I'm interviewing Karen Wazen in a pair of tracksuit bottoms, an old T-shirt I’ve had since university, and my hair piled high in what I think looks like an artful topknot, but in reality is a worrisome side-effect of not having left the house in a week. I may or may not have eaten a Dairy Milk for breakfast.
It’s not the usual way I like to dress to interview our cover stars, but then nothing is usual about the current situation – nor has it been for a number of weeks now.
Karen and I are chatting over the now indispensable Zoom, both deep into a lockdown that began shortly after our cover shoot in Hatta; the only difference being, she looks far chicer than I in nonchalant sportswear and the kind of ‘no-make-up make-up’ look that many spend hours trying to replicate. But then, she is an influencer. Or is she?
Dress, Dhs780; Top, Dhs455; Jacket, Dhs820, all ACOLÉ. Earrings, Dhs1,890; Shoes, Dhs2,954, both Fendi
“I’ve always had trouble with that word,” she tells me, echoing the sentiments of many who get lumped under the same umbrella term. “There’s just so many negative connotations now. It’s become tainted.”
Content creator, then? “I don’t consider myself that either,” she laughs. “If I’m shooting a video that took me 30 seconds to film, it’s unfair for me to put myself in the same category as someone who’s creating really artistic visuals, spending time editing…”
“Building my sunglasses brand has made me feel comfortable with calling myself an entrepreneur now. But I’ve always been someone who is just depicting life. Storytelling. I think that’s why my page has grown at the pace it has, and why people have got so attached to it. It’s because it’s about whatever I happen to be going through at the moment.”
Shirt, Dhs3,672, Dries Van Noten at Mytheresa. Turtleneck, Dhs734; Skirt, Dhs1,826, both Jil Sander at Mytheresa
And what she’s going through right now is as unprecedented as it gets; quarantined with her husband and their three kids, documenting their life at home in a kind of modern-day Big Brother scenario to Karen’s 2.7 million Instagram followers. Throw in another slew of fans on YouTube and her husband, Luch’s to boot (a comparatively modest but still not-to-besniffed- at total of 238k), and you can’t argue with the fact that, influencers or not, they’re pretty influential. And the good news is, the overwhelming feeling they ‘influence’ is warm, fuzzy, wholesome and heartwarming. They are Dubai’s sweethearts, serving up daily reminders that – in Karen’s words – “You can have it all.”
I struggle with the phrase a little, I must admit. But then I realise, she’s not perpetuating hyper-real, airbrushed perfection like so many of her peers (“To, me aesthetic was never really part of my messaging. Instead, there’s always just a little bit of emotion in the photo,”) she’s just depicting a happy, fun family life – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong in this iteration of a white picketfence dream. In fact, I’d argue we need it. At a time like this, the optimistic, feelgood content they create as a family is much-needed sunshine. A smile in the po-face of cynicism.
“My messaging has always been positive because I’ve always wanted to be an inspiration to women, to help them understand they can do it all. A lot of women are under the misconception that if they’re mothers, they can’t work or they won’t have enough time for their family,” she explains.
Shirt, POA, Saint Laurent.Coat, Dhs5,867; Vest, Dhs1,865; Trousers, Dhs1,467; Shoes, Dhs2,400, all Max Mara
“My mum has always been a working mum. She was very hands-on with us, but also took care of herself. I always had that role model and I realised that, actually, not a lot of women did. Someone who did it all and motivated them to find the power to do it, too. So I wanted to be that woman for a lot of young girls and women. I was one of those people who was afraid that once I had children that my life was going to be boring and I wouldn’t be young and fun anymore,” she laughs. “That’s why when I got married I told my husband, two years without kids!”
She must feel that she stands corrected, though – she looks like she’s having more fun with her kids now than most people do in a lifetime. Between all the dancing challenges and family dinners, lockdown doesn’t look all that bad in the Wazen-Bakhazi household.
“I’m really trying to make the most out of it,” she says. “I could be complaining that I have three kids running around but I’m actually just getting closer to them. I’m seeing them in a different light. But there’s no right or wrong thing to do in this situation; it’s just really about survival mode and not looking at what everyone else is doing. I mean, I’m seeing everyone work out and I’m like, I’m not in that mood and I’m not going to feel bad about it. It’s fine. Just pick and choose whatever is going to make you happy,” she says with her signature smile.
Shirt, Dhs6,690; Top, Dhs7,490; Skirt, Dhs6,390, all Fendi. Vest, Dhs2,950, Acne Studios at Shopbop. Jewellery, POA, Cartier
I do wonder if how Karen’s followers have interacted with her has changed over the past month, what with us all going a little stir-crazy at home and spending more time than usual on social media. And has she altered how she’s expressing herself, too?
“There’s a positive and a negative thing I see happening. On the negative side, there’s a lot of sensitivity at the moment. People are tired, they’re frustrated, they’re worried. So unfortunately, I’m seeing that reflected through social media. People are giving their opinion far more where they wouldn’t before. And even myself… I’m the kind of person that when I get a negative comment, I never usually address it, but now I’m a little bit more on edge, so I’m more tempted to respond. I’ve noticed an uptick in people saying things like, ‘Stop acting like you’re always happy!’ or ‘Look what the world is going through, and you’re doing silly things with your family!’ But honestly, there’s been a lot more positivity, too…”
It must be frustrating, but Karen seems to take it on the chin. “Social media really built my character and made me grow thick skin, because I loved what I was doing so much, that I had to put myself in a place where I thought, ‘I have to focus on listening to the positive things and ignore the few negative people’.” she explains.
Hat, Dhs2,252, Lola Hats at Mytheresa. Jacket, Dhs15,130, Brunello Cucinelli. Jewellery, POA, Cartier
“I’m Lebanese and in our culture, people love to give their opinion on other people’s lives. When I first started I would hear people say things like, ‘Who does she think she is? This is so stupid, this is embarrassing…’ They would even tell my mum, ‘What does your daughter think she’s doing?’ It was hard to ignore all of that at first. I cried so many times. But now I completely accept that some people are going to love me and what I do, and some people aren’t; they’re going to criticise. That’s completely fine as well. The world is made up of different tastes and different people and we can’t all love the same person. It’s impossible.”
She tells me about her background doing a Masters in Psychotherapy in London – something that must no doubt be fascinating to call upon when unpicking the behaviour of trolls – but also useful for the position we all find ourselves in at home right now.
“It’s a very big part of who I am, even though I don’t practise it,” she explains. “I benefited so much from all the learning… especially the fact that I went through therapy myself for two years… and in those two years, I felt like I grew 10. Today I use all the techniques in my daily life. They continue to help me every single day.”
Jacket, Dhs23,925, Hermès. Top, Dhs6,200; Skirt, Dhs10,450, both Loewe. Jewellery, POA, Cartier
So what advice could she give to anyone struggling in self-isolation right now?
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve learned I’m far stronger than I thought I was. That, and every problem has a solution. You can constantly work on recreating and improving yourself. I’ve really learned to accept and embrace change as growth. For me, self-confidence was always something I struggled with… believing that my word was strong enough. I was almost a pushover. That’s one thing therapy taught me. Social media can paint it to look like you’re not insecure, and some people think that I don’t feel it… but I do, very often. It’s normal to compare yourself, it’s normal to feel down, to feel like you have no purpose, to feel like you’re ugly or don’t fit in or you’re too old… but the techniques I learned taught me to evaluate the situation, take a step back, breathe, get to the bottom of it… for example, identify what exactly is making you feel this way right now, and then work to really understand how you can improve yourself or feel better. This is something that I do daily, and it’s become second nature to me.”
She pauses, then smiles. “It’s all about trying to see the positive in a negative situation.” In a time where contagion is a scary word, let’s remember that we can spread optimism just as easily. Karen’s been doing it for years.
Dress, Dhs31,900, Hermès. Tights, Dhs1,190, Fendi. Shoes, Dhs3,850, Saint Laurent. Jewellery, POA, Cartier
Photography by GREG ADAMSKI
Styling by ANNA CASTAN
Editor in Chief: Olivia Phillips. Talent: Karen Wazen. Art Director: Oscar Yáñez. Photographer: Greg Adamski at MMG Artists. Make-up: Manuel Losada at Art Factory. Hair: Jordan Robertson at MMG Artists. Producer: Paige Gambacort. Photography Assistant: Fiel Concoles. Fashion Asssitant: Nour Bou Ezz. Props: Maison D’Art and Maisons Du Monde.
With special thanks to Damani Lodges Resort by Meraas