There are three defining qualities of a fairy tale princess – a good heart, lashings of gravity-defying hair and at least one fabulous dress (ideally courtesy of a fairy godmother). Nina Ali, the 37-year-old mummy of three behind the online sensation @LipstickMommy, ticks off the first two with a precision that is straight out of Disney central casting. As for the magically granted dress, Dolce & Gabbana has conjured up an autumn/winter 2016 collection that nods to fantasy heroines from Cinderella to Snow White, perfect for Nina’s transformation into storybook star for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Junior. Who needs a fairy godmother when Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana can wave their magic needles and create dreamy dresses with a spritz of Sicilian magic?
The princess-perfect features aside, it is Nina’s devotion to her three children, Sophia, four; Nour, two-and-a-half; and one-year-old son Ayan, that really casts her in the role of queen of hearts. Indeed it is only now, for the first time in four years, that she is neither pregnant nor nursing, and she’s found the transition a little heartbreaking.
“I had three babies in three years,” says Nina, who, swathed in cherry red Dolce & Gabbana silk looks a million miles away from the harassed vision of motherhood one would expect after having three children in such swift succession. She smiles, a little at a loss as the realisation that her babes are growing up hits home, as she says,
When Ayan turned one last month, Nina decided it was time to wean. “I only stopped nursing a few weeks ago. It was heartbreaking for me, to say the least. I look at myself and think, ‘There’s no baby growing inside of me and I’m not nursing’, but also, I think, ‘Wow, I’m back to myself again!’”
Born in Lebanon, Nina’s parents moved the family to Austin, Texas, when she was four years old. It’s where she grew up, studied, and would likely still be had a friend of the family not shown her photograph to Munaf Ali nearly seven years ago.
“We met through my cousin’s brother-in-law, who lived in Dubai,” Nina says of her now-husband. “After seeing my picture, Munaf asked about me.” Desperate to make an impression on the woman in the photograph, “He flew all the way around the world, just to take me to dinner.” London-born Munaf’s Prince Charming-approved wooing technique worked – the pair started dating long-distance, with the Dubai-based CEO travelling from the Middle East to the United States every three or so weeks to see Nina. “He would only be there to see me for a few days, and then when we were apart we would speak daily, on the phone and Skype,” she recalls to Bazaar.
Less than a year after meeting, the pair married in Texas in December of 2010, and Nina moved to Dubai three weeks later. “My family was heartbroken,” she recalls. “My dad tried so hard to convince my husband to move to Austin. I had lived at home my whole life, so to pack up and move to the other side of the world was hard for everyone. I talk to my mum every day. She’s my best friend – thank goodness for FaceTime!”
That’s not to say Nina didn’t fall in love with her new home immediately. Describing living in Dubai as an endless holiday, it’s where she and Munaf not only started their life together, but also their family. “I got pregnant 10 months after we got married,” Nina says.
“It happened a lot faster than I expected.” Life as the newlyweds knew it was forever changed with the arrival of baby Sophia in May 2012.
With her family far away in Texas, a mewling newborn, and having decided against hiring a nanny (“My mum managed with four kids, so why couldn’t I?”), Nina felt first-hand the isolation that being a new mother can sometimes bring. She turned to Instagram, and The Lipstick Mommy was born.
“I didn’t even really know how Instagram worked,” laughs the woman who now has over 100,000 followers. “I just liked the idea of putting pictures up. And then people began to follow me, especially other mothers. It’s because of my followers and their support that I am who I am today.”
By the time Nour was born in 2013, and then Ayan in September of last year, Nina had not only well-and-truly figured out how Instagram worked, but through the platform and also her Snapchat profile, had created a kingdom of mothers who supported and nurtured each other. “You know, I’m so humbled by my followers,” she says.
She’s not lying – while many of Nina’s photos show the mother and her three children impeccably styled in breathtaking fashion, Nina is also not adverse to the odd photo of her real-life self: wearing flats, her hair up in a bun, and with minimal make-up. “In fact, on my Snapchat, you’ll see me like that a lot. It’s my daily reality, so people get to see that side of me – and I want them too.” As if to hammer home the fact that she really is low-key, Nina adds, “As a mother, my kids and their needs are a priority. Yes, I do like to put on make-up and get dressed up for events, but at the end of the day, I’m low-maintenance. Would you believe I haven’t coloured my hair in over six years?” she laughs. “Nor do I get Botox or fillers done. I’m not opposed to it at all, I just try to simplify my life as much as I can.”
And it’s the balance she strikes between reality and the whimsical, that Nina believes her followers are drawn to. “I’m not an expert on motherhood or beauty, nor do I claim to be. I just share my personal experience and what works for me. And I love when my followers offer me suggestions and advice on anything I post. I welcome it!”
And it’s that sense of communication that Nina also feels has contributed to her following. Where many other high-profile identities collect followers yet never actually acknowledge them, Nina sets aside time to ensure her fans are aware she hears them. “I get so many messages on my Snapchat daily, and I make sure I respond to them all. My followers are so important to me and I want them to know that I value each and every one of them. They’re the reason I continue to do this.”
What started out as a way for the Burj Khalifa resident to engage with other mothers has turned into a promising business opportunity, with big brands approaching her to post about their products. “I’m very picky about who I work with,” Nina insists, explaining that she would rather go without the support from a brand if it means misleading her followers. “I would never post anything I don’t love or believe in, just to get paid. It amazes me, the amount of offers I’m presented and though the compensation is great, I don’t accept everything, because it’s just not worth it to me. I see so many people’s pages that look like ads and it’s a turn-off.”
For Nina, she wants her social media channels (and her soon-to-be-launched website, lipstickmommy.com) to remain a place where mothers can come, enjoy the styled images – and the not-so-styled ones – and share in the motherhood journey.
“People can be judgmental, especially to mothers, because everyone always has an opinion on how things ‘should’ be done,” says Nina, who routinely nursed all of her babies to sleep and doesn’t believe in controlled crying.
That said, Nina has also had her share of discouraging experiences with social media – but time has been a great teacher with regards to how she handles it. “I’ve had negative comments left under my pictures, and I used to respond and defend myself,” she admits. “But that was a long time ago, and now I just delete and block the person. I’m fortunate enough to not have to deal with it too often anymore.” She has also chosen to take the high road when other people use her images on their own accounts, or pitch themselves as competitors. “There’s space for everyone. We all work hard and we can all have our own audience.”
For Nina, her motherhood experience has brought her a newfound admiration for her own parents as she discovered that heroes don’t only exist in storybooks. “I’ve always had so much respect for them for leaving Lebanon and going to the US to give us a better life. They spoke no English and they struggled so much. How they did it amazed me, but it wasn’t until I became a mother that I was even more blown away, because I now know how intense and difficult it is to raise a child, let alone move to a foreign country. They are my heroes.”
And it’s that humility that Nina and Munaf want to pass on to Sophia, Nour and Ayan. “I want to teach them to never take anything in life for granted,” she says. “Life is fragile and we are blessed to just wake up each day. I want them to be each other’s best friend and always be there for each other. I want them to grow up supporting each other; it’s very important to me that my kids have a tight bond. I have three brothers and we have always been close. I want them to appreciate the little things in life and not take anything for granted.”
Nina knows it’s a cliché, but she’s adamant that she really hadn’t ever experienced such a deep love until she met her three children. “They are my greatest accomplishment. They are the reason for everything my husband and I do. It’s like I didn’t know the true meaning of what life was before them.” This certainly is a family destined to live happily ever after.