Emirati model Rafeea Al Hajsi admits she can never forget her first walk down the runway, for reasons that went beyond mere sentiment.
“Here I was, commanding the world’s attention with a career choice that was far from conventional in my culture, but all I could think about in that moment was how was I going to walk down this runway with a heavy tree on my head,” she says.
The headpiece in question was the ‘Tree of Life’ that debuted at Arab Fashion Week two years ago, designed by noted hair stylist Fadi Nasr as a tribute to young children with cancer.
“When they first told me about the cause, it touched my heart and I simply knew this is how I wanted to take my first step into ramp modelling,” says Al Hajsi.
First job jitters were heightened for her when she was headlined as the first Emirati model to strut the event’s catwalk.
“That was two years ago; although, it feels like it just happened yesterday,” she recalls. “In that moment, when I first stepped into the spotlight and [with] the camera flashes momentarily blinding me, I just knew this is exactly where I wanted to be. I was just happy.”
As we sit in her plush apartment on The Palm Jumeirah Golden Mile, Al Hajsi has come a long way from that career-defining moment.
“I knew when I first opted for a career in modelling, being an Arab woman and Emirati, I would be judged by many,” she admits.
The piercing scrutiny from critics for breaking social norms is something Al Hajsi is well versed in.
“I won’t lie; I was scared people were judging me every step of the way,” she says. “It is easy when you are following in somebody else’s footsteps — when you are the second or the third. But when you are a first in whatever career you choose, every step is held accountable.”
Al Hajsi continues: “I told myself that if this is what I am going to pursue, I will do so for my country. I wanted people to accept what I was doing with a sense of pride.”
For Al Hajsi, the first battle that needed to be won was a lot closer to home.
“When I first told my mom I wanted to be a model, she was shocked,” laughs Al Hajsi. “It is interesting because growing up, my mom always treated me like her little model — dressing me up in pretty clothes.
“But suddenly, when I told the family I actually wanted to be one, it wasn’t easy. People have reservations about this profession, but I assured them that I respect my country and my culture too much to ever take a wrong step.”
SETTING HER OWN RULES
Without divulging her age, Al Hajsi says for the first five years of her career she chose to only model “traditional clothes”, while she continued to carve a niche for herself on television.
“I would only model in clothes that I was comfortable in,” she admits, adding that it’s a policy she continues with even today.
She continues: “Even during Arab Fashion Week, not just me, but the designers themselves were particular about what I would wear on the ramp.”
With her newfound fame, Al Hajsi soon started getting attention from some of the international fashion houses, leading her to the runways of Paris a year after her ramp debut.
“I give credit to my stylist for that, who told me to try my hand at Paris Fashion Week with Lebanese designer Ziad Nakad,” says Al Hajsi. “And when I met him, that was it. I was on a plane and in the city of fashion for one of the biggest events of the industry’s calendar.”
Now, two years into her ramp modelling career, Al Hajsi is looking at using her platform to push for female empowerment.
She says: “I used to be a very shy child when I was young. I had no friends and was always a bit of a loner growing up.”
Admitting to growing up with a complex about her looks, Al Hajsi continues: “When I used to look into the mirror, I always considered myself ugly. I didn’t have the conventional small mouth that was considered pretty. My square jawline was very pronounced. I was considered the odd one out in school and girls in school can be very mean with their comment.”
Al Hajsi recalls right around the time she hit her teens, she found some confidence in her to change her life around.
“I don’t know what it was. Just one fine day, I woke up and said, right, I was going to be happy. I was going to accept myself the way I was and appreciate myself.”
Today, an advocate for instilling self-esteem and confidence in young girls, Al Hajsi says: “No girl is ugly. There is beauty in each and every one of us. I want young ladies to know that and feel proud of themselves when they look at their reflection in the mirror.”
While she wants to continue with her modelling career, along with her stints of TV – including being a presenter on the reality show Arab Casting — Al Hajsi does see herself becoming a full time stylist some day.
“I don’t think I can ever be a designer. But a stylist, yes. I love putting looks together,” she says. “My brothers and sisters — we are seven — come to me all the time and I love to put their looks together.
“Plus, I also style my mom, her clothes, her hair. I learned this from her as a kid, now I return the favour.”
6 questions with Rafeea Al Hajsi
Worst criticism faced: “A lot has been said. But I choose not to focus on the negativity. I tell myself if someone is being critical, perhaps they are having a bad day and they are lashing out. Sometimes you have a bad day.”
Three must-have fashion items for a woman: “Black heels, which have universal use. A mid-length black skirt that can be worn in a meeting or at high tea. A suit, which can be put together as a single piece or used separately to mix and match with jeans, or a simple smart-casual look, minus the jacket.”
A make-up product a woman can’t do without: “Lip gloss. It just livens up a woman’s face.”
Health eating habits of a model: “I don’t like limitations in my food. My mom followed a very healthy from the start so it was easy for me to follow. Breakfast is usually fruits or a glass of juice. Lunch and dinner is usually a healthy salad or grilled chicken.”
Cheat meals: “I love eating croissants and muffins, so I don’t stop myself. The only thing I do is work out for two hours in the gym to accommodate my eating habits.”
Fashion vs commercial modelling: “When I have a photoshoot, I just kick back and have fun. But when I am on the runway, it feels like I have achieved something so big in my life. It’s an adrenaline rush from the moment the light comes on and you see all these people staring up at you from the runway.”