January Cover: Shanina Shaik On Finding New Love, Shattering Prejudices And Fighting For Diversity

BY Olivia Phillips / Dec 22 2019 / 11:46 AM

Breaking down walls from the start, Saudi-Pakistani supermodel Shanina Shaik tells Olivia Phillips how, against all odds, her warrior spirit won’t ever be broken

January Cover: Shanina Shaik On Finding New Love, Shattering Prejudices And Fighting For Diversity
Joséphine Aigrette Impériale Tiara in white gold set with brilliantcut diamonds and 1 pear-shaped emerald, POA, Chaumet; Shirt, Dhs2,650; Waistcoat, Dhs3,350; Skirt, Dhs6,000, all Dolce & Gabbana

Shanina Shaik wants world peace. She says it with a wink, nonchalantly picking up her coffee cup and staring at us with a smirk over the top of it. It’s exactly the kind of knowing selfdeprecation you don’t expect from a Victoria’s Secret model – but more fool us, it seems, for judging a book by its cover, or, in this case, a VS Angel by her wings.

Shanina is girl-next-door sweet, and blessed with the kind of preternatural beauty that makes you shake your head in disbelief – but she is also sharp (“a little nerdy,” she offers), self-aware and funny. Funny enough, in fact, to have been cast opposite award-winning comedian Steve Coogan as his wife in Greed, a thinly veiled skewering of disgraced billionaire and founder of UK fashion conglomerate Arcadia, Philip Green. In cinemas next month, this is Shanina’s second feature film, and one that she’s brimming with excitement to finally be able to promote after having to wait over a year to do so.

With a tagline of ‘The devil’s in the retail’, we wonder if the story must have been pretty close to the bone in places for her. After all, she’s worked as a model since she was 8 years old, no doubt having her eyes opened along the way to the sometimes pretty dark corners of the fashion world.

It can be joyful, yes. Optimistic, often. At its best it inspires, unites and moves us, breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes. It’s an ongoing conversation between us and the world around us – but it’s not an easy place to exist in. Even without toxic, powerful men like Green peppering the playing field, it’s a beauty battleground – heavily politicised, problematic in terms of inclusivity, and, up until now, almost impenetrable. A monolith of the highest order.

The good news? It’s woken up and is evolving faster than ever. Even Victoria’s Secret – the brand that Shanina cites as giving her the career breakthrough she needed (“It opened so many doors for me. I went to Paris and walked Chanel later that same year, then went to fashion week and did Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta,”) – announced in late 2019 that it will be cancelling its annual runway show for good. And whatever your thoughts are on it, it undeniably marks a huge cultural shift when a giant like that implements such a statementmaking change. 

Have we made it, then? Peak diversity where all prejudices are shattered and everyone feels fully represented? Is that even possible?

“They said I was never going to be a high-fashion model and that I’d never do runways,” Shanina remembers. “Agents, clients… they all told me the same thing. I would go to castings and never get the jobs that I wanted, and it really affected me – especially as so much of it was because I look so mixed,” she says of her aesthetic – a striking, quite possibly unprecedented combination of Saudi, Pakistani, Lithuanian and Australian. With those genes, it’s little wonder she’s a knockout.

Still, though, doors were abruptly closed in her face. “I remember going to castings in Europe and getting turned away because of my skin colour,” she says, tearing a serviette in front of her into bits, but with a surprising lack of anger in her voice. “That was only six years ago,” she tells us with disbelief. “We’ve come a long way, and we are moving towards a better future. But there’s still some jobs I don’t book because I don’t fit into a certain category. I’ve had to bang down so many doors for people to understand and embrace me. I had to leave Australia to book jobs in New York because I didn’t look like an average Australian girl, but then in New York they told me I was too sexy and I’d never do high fashion,” she continues. “The fashion industry has to find a voice. Look at Halima Aden – she’s had a huge impact. Beauty doesn’t just have to be one segment or category – it should be international. Why does it matter what colour your skin is? It should matter who you are.”

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Why would anyone argue with such fundamental truths? And yet: “There’s jobs I’d love to get, but I can’t, and that makes me feel really insecure. It’s hard work, it really is. And it’s really up and down. There’s been three times – once even last year – where I wanted to just quit. I thought, ‘That’s a wrap!’ and my poor mum had to hear it all the way in Australia!”

It’s a powerfully honest message from, frankly, one of the most beautiful women in the world, whose life could easily be perceived from the outside as a bed of roses. Failure. Doubt. Adversity. All things we don’t speak about enough in an age of hyper-filtered perfection – and all things that Shanina owns with absolutely zero shame.

It could be a natural resilience. It could be a built-in openness. Or it could be that offering your private life up for reality TV (twice), building a career in one of the most competitive industries in the world, and swapping Melbourne’s sleepy suburbs for New York’s bright but brutal lights at the tender age of 17, toughens you up a bit. Especially when you’ve been told repeatedly that you’ll never make it.

In addition, 2020 marks 20 years in the industry for Shanina. An auspicious alignment, we’re sure – particularly since she tells us no less than three times on set that 2019 was the hardest year of her life. Things, it seems, can only get better.

“I’ve had a really rough year,” she half laughs, referring, of course, to her recent divorce to Greg Andrews – aka DJ Ruckus – after their year-long marriage. Last time we interviewed her, she was newly engaged, glowing from a recent proposal in the Bahamas (with two rings, no less), and utterly giddy, showing us videos of her fiancé behind the decks and full of hope for the future.

Today, she is still full of hope – but for different reasons. They no doubt include a new, strong-jawed mystery beau that she only calls ‘P’, but mostly, we’d like to think, it’s because she’s emerged on the other side of heartache, battle-scarred – but all the better for it. A life lesson for the ages.

Dress, Dhs25,000, Kristina Fidelskaya

“When you deal with really hard things that happen in life, you feel much stronger. I do. I try to look at the positive and see what I can learn from it, what I can take from it, and how I can help others,” she explains with a stoicism that has only intensified since we last met and she told us about how badly she was bullied at school.

“It was because of my race,” she says without missing a beat. “And I was really embarrassed because I used to watch movies where bullying was all about kids being beaten up by the lockers… but this wasn’t a physical thing. It was totally a mental thing. It was emotional abuse, every single day. And once one of the popular girls starts picking on you, it’s like a domino effect. So I became so insecure, my grades dropped, and eventually I just stopped going to school.”

It begs the question – has she come face-to-face with her bullies since? “Yes, I went back to Australia after my first or second year in New York and I saw them. It really doesn’t bother me anymore,” she says, the picture of class. “In fact, I’m quite glad it happened to me. It made me tough, independent and know that I can deal with a lot. It gave me extra confidence, ironically.”

It makes complete sense. Be it overcoming a gutwrenching breakup (“I’d given up on love,”), battling emotional abuse, or struggling to make it in your career, there’s an unparalleled power that comes from knowing you’ve fought and won; that you’ve walked through the fire and proved to yourself that you could even do it all again if the stars so happen to align that way.

From top to bottom: Joséphine Aigrette Ring in white gold set with brilliant-cut diamonds and Akoya pearl, Dhs27,300; Joséphine Aigrette Ring in white gold set with brilliant-cut diamonds and Akoya pearls, Dhs18,700; Joséphine Aigrette Ring in pink gold set with brilliant-cut diamonds and Akoya pearl, Dhs25,600; Joséphine Aigrette Ring in pink gold set with brilliant-cut diamonds and Akoya pearls, Dhs17,500, all Chaumet
Dress, Dhs11,900, LoeweDress

And speaking of stars, Shanina’s theory of her own metamorphosis has quite a lot to do with them. “Someone told me that when you turn 28, that’s the return of Saturn,” she explains of an astrological phenomenon that most of us live through twice; when the planet Saturn returns to the same point in the sky that it was when you were born.

“Everything in your life just shifts and transitions. You truly come into adulthood. I feel like everything has started happening for me now – it’s like the second chapter of my life.”

And what does that chapter hold, exactly? As we head into not only a new year but a new decade, what intentions is she setting? “I think a big part of my career is going to change, as well as how people see me on social media – I want everyone to have more of an insight into my personal life. But I’m also looking into starting my own business. It will be a health and beauty product under my name that I can share with everybody,” she smiles.

“I also have a very good feeling that 2020 is the year I finally get to go to Saudi. I’ve never been before but I have family there and have such a strong bond and affinity with Middle Eastern culture. It’s from my dad’s side – he’s Saudi-Pakistani.” She continues, “My family is really mixed and interracial. My uncle’s from Malta, my step-dad was from Ghana, and I have three younger brothers – all such gorgeous boys – and two of them are part-Chinese. If you took a picture of us, we are a very modern-day family,” Shanina laughs. “I love it because I’ve learned so much about different cultures… but it’s my dad’s that I naturally enjoy the most.”

So new love, new countries and new dreams – a girl after our own heart. “Every year for the past four years, I’ve written a letter to myself just before New Year’s Eve that is an entire summary of the past 12 months. All the things that were negative and didn’t work out for me, all the positive things too, and what I want to change for the year ahead. It’s so funny when you look back and see how much you’ve grown. You learn so much about yourself and the things that you want,” Shanina says earnestly. “I really do believe that we should all dream big,” she smiles. “It’s good for the soul.”

Laurier Necklace in white gold set with brilliant-cut diamonds, POA; Chaumet
Dress, Dhs4,100, Darin Hachem. Coat, Dhs5,605, Etro

Photography by GREG SWALES
Styling by ANNA CASTAN

All jewellery: Chaumet

Editor in Chief: Salma Awwad. Editor: Olivia Phillips. Talent: Shanina Shaik at IMG Models. Art Director: Oscar Yanez. Make-up: Manuel Losada at Art Factory. Hair: Annesofie Begtrup at Things By People using Oribe Haircare and Seamless1. Producer: Laura Prior. Junior Fashion Editor: Tabitha Jane Glaysher. Set Designer: Samantha Francis. Photography Assistants: Fiel Montes, Jaffar Shereef. Fashion Assistants: Anna Smolenko, Zach Nouri. Production Assistant: Brian Timmer. Editorial Assistant: Anastasia Krylasova

With special thanks to Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort & Spa