S'pore supermodel Nora Ariffin on stripping and surviving in the 80s

12 April 2016 / 6 months 1 week ago

Justin Cheong
​Her World
7 April 2016

It's easy to be awestruck by this woman who's considered one of Singapore's first supermodels, especially when she walks - no, glides - into the photo studio like some rare, exotic creature, and greets you with a warm "Hi! I'm Nora".

The 1.75m-tall alumna of St Margaret's Secondary School shot to fame in 1985 when she was named Model of the Year at the Glamour Awards, then Best Model of the Year and Best Photogenic Model at the Studio M Awards. She bid Singapore farewell and packed her bags for San Francisco, then Paris, where she caught the eye of celebrated French photographer Guy Bourdin, who shot her for Vogue Paris.

From then on, the prestigious modelling gigs came thick and fast, and her portfolio was soon crammed full of shoots with international glossies like Harper's Bazaar Italia and Cosmopolitan Italia, and a much-coveted contract with Cover Girl cosmetics, which saw her appearing in ad campaigns alongside Rachel Hunter, Niki Taylor and Tyra Banks.

Thirty years on, Nora's complexion is still cover-girl fresh and flawless - "drink lots of water and avoid caffeine!" she advises. Although she refuses to reveal her age, she lets on that she got into modelling at the end of 1984 when she was waiting for her O-level results (we'll let you do the maths).

Now a successful real estate broker based in New York - she entered the property industry 11 years ago and is currently the senior vice-president of Halstead Property - the yoga fanatic still models and is represented by Elite Model Management. Last year, she appeared in campaigns for Canadian beauty brand Beauticontrol and Caribbean hotel chain Sandals Resorts.

HW: Wow, 30 years in modelling. Can you believe it?

I know! I was in the right place at the right time - I was working at the Blue Ginger boutique, owned by Eileen Abisheganaden, and was photographed modelling pieces by designer Kelvin Khoo. Eileen liked the pictures and said she would introduce me to Dick Lee (who ran Carrie Models back then). I thank my lucky stars every single day to have had a career this long - I'm very fortunate and blessed.

HW: So, are you a model who does real estate or a broker who models?

Oh, I'm definitely a full-time broker who models when the opportunity arises. Real estate defines who I am now. I'm not allowed to reveal who my clients are, but I work with some celebrities and fashion-industry people from Paris.

HW: How would you describe your personal style?

Traditional and classic. As a businesswoman, I want to make the first impression the best impression. I love Chloe, Marni and Diane von Furstenberg. I do shop online, for shoes and accessories mostly - my favourite site is Net-a-porter - but for the most part, I like to try my clothes on.

HW: Back in the day, you modelled alongside Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson and Christy Turlington. We're so proud that Singapore had its own supermodel!

What a load on me - the pressure! (laughs) Honestly, I never felt like I was a supermodel. My goal has always been to do good work and to show that if you work hard, you can make a name for yourself.

HW: You've done some racy shoots (in 1989, for example, Nora bared her breasts on the cover of Cosmopolitan Extra for Guy Bourdin). Did you get a lot of flak for that?

Absolutely! Especially because I was raised in a very strict family - the rules were that you don't wear bathing suits in public, you don't show skin, you don't show your breasts. But those shoots I did were for respectable international publications, and I got to work with Guy Bourdin, one of the most amazing photographers of his time. I was his muse for three, four years. He launched my career and made me who I am. Why would I shy away from that kind of opportunity? I have no regrets doing all that risque stuff. My late stepdad and my mum (who was - and still is - a primary schoolteacher) were very disappointed at first. It took a while and a lot of explaining, but they came around eventually.

HW: Who inspires or empowers you?

My mother, definitely, and anyone who is brave enough to be who they are and to be proud of who they are - like (84-year-model) Carmen old American Dell'Orefice or (plus-sized American actress) Gabourey Sidibe.

HW: What's the best advice you've ever received?

Recently, I reconnected with my (biological) dad, whom I fell out with more than 20 years ago, and he told me: "Always plant your feet on the ground, stay strong and depend on yourself." (Nora tears up for about two minutes) It's like he knew me all along. I've always had that in me. I left Singapore to model at the age of 18 but was never distracted or destroyed by the drugs, the cocaine and the alcohol - a lot of models back then couldn't survive that. I just stayed focused.

HW: Oops, sorry we made you cry, Nora.

Nah, those were good tears.

HW: Let's lighten the mood - tell us about your man, (Grammy and Tony award-winning singer- songwriter) Duncan Sheik.

We dated for about eight months in 1999, and then for a year in 2008. After that, I said: "I'm not seeing this man again, this is it, I'm done with him." You never go back to a boyfriend a third time - but for him, I did. We've now been dating since 2011. Duncan is an artist and artists are very hard to live with (laughs), but I give him his space - that's the secret.

HW: What's the most romantic thing he's ever done for you?

He wrote a song called Photograph about our relationship and me. (An excerpt from the song: "A photograph. If you look at it closely, here's what you will find: a boy who'll lose his way, and a girl who will not mind. Would anyone have guessed we'd fall in love even more?")

HW: Right now, what are your main life goals?

I'll be honest with you - besides being happy and fulfilled, my main goal is to have a child. That's what we're working on. And what has life taught you about, well, life? Be grateful for the past, live in the present, and look forward to the future.

See more photos related to the article in the gallery below. 

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