S'pore Girls step onto the race track

S'pore Girls step onto the race track
SIA Inflight Supervisor Sharon Kandiah, who has been the face in SIA's ads and events for 20 years.

It is tough being the face of Singapore Airlines.

Just ask flight stewardess Sharon Kandiah, who has not only worked in aircraft cabins for the past 20 years but has also become one of the national carrier's most recognisable Singapore Girls.

Ms Kandiah's smile has graced SIA's advertisements, and a standee of herself is a common sight at tour agencies and airport lounges.

From Sept 19 to 21, Ms Kandiah will once again be seen, not flying the friendly skies, but on the tracks of the Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix.

The 41-year-old is among 50 Singapore Girls who have been handpicked to don the signature sarong kebayas and line up at the starting grid on race day.

They have the responsibility of guiding Formula One drivers to their cars without breaking a sweat under the glare of a phalanx of cameras.

Even though the in-flight supervisor, who joined SIA in 1991, has appeared in more than 30 public events and advertisements, she is still a bundle of nerves over her upcoming gig.

Beamed to millions across the world, the night race is probably SIA's largest publicity event to date. Ms Kandiah said: "The whole world will be watching... Even if we don't have to speak, how we stand, how we place our hands, say a lot about the SIA brand."

While the F1 event's previous title sponsor SingTel picked its grid girls through a reality programme and put them in sexy outfits to heat up the tracks, SIA says it went with authenticity - the Singapore Girl who embodies Asian grace, hospitality and the commitment to service.

SIA has a pool of 200, picked from its 7,800 cabin crew, to represent the airline in about 120 assignments such as publicity and customer engagement events, product launches and SIA's multi-million- dollar advertisement campaigns.

Out of the 200, 50 Singapore Girls were shortlisted for the F1 events after undergoing a series of screen tests and interviews.

Said Mr Sheldon Hee, SIA's vice-president of marketing, communications and development: "They have to be telegenic but, beyond just looking good and standing in a beautiful way, they must be charismatic and present themselves well."

Veterans such as Ms Kandiah will help ease the younger women into the public role.

Besides being exposed to chatting with passengers at functions, Ms Kandiah has travelled to many places such as New York, Vietnam and Paris to shoot SIA's global brand campaign in 2005.

The Malaysian-born Singapore permanent resident was also the first Singapore Girl to be interviewed live on British television.

Despite being so experienced, Ms Kandiah, who is single, believes the hardest part of the job is maintaining the megawatt smile.

"Your cheeks will become stiff and your lips will be shivering but when people come up to you to say hello and say how they love flying with the airline, you know it's all worth it."

Service, not servitude, says SIA

Believing that the Singapore Girl is a great way to fly is not sexist, the airline says.

In fact, the woman clad in her trademark sarong kebaya is the "most appropriate icon" to represent Singapore Airline's promise of top-notch service.

Mr Sheldon Hee, SIA's vice-president of marketing, communications and development, said SIA's critics should not "associate service with servitude".

"If the cabin crew best represents our philosophy of good service and hospitality, then to say that you cannot use a model of service to represent the brand is looking at things with a narrow view," he said.

While the Singapore Girl has undergone a few changes in recent years, she remains a lightning rod for controversy, with some people calling her portrayal in advertisements sexist and demeaning.

Mr Hee responded: "We are a hospitality brand and hospitality by nature is service. A great hostess or host should then be someone to be appreciated and celebrated."

SIA has about 7,800 cabin crew members and almost four in 10 are men. Mr Hee said male cabin crew have been featured for their expertise, such as sommelier skills.

"(But) it is still harder to distinguish ground crew or male cabin crew from other airlines... whereas the kebaya and the way we branded the SIA Girl is unique and is what people instantly recognise.

jermync@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sep 7, 2014.
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