Sri Lanka’s Siren
Consider 91.1k, 58.7k, 54k, 21.8k… That’s a lot of numbers for one person! But this is what statistics look like when it comes to YouTuber, content creator and model Shenelle Rodrigo. She has done more than her fair share of travelling, vlogging, breaking boundaries and giving voice to the wonders of Sri Lanka – with much more up her sleeve. And she’s still under 30!
To explain these numbers, Shenelle commands 91,100 subscribers on YouTube, 58,700 followers on Instagram, 54,000 on Facebook and 21,800 on TikTok – and still counting, on each of these social media platforms!
Having been in the spotlight since she began modelling professionally at the tender age of 16, Shenelle’s life has been focussed on doing what she loves the most – be it modelling, creating travel content or being a brand ambassador and copartner of her business.
She and her husband and partner Shehaan Thahir are known for creating travel content. They tell engaging stories of their experiences in popular and less known destinations – both locally and overseas – through 4K resolution, cinema grade footage with localised audio. Their most famous series – ‘43 days of cycling around Sri Lanka’ – is a cinematic masterpiece that informs, educates, entertains and inspires. It’s a gem in the couple’s mission to share the beauty (and now, safety) of Sri Lanka with the world and invite travellers to visit the island’s shores again.
It comes as no surprise then that Shenelle was named an ambassador for Sri Lanka Tourism on YouTube – a fitting role for this spirited travel voice of our island paradise. The couple’s dedication to their craft also won them the ‘Best Youth Tourism Promoter’ award at the third edition of the New Generation Awards 2022, which was powered by Women in Management (WIM).
Awards aren’t new to Shenelle…
When she was only 17, Shenelle won the reality show ‘Making of a Model’ on prime time TV, after which she represented Sri Lanka at the ‘Supermodels of Asia Pacific’ pageant in Thailand in 2011.
“Cycling around Sri Lanka in 43 days during an economic crisis has to be the most memorable moment of my life“
In 2016, she became the first Sri Lankan model to grace the cover of Vogue India under the caption ‘Beauty in Diversity.’ It was a celebration of her mission to break stereotypes as one of the island’s first dark-skinned models.
Leaving aside the awards, accolades and many feathers in her (travel) cap, Shenelle is a genius at storytelling. This aptitude is complemented by her husband’s tech savvy and data oriented marketing strategies.
Whether it’s relaxing in a spa at one of Sri Lanka’s leading hotels or enjoying authentic Jaffna kool with a spoon made from a leaf in a local village, Shenelle can make you feel as if you’re travelling along with her.
The stories and emotions behind them are real and heartfelt – it’s her unique recipe for making magic out of the rich beauty of Sri Lanka.
Ruwandi Perera speaks to this vibrant traveller – and Sri Lanka’s personal siren – about what it’s like to be behind and in front of the camera.
Q: You wear many hats – model, content creator, brand ambassador and entrepreneur, to name a few. So who is Shenelle Rodrigo when she removes those hats?
A: I would like to think that I’m an introverted, jungle and nature loving free spirit when I am not engaged in my roles as an individual.
After being in the spotlight for some time now, I’m really beginning to appreciate having the space to be myself and pursue whatever I am passionate about.
Q: What makes life interesting for you?
A: The realisation that it is made up of all the small moments. While I love pursuing and overcoming new and greater challenges, being present in the moment and appreciating the mundane things that go unappreciated make life so much more meaningful.
Q: And what has been your most memorable moment in life so far?
A: There are quite a few that come to mind. Yet, at this point in my life, I think cycling around Sri Lanka in 43 days during an economic crisis has to be the most memorable moment of my life.
It’s the scariest thing we’ve done; and upon completing the tour, it was the most satisfying achievement in my life.
Q: Your three chief strengths and weaknesses are…?
A: My weaknesses are being unable to focus on something I’m not interested in, becoming easily distracted and a crippling need for perfection. I procrastinate before starting a project – because I fear that I won’t be able to execute it to my expectations.
When it comes to strengths, I think I’m extremely intuitive about people, places and experiences. And if I’m interested in something, I can pick up any skill and do anything. Finally, another strength I believe I have is the way I perceive the world.
Q: And what have you planned to do over the next five years or so?
A: We hope to be more internationally recognised as content creators and focus on taking Sri Lanka to the world.
DATE OF BIRTH
4 January 1994
Colombo International School (CIS)
Edith Cowan University (ECU) – ACBT
ALWAYS WANTED TO BE BUT NEVER COULD
A flight attendant
To buy land and build our home on it together
Cats and dogs
Animals in the wild
People who abuse their authority over helpless others
Sweets and chocolate-based goodies
MOTTO IN LIFE
Everything happens for a reason – you simply don’t know it yet
“After being in the spotlight for some time now, I’m really beginning to appreciate having the space to be myself and pursue whatever I am passionate about“
Q: What is your personal mission as an ambassador for Sri Lanka Tourism on YouTube?
A: It is really ‘our mission’ since Shehaan and I have a shared vision for our YouTube channel.
We are working towards building a better relationship between the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and independent content creators – so that a more authentic and coordinated social media promotional tool can be used to benefit the entire industry.
Q: And what is your favourite YouTube video and the story behind it?
A: The cinematic trailer for our series ‘43 days of cycling around Sri Lanka’ to the soundtrack of the song Nadee Ganga.
It took us three months to prepare for the trip and 43 days to cycle around the island. We filmed it all by ourselves and had the video ready as we returned to Colombo on the last day. It was the most phenomenal experience and the video still evokes so many emotions for me.
Q: What’s your storytelling mantra when it comes to compiling your videos?
A: I like to make viewers feel as if they’re there with me. While we try to create some structure ahead of the event as to how our videos will be shot, 80 percent of the time we simply let the story tell itself as we experience it.
Q: How about content creation trends – what are you looking to capitalise on going forward?
A: Short form content is definitely an area we are focussing more of our attention on now that there’s a lot of reach to be gained across all platforms.
Having said that, we see the best relationships and conversions being built over our long form videos, which run for between 15 and 25 minutes. So we’ll be experimenting on all fronts as we always do and keep pushing forward, focussing on what we enjoy doing.
“When I began modelling at 16, I was the youngest model at the time and dark-skinned too – something that wasn’t in vogue back then“
Q: Who are the travel vloggers you subscribe to – and what draws you to them?
A: Lost LeBlanc was one of my first inspirations. And while both Shehaan and I have been inspired by so many YouTubers across all genres, I think the Lost LeBlanc channel draws me to him because of his journey of building an empire around a travel channel.
The consistency and creativity we’ve seen over the years are astonishing.
ADVICE TO ASPIRING CONTENT CREATORS
Strike a balance between giving your audience and the algorithms what they want, and being true to yourself from the beginning. As time goes by, focus more on being yourself.
Q: You’ve been breaking stereotypes in modelling. What drove you back then?
A: When I began modelling at 16, I was the youngest model at the time and dark-skinned too – something that wasn’t in vogue back then.
So from a young age, I was used to facing obstacles that were beyond my control and I’ve constantly had to find my way around them to achieve what I’ve wanted. This ability to look past the immediate hurdle and find ways to work around it serves me well even today.
Q: And what drives you today?
A: As a model, I am driven to challenge more stereotypes and push the boundaries of what it means to be a Sri Lankan model today. Although I’ve taken some time off the ramp to focus on building our personal brand, fashion has always played a significant role in my life.
I’m definitely going to make it a more prominent part of my life going forward. I strive to merge my love for all things Sri Lankan and fashion.
Q: How has Sri Lanka evolved in terms of modelling? What’s the good, the bad and the ugly that you see?
A: To be honest, the modelling profession in Sri Lanka hasn’t evolved much over the past decade. This is what led us to build our personal brand as we realised how limited the scope was for a professional model in Sri Lanka.
The good thing is that because it’s a very small and tightly- knit community, most people know each other and there is a great sense of belonging.
But the bad, from the point of view of a model, is that models are being paid at the same rates they were back in 2010 when I started. This is neither practical nor fair by professional models.
And the fact that not many brands understand the importance of having an evolving modelling profession to complement the fashion industry is the ugly truth, which many aren’t talking about as it benefits their short-term objectives.
I fear this will have severe repercussions for the long-term sustainability of Sri Lanka’s modelling profession.
Q: What is your message to those looking to pursue a career in modelling?
A: Go for it! If it is something that you really love and want to do, then it’s definitely worth pursuing. The experience is exhilarating and the doors it will open for you are endless. But make sure you have a good manager to look after your interests, and keep an eye on global trends and the best ways to progress as a model.
MUST-HAVES WHEN TRAVELLING
Extra virgin coconut oil
Jojoba and argan oil
Q: Shehaan and you have been travelling and creating content since 2018 – what brought you together?
A: Shehaan and I met in 2011, and we’ve been together ever since – this was way before we thought of travelling for a living.
We’ve spent the majority of our adult lives together and he has been involved in one way or another in building my personal brand from the beginning. We both love travelling; and over the years, we found a way to combine our talents to pursue working together on something we love doing.
Q: Creativity over technology and aesthetics compared to marketing… how do you maintain the equilibrium?
A: We’ve learnt to share our tasks based on each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and also discuss the feedback we get on everything we create. While I am the creative partner who emphasises the need for aesthetics and communicating authentically, Shehaan is a tech savvy marketer who loves going through data and strategising accordingly.
It’s the combination of our talents and interests that has helped us grow our content creation brand to become what it is today.
While working with your spouse definitely poses complex challenges, we’ve found the right balance so that we can enjoy working with each other and let everything else fall into place around us.
“It’s the combination of our talents and interests that has helped us grow our content creation brand to become what it is today“
Q: Aside from your business partnership, what’s your vibe as a duo?
A: I think it’s safe to say that we’re both easygoing and carefree individuals.
While I can take months off to binge read and watch entire series if I want to, Shehaan would go mad on a vacation that lasts any longer than four days. He loves to keep himself occupied and productive, and I love the opposite.
We are very much the embodiment of the adage ‘opposites attract’ in most aspects of life.
Q: How do the two of you balance work and life?
A: This is an area we are still learning to balance. As any entrepreneur or startup owner would know, when you are running your own business, it never ends. And as such, we’ve always been on the go, moving on to the next big thing to help us grow.
It can be very taxing over a couple of years and could even reach a point of unproductiveness if not addressed initially. As a result, we’ve made it a point to enjoy a break every few months so that we have time to recharge and align ourselves.
Chiang Mai (Thailand)
Visiting historic sites
The Three by TPV
Sri Lankan rice and curry