By NIGEL THO
From penniless shampoo boy to acclaimed hairstylist and now, budding photographer, Albert Nico’s life is one that has taken dramatic – and yet, ultimately – inspiring turns.
He is unabashed about sharing all the details about his past, the highs and lows included. For he believes his life experiences shaped him to be the person he is today, a celebrated hairstylist whose clientele includes royalty, celebrities and socialites.
“I had a very difficult childhood,” said Nico matter-of-factly. “As a child, I didn’t know who my father was, and I was neglected by my mother. Nobody wanted me, and I was forced to mature beyond my years in order to survive.
“My grandmother took me in, but while staying with her, I was continuously robbed by bullies in the neighbourhood. Can you imagine, there was one year I was robbed 12 times! So, I had to start fighting back … that is why today I have no qualms about fighting for what I believe in.
“Whether you hate me or love me, I am being truthful to myself,” mused Nico, who was born and raised in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur.
He needn’t worry about his haters, for it appears many people love Nico.
His passion project
The Soul Of Portrait is a coffee table book by Nico which features black-and-white portraits of personalities such as activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, supermodel Amber Chia and respected industry leader Datuk Kelvin Tan.
“Altogether, I shot 90 people for my book; there are past and present Miss Malaysias, pregnant women, the elderly, twins, tattooed guys and kids,” explained Nico. When he approached his intended subjects for the shoot, all of them said yes without hesitation.
“That showed their trust in me as a photographer, and I appreciated them taking the time to pose for me, despite their hectic schedules,” enthused Nico, who started dabbling in photography in 2013. “For instance, I shot Marina during the Hari Raya holiday, as that was her only available time.”
Nico revealed that former beauty queen Datin Elaine Daly was the one who gave him the idea for The Soul Of Portraits.
“She came to my salon in April last year while she was eight months pregnant with her second child, and I suggested taking her picture after she gave birth. Instead, Elaine said: ‘Do it now.’”
Concurred Daly: “He was the only one I trusted to take a picture of my huge belly. And I requested for my firstborn Eva Jean (now three) to be in the photo. We set a date and the photos came out beautifully.
“That sparked Albert on to shoot other personalities and friends who are meaningful to him. He has always wanted to do a coffee table book but just never had the impetus to begin one.”
For makeup and styling, Nico roped in his good friend (and renowned designer) Orson Liyu. “I have known him for 30 years. Initially, I was scared to work with him as I worried our styles would clash … but it was smooth sailing all the way!”
“It was a very good experience collaborating with Albert as a stylist on this book. We learnt a lot of new things; we not only captured the mood, but also discovered the unique personality of each subject. To me, Albert is a role model, someone who never stops learning, who always gives himself new tasks and challenges. That is such an admirable quality to have,” said Liyu about Nico.
The Soul Of Portraits will be officially launched on Sept 12 at Zebra Square, KL. It is also in conjunction with Nico’s birthday (he turns 53 on Sept 14).
“The timing is perfect as it’s close to Malaysia Day, as my book is all about celebrating different races and people from all walks of life. And best of all, proceeds from its sales go towards charity.”
The charity Nico has in mind is Give Malaysia. The non-profit organisation was founded by Miss Malaysia 1984 Betty Anne Brohier and aims to assist the less fortunate and underprivileged.
Nico, who expects 600 guests for the soiree, has urged his friends not to bring birthday presents. “Instead, they can buy the book, knowing that they can help a worthy cause.” (The 110-page glossy book is priced at RM180.) At the event, Nico will also auction off framed pictures of his street photography for the same purpose.
His painful past
“When I was born, I didn’t know who my father was,” recalled Nico. “At the age of nine, my mother passed me to an aunt. If my mum didn’t pay her, I was forced to eat overnight rice. I didn’t mind it but sometimes it stunk so bad, I threw it all up.
“I was so thin and I was always bullied at school. My school uniform was so torn up, I looked like a beggar. I remembered I kept asking myself, ‘Why … why do I have to suffer so much compared to others?’
“During PE (physical exercise), I was envious of my classmates’ nice clothes, while my singlet was torn and barely hanging by a thread. I always made excuses not to participate in PE and hid in the toilet as I was so embarrassed. One day, a teacher spotted me in my hiding spot, took pity on me and gave me a T-shirt.”
At the age of 15, Nico dropped out of school to work as a shampoo boy at Hotheads Salon. Two years later, his mother found out and voiced her disapproval. “She screamed, ‘Men shouldn’t be hairdressers; that’s a woman’s job!’”
Undeterred, he wanted to prove her wrong, and took up a second job of washing dishes. “During that time, I would wake up at 6am to wash dishes at a different place and then start my job as shampoo boy at 10am. My hands bled due to all the washing chemicals and I couldn’t afford hand lotion … but after a while, my skin became immune.”
By then, Nico had moved in with his grandmother and life at home grew more stable. “But one day, I fell down, breaking all the glasses at work and my two months’ salary was deducted. I was so distressed and ready to give up, but then I thought of my grandmother. So, the next morning, I willed myself to wake up and work harder.”
Slowly but surely, he picked up on the tricks and trade of hairdressing and practised it on his grandmother. “My first client was her,” reminisced Nico with a smile. “She was my guinea pig. I also practised on her tai chi buddies.” (Nico’s beloved grandmother died seven years ago and his mother passed away in 2015.)
In 1980, Nico’s exotic good looks caught the eye of legendary modelling agent Cilla Foong. Thus he started modelling part-time, using the money to pursue formal hairstyling education in Hong Kong. That same year, at the ripe young age of 20, Nico took over the business at Hotheads Salon.
In 2008, Hotheads Salon was rebranded to Albert Nico Boutique Salon, currently located in Fahrenheit 88, Bukit Bintang, KL. Presently, Nico – whose work has been featured in Vogue Italia – is one of L’Oreal Professionel’s Artistic Ambassadors.
He has shared some details of his past in When Dreams Come Alive, a self-published book in 2012 which contains his memoirs and photographs of his hairstyling masterpieces.
His plentiful present
Asked about his greatest accomplishment, Nico answered, “It’s that I didn’t waste my time. Honestly, I am very happy and grateful for what I have now, and I want to be able to help others. Hopefully, I can inspire young people to follow their dreams.”
Recently, Nico was invited to be among 13 Malaysian speakers at TEDxMonash University Malaysia. “I was given 18 minutes to deliver my talk,” said Nico, who emphasised on patience, passion, action and determination. “My life is so colourful that it was a challenge to condense it into something short and powerful.”
Themed “The Power Of Persistence”, Nico touched on his 38 years as a hairstylist and the struggles during his youth. “Initially, I was worried I would not perform well. I am not highly educated yet there I was, giving a talk to 200 students at Monash University.”
Immediately after his talk, students rushed up to him to ask more questions and take pictures with him. “I was overwhelmed by that experience, and now I am ready to share my insights with even more people, especially of the younger generation. To me, knowledge is power.”
So, what’s next for Nico? “To be honest, I need a holiday,” replied Nico, who is also currently overseeing construction on his home. “This past year has been a challenging one, but it’s a good challenge. I am enjoying it tremendously, even though it’s tiring.”
He concluded, “Most importantly, I have good health. My philosophy is to never procrastinate, to live every day as if it’s my last day.
Whatever I do – whether it’s hairstyling or photography – I commit to it with all my heart.”