You’d be hard-pressed to visit Japan without seeing Rola’s face. You see her striking features everywhere — in countless advertisements for everything from makeup to health drinks, as a fashion model, on TV shows, and now as an actress and opera singer.
In 2014, she had more commercial contracts than any other celebrity in Japan. Today, she has one of the largest social media followings of any Japanese celebrity.
Rola owes her striking looks to her father, who is Bangladeshi, and her mother, who is three-quarters Japanese and one-quarter Russian. Born in Sayama in Saitama prefecture, she moved to Bangladesh when she was one and spent the first seven years of her life speaking Bengali.
Rola described her time in Bangladesh in a recent interview with Tokyo Journal. “I was like a monkey — not human. I ate mangos a lot and I had to catch fish with a fishing pole I made myself. I grew up like a man in the jungle… My clothes were dirty. That was natural for me. I don’t think normal Japanese people have that kind of experience.”
Rola’s life in the Bangladeshi countryside came to an abrupt end when her father married a Chinese woman and the family moved back to Japan. “When I moved to Japan, my house was in a really poor area and six people from my family lived together there.”
Rola started learning to speak, read and write Japanese in Tokyo. “I am really grateful to my stepmom because I went to Japanese school, but I couldn’t read or speak any Japanese.” Her stepmother had been a mathematics teacher and ballet dancer when she was in China, and she taught Rola how to do multiplication and division. “She was very strict,” she says.
When Rola was 13, her family moved back to Bangladesh for a year, but they moved back to Japan again when she was 14. Her modeling career began at the age of 16, when she was scouted as a high school student on the streets of Shibuya. She started modeling and made her first appearance as a TV tarento five years later. Since then, she has become a fixture of Japanese TV and advertising.
She has also published books on fashion and cooking. She was raised as a Muslim, but says, “I’m not a good Muslim because I eat pork… I tried to be a good Muslim in Japan, but they eat a lot of pork, so my father allowed my brother and I to eat it.”
Although Rola admits that her English is far from perfect, this hasn’t deterred her from writing a book for learners of English, "Speak English with Me." “It’s very easy,” she says. “I’m not perfect speaking English, but I really like to speak English with people.”
Rola isn’t satisfied with working only in Japan. Speaking English is an essential part of the transition she wants to make from being a Japanese tarento to a global media star. “Entertainment is global, and I want to do as much as I can,” she says.
Rola recently bought a home in Los Angeles and is focused on adding her creativity to new areas of entertainment while working on her non-profit educational foundation.
She says she appreciates the vibe on the streets of LA. “In Japan, I can’t walk on the street. It’s not easy to go to the supermarket… I feel like I can really relax when I’m in LA and I can go anywhere.”
In 2017 she made her first appearance in a Hollywood feature film as the female soldier Cobalt in "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter." “She’s a fighter, she’s tough and very strong. She fights alongside her boyfriend. I really like strong men and strong women. I really wanted to kill a lot of zombies,” she says with a laugh.
Looking ahead, Rola says she wants to balance her career as a tarento in Japan with her new life as a Hollywood actor, writer and singer. “I like to speak my opinion and here [in LA] I can speak more strongly than in Japan. I feel freer in the United States. I like Instagram and showing people in Japan other kinds of fashion — not only kawaii (cute) fashion, to help change people’s thinking in Japan.”
Of her plans for the future, she says, “These days I really want to produce my own thing. It’s important to have a strong heart; I like challenging new things. I never stop. Entertainment is everywhere.”
Tokyo Journal, "Japan’s Multicultural Multitalented Model & Actress: Rola - From the Jungles of Bangladesh to the Global Catwalk" (Anthony Al-Jamie, 4th July 2019)
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