EVA IN PARADISE
While you're being pampered at one of her resorts, Eva Malmström Shivdasani is working 24/7 to make sure it stays that way. The female half of Six Senses, the company that's redefined the concept of "natural luxury," stops long enough to give Jennifer Gampell a taste of paradise.
Despite setting all the clocks in her new villa 30 minutes ahead, Eva Malmström Shivdasani turned up late for our interview and photo shoot. "I'm so so sorry," breathed the barefoot blonde as she walked briskly across the sand. "I tried to leave the house on time, but things kept popping up." Given the state of the rapidly brightening morning sun over her Maldivian island paradise, Soneva Fushi, we all decided to shoot first and talk later.
First Eva bicycled up and down the island's main road -- actually a wide sandy path -- while designing menus with the Dutch chef who pedaled alongside her. In the organic vegetable garden she squatted next to a bed of Bangladeshi spinach for 15 minutes under the blazing midday sun and traded tips on growing mangoes from seed with the Vietnamese gardener. During the Eva-on-Her-Bicycle-Amid-the-Palm-Trees shot, she discussed camera angles at length with the photographer.
Between setups, the
slender figure in matching purple silk shorts and cutaway sleeveless top
was ceaselessly checking her island domain. She spotted -- and instantly
removed -- a tiny scrap of paper on the path. Ditto a small piece of coral.
"Someone could get hurt stepping on this!" she fretted, tossing
the errant fragment into the lush tropical vegetation.
Next Eva zeroed in on the mandarin collar of an employee's tunic which, despite the button, was flapping in the island breeze. "Please go immediately to Housekeeping," she commanded politely. "I told them months ago to add a snap on these uniforms!"
Two hours observing Eva's energetic hypervigilance and I was a tense sweaty wreck. As for Eva ... with intermittent touch-ups, her perfectly applied lipstick and bouncy pageboy remained perennially camera-ready. As did her perky demeanor.
Then again, posing comes easily to Eva since she was one of Sweden's top fashion models during a career that spanned the 1970s to the late 1980s. Before that she ran a design company in Paris. (Pardon the fuzzy timelines, but while the youthfully vigorous Shivdasani believes "age is a state of mind; it all depends how you feel," she's positively phobic about dates.)
Today, Eva still thrives on taking charge of people and situations. A woman who crams a tape measure, screwdriver, camera, flashlight and scissors into a small clutch purse along with her hairbrush, mirror and lipstick is clearly ready for more than just photo shoots. Eva has been an independent do-it-yourselfer since childhood, in part because her father Hans Malmström treated his elder daughter like the son he never had. A chief pilot for SAS, the now-retired Mr. Malmström frequently moved homes with his wife and two daughters, which started Shivdasani on her lifelong passion for travel.
Six Senses' nonhierarchical corporate structure also comes straight out of Eva's upbringing. "My parents always told me everyone is equal and you must respect and treat everyone as you want them to treat you." She remembers most staff names (no mean feat with over 1,500 employees from 20 countries) and is constantly chatting and hugging people. Her clearly devoted employees seem to espouse her credo: "We're all the same, we just have different job descriptions."
Another childhood legacy is her sincere concern for the environment. "Being Swedish you're brought up that way, to save water, save electricity, save nature," she says. "I always believe if you help nature, nature will help you." Because of her, all the resorts are built whenever possible with recycled materials and they pay serious attention to organic gardening, recycling, sewage treatment and energy efficiency. Soneva Fushi boasts a desalination plant and solar power for certain operations (with more planned). Eva launched a successful campaign to save the Maldivian turtles and lately has turned her focus on saving the local sharks. Each resort must also donate a portion of its profits to charity - Soneva Fushi, for example, supports an eye foundation.
Eva's hands-on style, innate design sense and near-fanatic attention to detail has been crucial to the meteoric rise of the Six Senses brand. "She walks into a room and two minutes later she's totally transformed the energy simply by adjusting a couple of small details nobody else had even noticed," says the spa manager at Soneva Gili. A Maldivian minister touring Soneva Fushi with Shivdasani's husband and business partner Sonu Shivdasani met her on the road with a wheelbarrow full of wooden stakes. (Eva was positioning lights on the pathway.) When she joined them later for lunch, the minister looked aghast. "She's not the gardener, actually," said Sonu in his plummy Oxford accent. "She's my wife."
The romance between the top Swedish model and the handsome Indian millionaire a decade (or thereabouts) her junior is still going strong 16 years after they first met in Monaco during the Grand Prix. They married three years later. "I thought I'd never get married because I'm an Aries and I get bored very quickly," explains Eva, in rapid-fire and lightly accented English. "But it's true, you do know when you meet the right person, you do know. It's never too late. Never ever too late."
The newlyweds bought an old Victorian in London which Eva set about completely transforming into a family home. After trying unsuccessfully to have kids, they refocused their prodigious energies on having resorts and eventually sold the London house. Their new home on Soneva Fushi, which was designed by Shivdasani with the same eagle-eyed attention to detail as every other Six Senses habitation, is their first fixed abode in years. Like its occupants, the airy whitewashed villa is stylish but unpretentious.
While her husband sits upstairs on the verandah dictating letters over the phone to his secretary in Bangkok (both are completely cyber un-savvy), Eva reclines on the Barefoot-upholstered daybed and talks about herself, an extremely rare phenomenon.
Not surprisingly, she holds strong opinions on most topics. Who inspires her? "People who are kind, honest, straightforward, no bullshit, and preferably intelligent." Is she ever bored? "Never. I don't have time to be bored." For her the meaning of life is "to love and to help and to be there for everybody." Since she never indulges in spa treatments, meditation or any of the feel-good offerings of her resorts, how does she unwind? "When I'm on holiday. I just lie and read. I don't lie and relax. I read and read. I get up in the morning, have my breakfast and read. Read, read, read. Maybe lying in the sun, I have my lunch, read, read, read. And have dinner and then read, read, read and go to sleep."
That night, though, Eva had no chance to read because she and her husband stayed up til midnight attending the birthday bash held monthly for resort employees. Was it mere coincidence that this month's event was held on her own actual birthday? "Well, maybe not pure coincidence," admitted the age-phobic "Madame Eva" (the name her employees address her by).
The following afternoon, we both happened to be leaving the island at the same time. As the wooden boat pulled away from the jetty for the two-minute ride to Soneva Fushi International Airport (actually a tiny pontoon), Eva turned back to wave at the staff. "Take care of my island!" she called out, much like a mom might hand over a kid to a trusted nanny. Then, sitting back in the boat, she pulled out a notebook and began furiously scribbling lists.
Jennifer Gampell is an Bangkok-based freelance writer who, like Eva Shivdasani, prefers not to talk about age. Unlike Eva, she loves to relax, works out regularly, and would cheerfully have spent longer indulging herself in pampered Maldivian bliss. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Eva Malmström Shivdasani
Copyright © 2004 Jennifer Gampell