We’ve almost wrapped our series on supermodels-in-the-making. If you’re just joining me, for the past six days we’ve met six of the eight cover stars that Terry Richardson and Carine Roitfeld selected to front V magazine’s winter issue fashion extravaganza. (Who have we already seen? Candice, Saskia, Bambi, Sui, Daphne and Lindsay.) Up now is Hanaa, a Paris-based girl from Tunisia who takes her career as seriously as she does her nationality. She is the most recent in a list of fashion’s North African muses to take the industry by storm, and Carine was captivated by her beauty. In our conversation below we talk about her childhood in Tunisia, escaping a revolution and how she keeps one eye on the runway and one on the politics in her home country. Read our chat below, and visit Vmagazine.com for more from our fashion extravaganza.
DB: What part of Tunisia are you from?
HBA: I come from the city of Nabeul, which is on the coast, and about an hour and a half drive from Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. There, families live together, either in the same house or in the same neighborhood. I grew up with my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. I remember the big family celebrations as my happiest memories.
DB: What were you like as a young girl?
HBA: I loved to sketch or draw, and I still do. When I was a young girl, I was very shy and timid. I mostly kept to myself enjoying my hobbies, and when I would go out for group activities, it would be with my older brother and cousins.
DB: Growing up, did you ever think about working in fashion?
HBA: Growing up, I knew I wanted to work in fashion and to be a model, but I never thought it would happen. Being Tunisian, coming from a conservative family, I always believed my dream was farfetched. But, as I learned, sometimes dreams do come true. Even the farfetched ones.
DB: Well, let’s talk about your career then. How were you discovered?
HBA: It was my mother who first noticed me tip toeing across the house pretending I was on a catwalk. I was 5-years-old at the time, and my mother would tell my aunts, uncles and family that her daughter was going be a model. Later, when I was still in high school, I applied and participated in a reality TV modeling competition in Lebanon and won second prize. I started working mostly for fashion shows in North Africa and Lebanon, and it was through that exposure that I met an Arab businesswomen called Sophie Galal who encouraged me to take my career internationally. She soon became my agent and manager. She is the one who introduced me to IMG Models.
DB: What would you consider as your first big ‘break’?
HBA: Definitely my first big break was meeting Carine.
DB: When did you first come to New York, and what were your first impressions?
HBA: I will never forget the first time I landed in NY because it was the day the ex-president, Ben Ali of Tunisia, fled from Tunisia and it happened while I was still in flight. The riots and demonstrations started to get out of hand in Tunisia ten days before. I had just flown back to Tunisia from Paris after shooting with Vogue and was supposed to spend time with my family until New York fashion week. After only 2 days, I started getting worried that the airport would close because of the riots and I would be blocked in Tunisia and miss the NY shows. In a few hours, with the help of IMG, we rushed to the airport and I was on a flight for New York for the first time. I landed in NY and the first phone call I received was from a Sophie, in Tunisia, who told me the ex-president fled from Tunisia and the airport shut down 3 hours after my take off. The first day I arrived in New York was the day my people succeeded in the Jasmin revolution.
DB: That’s an amazing story, about a world so far removed from us here. Fashion is such an international industry now: Do you feel that with your work?
HBA: I most definitely do. In photo shoots or editorial shoots, the styling in itself can be international, wearing a combination of garments and accessories the stylist puts together from different designers coming from different backgrounds and influences.
DB: Do you have a favorite place to go?
HBA: My favorite place will always be back home with my family.
DB: Did you have any role models in fashion?
HBA: Coco Chanel, because her designs were controversial to the times but she continued to create what she believed in.
DB: Has any designer or model given you a good piece of advice?
HBA: A friend, the former model and famous French actress Farida Khelfa gave me the advice never to change and remain true to myself and origins. Another friend, the former model Afef Jnifen gave me the advice to be determined, never give up and I will succeed in reaching my goals.
DB: You have been very vocal about the representation of the Arab woman in fashion: Is that something you thought about before you started working as a model? Or something you realized when you started to model?
HBA: When I started working as a model in Tunisia and Lebanon, I never dreamed of taking my career beyond those borders. Once I crossed them and realized how different it is on an international level, I decided to contribute in changing the misconception that the Arab world has of the modeling. I am the first Tunisian who is officially registered as a model in my country. It was not a recognized profession until I was the first to register. Now other young Tunisian models can register and its recognized and accepted.
DB: The history of Tunisia is layered: An African nation with roots in both French and Arab history, and the people and the culture have been so influential. Do you feel close to your homeland?
HBA: Yes, I feel very close to my homeland.
DB: But you are not the first person from Northern Africa to come to Paris and work in fashion. How are the people who came before you – like Yves Saint Laurent or Azzedine Alaia – viewed back home? Are they well known?
HVA: The Majority of the people don’t know these designers because their designs or names are not marketed or sold on the local market. Unless your into fashion and make an effort to get informed on the latest fashion trends and designers, you wouldn’t have the information available on hand. For those who are informed and aware, those designers succeeding in Europe and elsewhere are admired and are looked up to as role models.
DB: Did you have fun working on our cover shoot?
HBA: I had a lot of fun. The mood was festive and everyone was having fun. Terry is very professional, but what I appreciated most is that you feel he is enjoying his work and is down to earth. Automatically, his mood is spread to everyone around him and on the set.
DB: Carine has always been a fan of your work and your political views. What was it like to work with her again?
HBA: Carine has always been a big supporter. I love working with her because she always makes me feel at ease and it gives me confidence in my work.
DB: Is it true that you came all the way from Tunisia for the shoot? What were you doing there, and when did you go back?
HBA: Yes it’s true, and from the airport I want straight to the set because my flight was delayed. I found everyone waiting for me to start the shooting. I left the next day back to Tunisia, where I was vacationing with my family and friends.
DB: Apart from our shoot, have you had any photo shoots or jobs that you really loved? Any good stories?
HBA: I enjoy most of my jobs, but I really enjoyed working with Mario Testino for my last shot for the Lancôme campaign. I always wanted to work with him and finally got the opportunity!
DB: Do you like doing catwalk shows?
HBA: Yes, I love the shows. The backstage mood is always exciting and I love walking down the catwalk while spectators discover the designers new season designs.
DB: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever thought about on the catwalk, or when you were having your picture taken?
HBA: I am so focused and concentrated on bringing out what the photographer or the designer wants me to project, I can’t think of nothing else. Maybe one day I will be able to feel free enough to think of anything that comes to mind, and something weird will appear. But that day hasn’t come yet.
DB: What’s been your favorite discovery?
HBA: My favorite discovery is when I realized my dreams can come true. With a little bit of luck, a lot of hard work and determination, I can get there.
DB: Favorite designers?
HBA: I have not one favorite designer but many I admire and several new designers I continuously discover through my work.
DB: If you had to define your personal style, how would you call it?
HBA: Sport chic.
DB: If you weren’t modeling, what do you think you would be doing?
HBA: I would have probably ended up as an architect or engineer.
DB: And finally, a really tough one: Where do you want to be in 20 years?
HBA: What I am doing today is defining what I will be doing in the future. The knowledge, experience and exposure I am achieving and continue to hopefully, I want to bring it back to my country and put it to good use. In 20 years, I want to continue but focus more on helping others and offering them the opportunities they need to reach their own dreams.