Over the course of a 10-hour photo shoot in LA’s Venice Beach, the many faces of Sonia Ben Ammar all make an appearance.
First up, at 8am, dressed in blue denim shorts, black top and no make-up, we get girl-next-door Sonia; just another 18-year-old college kid studying in LA (albeit one who has dated Brooklyn Beckham and made her catwalk debut alongside Gigi Hadid for Miu Miu’s spring/summer 2017 show). “Is it true you don’t pay tax in Dubai? Wow that is so cool!” she grins.
By 10am, as she tries on the first of several Dolce & Gabbana outfits for her Harper’s Bazaar Arabia cover shoot, bashful Sonia emerges, the teenager coming to terms with the taste of stardom.
“You know I met Rihanna once and I was so nervous. I was like, ‘Hi! I love you!’ Hahaha.”
Dress, Dhs16,260; earrings, Dhs2,365, both Dolce & Gabbana
It’s only around 6pm, as the shoot ends, that the real Sonia comes out – the preternaturally talented actress, singer, model and digital all-rounder poised on the cusp of becoming the look and voice of a new generation to emerge from the Arab diaspora. “I’m a firm believer in ‘do what makes you happy’ and your job should be your passion. This is what I do, this is my passion,” she enthuses with post-Millennial zeal.
Whatever the motivation, there is no doubting the results. Four years ago Sonia starred in the French movie Jappeloup and made her debut on French Broadway with a role in 1789: Les Amants de las Bastille. The daughter of Tunisian film producer Tarak Ben Ammar (who also serves as advisor to Saudi’s Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Al Saud) and actress Beata Ben Ammar, Sonia was snapped up by starmaker IMG Models, and has wasted no time in winning over the world of fashion.
Dress, Dhs26,080, Reem Acra
Fronting campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana and Miu Miu, Sonia is a welcome Arab intrusion into an industry that woefully under-represents this region. Her red carpet credentials, notably at summer’s Cannes Film Festival, are fast propelling her into the premiere league of fashion’s new faces led by supermodel progeny Kaia Gerber.
Kaia, incidentally, is a good friend. As is Selena Gomez. Oh, and there is of course the mandatory celebrity love angle.
She doesn’t disappoint there either, having previously dated Victoria and David Beckham’s eldest son Brooklyn, their romance immortalised via a slew of Instagrammed moments from Disneyland.
Opposite page: Dress, Dhs22,560, Delpozo
But of course, A-list couplings – even those of a puppy-love variety – are catnip for online trolls and Sonia has suffered her fair share of digital battering; tough for the then 16-year-old to endure. “In the start it was very weird for me to see hateful comments. Especially for a young woman. I didn’t feel very confident. I felt insecure, so it brought me down. Now, to be honest, I don’t read it, nor does it affect me. But once in a while you’ll see a comment that hits you,” she says, before adding generously, “There are always going to be jealous little girls that write mean comments, but I get it. If some girl was dating Harry Styles, I’d be like, ‘I’m so jealous.’I wouldn’t write a hate comment but I’d be like, you know, I get it.”
While her publicist insists that delving into her relationship with Brooklyn is strictly off limits, Sonia cheekily lets slip that Beckham senior is, “Definitely a good looking human being.”
Dress, Dhs106,265; earrings, Dhs2,150,both Dolce & Gabbana
With close to half a million followers on Instagram, Sonia’s every move is under constant scrutiny. Growing up in a world of social media is both fast and furious.
“I’m not the type of person to compare myself with others but social media puts it on you. You’re scrolling through Instagram all day and comparing your flaws and your differences and sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘Oh no, she’s so pretty and I’m not,’ and then you realise other people’s qualities are not your failures and vice versa, so I think it does put that pressure on. Especially physically. It’s very physical and superficial. It’s the image you show people, not your true self or thoughts. It’s projected,” Sonia muses. “That’s why, when I post, I try to be as authentic as I can and not post things that are a bad influence.” Later, when pushed, she admits she can spend four hours a day on Instagram, “on a bad day”. “I’m embarrassed! I think we’re all addicted to it. The thing is, when I’m bored, I’ll just scroll… I look at a lot of photography and cool accounts. It’s not what people are doing. I don’t really care what people are doing,” she shrugs.
Dress, Dhs75,905, Dolce & Gabbana.
What definitely is not fake or projected is the close relationship she shares with her mother Beata, who is on set with her throughout the day and walked alongside her in the autumn/winter 2017 Dolce & Gabbana catwalk show. The actress is best known for her roles in The Last Legion, Hannibal Rising and Femme Fatale. She also happens to be an accomplished artist, painter, photographer and piano player. Less public is the intimate bond between mother and daughter. They appear inseparable, and spend much of the day giggling at each other like best friends.
“She’s the coolest mom ever. It is true and I always tell her this. I always tell her she’s my best friend and she says, ‘No, I’m your mom.’ Some people are embarrassed to have their mom around all the time. Not me. Not when your mom looks like this!” she smiles.
Beata adds, “I am a very proud person. But I’m not surprised at her success. I always knew deep inside, I knew she would succeed because since she was very little, she was very talented in everything and most importantly, she was a very hard worker. So, I think it’s the perfect combination – talent but also being very perseverant and hard working.”
Beata will soon leave LA as Sonia begins her studies at University of Southern California, which she will do while juggling modelling, acting and a burgeoning recording career. It means that the 18-year-old will discover true independence, something her mother is not concerned by. “I think that she’s ready. She’s very mature for her age and she’s going to handle it very well. It’s more about me. Of course, it’s very difficult to leave the last child,” Beata smiles. Having dabbled in ballet and opera while growing up, Sonia’s artistic bent knows no limit. “One day she’s going to be a movie star. Just wait!” Beata promises. “Mom! You’re hyping me up now. Now I have to live up to the expectation,” Sonia chides, weighing in with some faux teenage attitude. Although, should her mother’s foretelling come to pass, Sonia reveals that her dream co-stars would be Ryan Gosling and Meryl Streep.
Sonia Ben Amaar wears: Dress, Dhs62,895, Dolce & Gabbana. Beata Ben Amaar wears: Dress, Dhs9,760, Dolce & Gabbana.
Like that other famous mother-daughter duo, Cindy Crawford and her 16-year-old daughter Kaia – who is a good friend of Sonia’s – the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Beata bats back the comparison, “Modelling is not Sonia’s main thing. She is more of an artist, so it’s a different sport really.” While Sonia chimes in, “And also, like, you’re gorgeous but you’re not Cindy Crawford!” Beata concedes, laughing, “I would love to be as beautiful as Cindy Crawford. I remember when I was a teenager, for me she was the best model, I loved to watch her.”
Sonia’s ambitions clearly lie beyond the camera, “I wouldn’t want to be a celebrity because, ‘Oh she’s beautiful’,” she says, adding that in 10 years’ time, “I’d love to be working in an artistic field, hopefully music.” And she understands that young creatives today are expected to have a voice and articulate opinions on more than how to cut a contour. A recent post on her @itsnotsonia Instagram account in the wake of last month’s Vegas shooting urges, ‘Books, not guns. Culture, not violence’, yet her steps into political awareness are tentative. “For sure I am for gun control,” she offers, adding, “I think I need to be more educated on the topic,” admitting that she did not vote in the recent French elections because, “I didn’t feel I was well informed enough on the political situation to vote and I didn’t want to vote based on what my parents’ views were. I really wanted to form a political view myself.”
Dress, Dhs7,160; robe, Dhs9,760; shoes, Dhs2,365, all Dolce & Gabbana
So, would she vote for Trump? “I’m not going to answer that,” she laughs, “I… probably not.”
Her father, whose aunt was the First Lady of Tunisia from 1962 until 1986 as the second wife of the former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba, was raised Muslim, and Sonia is versed in Arabic language and traditions. “When I’m in Tunisia or with my Arab part of the family, I feel that culture,” she says. “I feel like a melting pot but I definitely do feel like my inheritance for sure and I’m proud of it, too.” Beata adds, “I’m very close to my husband’s Arabic roots and I adore the Arabic culture – and the food, of course. They spent their childhood there,” she says of holidaying in Tunis with her three sons and Sonia, “so it’s a very important part of our life. My husband is very proud of his Arabic roots, so we are too.”
For now, Sonia is still figuring out her way in the universe. An 18-year-old with the eyes of the world on her; every move open to analysis. Fortunately, those moves have been pretty savvy, but no teenager is perfect, so what of the biggest mistake she’s made to date? “I probably can’t say!” Her second biggest, then? “The second biggest mistake I’ve ever made?” she mulls, “Probably getting a dog. I love dogs so much but I’m too busy during the day so she takes care of him,” she says of Beata. And with that, this very modern mother-daughter duo head off into the bright lights of Los Angeles; land of opportunity and round-the-clock pet care. And with such a multi-faceted career path laid out ahead of Sonia Ben Ammar it looks like LA’s dog-sitters are in for a busy time.
Photography: David Slijper at Chris Boals Artists. Stylist: Anna Castan. Fashion assistant: Megan King. Make-up: Tracey Levy at Forward Artists. Hair: Nikki Providence at Forward Artists. Manicurist: Mar Y Soul. Digital operator: Marylene Mey. Photography assistants: Tyler Ash and Scott Turner. Producers: Dana Brockman and Carolyn Bruch. Production assistant: Din Morris