Don't make the mistake of underestimating Nicola Spicer. "People really have such a misconception of who I am!" laughs the petite blonde, 36, the founder of luxury swimwear label Zingiber and a contestant on the new season of The Apprentice Aotearoa.
"People judge me because I look a certain way. Maybe it's the hair or because I look young, but sometimes I have to be like, 'Sorry, mate, you can take a seat. I've actually done quite a few things in my life!' I surprise a lot of people with my story."
The designer, who grew up on a dairy farm in Thames, initially funded her line of top-shelf togs by working as a cleaner in the mines of Western Australia. This meant gruelling 10 to 12-hour days, working for four weeks at a time, followed by one week off, with shifts often starting in the middle of the night.
"Those were some of the hardest years for me because I was in the middle of the desert, away from everybody. I remember waking up at 3am and it'd be pouring with rain. There would be a full inch of mud through all the offices I had to clean. I'd bawl my eyes out, just mopping and crying."
But while the punishing hours and conditions meant missing friends, family and a social life, Spicer kept her eye on the prize.
"I was earning 200 grand a year cleaning toilets," she recalls incredulously. "I ended up buying a house in Perth and then investing hardcore into my fashion label. On my week off, I'd fly to China, get my samples made and fly back.
"Within the label's first year, I got into Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and I opened the show for Australia. I literally was cleaning toilets the same day I flew out to Sydney to go open the show!"
Looking to take her brand to the next level, a determined Spicer approached the queens of Instagram, the Kardashians. "I just emailed them. I thought, 'Who the hell's gonna email me back?' and then the Kardashians' auntie did! She said, 'This is some of the best swimwear I've ever seen.'
"Kourtney wore my swimwear in Costa Rica with Kim, then Kim and Kourtney posted photos of her in it! Then Hailey Bieber wore it on the cover of a magazine. That was exciting."
With her business now flourishing, she flew to places like China, Florida, California and Cuba to throw glamorous PR parties for Zingiber.
But even though the savvy designer loves to treat herself to fine dining and fancy hotel stays, Spicer says flashy Hollywood dos are just not her style. "I don't like crazy parties. I'd go to my own events and hide in the background. I don't really like talking myself up in person – just google me, thanks!"
Eventually, Spicer's gut instinct told her it was time to sell her thriving swimwear business in favour of a new challenge – running a collection of luxurious Airbnbs in Bali. But in 2020, that venture took a huge hit.
"Covid happened and my income stopped, so I was forced to go back into the mining industry," Spicer says. "I already had my truck licence from back in 2012, so I just started driving trucks. It was obviously such a hard year last year – and I also lost my dad the year before. I got stuck in Australia, so I didn't see my family. I was all by myself."
But nothing can keep Spicer down for long.
"I get my resilience from my mum," she says. "It's my number-one strength. If you take a beating in life, just try something else. Every day driving that truck, I thought, 'This sucks, but something's gonna come up.'
"Then I was scrolling through my phone one night and I saw the Apprentice application. I thought, 'I'll apply for that. I've got nothing to lose.' They literally called me the next day. Now I can tick it off the bucket list – I've done a reality TV show!"
With her unbreakable spirit, Spicer will definitely be one to watch on the TVNZ 1 show.
"I have a creative kind of mind and I'm always thinking of new ideas," she smiles.
"It's important to have a vision of where you want to go and think about it every single day. Working hard is what keeps me going."