Model faces of the UAE: they appear in everything, but who are they?

Sajjad Delafrooz and Graciela Pischner are probably the two most recognisable people in advertising in the UAE. They appear almost everywhere, promoting everything from phones to iced tea – and often in kandura and abaya. So who are they?

Models Sajjad Delafrooz, left, an Iranian, and Graciela Pischner, a Brazilian, are two of the country’s most recognisable faces after appearing in advertising campaigns all over the UAE. Jaime Puebla / The National
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There is a good chance you will recognise the faces here.

Perhaps they were playing happy families in the cinema, on an aircraft, in a shopping mall, or driving down Sheikh Zayed Road.

Sajjad Delafrooz and Graciela Pischner are the unofficial faces of the UAE.

They are two of the country’s busiest commercial models, advertising everything from du, Arwa water, Carrefour, Samsung, Lays crisps, Lipton Ice Tea and Dnata travel, sometimes as a couple, often dressed in a kandura and abaya.

But neither is Emirati.

Delafrooz, 30, is from Iran but was raised in Sharjah, while Pischner, 31, is Brazilian.

“I was speaking three languages by the time I was five,” says Delafrooz, who looks more Iranian when not wearing a kandura. “That has helped me 27 years later. In my acting career, I can be anyone,”

The dark-haired, dark-eyed model studied at the Sharjah Iranian Private School before moving to Turkey to study business for a year.

“When you finish school you say ‘I want to be rich’ and the first thing you do is business, even if you don’t really want to be in business.”

After returning to the UAE he worked as a salesman in Abu Dhabi before becoming a public-relations manager for three years, giving it up to pursue an acting and modelling career.

“A lot of people feel ashamed to say it was hard and people said ‘no’. I hear ‘a producer saw me in a mall and said I had a good face, come work with me’. I have heard that story so many times, but it’s not like that for many people at all.”

Delafrooz is shy when he is asked about his modelling career. “I’m not embarrassed about saying I’m a model, I just don’t feel I have the qualification. Maybe I’m a commercial model, but ‘model’ has a different meaning. I don’t want to walk the catwalk, it’s not me.”

His first commercial print modelling job was for du. Dressed in a kandura and ghutra, he appeared on dozens of adverts on lampposts along Sheikh Zayed Road.

After this, the jobs came in thick and fast. Especially those that required him to dress as an Emirati.

“My family were like ‘oh my goodness Sajjad is on a billboard’. They were really happy. And everyone was texting me, including people I hadn’t heard from for two years.

“I get asked about local models, I know people that look local, but I don’t know any local models.”

Delafrooz has since gone on to star in hundreds of television and print advertisements. He has also appeared on the big screen in independent short films including The Orphanage and the soon-to-be-released A Letter.

In Hollywood, especially, lots of actors begin their careers modelling. Delafrooz is keen to do the same.

“Now is the beginning, I have to start looking further. I did what I have to do here. But it’s not easy for us [Iranians] to travel and the US is the real market, I would like to be part of it.”

His acting role models are an eclectic mix. Kevin Spacey, Tom Hanks and Daniel Day-Lewis. “They are the people who I learn acting from by watching them.”

Delafrooz would like to see more money invested in the local film scene.

“I wish they would start to do more movies here. We should stop waiting for Tom Cruise or George Clooney. They have the money [here].” While the local film industry is still in its infancy, Delafrooz has time to attend up to seven auditions a week.

“I do 20 or 30 auditions and I get maybe four of five jobs. I always say it’s 50/50, even if there’re 10,000 people auditioning, I still like to think it’s 50/50.”

If Delafrooz is the male face of advertising in the UAE, Graciela Pischner is the female equivalent.

Like Delafrooz, the Brazilian has carved out a niche for herself playing Emirati women in many of her advertising campaigns.

Born and raised in Sao Paulo, she moved to Dubai six years ago to work as a professional belly dancer in five-star hotels. She had been working as a part-time model since she was 13 or 14 and belly dancing since she was 20.

Her CV is varied. She has starred in adverts for the Ras Al Khaimah tourism board, Cool & Cool wipes (with Delafrooz) and Arwa water, to name just a few.

“When I came here I didn’t expect I was going to do modelling so I didn’t bring my portfolio. Then I met a photographer and he said he would do my portfolio for me, and he said ‘you need one in an abaya’.

“I had it in my portfolio and I started to get jobs. There are no local models, that’s why we work a lot.”

Pischner’s dark eyes, olive skin and long dark hair have helped her create a niche for herself playing Emirati women.

She does a lot of private shoots for female Emirati fashion designers who want her to model their latest creations, as well as larger brands such as the Dubai Health Authority.

Successful models in the UAE tend to steer clear of tying themselves to only one agency, Pischner says, because this limits the number of jobs they can do.

“In Brazil. when you go to a casting there are 300, sometimes 500, girls. Sometimes they pay $10,000 or $20,000, but there are a lot of models. I also don’t do fashion modelling because I’m not so skinny. So here it is much better for me.

“I see myself everywhere, all the time. Even on the aircraft. There are commercials for Atlantis and Mall of the Emirates that are shown there. But it’s not like in Brazil where you become famous and everyone recognises you in the street. But people who know me will say ‘I saw you in this and this and this’.”

Today Pischner is sporting a glowing tan from her days on the beach as an extra in Fast & Furious 7 during filming in Abu Dhabi last month.

She has no desire to become a full-time actor, instead she wants to concentrate on her artist entertainment agency.

“When I came here I wanted to work a lot to buy a house in Brazil, and when I bought that house I opened an entertainment agency for artists.

“People always ask me ‘do you dance tango or flamenco?’.”

Her agency, Graciela Art in Entertainment, has aerialists, dancers, singers, musicians and DJs on its books.

“This is what I want to do, ultimately. My agent is 80, so I think ‘I could do this when I’m 80’ when I’m not modelling. I need to have a plan.

“People who work with beauty are very scared to get old, and when they are 40 they want to look 30 and they do plastic surgery and they suffer because of this. I want to live in the right time. When I am 40 I want to do jobs for 40-year-olds, not try to get jobs for 30-year-olds.”

Pischner keeps herself looking good on a vegan diet, drinking a minimum of three litres of water a day and partying only if it is a very, very special occasion.

She says she has worked hard for success, studying for two and a half years at the ESMOD Sao Paulo institute, an offshoot of the famous French fashion design school. But while the industry in Brazil can be more competitive, she says, it is at least usually more transparent.

Pischner would like to see the industry tightened up and better regulated. “So many companies take so long to pay models here, like six months to a year.

“When I call them they don’t respect you or answer the phone. They also don’t respect the usage. They might say they will use a picture for one month, and they use it for a year.

“In Brazil they tell you the rate of the job, how much the client will pay and you can calculate what you will earn. Here you don’t know if the agent is taking 50 per cent or 80 per cent. You are not told how much the client is paying, you only know your fee. If this changed it would really help the industry.”