Feminist, Muslim and Victoria’s Secret model might at first glance not be the most obvious bedfellows. However, our May cover star, Shanina Shaik, is proof that they can be. We spoke to her about breaking down barriers and defying all odds.
Ever been in the presence of a Victoria’s Secret model? No? Let’s paint a picture for you. Jaws drop. Stomachs get sucked in. Otherwise very discreet industry professionals get a bit giddy and begin fawning. It’s little wonder the word ‘angel’ comes attached to the job description, because you get the distinct impression that these girls are from a world separate to our own. You can’t imagine they ever get greasy hair or trip over while running for the bus, put it that way.
Check out Shanina Shaik on the Emirates Woman shoot:
Shanina Shaik is one such creature whose entrance into our closed studio in Dubai’s Al Quoz sets in motion all of the above. Our very established hairstylist can’t stop staring. “You’re, like, really pretty,” he says to her, unwittingly quoting Mean Girls to the 25-year-old Saudi-Pakistani-Australian knockout who’s just appeared on set.
That mix alone is enough to make her stand out. She’s a sweetie, glowing from a recent engagement and as down-to-earth as they come. “We got engaged at Christmas in the Bahamas,” she says in between proudly showing videos of her fiancé, DJ Ruckus, scratching up a storm at a recent gig. “He’s cousins with Lenny Kravitz, who helped him design one of the rings with (jeweller) Lorraine Schwartz.” Wait, hold on. One of the rings? “He proposed with two rings,” she giggles. “My style is quite hippy and the other one was quite rock ’n’ roll and eccentric… like Lenny! I was really, really lucky – because Lorraine is a good friend she did it. She doesn’t do that for anyone.”
The Bahamas, rock ’n’ roll royalty, diamonds to choose from… you’d forgive Shanina for being a bit smug, but she actually sounds like she can’t quite believe it. After all, she’s just a girl from the Melbourne ‘burbs who’s landed in honey – although not without a significant amount of work to get there.
“I started modelling at eight,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to do it. That or child psychology. I was actually really shy growing up, but when I got on set it was like my alter ego came out. And because I was a tomboy and really sporty, putting make-up on and trying new things was great. It was when I got to high school that my mum told me to have a break from modelling and focus on my studies.” A self-proclaimed nerd at school, she entered into an accelerator programme – “I ended up doing both. I was 17 when I got a contract and moved to New York.”
Her big break came after she appearing on Australia’s Make Me A Supermodel, where she actually finished as a runner-up. “I was upset but my mum said, ‘It’s great you didn’t win! The runners-up always do better after these competitions.” I actually ended up going to New York before the winner did…” It worked out well, but does she think these types of routes are good for aspiring models to go down? “The perception is that at 24, modelling’s all over for you. That’s why you see so many young girls getting into it, because of the short life span. But a lot has changed. Adriana Lima is 34 and she’s still doing Victoria’s Secret. So I say, finish your studies, go to school and see what modelling has to hold for you in your home country.”
She may well be right, but there’s a certain amount of irony in that it took leaving Australia for Shanina to really hit the big time, walking for Oscar de la Renta, Tom Ford and Stella McCartney to name a few. “When I was 15, it was hard for me to get jobs because clients wanted an Australian look; Caucasian, blonde… I wasn’t that. So to prove myself in Australia I had to go to New York first,” she smiles. “But things are definitely changing. Everyone is a mixture nowadays. And I’m glad to be a representation of what the new world is – multi-cultural and mixed. I’m proud of that.”
We would be too if we were the product of such a wonderfully eclectic fusion. But is there one part of her heritage she feels more affiliated to? “I definitely feel closer to my father’s culture,” she says. “He’s Saudi-Pakistani. I love the cuisine. I’m such a foodie and was raised on curries and Arabic desserts. And I love shisha!” We can vouch for that; one peek at her Snapchat from the day before her cover shoot revealed her puffing away while sunbathing at Eden on The Palm.
“I’m Middle Eastern so I wanted to come to Dubai and see what it was all about!” she adds. “I was supposed to visit the year before last with Kendall and Gigi but I didn’t end up making it. My friends told me it was like a little Vegas so I was excited to come and see. I was born and raised Muslim so it’s nice to hear prayer time. It’s calming and makes you humble again.”
Speaking of religion, has she ever felt that it’s been a source of contention in relation to her job? “My dad is amazing because he’s so understanding. Whatever makes me happy makes him happy. I’m very respectful and take pride in what I do and I think doing lingerie and Victoria’s Secret is something to celebrate. There’s a sophistication to it. My dad’s very proud of me – there’s never been an issue with it.”
Sadly, her heritage has not always come without its challenges, “I was bullied when I was 14 and I think it was partly racial, partly just kids being kids,” she says without skipping a beat. “There were some racially derogatory terms thrown at me and at the time it was hard for me to understand. You watch movies and you think bullying is just a physical act – a kid beating you up and taking your lunch money – but I was embarrassed that it was more emotional. It got so bad that I lost all my self-esteem. My grades dropped and eventually I stopped going to school because I couldn’t handle being taunted every day.”
It’s impossible to imagine someone so sweet-natured, hugely successful and, clearly, beautiful, didn’t always have things easy. But it’s worked to her advantage as a comeback story that everyone wants to write. More to the point, it’s a lesson to all the bullies – and those bullied – out there. Shanina’s story is a reminder to keep going, be strong, and have faith that one day you’ll wake up, stretch your wings, and find yourself a Victoria’s Secret model.
“I’m so glad it happened to me and that I overcame such a big issue,” she says. “I learned about myself and things I’d have to deal with in the future. It made me so independent and strong. People don’t realise that a lot of models were bullied when they were younger. You go through school tall and gangly and different!”
Determined to make a difference Shanina says she wants to use her position to help children and charities. “To anyone who’s being bullied right now, I’d say do not be embarrassed,” she advises. “Have the courage to tell someone and you will definitely make it through.” Has she ever bumped into one of her bullies since? “Yeah, a few years ago. I’m never mean and don’t put out bad vibes or negative energy, though. Success speaks for itself. A lot of people also told me I’d never end up in New York. I like to prove them wrong… It’s my competitive streak.”
Competitive or not, you can only imagine her helping out the newbies on the scene. “I’m a feminist. The new girls walking the Victoria’s Secret show for the first time are so nervous and I always tell them to take their time, embrace the moment and just have fun. It was something Miranda Kerr told me when I first started. To not take it too seriously and remember it’s not forever.”
It’s comforting to know that backstage at one of the world’s most high-profile fashion shows, there’s actually an aura of sisterhood. “It’s like a family. Adriana Lima, who I’ve always aspired to, was the first one to come over and make me feel comfortable when I didn’t know anyone at rehearsals,” she reveals. “She’s amazing. I feel so honoured to be part of it all. They’d been interested in me since I was 16 and when I was 20 and booked my first show, it was the turning point in my career. It’s like being a part of history – there have only ever been around 400 models.”
What about the future? “I tried out for the new Baywatch movie,” she laughs, “I didn’t get it but everyone I meet says they can see me as a Bond girl. It keeps cropping up, maybe there’s something in the universe behind that! I’m going to explore it a bit more and see what happens…” Given Shanina’s track record, we’re sure the universe has got big plans.
All jewellery in the shoot in available at Cartier Boutiques
Styling Jade Sprowson | Photography Louis Christopher | Make-up Sarah Damichi at The AgenC | Hair Manuel Losada at The AgenC | Nails by Tips and Toes using Tito nail polish in Cinderella | Shot at 8th street studios