JAKARTA, Indonesia » Her left hand flitting between the BlackBerry and Starbucks cappuccino on the table before her, Julia Perez spoke with rising urgency into her cell phone at a shopping mall here one recent afternoon. She took no notice of the passers-by who, sneaking glances her way, found confirmation in her tight-fitting, low-cut dress that it was indeed Julia Perez, the singer, actress, model—and soon, perhaps, politician—whose overt use of sex appeal has won her legions of fans in Indonesia but also condemnation from social conservatives.
The next day, though, Perez needed a traditional dress known as a kebaya, she told her designer at the other end of the line. The traditional ruler of Solo, a city in central Java, was conferring a title on her at a formal ceremony, she explained after getting off the phone.
"Et voila!" said Perez, who tends to speak in a mix of Indonesian, English and French. "It’s a big honor for me."
Since returning to Indonesia three years ago after a decade in France and the Netherlands, Perez, 30, better known as Jupe (pronounced jew-peh), has quickly become one of this nation’s most sought-after celebrities and a mainstay of television gossip shows.
In a society increasingly polarized between supporters of political Islam and Western-style openness, Perez has led the charge one way with her sexy shows and music videos, her celebration of female sexuality and frank talk about sex. Her best-selling album, "Kamasutra," included a free condom, which drew the ire of Islamic organizations and got her banned from performing in several cities outside Jakarta, the capital.
Perez was rebuked recently after announcing her candidacy 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 counterattacked, 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 has no political experience and says that if elected, she simply wants to improve the lives of ordinary people in Pacitan. She was at once excited by the possibilities of Indonesia’s young democracy and aware of its limitations.
"Maybe 30 percent of the people feel this is a democracy," she said, suggesting that poverty and lack of opportunities still prevent 70 percent of the population from enjoying meaningful options.
If success has brought her into the 30 percent, Perez made it clear that her roots—and part of her motivation behind her political ambition—lay in the 70 percent group.
Born here as Yuli Rachmawati, she was the eldest of three sisters in a household led by a single mother. With her mother doing odd jobs, the family 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. "I had no dreams because I had no money. I never had a dream of becoming anything, someone really high or a politician."
She joked that she would now be hawking gado-gado, a dish of mixed vegetables with peanut sauce 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, who worked as a secretary at an international hotel and was married to an Australian, offered to send Perez to secretarial school. She also advised her to find a bule, as white foreigners are called here.
"She taught me how to be a woman: ‘Yeah, Julia, if you’re with a bule, be like this, be like that,"’ she recalled. "At first I didn’t like it. I couldn’t speak English very well, so I only said, ‘Yes, mister. Mister, no drink."’
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," she said. "So voila! I’m falling in love, and I’m going to Holland."
She lived there for three years, studying Dutch, working as a secretary at a related company, eventually drifting away from the owner’s son. On a vacation in Spain, Perez met her future husband, a Frenchman who gave her his surname, took her to France and introduced her to the fashion business. She soon appeared in men’s magazines like Maxim and FHM.
Back here for a vacation in 2006, Perez accompanied a younger sister to a casting call for a television soap opera and ended up getting 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. Deciding to return here for good in 2007, she left her husband behind in France.
"I said to my baby, ‘Baby, baby, I’m sorry I want to stay in Indonesia."’
The couple divorced later.
If there is a common thread in her films, music or television appearances, it is her sexuality—which she always wields, the way Madonna, one of her inspirations, also does.
"This is my own choice," Perez said. "This is what I want to become. I want to be a free woman."
A few months ago, though, political leaders from the town of Pacitan arrived unexpectedly with an invitation to run as the district’s deputy leader. Sutikno, the local head of Hanura, an opposition party, said that his party and a coalition of others were searching for a celebrity to attract investors to the region, which has beautiful beaches and other untapped tourist sites. The officials interviewed several actresses but settled on Perez.
"She’s honest about who she is," said Sutikno, who uses one name like many Indonesians. "She’s willing to work hard and willing to learn. She’d never been to Pacitan, but, after we approached her, she started researching Pacitan on the Internet. We don’t care if she’s a sex bomb."
Some were skeptical of the choice.
Julia Suryakusuma, an author who has written about sex and politics, said that the opposition parties’ selection of Perez was calculated to draw attention to a local race that would otherwise be ignored. Because Pacitan is Yudhoyono’s hometown, Perez’s presence could underscore and aggravate the difficulties that the president has faced in trying to straddle the growing divide between Indonesia’s Western-oriented reformers and Muslim conservatives, Suryakusuma said.
"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."
As for Perez, she said she was still learning about politics.
"I’ve only learned about 40 percent now. It really makes me scared. I shouldn’t say this, but I’m confused. Some of them say, in front of me, ‘Yeah, this is right, Julia.’ But afterward, behind my back, they say the next day, ‘No, that’s not good.’ You understand what I mean?" she said.
"Peut-etre c’est ca la politique," she said. "Maybe that’s politics."