The Guardian: Shopping fit for a sheikh

My piece in The Guardian today about a Dubai sheikh’s hunt for 60 female personal shoppers from Venice. It was the most-read article on the site for a while, with 10,987 Facebook shares at last count. Fantastico!

It seemed like an April Fools’ joke. On Tuesday 1 April, news circulated in Italy that a Dubai sheikh had a job opening – in fact, he had 60 of them. The candidate requirements? Applicants must be female, attractive, stylish, aged (or at least look) between 18 and 28, from the province of Venice, able to speak English (French and Arabic a bonus) and, most importantly, possess supremely sharp shopping skills.

In return they would be offered €100 (£83) a day and the opportunity to join the sheikh on his European tour next month, where they would attend various high-end dinners and events, stay in luxury accommodation and fly “by private jet only” between Madrid, Paris, London, Stockholm, Ibiza, Milan and Venice. The role itself? To assist his numerous wives and daughters with their shopping.

Mauro Belcaro, owner of Italian fashion company Rosy Garbo and casting agency Padua DOC, is in charge of recruitment. He quickly confirms the ad’s legitimacy. “I got a call from an agency in Dubai because we regularly cast fashion models and other roles in the industry,” he says. They wanted Italian women because of “their strong taste in fashion”.

Now 100 women have thrown their (oh-so-on-trend) hats into the ring. Sixty went under the casting directors’ scrutiny last week: only “one or two” made the grade. The selection process is stringent. The hopefuls must face a panel consisting of an image consultant, a personal shopper and a lawyer (“to keep the process transparent and ensure the contracts they sign with the sheikh are 100% accurate”). “Beauty is the least important criteria here,” says Belcaro. “Image consultancy experience and intelligence are more crucial.”

On Friday, one applicant apparently answered “bread” when asked what the word “baguette” conjured in her mind. The answer should have been the famed Fendi bag of the same name. Other questions the women have so far been faced with include: “What are the big makeup trends of 2014?” and “Which designer labels best suit a woman in her 50s?”

When I ask Belcaro if the women’s marital status is relevant, he laughs. “This is not a harem we are building! It is more like a family vacation; many of the sheikh’s children will be there. The ladies’ responsibility is to ensure they are dressed correctly for the social events they attend.” And what if the Italian employees also lack suitable attire? “They may buy clothes too.”

Like all good things, the role is rather short-lived: the “shopping shifts” last 15 days, after which 10 new women are installed. On the plus side, Belcaro is in desperate need of English speakers, as this is the language the Emirati women use. “If there are any interested English women living in Italy, or who have lived here before for a year or so, please tell them to apply,” he says.

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Time Out: NYE aboard the QE2 in Dubai

On Saturday night I boarded the QE2, berthed in Dubai and closed to the public since 2008. Was it worth the wait? Did all the A-list celebs that were being flung around Twitter as potential attendees actually turn up?

Check out my review here – or read it below.

Of the dozens of NYE parties that took place on Saturday night, it seems the event people are most curious about is the last-minute knees-up organised on board the internationally famous cruise ship: the Queen Elizabeth II.

Bought by Dubai World subsidiary Isthithmar World for US$100m in 2008, most of us remember the 60-strong yacht flotilla that brought the 43-year-old British icon to its retirement home in Port Rashid.

Shortly afterwards news flew around that the liner would be moved to a spot alongside the Palm Jumeirah, once it had been renovated into a floating hotel housing various exciting restaurants and bars. Then this was followed by headlines stating that it was actually to be shipped to South Africa instead. Fortunately, three years on and she’s still where we last saw her: yet now finally ready for her first public airing.

In the days running up to December 31, the internet was excitedly a-flutter with all the celebrities that might be attending one of the ‘most exclusive NYE parties in the world’, with names such as Lindsay Lohan and Pamela Anderson flung about. Doubts then set in as Li-Lo issued a statement via her lawyer on December 30, informing the events company that she would sue if they kept using her name to promote their gig.

Still, on arrival at 7pm on the big day (in time for the red carpet call, which we found frequented only by promo girls in sailor outfits), the car park was busy with couples in black tie and ball gowns. By 8pm, the ‘sailors’ were ready with wrist bands and we sauntered into another area of the car park that had been spruced up into a ‘VIP holding pen’, where we were served canapes and bubbly, while the UK’s Lovely Laura stood on a roof and played sax along to jazz and pop classics.

By 9.45pm we were growing restless; wondering if we would ever actually make it aboard the famed cruiser – just as the light show began. Neon green flew across the ship’s side, revealing images of its arrival ceremony and various cruise routes, along to a soundtrack of Brit classics from the likes of The Beatles, Coldplay and The Verve.

By the time a covers singer duo began to belt out yet more pop ballads, we’d had enough, and a small portion of the party broke away to march up the red carpet and finally board. What we discovered inside was a very retro interior; the lift still boasting the same floor details (including the whereabouts of an on-board casino).

Led up to the top deck, the event’s VIPs – UK talk show host Vanessa Feltz, Nadine Coyle of Girls Aloud fame and retired cricketer Allan Lamb; no LiLo or PamAn in sight – were shown to their separate dining area, some distance from the main entertainment and, we’re sure, much to their disappointment.

Ourselves and the rest of the Dhs3,000-ticket public quickly tucked into the lacklustre buffet (it was 10pm and we were starving by this point), before the renowned Bootleg Beatles cheered everyone up with a snappy set comprising the band’s early hits, such as ‘She Loves You’. The dancefloor remained full as The Gypsies crowded the stage, going on to play immediately after the fireworks at 12am: as the clock struck the end of 2011 the ship was flanked by both the party’s delegated firecrackers and the spectacular, multi-coloured show of the Burj Khalifa in the distance.

As the French flamenco-flavoured musos kept the dancefloor crammed, we managed to get a sneak peak of the boat’s interior, despite the security guards stationed at every corner. What we found gave us pause for thought: dance halls seemingly left in the exact same condition; a disregarded piano sat silently in a corner; store signs left hanging above empty outlets. While we certainly didn’t check out all the floors: what we saw didn’t suggest that an extensive renovation has been taking place over the last few years.

The QE2 NYE party may not have been the best event Dubai has ever seen, but the cruise ship itself put on a fantastic show. Fingers crossed its life continues with many more special events in future.

Time Out: David Fincher forbids edit of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to be shown in UAE

This week I was disappointed to hear rumours that Daniel Craig’s new flick, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was likely to be banned here. Especially as we had a great Craig interview all ready to go. So I looked into it a bit more, and discovered… this.

Rumours are currently circulating on various blogs and Twitter regarding whether the much-hyped English-language adaptation of the film version of bestselling novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has been banned in the UAE.

After speaking with Kifah Ghraizi, operations manager at Empire, the UAE distributor of the movie, we can reveal that it actually did make it past the censors here. ‘We were asked to make seven or eight cuts to the film, which amounted to about three or four minutes. All of the removed scenes contained nudity or were of a sexual nature – no material was removed for religious or political reasons,’ Ghraizi explains.

‘However [director] David Fincher himself was not happy with the edits and has forbidden the film to be shown in the new format.’

The US filmmaker is renowned for box office smashes such as The Social Network and Fight Club.

For the record, Ghraizi tells us the film is fantastic.

Which makes me both gain and lose respect for David Fincher at the same time.

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