Nicole Rodrigues speaks like a racing car – even if it is a holiday and her office is empty.
She is in a hurry to capture the modelling business in town, in fact the region, and to continue diversifying her portfolio of enterprises.
She started with a model and hostess supply agency called Diva Modeling and Events in 2003, dove into real estate in 2004, started providing accounting services to small businesses in 2010, and entered the salon and laundry trades last year.
“The businesses are not directly interlinked but support each other like branches in a tree,” she said.
The core business remains the modelling agency.
Ms Rodrigues says she has brought certain things to the field that were rarities when she entered it in Dubai nine years ago: stringent guidelines for models, protection of client and model rights, and transparency in company finances.
Was her intent to veer away from the image of modelling as a shady business with rampant exploitation?
“Exactly,” says the Indo-Danish mother of two children.
Last year, a poll of 85 fashion models in New York and Los Angeles found that many had been exposed to sexual harassment on the job, according to the New York-based non-profit Model Alliance. Only 29 per cent of the models felt they could report the problem to their agents. Among those models, two-thirds found that their agents were unresponsive to the problem. There are strict rules at Ms Rodrigues’s agency, which has 14,000 models on the books. It does not do lingerie advertisements or beach parties. The clients and models or hostesses cannot exchange phone numbers or discuss budget. Someone from the agency is always present during a photo shoot to make sure models are safe.
“I am an Indian and I know the culture of the region,” says Ms Rodrigues, who also lived in Bahrain for seven years before moving to Copenhagen after marriage. “I will not do anything that goes against it.”
The agency has also signed on 85 Emirati models. Of them, around 12 per cent are women, including Sumeya Raisi.
A branch manager in Dubai for Standard Chartered Bank, Ms Raisi started modelling with Diva a year ago after Ms Rodrigues convinced her that she had a face the agency wanted for its portfolio. In the end it was about trust in Ms Rodrigues, who is her client at the bank.
“She respects our culture a lot,” Ms Raisi says.
The 28-year-old knows modelling is not a traditional thing for an Emirati woman to do.
“But I found out I will still be wearing my abaya and shayla, there will not be a lot of men around, the atmosphere is decent, and pictures are not misused.”
Moreover, she says, it is better to have a local woman in advertisements than an expat dressed up as an Emirati.
None of Ms Raisi’s pictures has yet been used on buses or on billboards, but she says she would be comfortable with that. Ms Rodrigues says that when she started Diva, there was no training available in the emirate for models or hostesses.
Now the agency trains both. To get a portfolio, the aspiring model or hostess has to shell out Dh2,000. The model training includes catwalk, make up, skin care, dress sense and personality development.
Named one of the top 100 small businesses last year by DubaiSME, a Dubai government agency, the company was one of the finalists of the Gulf Capital SME Info awards. Last year its turnover was Dh15 million, 24 per cent of the total revenues for Diva Group of Companies.
Ms Rodrigues, 39, expects to take Diva Modeling and Events to Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Pakistan and India in the next few years.
“After 10 years of growing we still have not touched the plateau,” she says. “You keep adding divisions, you keep pushing the graph up.”