Feature
No Egos, Just Alter-egos
Test Tube Babe
By Wang Meng Meng
PHOTOS: SAM CHIN

Clark Kent has his telephone booth.

In Nur Saiyidatina Shabnam’s case, her tote bag encapsulates her two worlds. Stored inside are the tools of her trades – from lecture notes to lip gloss, matriculation card to mascara.

On campus, the second-year School of Physical & Mathematical Sciences student is a face in the crowd, striving to earn a degree. But when the signal comes, the chemistry major unleashes the glamorous feline inside her as she trades her lab coat for leopard prints and strikes a pose.

She is a student/model, or is it model/student? This balancing act is the name of the game for the 19-year-old who knows her lithium from her Louboutin as she shuttles from school to shoot locations.

“It can be a hectic life,” says Nur Shabnam, who enrolled in NTU after a guided tour of the labs at her school swayed her vote.

“I am coping with six modules this semester and it’s time-consuming. School takes up 22.5 hours every week. A number of times, I had to give up modelling assignments because they clashed with my lessons or the casting venues were too far.”

As a result, she does about one assignment a month. Still, she can see her catwalk career taking off the runway even though she has only been in this line for a year. She intones: “This is a very competitive industry. However, it is an interesting career path because I’ve always been interested in fashion. Even before all this, I liked dressing up to show my style, which is casual, comfortable and yet trendy.”

“If given a chance, I would take it up as a career after graduation.”

Nur Shabnam is a huge admirer of top fashion houses like Burberry and she regards singer Beyoncé as one of her favourite trendsetters, but she also believes that one can be in vogue even in an affordable label like Forever 21.

There is certainly some irony that this slim and statuesque lady was discovered on a day where she didn’t look so chic.

Last September, Nur Shabnam was on her way home from NTU at Boon Lay Interchange when it happened.

“I was dressed like most undergraduates,” she recalls.

“Jeans, casual top, long hair down… and wearing glasses.”

Approached by an agent from Create Talents, she was told that she had the makings of a model. More specifically, her killer pins and 1.7-metre height make her, quite literally, stand out.

“After the agent told me more about modelling, I was won over and decided to give it a try,” Nur Shabnam says.

“I got my portfolio done, with photos ranging from casual to formal and even bridal, including full profile and head shots. It was intimidating at first as I had no previous experience, but the photographer was very professional and had a warm personality. That made me less nervous.”

And with a little makeover magic, she has moved from hydrochloric acid to high heels. A picture of haute couture, her long tresses are now a bouffant coiffure and her glasses have been replaced by brown contact lenses.

Shortly after submitting her best snaps, Nur Shabnam was selected to join the agency’s stable of models and she signed a one-year contract last November. Since then, she has been building up her credentials.

Toggling between studying the Periodic Table and appearing in periodicals like the August issue of Cleo, she has been a hair model for L’Oréal and strutted the runway for Levi’s. And she continued her knack for getting noticed in a crowd when she was talent-spotted while shopping at 313@Somerset in April. Then, she was invited to compete in the mall’s Fashion Alter Ego contest, where she had to undergo a makeover and do the catwalk. She won.

But no, the world of modelling isn’t as shallow as it is stereotyped, where beautiful faces have 3% fat and 1% brain activity.

Nur Shabnam says:

“It’s not true that models are not that smart. There are actually quite a number of undergraduates and graduates in the local modelling scene, although I think I’m the only one studying chemistry. Most models tend to be from the humanities or business schools.”

“They certainly have both beauty and brains.”

She debunks another common misconception that models survive on a diet of lettuce and Evian. “Although I was weighed and measured when I first signed up, the agency has never placed any restrictions on us. I help myself to the food that I like, but I don’t overdo it.”

Of course, there is strong motivation not to indulge – she knows she’s worth it.