoyono's hometown, Perez's presence could underscore and aggravate the difficulties the president has faced in trying to straddle the growing divide between Indonesia's Western-oriented reformers and Muslim conservatives.
"I have my doubts about Julia Perez since running wasn't her own idea," Suryakusuma said. "This looks like a ploy by opposition parties to cause embarrassment to the president."
On October 11, 2011, the East Jakarta Court sentenced Julia Perez three months in jail with six months probation for assaulting Dewi Persik on the set during the shooting of the horror film "Arwah Goyang Karawang"