Though normally at the end of a camera lens, Jessica Kahawaty has the quiet measured poise of an observer. The Lebanese-Australian model possesses an otherworldly beauty, her enormous eyes today a pale feline hazel, free of those trademark green contact lenses.
They are a form of self-expression, she says, “like make-up or dyeing my hair. My mum has green eyes, so why not look a bit more like her.” She arrives for lunch in The Dubai Mall in a simple Altuzarra jumpsuit, her style minimalist, accessory free. That clear skin she attributes to cleansing with charcoal soap (albeit aided by glycolic acid), the glossy mane of hair thanks to her mother’s homemade masks and mix of oils.
Elie Saab and MBC chose Jessica to front the inaugural Project Runway Middle East for her “style, elegance, beauty and sobriety.” The fourth is particularly striking upon meeting; she has an intelligent seriousness and clear knowledge of the grittier financial side of the fashion industry.
Blouse, Dhs5,435; jumpsuit, Dhs4,115, both Chloé
This trilingual law graduate speaks with measured consideration, musing on the business of fashion, the ‘influencer’ phenomenon, self-improvement and loyalty to her Arabic roots. When I ask if she follows a fitness regime she looks unsure, then sidesteps a trite question. “I read a lot. I think that is a form of meditation. You immerse yourself in a different world, go to a whole new realm. The family friends I stay with in Paris for Fashion Week have an amazing library and so I get to go home and read at night.”
Currently Jessica is reading Looking for Alaska by John Green. Another favourite is a classic, The Brothers of Karamazov by the Russian literary heavyweight Fydodor Dostoyevsky. Sometimes she chooses legal tomes; keeping alive a combined Bachelor degree in Law and Business with amajor in Finance. The former Miss World Australia 2012 and Miss World 2012 runner-up may be quietly spoken, but she is no vacuous beauty queen.
A millennial child of the Lebanese diaspora, Jessica was born and raised in Sydney, the child of two Lebanese parents. She moved to Dubai four years ago for a presenting role at Yahoo.
She’s constantly aware of the duality of her heritage. “I’m never just Australian or just Lebanese. Some people might describe it as an identity crisis. But today, when so many people travel and live abroad, where is home for anyone?” she pauses. “I think moving here reflected a desire to come back to the other half of who I am. Experience the Arab world. But could I choose between them? I don’t know that I could.”
Top; trousers; belt, all Alaa Najd. Hat, Dhs1,995, Soleil Toujours at Boutique 1. Boots, stylist’s own
Growing up as part of a close-knit Lebanese community in Sydney, she was a “normal Aussie teenager” yet at home there was always Arabic food and her parents took her to Lebanon every year. She was raised a Christian and still considers herself as such. “My parents were very strict about us always speaking Arabic at home.
I think it was about preserving tradition. I’m very grateful for that because without Arabic, I probably wouldn’t be able to work in the Middle East.” That said, she had never formally learnt Arabic when she started at Yahoo. “They were very patient. My knowledge was pretty basic. I had to learn, letter by letter, word by word, and 230 episodes later, I was fluent. I had to work really hard to be able to speak Arabic the way I do today on TV.”
After Miss World, Jessica declined opportunities in New York and LA in favour of Dubai, following a “desire to really come back to my roots and contribute something here, to my own culture and my own heritage and make it as one of my own. I’m a big believer in helping our own talent, so I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite and go somewhere else first.”
Styling: Katie Trotter. Photography: Rene & Radka. Location: With thanks to Platinum Heritage and Desert Safari Dubai. Props: With thanks to Marina Home and Pierre Frey. The full article appears in the January issue of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, on shelves now. Jessica appears on the cover wearing Project Runway Middle East winner, Alaa Najd.