The "Singapore Girl" was coined by French designer Pierre Balmain in 1972 when he was commissioned to update the airline's Malay Sarong Kebaya uniform. Photograph by Pat Mateo
Culture Spotlight

What it takes to be that "Singapore Girl"

You can’t take the girl out of the world’s most awarded airline. 
| Dec 04 2018

Being a Singapore girl is a dream come true for many women. The name given to the flight attendants of Singapore Airlines was coined by French designer Pierre Balmain in 1972, when he was commissioned to update the airline's Malay Sarong Kebaya uniform. Since then, the name has come to stand for Asian charm and hospitality, and, in 1993, the Singapore Girl became the first "commercial" representation to be unveiled at Madame Tussauds wax museum in London.

The blue uniform is now recognized the world over, and everything about the Singapore Girl—from the way her hair is arranged in a classic French twist to the way her Sarong Kebaya hugs her well-kept figure—evokes sophistication. Patricia Mah, who has been flying with Singapore Airlines for eight years now, has become a recognizable face in the airline's ad campaigns. "It's a glamorous lifestyle," she admits. "You get to see different countries, experience different cultures, try different kinds of food, do a lot of shopping.

Left: Safety is not just lip service in Singapore Airlines; each flight attendant is equipped with emergency and self-defense skills. Right: The Sarong Kebaya, designed by French couturier Pierre Balmain, is designed to make it comfortable to work even in the tight spaces of the galley.

"Now in her early 30s, Mah looks every bit as fresh and as toned as her younger counterparts. She credits her training with Singapore Airlines for helping her acquire the discipline needed to maintain her health and lifestyle. "The training was very challenging—it was a lot more extensive and a lot more detailed than in other airlines," she recounts. "You have to learn to pace yourself and adapt to all kinds of situations. Each flight will be a different experience."

Of a thousand applicants, only about 10 to 20 make it to the 13-week training, double the industry average. Aside from the minimum entry requirements (18 years and above; 1.58 meters or five-feet, two-inches; a tertiary-level degree or diploma), the Singapore Girl-in-training must exude "graciousness, charm, friendliness, a warm smile—and must be teachable," says Juatfang Foo, assistant manager of Singapore Airlines' cabin crew training department. "They must also be attractive, and their make-up should enhance what they already have." Physical fitness is also a must.

Every Singapore Girl adheres to a long and proud tradition of service in the skies, but it doesn't mean she can't have fun while doing it.
The Singapore Girl represents classic Asian beauty and charm. This, however, takes a tremendous amount of discipline and effort to maintain.

Successful candidates are also encouraged to keep bettering themselves as they have access to the airline's fitness facilities and can sign up for classes in martial arts, wine appreciation, gourmet cooking, arts and crafts, and foreign languages—all of which are free. "The Singapore Girl is highlighting something that we already deliver—Asian hospitality that is gentle and caring.

The Singapore Girl is about going that extra mile to deliver outstanding service," points out Nicholas Ionides, vice president for public affairs. She is also "a source of national pride" and "a global icon," and Ionedes cites the honor of being represented in Madame Tussauds. While the iconic face of the airline is female and Singaporean, Ionides says that 40 percent of the cabin crew is male. Singapore Airlines also recruits flight attendants from Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. "The Singapore Girl continues to remain relevant up to this day because discerning travelers are looking for premium service. You cannot take away the Singapore Girl from Singapore Airlines," Ionides asserts. Indeed, Singapore Airlines has topped consumer and industry surveys around the world in record numbers.

At the Singapore Airlines School for Cabin Crew, young hopefuls are transformed into beautiful goddesses of flight.

Business Traveler USA named it the Best Airline in the World for 22 out of 23 years. Conde Nast Traveler (USA)'s Reader's Choice Awards awarded it as the Best International Route Airline for 23 out of 24 years. And the kudos is as much for the Singapore Girl as it is the airline's. "She is here to stay," Ionedes says. For those who love flying in style, that is a reassuring thought.


Photographs by Pat Mateo

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 2 2012.