Meet Filipino beauty queen who made Dubai her new home

Gulf News #Pinoy catches up with Nadia Lee Cien Shami in Dubai where she talks about her work, the move to the UAE and her life away from the limelight

Nadia Lee Cien Shami at the Binibining Pilipinas 2007 pageant.


Dubai: You might have seen her on the Dubai Metro or having chai at a small cafeteria in Burjuman.

“I can drink chai every day… Even if it’s summer, I don’t care. I will drink my chai every day,” Filipino beauty queen Nadia Lee Cien Shami tells Gulf News #Pinoy with a grin.

The former Binibining Pilipinas International has been trying to live a “normal life” under the radar since winning the crown in 2007. She finished college shortly after that, and even got a Master’s Degree in Business Administration before taking on a job as head of the PR division of a popular donut chain the Philippines. She’s been a Dubai resident for the last couple of years, moving here in 2016 after she was headhunted for a job as a marketing executive “with a bigger salary”.

She remembers her first time in Dubai as being a “mixture of everything”. 
“My first two months in Dubai I felt like a tourist. You know, going around with your friends treating you and showing you places. It felt like that. On your third month, that’s when all the hardships step in because you’re on own, you cook your own food, you prepare your own clothes,” she says on the sidelines of Man of the Philippines-Dubai, a male pageant that she is judging.

Shami says she has now settled quite comfortably in Dubai, running, biking or swimming during her free time. She’s also recently taken to vlogging, humouring fans with make-up tips and pageant Q&A samples peppered with light jokes.

“It was for fun, because I realised my roommate and I seem to be very funny, always having different kinds of conversation, so I said, hey why don’t we just upload this on Facebook and make our friends laugh?” she says. 

Although she’s away from home, she says the sheer number of Filipinos in Dubai make it almost impossible for her to feel homesick.

“I never knew that we’re over 700,000 Filipinos here. When I first came and rode the Metro, been to Satwa, Rigga, I was shocked that, oh my God! Movies didn’t show this,” she says.

She’s been back to the Philippines to visit her mother and is hoping that she would visit her in Dubai. She’s also hoping to reconnect with her Jordanian heritage, and had “a lot of fun” visiting places in Jordan with her Jordanian father in November.

“But I’m still learning to speak Arabic. Hopefully soon, inshallah I could learn,” she says. 

Does she know a few words? “Sabah Al Khair, even the pronounciation. Shukran. I know Samina. It means you’re fat. When my father says samina to me I know I need to lose weight,” she says, chuckling. 

Highlights of our tell-all Q&A with the beauty queen: 

Her life changed after being crowned Binibining Pilipinas International

I had to somehow sacrifice education for a year to be able to perform my duties as a beauty queen. After the competition I transferred to Davao to live a normal life but you know when people know you they still invite you to host events, or host a TV show, and I just gave them a condition that [it’s] okay but I must be allowed to still study.

The move to Dubai was not planned

I had an opportunity through LinkedIn. Someone sent me a message offering me a job here. It was a tough decision because I’ve been three years in my job and they offered me a higher position. I just got promoted then, they gave me a PR job for the entire Philippines, but then also getting an opportunity outside the country with a bigger salary is also a big deal so it was a family decision and I took a lot of prayer. But everything fell into place.  

Her first two years here was a ‘mixture of everything’

My first two months in Dubai I felt like a tourist. You know, going around with your friends treating you and showing you places. On your third month, that’s when all the hardships step in because you’re on own, you cook your own food, you prepare your own clothes… 

Do people still recognise her?

We’ll not exactly because after the Binibining [Pilipinas] I left the limelight… sometimes in the Metro, they know my entire name. Like, “You’re Nadia Lee Cien Shami!” And I’m like, “Hi! Do I know you?” Yeah. So sometimes they do. They still recognise [me].

She is now a marketing executive for Filipino food brand

Work is fun. We’re only 8 or 10 in the company, so it’s a lot of fun. But now I work for a Filipino food brand and sometimes I also help the manager for the Indian food brand. It’s a lot of fun because I’m into food, apparently. 

Does she get special treatment for being a former beauty queen?

I wish (laughs). No.  No special treatment. Well, they just tease me for being a beauty queen. They easily know your name. Oh, she’s the beauty queen from the office. So that’s the only thing. 

Does she ever miss being in the spotlight?

A part of me wants to.. not in show business, but my frustration since I was a kid is to do theatre, like singing but you know parents especially my mum and my grandmother always wanted me to join beauty pageants. But other than that. I prefer being behind the camera.

What does she do to unwind?

Running. It may be boring but I watch Netflix at home. Read books, but mainly running, biking and swimming. It’s free, it’s fun and there are lots of areas where you can do it here in Dubai. La Mer, the roads. We always take the Jumeirah side to do long runs. 

Right now she’s back on the spotlight as pageant judge

It’s exciting. I mean wherever I go there are a lot of good looking Filipinos. Even in the Metro. You’d be like, wow, this guy could be a model in the Philippines. So I think it’s about time that we showcase the good looks and talents of the OFWs here in Dubai to represent our Filipino community. I’m excited because whoever wins here will represent UAE in the Philippines and it’s actually a good way of saying that Filipinos can juggle working here and representing the country… 

She has definitely embraced the OFW lifestyle

I am excited to always share my life as an OFW to the Filipinos in the Philippines or anywhere. To show them that, “Hey, you know what? It’s actually a good and noble job”. Because you’re not only helping your family but you’re presenting yourself to the world as a Filipino. 

She remembers sending her first balikbayan box

I was so happy, I even asked my uncle to take a video of them opening it so I could really feel. You know Filipinos have a saying “You can’t call yourself an OFW if you haven’t tried chai, paratha, you haven’t sent a balikbayan box. A lot more. 

What was in the box?

Chocolates, my old clothes, sorry (laughs), toiletries, comforter and I forgot the rest but basically thing they love. 

She loves food

I always look for isaw. I love street food. I like Thai. Of course Filipino food is really good. But other than that, Thai food because it has a lot of flavours. Since I’m half Arab, I can say I love Arab food.

Her survival food? 

I love paratha. For only Dh5 you can survive. And also avocado shake. These foods are a staple. You always have to have them, especially if you’re under budget (laughs). It’s like your food when you’re facing petsa de peligro (a term used to describe a period in a month when your cash flow is running low).

The most expensive thing she’s splurged on is..

Oh my gosh! I feel I was supposed to say Justin Bieber tickets but it was free. I bought a Dh500 ticket to Coldplay because I’m a Coldplay fan. That was New Year of 2017. Oh, another one: my sports watch. Suunto. It’s a triathlete watch. It actually encouraged me to work harder because it’s expensive. I mean run harder and faster. 

Of course she loves shopping for clothes…

Anywhere there’s a sale but I love H&M, Mango, Forever 21 and our brands Splash and Iconic. Anywhere because I’m very basic. I have white, black, brown. That’s it. Neutral colours. If I want a normal long sleeves that I can wear in the office and after office I go to Mango. Only when it’s sale because it’s also expensive. Or if I want jeans that fit well to my hips it would be Zara. I know which brand to go to. Not necessarily expensive.

She doesn’t always dress to kill.

You know what, interestingly, whenever people introduce me, like in a normal day, I don’t look like this. I have messy hair, I have loose shirt. Most of the time I’m dressed down.  I always wear a shirt and jeans and sneakers and bare face. 

A normal day for her starts at 6am.

On a weekday I wake up at 6am or 7am, prepare for work. After work, I visit the gym for at least 30 minutes to 3 hours. Afterwards I eat my dinner and read my book and travel back home. Watch Netflix and then sleep. On a weekend, I run in the morning as early as 5am with the group or sometimes alone. And then I come back home, sleep, prepare lunch. Sleep again, watch Netflix and sometimes I go out to watch movies with my friends. But mostly reading. I also have my quiet time.

Her most memorable experience was…

Other than representing the Philippines in Miss International, it would be getting my Master’s Degree. My grandmother passed away last January. At least she was there to see me get the diploma. I was balancing work and other beauty queen related opportunities like hosting, teaching, travelling and then Masters. There were times that I worked from 8am, I studied at night and I came home at 3am to finish my papers, my research. So I guess the most memorable one is to finish my Master’s Degree with me paying for it and doing everything I can to finish it. 

She had a very strong bond with her grandmother

My grandmother was very protective of me. She raised me and everything. While studying I was also taking care of her. There were times when she got admitted to the hospital, we had to watch over her. That’s where I do my paperwork. 

When she gets sad, she goes to…

The cat cafe in Jumeirah. You just have to pay Dh30 and just pet the cats and enjoy. You always have to find a way to enjoy.

What’s next for her?

I don’t really know… I am still praying for what’s next for me. Right now it would be my career. I also have plans of pursuing a PhD. Not in the near future but yes it’s one of my plans. Maybe have a family if the right man comes along. But other than that, if there’s an opportunity somewhere else or back in the Philippines I am always open.

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