Diala Makki on Her Transformational Rebirth and Acceptance of Herself

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I was fortunate enough to be in Paris during Fashion Week during the time that Savoir Flair was producing an amazing editorial shoot starring the impossibly beautiful television personality and documentary producer Diala Makki. To get there, I had to depart from city center on a nearly 45-minute ride in order to reach the private residence where the shoot was being held. I was honored to be there with the dream team: photographer Jeremy Zaessinger, stylist Amine Jreissaty, and of course, SF’s Editor-in-Chief, Haleh Nia. It rained constantly that day, a fact that was made all the more real when both Haleh and Amine got soaked running into the Louis Vuitton show, and again for a second time that afternoon at Miu Miu. It may have been a gloomy day, but as I sat with a serene Makki in front of a giant glass window overlooking a hedge of wind-lashed bamboo, I felt warmed by her genuine spirit. I suppose that is how many people feel after meeting her, including stars like Matt Damon and Gerard Butler (who once infamously proposed to Makki while she was interviewing him on the red carpet).

At this stage in her career, Makki finds herself often in Paris, although this trip has been such a whirlwind that she can scarcely remember how long she’s been here. “Seven days? Eight maybe,” she wonders aloud. Usually, when she comes to Paris, it’s not only for Fashion Week, it’s for business. “I usually come to Paris twice a month because I have a lot of projects that I do here, including the production of fashion and luxury documentaries,” she says. “All of my meetings for those take place here. So far, I’ve produced big documentaries for Dior, Chanel, and a few others. I love discovering the history of legendary French houses, learning their DNA, their heritage, meeting their CEOs, designers, and marketing teams, as well as visiting their workshops.”

Her reason for pursuing this new avenue of entertainment is simple, but earnest, “I am trying to explore beyond the facade of what we see in the fashion industry,” she shares. “The reason I do this is to explore the different facets of designers, their inspirations, their backgrounds, what makes them creative, and what keeps them in this highly competitive industry. You see most designers leaving their positions due to the amount of pressure they face, so it’s really a privilege for me to be able to spend time with them, exploring their artistic views. It’s so difficult to be an artist, to find continuous inspiration and create collections season after season, with such a limited amount of time.” I point out that the designers are being pressured more because they are having to create for the bottom line. Makki agrees, saying, “they have to be true to their DNA, they have to be creative, they have to sell [laughs]. It’s so much pressure. Too much!”

You could say from an early age that I was conscious that I wanted to be in media, but I really did not know if it was going to be in front of the camera or behind it.

After more than a decade in the entertainment industry, Makki has watched with interest as the fashion industry changed before her eyes. It’s not something she could have predicted, but she’s enjoying the challenges presented in understanding the changes and making them known to her audience. However, when she was younger, she only had the faintest inkling that life would take her in this direction. “When I was younger, I was always into art,” she shared. “My mother had this idea that an elegant, sophisticated woman should know how to play the piano and dance ballet, so I did those things. My father is a doctor, my mother is a nurse, my brother is a doctor, and the medical profession runs in my family. Yet they still pushed me to pursue an artistic life.” Her family further supported and encouraged her decision to continue her education, first with a degree in Communication Arts, and later with a Master’s in International Affairs. “You could say from an early age that I was conscious that I wanted to be in media, but I really did not know if it was going to be in front of the camera or behind it,” Makki says.

Her first opportunity to appear on camera happened fast. “I started working a little before university, when I was 17 or 18 years old, and I used to interview a lot of designers and models for a youth channel,” she says. “I continued working throughout university doing modeling shoots, which gave me exposure to a lot of press, and it gave me the confidence I didn’t have when I was growing up.”

After several years doing on-screen presentations, Makki was headhunted by Dubai TV, and moved by herself to the city. Her first experience on Dubai TV took her from 0 to 100, real quick. “I started off by doing this amazing TV show that covered major film festivals and red carpets around the world, which means I went from being a spoiled brat at home to being on the red carpet interviewing A-list celebrities… with zero experience,” she says with a laugh. “Keep in mind that when I moved to Dubai, it was the beginning of the boom. No one knew this little Arab girl standing on the red carpet asking for interviews with celebrities, so it was really difficult for me to be there and make a name for myself. I did that for a few years, I interviewed every director that I had ever studied in university, from Brian de Palma to Oliver Stone, and actors like Cate Blanchett and Leonardo di Caprio.” Her experience interviewing actors eventually helped her realize that one of her life goals might not be as glamorous as she thought it would be. “I used to think I wanted to be an actor,” says Makki, “but being in the entertainment industry made me realize how difficult and unstable an actor’s life could be.”

At first, when I was assigned to interview Makki, I thought it was a little ironic that I was interviewing a professional interviewer. However, I figured I might have something to learn from Makki’s years of experience. I wasn’t wrong. Her lessons in interviewing were not only insightful, they were also funny. On the insightful side, she shares her methods, saying, “At the beginning, I was terrified. What helped me overcome this was doing thorough research on my subjects. I believe that whoever you are interviewing, whether it’s an A-lister or a regular person, you should do enough research that you feel like you know them already. Knowledge is everything. You need to create your identity through the questions that you ask. When I first started my journalism career, I was not confident. I would do my research, write my questions, and then memorize them, but that was wrong.”

She is not without a sense of humor about her early career missteps, and hilariously recalls an interview gone wrong. “I remember I had this massive crush on Hugh Grant. I loved his sense of humor and his wit – he is very charming. So, before I interviewed him, I was getting really worked up thinking, ‘I’m going to ask him the best questions, and he’s going to fall in love with me! I’m going to be the best journalist he’s ever met!’ I was so nervous – not just nervous, I was beyond nervous. I get there to the red carpet, and like usual, since I was from the Middle East, I was stuck at the end of the red carpet, which makes it harder to grab an actor or PR’s attention for an interview. They gave the exclusives to E!, BBC, and CNN, of course. But, I was lucky that day and I got his attention, and he came over to me. So, I ask him the first question. Boom. I’m looking him right in the eye, everything is going great, but, while he’s talking I go totally blank. In my head, I’m thinking, ‘This is Hugh Grant. He’s so close to me.’ After a while, he stops talking and was waiting for my next question, but I couldn’t talk. There’s about 10 seconds of silence and he asks, ‘Are you okay?’ It was so embarrassing. The next day I had an interview with him again, and I was hoping he wouldn’t remember me. So, I work extra hard on my questions and try to get over my nerves, but when I sit down and the camera starts rolling, it happens again. Same blank moment. He asks, ‘Did I see you yesterday?’ And I say, ‘No! I just flew in this morning!’”

“It’s trial and error,” she continues, after our laughter has subsided. “You learn confidence, you learn how to break the ice, you learn what makes them tick, you learn what they [interviewees] are emotional about. You always go strong. I don’t like to build up interviews; I like to go straight for something the person is emotional about — that way you can get to their heart. After that, I mastered the skill of interviewing people, just by going straight to the heart. It wasn’t an easy journey. I was young, I was stereotyped. You see this girl walking in with her high heels and skinny jeans, and automatically they think, ‘Okay, this is going to be one of those interviews.’ It was difficult to break the stereotype, but I did it by being thorough about my research, and really knowledgeable so I would be taken more seriously.”

I ask her if she enjoys catching people off guard like that, and disrupting their assumptions about her, and she replies, “I love a challenge, so yes, I love changing people’s perspective or opinion about me. When I first started working in the entertainment industry, I learned the biggest mistake you can make is to make assumptions off of people based on how they look.”

I ask her about another interview that she is particularly proud of. As she pauses to think back through the hundreds of celebrities and designers that she has interviewed in the past, she finally lands on an answer that makes her eyes shine. “I would have to say one of the interviews I am most proud of was with Elie Saab. He is a difficult person to interview because he has a mask on, and he doesn’t let people see the real him. It can be very difficult to get emotions out of him. I worked really hard with his team and his son to get to know who he is as a person. What triggers him? What makes him emotional? What helped me reach a deep level with him is the fact that I related personally to his story. He grew up during the war, but he was the first one to open the platform for Arab designers, and gave them the hope that they could have global success even coming from the Middle East. He actually made it, even though he didn’t come from a wealthy background. For me, getting him to really talk to me meant everything because I also come from the south of Lebanon, and I passed through many wars when I was growing up.”

I personally view Makki as a tremendous role model, because she is a strong-willed, smart, fiercely independent woman, but does she ever think of herself that way? “I hope my journey can make me a role model for young women, but I still feel like I am at the beginning of my career. I still have so much to do. I hope one day I will be a role model. It’s too early to say right now,” she responds.

For Arab women to share makeup-free pictures in an era where everything is about contouring and fake nails and hair extensions… it was a big deal.

The theme for today’s photoshoot with Makki is one of rebirth, as she has recently been undergoing a transformation of sorts. She was prompted to begin her transformation for two important reasons. “The process started when I decided I wanted to get away from show business and big-format entertainment shows that bring in a lot of sponsorship, and instead turn my efforts towards producing meaningful documentaries,” she says. “However, another thing happened that really changed the way I thought about myself.” After Makki finished her first series of documentaries, she was left with a feeling that what she was not doing enough. “It wasn’t changing lives,” she confides. Yet, as she was leaving Geneva on a high from speaking about female empowerment and the extraordinary strength of Middle Eastern women, she was confronted with a rude comment online. “I get this message on Snapchat from this guy – I don’t know who he is, but I wish right now I could thank him for his comment – who told me I was ugly without makeup, that I am a public figure, that I can’t go out looking like that, and that people have certain expectations of me,” she shares. “Usually, I don’t react to negativity online, but this message really got to me. It was on my mind the whole flight back from Geneva to Dubai. I thought, ‘It’s not okay for people to hide behind their phones and bully people like that.’”

I am determined to age gracefully and naturally. This is my rebirth.

What happened next sparked a wave of reaction that is still rippling through the social media-sphere. Makki posted a photo of herself, sans makeup and filters, and proudly showcased her natural beauty for all of the world to see. “I wasn’t looking for any kind of attention,” she says. “It was so organic. I was like: ‘This is me, this is me without makeup, this is me with my freckles – which I am so self-conscious about. Here I am. I accept my flaws.’ My flaws made me who I am today.” An outpouring of support flooded Makki’s Instagram and Snapchat accounts, as other Arab women came forward to share their #nomakeup #nofilter photos and to tell their own story. “For Arab women to share makeup-free pictures in an era where everything is about contouring and fake nails and hair extensions… it was a big deal,” Makki states. “I would say that it totally changed my perspective and helped me accept the fact that I’m going to grow older day by day. I want to be comfortable in my own skin regardless of my age.”

Conquering the fear of aging is difficult for many women. In fact, most never overcome their fear, and instead treat aging like a problem that can be solved by the right concoctions, while others take more drastic preventive measures. Even Makki is not immune to the pressures the entertainment industry places on women to look a certain way. “I’m going to be honest with you: two years ago, I had this massive fear of getting older, and I started doing a lot of cosmetic enhancements – nothing extreme, but still,” she confesses. “Now, I am done with that. I am not doing anything to my face anymore. I want to get older. My experiences are what make me an attractive person — not how I look. I am determined to age gracefully and naturally. This is my rebirth.”

I am sick and tired of seeing superficial content in the digital world. If you want to sell a product, sell a product with a message.

Makki is now less concerned about her appearance and more concerned with how social media warps people’s perceptions of others, “I want to say 90% of what we see on social media is fake,” she declares. “This is something I really, really feel strongly about. That’s the reason why I’m launching my own online platform in a few months. Being in the digital world doesn’t mean you have to just talk about lame, superficial things. I am sick and tired of seeing superficial content in the digital world. I am sick and tired of stereotypes. Social media could be a powerful tool if it’s used the right way. If you want to sell a product, sell a product with a message. Show responsible content. Younger generations are looking at our Instagram profiles and wanting our lifestyles. Girls, you can have that, but have some substance too. I’m hoping through my online platform I will have the freedom to talk about more things, and collaborate with brands that empower women. The reason I love Dior so much is because they collaborate with women who have something to say.”

While most people would retreat from a negative comment on their social media, the fact that Makki embraced the moment, forged a community from it, and declared her determination to age naturally, demonstrates her incredible inner strength. Although it may sound counterintuitive, another one of her strengths is understanding her flaws. Her commitment to self-improvement isn’t a fleeting, skin-deep fix, but a deep, abiding desire to always be a better version of herself. “I used to think I could approach my personal relationship the way I approached my career – like if I set the right goals, I could get what I wanted, I could be happy,” she admits. “I learned the hard way that there is no formula. I was in this relationship for eight years, all the while thinking, if I do X, Y, and Z, I will get this result. No. It doesn’t work that way. I became so obsessed with getting to my goals, that I neglected the process of loving someone. That is a flaw that I have. Everything is not math, or a logical equation. When I interview people, I know all the tricks, I know the way to get into people’s hearts, but when it comes to my personal life, I couldn’t apply the same ‘tricks’ if you could call them that. I am actively working on myself, working toward becoming more sensitive, and giving more attention to my personal life.”

If Makki is a positive role model for women, it is her mother we have to thank for that. “It wouldn’t be a cliché to say that my mother inspired me to be who I am today,” she shares. “I looked at her every day growing up, and wondered how she did it. I didn’t understand how someone could let everything go and follow someone they loved to a city filled with war. [Makki’s Iranian mother and Lebanese father met in Tehran while they were studying. Both later moved to Beirut when they got married.] She was alone a lot since my dad was always working at the hospital and her family was back in Iran, but she followed him to Lebanon, and worked hard to provide a stable, loving environment for us. She is the most inspirational woman in my life.”

Beyond her mother, Makki’s research and experience has exposed her to many other amazing female figures from whom she derives inspiration. She goes through her list, saying, “Gabriel Chanel liberated females by dressing them in male garments, Helena Rubinstein was the first woman that created a cosmetics company, and Oprah was the first woman to own her own talk show, and she has had a massive effect on women across the globe. I find new women every day that I look up to, even though sometimes they are younger than me.”

Makki is just as passionate about her career as she is about female empowerment. For her, fashion is not only a fascinating topic that satisfies her self-described “nerd” side that loves research and gaining knowledge, but it also an art form that she reveres. At Paris Fashion Week, she was presented with several moments that left her inspired and motivated. “When I go to these shows, I like to observe. You’re there to see the work of these amazing designers who only had a few months to put these collections together. I get anxious and excited to see what they come up with. This season, I was so mesmerized by Jonathan Anderson, I almost cried. Sitting there at Loewe, I was blown away. The music, the first look, the set — it all left me speechless. I loved the makeup at Dior. I loved Elie Saab’s show – I always expect the best from him, but I love how he made it so fun and so young. For that moment, I didn’t want to leave that Elie Saab world he created. I felt like when I left that show, I was so energized by what I had seen that I was acting differently, even walking differently. I felt like a rock star. Some designers are good at really making you feel something.”

Makki’s story is still unfolding, but this is one of its most exciting chapters so far, as she embraces transformational rebirth, the acceptance of herself, a career that continues to blossom with every smart move she makes, and a community of women who are rising up to support her inspiring causes. After over an hour of animated conversation that goes deeper than any interview I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in, Makki pauses for a moment after I ask her if she ever takes a minute to feel proud of her sincerely amazing accomplishments. “I am very hard on myself,” she confesses, “But I am doing better at patting myself on the back every now and again and saying, ‘You’re doing okay, Diala.’”

“Okay?” I ask incredulously, “You’re doing much, much better than okay.”

For the first time since we started the interview, she faces away from me and looks out across the rain-soaked garden. Concerned, I ask if she is feeling well.

“I feel drained, but emotional at the same time,” she says. “You’re making me tear up because you made me realize that I have come a long way. I take it for granted sometimes.”

“You have come a long way, Diala, but think of how much more of your amazing journey is still ahead,” I reply.

“Insha’Allah,” she murmurs before breaking into an ear-to-ear grin.


Credits
Photographer Jeremy Zaessinger Stylist Amine Jreissaty Editor-in-Chief Haleh Nia Makeup Artist Aya Fujita Hair Stylist Tomoko Ohama at Callisté Photo Assistants Matthieu Boutignon, Louis Cusy Prop Stylist Sir Arnaud Laurens


 

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