One is a veteran Brazilian supermodel with magazine covers, catwalk shows and 1.2m followers to her name, the other is Saudi’s fresh face of the future, an ingénue who has just landed her first international magazine cover on Harper’s Bazaar Arabia and made her catwalk debut during Paris Haute Couture Week this summer. Yet, the differences between 35-year-old Isabeli Fontana and 18-year-old Taleedah Tamer unite them rather than divide them. While Isabeli carved out a career before social media took hold and Taleedah begins hers in an image-heavy age of social commentary, what bridges the age and career gap is a simple yet mutual desire to celebrate beauty – real beauty that is borderless, ageless and free of social stigmas.
Here, Isabeli imparts three decades’ of wisdom to Taleedah about life on fashion’s frontline, forging a career that embraces authenticity and why true beauty knows no bounds…
Taleedah Tamer: It’s so nice to talk to you. Tell me how you started modelling.
Isabeli Fontana: I was 12 years old and my mom put me on a ‘manners course’ because I was a total tomboy.
TT: Me too! I’ve never been very feminine.
IF: Really? That’s interesting. I couldn’t do any girly feminine stuff like make-up. I was into skateboarding and hanging out with my two brothers. So on this course I learned how to walk and then I entered a modelling contest in 1996 in São Paulo and I came third. I couldn’t believe it when they said my name, the other girls literally had to push me forward.
TT: That’s so funny.
IF: I know! From there I went to a bigger contest in France which was a horrible experience for a 13-year-old girl. I couldn’t eat French food at all, I was living on bread and butter. I couldn’t speak any English or French and it was so difficult and tiring. My Russian housemate was trying to teach me a few English phrases. It was a weird time.
TT: That sounds tough. I never really had any experiences like that because I got into modelling after helping backstage at a fashion show which my mom – who used to be a model – was organising in Saudi Arabia. Five years later I was at a dinner and the same designer of that fashion show saw me and said, ‘Wow you’ve grown up and you’re so much taller’. We did a shoot in the desert and I posted about it on Instagram and that’s how it all started for me.
IF: You’re so lucky that you have a mom who modelled so she could teach you how to do the posing. I think with some of these ‘Insta models’ they’ve only learned through their own selfies how to take their best side, and you lose the naturalness of showing the style and personality that you get from working with a photographer.
TT: I feel really, really lucky to have my mom. Whenever I travel for anything my mom is always with me. Family is such an important thing in my life.
IF: My mom and dad always supported me, too. Even though I left home at 15, my mom travelled with me until I was 18. That always made me feel stronger, knowing she was there. I could talk to her about the hard situations that I was facing, whether it was the photographer not liking the pictures or the make-up hurting my eyes. My mom was always there for me to lean on and I think that has made me who I am.
Isabeli Fontana wears: Dress, Dhs31,500, Valentino. Trousers, Dh3,230, Lanvin. Boots, Dhs10,300, Giuseppe Zanotti. Choker, Dhs550, Thomas Hanisch. Belt, Dhs5,510, Zuhair Murad. Necklaces, Dhs230, Sweet Deluxe. Bracelet (left), Dhs8,060; bracelet (right), Dhs8,485, both Carbon Jewellery. Earrings, Dhs764, Sharra Pagano.
TT: What advice would you give to someone starting out in this industry?
IF: This world has changed so much and sometimes it seems that what’s selling right now isn’t natural at all – it’s very plastic and unreal. But I think it’s just a phase. So my best advice would be to just be yourself.
TT: My mom always says that and also to be kind and professional to everyone you meet. You’ve had such a long and successful career, what do you think has been key to your longevity?
IF: You have to be able to discover a new personality every day because it’s really important to be versatile and give the client what they want. I’ve done like a million shows for Versace, which was super-sexy and strong and then I shocked the planet when I did Balenciaga because I was so androgynous and modern and cool. Being able to do both is key. One of the big mistakes I’ve seen in this business is that girls always want to be seen as beautiful, but sometimes it’s about what the designer and make-up artist thinks is the best way to embody this new person they’ve created with you.
TT: I know. I love being transformed on a shoot and I think it’s important to trust that they know what looks good. There are so many shades to a person, we’re not black and white, and so I love it when they bring out a different side of me on a shoot. What was the moment when you realised you’d made it?
IF: I never felt this way to be honest! It’s a body of work that you do. When I moved to New York in 1999 I did a show for every designer. Victoria’s Secret got me more exposure but career-wise it was more about fashion than that commercial, pretty, sexy look. I was lucky that I was able to do both, but I think I’m known best for showing my androgynous side.
TT: Do you have a favourite shoot?
IF: It’s a short period of time that you work with the best and most talented photographers. I remember one of my first covers was
a super-masculine shoot with [photographer] David Sims. I was wearing Balenciaga and I had this huge hair. Another highlight was a Mert & Marcus shoot with a short wig, or a cover I did with Steven Meisel. Getting the big magazine covers isn’t easy these days because you’re competing with actresses and celebrities, not just models.
Earrings, Dhs3,400; top, Dhs8,250, both Alexander McQueen. Prices approximate.
TT: I loved seeing you in the Pirelli calendar shot by Peter Beard.
IF: Oh my gosh that was the most fun moment of my life – to be in Botswana with the elephants for 10 days. I have a funny story actually… One day I was in my tent in the middle of the jungle and I was freaking out because I heard this big animal trying to get in, scratching at the tent. I was terrified so I let off the alarm. Everyone came running but it turned out to be a little wild cat, not a lion.
TT: Those pictures are beautiful. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced?
IF: It’s a challenge every day in this business! People booking you change their minds every day so you get 50 options and nothing confirmed and then you freak out and think, ‘Am I not good enough?’ You feel like you’re always restarting your career. It’s also hard not having a routine and never knowing what’s going to happen from one day to the next. When you’re little it’s hard to take when you don’t get booked for jobs. Now I have kids and I have my life, so I can deal with it. But at 15 years old you have to grow up fast. Modelling is highs and lows – you can get depressed if it gets into your soul. It can destroy you if you’re not strong enough and you don’t have your family to support you.
TT: Yeah I think you can end up judging yourself and taking it personally, just because you don’t suit that particular job. You start saying, ‘What’s wrong with me?’
IF: Especially when you’re young like you are. People can be mean in this business so you have to love yourself. You have to surf the wave and not let it affect you. We’re living in this beautiful world and there’s one creator and I think my spirituality has helped me to keep that in mind.
TT: I agree 100 per cent. But it takes time to love yourself and
I’m not completely there yet. Have you had any times when you’ve had to say no to people asking you to do things you’re not comfortable with?
IF: You should never do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. I remember being 15 years old and the stylist wanted me to do topless and I just didn’t want to. They were like ‘just take your top off’ but you need to stay true to yourself and have a voice.
TT: Have you experienced any discrimination?
IF: Sometimes I felt discriminated against for being ‘too beautiful’ and like I didn’t get jobs because of that. But what can I do? In this crazy industry you’re never good enough. It’s like school sometimes with the bullies. So we have to love one another and protect one another. It’s about helping other people up, it makes us all stronger. Have you experienced any cultural barriers coming from Saudi Arabia?
TT: I have had negative comments such as ‘Oh, she’s Saudi so she shouldn’t be doing that’, but I’m grateful because it hasn’t been that bad. I think the majority of our generation is so mature and enlightened. They just want to share positivity and grow and evolve. You’ll always get negative people, but I don’t take it to heart. I want to ask you about fame, because I had a weird experience recently when I was in the middle of the sea on a boat in Ibiza and I posted a picture of myself on the boat to Instagram and some guy on a little boat came up and said ‘Is Taleedah Tamer on this boat? Can I have a picture?’ Has it been hard for you to deal with the lack of privacy that comes with success?
IF: I think models become bigger these days because of the exposure you get through Instagram. But I think social media is important because back in the day I always used to get asked ‘What does a model actually do?’ Now people understand a bit more that it’s not all glamour and luxury.
TT: It’s true, I think everyone underestimates how hard models work. Do you enjoy using social media?
IF: I have to tell you the truth – I don’t really understand how it works! I’m still learning about it. What is good for Instagram isn’t good for high fashion and that’s my passion. I love the androgynous look and modernity, whereas Instagram is very commercial. It feels like you’re fighting for ‘likes’, but the crazy fashion things which I post don’t get many likes.
TT: I completely understand what you’re saying. A lot of what gets the most attention on Instagram is people’s bodies and I don’t like that either. Instagram is a glamorised version of a person’s life – it’s not necessarily realistic. From my point of view, if you like more alternative fashion pictures, then that’s what you should share because there will be people who appreciate it. I enjoy just posting random things that I think are cool, even if I don’t get that many likes. I know social media is important to models now, but I’d rather focus on the career itself and working with artistic, unique, creative people to create a picture I can treasure for the rest of my life.
From the July/August issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia
Photography: Stefan Imielski.
Styling: Pablo Patanè at Art Factory Management.
Make-up: Fausto Cavaleri.
Hair: Mike Desir at Art Factory Management.
Photography assistant: Sven Kolb.
Styling assistants: Silvia Ortombina, Devon Kylor, Martina Squillace.
Post production: Natalia Fadejeva.
Model agency: Borne Models.