When a woman becomes a public figure, she is granted one of three qualities: she is either beautiful, intelligent, or kind. She certainly can’t be all three – that wouldn’t be fair. For centuries, the archetypes, tropes, and stereotypes found in the media’s portrayal of women are extremely one-sided, but in recent years, more women are being lauded for talents rather than their looks. As Jessica Kahawaty’s star rises, she represents an emerging breed of all-star women that possess enviable qualities far exceeding the societal norm. As a notably beautiful woman, brand ambassador, and regional style icon, it would be easy to focus on the surface of Kahawaty’s career, but it would also be wrong to do so.
In 1988, Kahawaty was born in Sydney, Australia, to Lebanese parents. By the age of 14, she entered the modeling world, and by 17 her beauty, poise, and intelligence landed her on the pageant stage where she would go on to become Miss Lebanon Australia 2007, the third runner-up for Miss Lebanon 2010, and the winner of Miss World Australia 2012. But pageantry is only a fraction of her story. Kahawaty also speaks three languages, is a trained pianist (she actually won her Miss Australia title while playing Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ with an injured hand), and has a Bachelor’s in Finance and a Law degree.
Kahawaty first came to my attention because of her sense of style, and her striking face from which two pale sage green eyes glitter mischievously. When I learned of her astonishing curriculum vitae, I had to know: What drives a person like Kahawaty to continuously seek new avenues of self-expression? “My love for what I do drives me,” she shares with me in a phone interview, “I have so many dreams I want to achieve and I don’t believe in just sticking to one thing unless your passion lays in a narrow field of work. I had always been a nerd at school and my ultimate goal was to become a human rights lawyer.”
When I ask Kahawaty what she prefers to be known for the most out of her long list of talents, she responds, “This is a question I always get asked and it is perhaps the most difficult one to answer. I love all that I do but I would say model and philanthropist,” but unfortunately, this means that her goal to become a human rights lawyer has been placed on hold. “While I am a lawyer by vocation, I do not practice. All the other jobs I undertake, such as presenting, are individual projects. The modeling industry in the Middle East is a very new one and I am constantly receiving private messages on social media from girls asking me advice on how to crack into it. Having the opportunity to represent Arab women in that industry is a very rare one and a responsibility I take greatly because of the stigma that the industry itself carries. I want to be able to change the image of the modeling world in our region and portray the fact that when you filter through all the chaos, there is a gap for true Arab models. They are educated women and they use their platform and influence to give back.”
Having the opportunity to represent Arab women in the [modeling] industry is a very rare one and a responsibility I take greatly because of the stigma that the industry itself carries.
Giving back is core to Kahawaty’s value system. Her concern for humanity isn’t just banal talk for the cameras or the pageant stage, but a true passion that has driven her to engage with the Lilla Community. “The Lilla Community is an impoverished community in the Northern Territory in Australia which takes an estimated four hours by plane and four hours by dirt road to reach from Sydney,” she explains, “The local community is indigenous and were lacking life’s most basic necessities, so we help raise money for the community to rebuild the school as well as provide the people with the tools they need in order to live a decent quality of life.” Kahawaty also works with Charity: Water, a non-profit organization that provides drinking water to parts of Africa and India. Although she may not be practicing human rights law, she is clearly helping in other ways. “I feel fortunate enough to be able to somehow be involved in humanitarian projects, while not through law but through philanthropy. I really believe that the sky’s the limit and when you have a clear vision of where you want to be, the possibilities are endless and I want to be the best at what I do.”
Curious about the pressures she might endure as a television presenter in an industry obsessed with the superficial notions of beauty, I ask Kahawaty if she is ever concerned about being reduced to just her looks. With signature confidence, she replies, “I personally don’t feel that, because it takes more than just looks. It takes personality, character, and knowledge to be noticed and those who feel reduced to just looks usually don’t have more to offer.” Although this may sound like a blunt statement, Kahawaty is absolutely right. A pretty face that lacks any substantive backing will not go far in the real world.
It takes personality, character, and knowledge to be noticed and those who feel reduced to just looks usually don’t have more to offer.
“Having said that,” she continues, “It’s all about reputation and what people get to know you as, and believe me, it spreads! There are times where you may get judged based on your looks in the first instance before a person is able to get the opportunity to know you, and the way to fight back against that is to simply hold a polite and poised conversation with them and hopefully in that brief moment in time, they will see that you are not reduced to just looks but are a person with substance and depth. Luckily, with the growing influence of social media, your followers get to know more than your looks through your posts, videos, and causes you fight for. My followers don’t just send me messages about my beauty routine or styling advice, they also send me words of encouragement about how I’ve stayed sane and poised in this industry (yes, it’s true) as well as ample messages about university advice for them and recommendations for charities that they think I should explore.”
And Kahawaty is happy to give back to her fans by engaging with them in a personal way that most people of her stature would not deign to provide. In fact, even as her popularity steadily grows, Kahawaty remains humble to the praise. When I ask her if she sees herself as a regional style icon or if she is conscious of her influence, she chuckles, “I honestly never saw myself as a style icon and sometimes I laugh at myself and my efforts to get dressed up! My fashion aesthetic is definitely ever-changing, but I am happy that I am an influence to a woman who likes to dress up in a sequin evening gown for an event but can also be super cool in a leather jacket, black jeans, and ankle boots. Style is meant to be effortless, because it’s something so unique to an individual, so I make a conscious effort of never allowing myself to sway from that and listen to advice that just isn’t me.”
I honestly never saw myself as a style icon and sometimes I laugh at myself and my efforts to get dressed up!
But life isn’t always rainbows and kittens, so when I ask Kahawaty about a scary moment she’s experienced as a public figure, she recounts a major red carpet event that she would prefer not to remember, “I recently I had a scary moment at a red carpet event, where hundreds of international press and media were present and I could feel the strap on my dress slowly sliding away. I had to awkwardly hold it in with my arm pressed to myself and continue the journey on the very long red carpet! Don’t remind me.”
There are numerous occasions in Kahawaty’s life that led her to the red carpet, but some of them are behind the camera. As a television presenter, she is often in the position of interviewer rather than interviewee. “No matter which side of the interview you are on, I think it’s very important to feel comfortable,” she shares. “At the end of the day, an interview is a consensual conversation to get both professional and personal views of the artist or subject matter being interviewed.” What are the best interviews she’s conducted? “I loved my interview with Bob Sinclair and Carmen Electra, as they were my very first interviews and they were so cool, friendly and open that we not only had great content but truly bonded. I also loved interviewing Selena Gomez and Adriana Lima — they’re both so humble and have amazing bubbly personalities — we laughed a lot!”
Naturally, it takes a strong support system to walk in Kahawaty’s shoes, and her biggest cheerleaders are her parents and brother. “They mean the world to me, and support every step I make. They are so up-to-date with all that I do and are great at giving me advice and painting a bigger picture. They’re so humble and hard-working, and those qualities became imbibed in me over time. My brother plays a huge role in my success, because even though he is younger than me, he is the voice of reason and has an incredibly open mind regarding any issue. I also have great friends both in Dubai and abroad who I am in touch with daily and a select few who truly care and encourage me. Some are friends who became advisers and mentors — they know the ins and outs of my work and make sure to always give me transparent and unbiased advice.”
When she mentions Dubai, I become curious to find out what led her from Sydney to our city. She explains the move, saying, “After Miss World, I was receiving a lot of opportunities globally and I’ve always wanted to explore living outside of Australia. My family and I used to always stop over in Dubai on the way to Lebanon, so it was a familiar place to me. My goal was to take what I’ve learnt in my industry in Australia since I was young and offer that international experience to an Arab market. I knew that there was a big niche in the modeling and television sector, so having the experience over the years, coupled with the fact that I spoke Arabic, encouraged me to enter a juvenile yet flourishing market.” In Dubai, you’ll often find Kahawaty at The Beach, exploring her foodie side and strolling by the waterfront. “I also love the spas in Dubai,” she adds. “They’re seriously some of the most incredible spas I’ve been to in the world, and sometimes my girlfriends and I plan a day to just relax, sit by the pool, eat, and get a massage! Dubai is a very dynamic city that never sleeps, so it’s important to unwind and have quality time.”
As a style icon, Kahawaty has had the opportunity to get to know many regional designers who have dressed her for special occasions. In fact, her list of favorite designers is a who’s-who of Middle Eastern talent, “I love Madiyah al Sharqi, Basil Soda, Rami Kadi, Karoline Lang and Krikor Jabotian,” she gushes. “There are so many designers popping up everyday, and it’s undeniable that we have some true talent in the region. A lot of the regional designers are being recognized internationally and praised by the biggest names, so I’m proud to have worn them.” Her influential status has also caught the attention of major brands like Bulgari and Louis Vuitton. In fact, she was recently in New York City for Fashion Week, where she participated in a project with Ralph Lauren. “They recreated the Polo Bar with hundreds of models dressed in Polo Ralph Lauren, so it was exciting because it was an interactive presentation as opposed to having a barrier between the models and crowd. A lot of designers are staging their collections at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), which is exciting as you get to see art and fashion collide,” she says.
As someone with a ridiculously packed schedule that sees her jetting all around the world for photo shoots, interviews, red carpet appearances, and more, it can be hard for Kahawaty to pause and appreciate her own successes. “I am so focused on what’s to come that I sometimes forget to stop and look back at everything I’ve achieved,” she divulges. “I’ve learned to do that more recently, thanks to the advantage of hindsight. All the small and big achievements along the way add up to so much! I’m definitely proud of creating an imprint for Arab models in the Middle East, and working with international brands on a regional level. I am more proud and grateful of the fact that I’ve been able to use my name and platform to change lives — from Syrian refugees to children stricken with cancer. I could not feel more fulfilled, and part of my desire for success is being able to eventually give more, and give greater.”
Part of my desire for success is being able to eventually give more, and give greater.
Clearly, Kahawaty has a brilliant head on her shoulders, and her life serves as inspiration to multitudes of women in the Middle East and beyond. No longer do we accept the superficial. Instead, we want our heroes to be well-rounded, tenacious, and fiercely independent. Kahawaty is all of that and more. Before we part, Kahawaty offers one more glimpse of her inner life. She leaves me with the following, “Nothing comes easy or handed on a silver platter, but if you have talent and a good work ethic, the opportunities are endless.” These words to live by — offered by one of the most prismatically accomplished women of Middle Eastern heritage — are sure to resonate far and wide.
Photographer Jeremy Zaessinger Stylist Amine Jreissaty Editor-in-Chief Haleh Nia Producer Alexandre Gallani Makeup Artist Mickael Jauneau Hair Stylist Megumi Zlatoff Photo Assistants Thomas V., Kader Bennacer