There they were. In a tribute to Gianni. Resplendent in tinselled, metallic Versace.
If there was any supermodel line-up to kill all supermodel line-ups Donatella Versace, the powerhouse behind possibly the most knock ‘em dead glam label in the world, is the woman who could make it happen.
During the finale of Versace’s Milan Fashion Week Show this fall, the fashion designer walked out on the runway with Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer and Helena Christensen. The girls Linda Evangelista famously said never got out of bed for less than $10,000 a day. Both Campbell and Crawford had been a part of George Michael’s Freedom ‘90, the song they walked to on the catwalk.
In Pakistan, we too had our share of “it girls” in the same era. Iraj Manzoor, Atiya Khan, Vaneeza Ahmed, Alia “Bibi” Latif, Aliya Zaidi, and later Iman Ali were the top divas of the ramp. Ayeshah Alam, with her generous mouth and laughing eyes was the alternative, unusual option for fashion photo shoots. Aaminah Haq didn’t quite have the height for the ramp but that face could launch a thousand designers and dramas.
No one has quite achieved the same superstar status as the girls of the late eighties and early nineties with broad-shouldered bliss, teased big hair and high style. Fashion witches with the power to enchant, beguile and hold us all spellbound.
So as Donatella salutes the forever supermodels of the West we salute those of the East. Following them down their new paths in different corners of the world – Houston, New York and Hong Kong.
A little taste of how life moves on but stars
A special thank-you to Tapu Javeri for sharing photos of Aaminah Haq, Aliya Zaidi and Ayeshah Alam Khan from his book Tapulicious
Shortly after I interview Ayeshah Alam, Texas is hit by a massive hurricane. Houston, the city where she lives, is drowning in the impact of Hurricane Harvey. I watch it thousands of miles away on the other side of the pond in London, astonished, worried. But if there is anyone who can take care of herself it is Ayeshah Alam Khan. She laughs it off when I call her and informs me that her valiant Pathan husband was silly enough to brave the torrents and get stranded. Ayeshah stayed put at home and watched movies on television.
I remember many moons ago when she walked into my office clutching a portfolio of early work. At that time she was particularly gamine looking. Not the kind of face Pakistani modelling was used to at all. Not skinny, not tall, not at all run-of-the-mill beautiful, but beautiful nonetheless. With a big laugh and a jaunty, elfin face. And fiercely determined that I should see her photos and consider using her in a fashion shoot.
Alam’s career spanned many fashion shoots till she scored her own morning programme and also talk show on a local TV channel called “No Reservations.” Alam took to talking like a duck to water. She swam around gleefully, splashing the waters, cornering and flooring guests with unabashed frankness. She asked Zeba Bakhtiar about ex-husbands and called out Maria B for supporting Zaid Hamid – and got away with it. What made Alam one of the more unusual models then successful talk show presenters of the 2000s was she is a personality rather than a face. She would laugh wholeheartedly on camera and off it. Something between a giggle and a guffaw. Not model behaviour – but that’s exactly what set everyone at ease.
Cut to many years later and Alam has given up a highly successful career in television presenting to relocate first to Vietnam for a year, then permanently to Houston, Texas. Her daughters from a previous marriage with Junoon’s bass guitarist Brian O’ Connell are at college on the East Coast. And Ayeshah Alam has rather unexpectedly taken up selling retirement insurance. Her people skills have come in useful again. After all this too is talking to people. Except this time, it’s talking Texan…
Wen you left Pakistan you were at the height of your career. Did you want to move at that time or was it circumstances?
Look, modelling for me was more a social commentary; it wasn’t about being known as the most beautiful model. It was more about let’s be a rebel and shock people, I wanted to ruffle feathers. It was not something I ever took seriously. I was never comfortable with the whole celebrity thing. Moving away was about better opportunities for my girls, about giving them different exposure. Those days Pakistan was getting more and more Talibanized so I felt it was time for us to leave. I loved the anonymity. Just being able to go out without people saying “hai ye kitni moti ho gayi hae” or “kitni budhi ho gayi hae” was heaven. I mean life happens, we all age. Deal with it.
Before you got to Texas you spent a year and a half in Vietnam. It is not a country Pakistanis are that familiar with. Was it a real voyage of discovery for you?
I enjoyed the newness and getting to know somewhere totally different. I also discovered that doing nothing was not for me. I thought I would love the begum lifestyle but after a while I found the whole ex-pat thing boring and was itching to do something with my life.
You’ve got three grown-up daughters from two previous marriages who are now studying or working. How does that make you feel?
Old! I’m now living vicariously though them. It’s lovely to see them spread their wings and start to fly and to hopefully achieve more than I ever did
Don’t put yourself down. You moved on from being a model to a talk show host, and many people who tried to do that weren’t able to carry it off successfully.
I think it was my ability to speak my mind. That instinct to ruffle feathers wherever I was or whichever field I was in. That worked in my favour.
So what are you doing now in Houston?
Would you believe I’m a retirement specialist?
Whaaaat? What’s that?
I help people figure out their retirement and make sure they have a decent enough income to live on. I always thought that’s something smart people did. You know, finance. I had a giggle to myself thinking my friends in Pakistan would be rolling on the floor laughing. Ayeshah Alam – a financial advisor! But honestly I’m loving it.
I have a mug of coffee in my hands right now or I would have been rolling on the floor too.
See what I mean! But apparently I have a flair for it and I am pretty darned good at it. I got into car sales first, believe it or not. And that taught me a lot. I think everyone should work in retail at least once.
I can see you as a car salesperson actually because you aren’t shy with meeting new people and telling them what’s good for them.
(Laughs) But it was a lot of mazdoori. I had to start somewhere. Having no degree to my name was a setback. I remember calling a friend and saying the only thing I have to show for myself is I was a celebrity in Pakistan but in America who cares? He jokingly said, oh there’s a car showroom near me, why don’t you try there? They wanted to do a background check. When it came out clean I said great, now you know I’m not a criminal, do I get
That’s brilliant. I guess he figured you were pushy enough to be in the field.
Yes but I hated it! Then I got some feedback of people talking in Pakistan saying, oh look poor Ayeshah Alam has become a car salesperson. And I thought are you kidding me? I’m earning my own money, it’s honest work, what’s your problem? Interesting to see how people in Pakistan respond to someone wanting to drop the princess lifestyle and standing up on their own two feet.
There were always some women within the modelling industry who men had as trophy girlfriends. And part of the deal was that they financed these princess lifestyles. I’m not saying it was rampant, just that it existed.
Of course it did and I was never one of those girls. I remember a lot of my model friends were buying designer clothes worth thousands and I was more worried about paying my bills. I was on my own, I didn’t have a sugar daddy to fall back on.
Is there anything you miss about the old life?
I miss my friends. And maybe having the time and energy to stay up all night. Other than that – no. Everyone assumed that I was a wild thing. It’s just an image I liked to project. I don’t miss the fame. Recently a friend of mine, the actor Umair Rana, was in town with his wife and we went to a Pakistani restaurant for breakfast and everyone was coming up for autographs. I was looking at it from afar thinking I’m so happy for him but I’m really glad not to be him! I think as a generation we were instrumental in changing a lot of what was happening there, we paid our dues. As far as the media and fashion is concerned we were the innovators. And I’m very proud to be part of that.
You broke new ground as a model because you were so distinctive. And when you went into TV presenting I think people didn’t question the transformation that much because you were a natural. You didn’t look foolish asking questions.
I was very blessed with a lack of fear and an abundance of confidence. That’s a great combo. If you do anything confidently people buy into it.
How is it being married working out for you? Third time lucky?
It’s fantastic. I’ve been through a couple of rough marriages and the chances of a successful marriage decrease with each failed one. But I’ve been very fortunate. My husband is a Pathan from a conservative family and I am realising that I am far more traditional than I thought. The first two years is when we had the most fights because we didn’t know where the other person was coming from. You have to learn. And being away from Pakistan gives you a lot more freedom to do that without prying eyes. For a good marriage you have to share the same values, but you have to know what those values are first. That’s the trick.
What are your favourite Houston hotspots?
Rudy’s does a mean brisket. Agora coffee shop is just the coolest place.
What’s your desi food stop in Houston?
Yasmeen Café and Bismillah. Yasmeen Café has the best nihari and breakfast on weekends. Yasmeen Café satisfies my craving for chaat.
If you’re looking for peace in Houston where do you go?
Hmm…there is a lake in my community which I like to go to sit by sometimes to reflect.
What’s your commute to work like?
The past year it was about an hour but now it will hopefully go down to about 15-30 minutes. Houston is huge. The average commute is 30 minutes so the fact that my journey to work can be about 15 minutes on a good day is bhangra worthy!
Your Houston evening ritual?
When I get home I either cook dinner or see if there are leftovers. Then I sit back on my sofa, put on the TV and catch up on shows with my husband. Sometimes I bring home some work so I can leave earlier.
What’s your favourite weekend getaway?
In the summer there are plenty of natural water holes to which one can escape. I enjoy going river tubing! But now we are planning to venture out further. I want to rent a cabin up in hill country. That’s
what I call glamping it!
Favourite Houston art space or museum?
The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is phenomenal. They just had a Rob Mueck exhibit which was absolutely fabulous
Houston togs – what do you wear when out and about?
Summer dresses – Houston is too hot for jeans in the summer.
It takes a lot to get Aaminah Haq to talk.
She doesn’t see the point of giving an interview because she has opted out of a public life. And she doesn’t want to live in the past. I tell her this isn’t about the old Aaminah Haq, this is about the new Aaminah Haq. The woman she has become, not the girl she used to be.
Two days and many FB messages later, suddenly, she agrees.
Once she decides to talk, she bares all. There are no barriers, no cover-ups, no pretence. Pandora’s box is open. Skin and bones and flesh, hesitations and contradictions, old loves and new self-love, fathers and mothers, friendships and foes, wounds and laughter, Aaminah Haq does nothing by halves. It’s all or nothing.
Haq was a STAR at a time when many were just starlets pretending to give off light. Despite being several inches shorter than many of her contemporaries, Aaminah Haq commanded attention. And not just because she was the daughter of the infamous Sher-e-Punjab Ghulam Mustafa Khar. She inherited his roar even though they were not on the best of terms. Like him she was vocal, expressive, animated and used to stealing the show.
Haq was everyone’s first model of choice for music videos: she played a gender maverick in Faakhir’s “Mahi We,” was devastatingly beautiful as a Tharri girl in Junaid Jamshed’s “Ankhon Ko” and conquered hearts as the coquettish gold digger in Awaaz’s “Mr Fraudiye.” Drama serials brought her another level of popularity; she was one of the first Lux girls who rose to fame via TV and not film.
Today Aaminah Haq is a shopgirl and proud of it. As she should be. She has fashion clients from Russia to Brazil and has moved on from strutting on the red carpet herself to teaching others how to be the cynosure.
The wild child is all grown up.
You were at the height of your career and one day you just upped and left?
I didn’t tell anyone we were leaving. I didn’t say any goodbyes. My ex-husband (Ammar Belal) had got into the Masters programme at Parsons so I decided to go with him. But there was more to it. I had reached the top of my profession in Pakistan and didn’t know where the hell to go after that. I think I was living out my own myth, which was unbearable. Trying to be Aaminah Haq was an impossible task because everyone had an opinion on what she should say or how she should look. I really didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing talk shows or plays where I was this simpering mess of a woman needing male approval. There were times where I just couldn’t mouth the dialogues given to me. I was at war with myself over what I was projecting.
Still it was a huge move – just walking away from all that fame and fortune.
Many people wouldn’t speak to me because they thought I had run away from my life, that I was a has-been. How is working a regular job shameful? I am a luxury specialist at Bloomingdales and there are people from the Pakistan fashion scene who would seek me out to snigger. That’s Aaminah Haq, she was somebody once. In the early days when someone from Pakistan would visit Bloomingdales I would run around the store trying to avoid them but then I woke up one day and thought – wait a minute, I’m the one living in New York, I’m the one who has broken away from this image where I couldn’t do more than pout my lips and thrust my hips forward. I’m someone who has been able to make something of my life. Who are they?
You and designer Ammar Belal were together for 12 years. But now you’re divorced. Can you remain on reasonable terms with an ex?
I got a lot of grief from so many people who couldn’t understand why I wanted to be married to Ammar. But he was and is wonderful. When I look back at my marriage I think I was very blessed. It was not a marriage where I felt handicapped or kept captive in any way. Eventually we were two people who sat down and broke it off amicably. I think we’re better people today. But we could only do that because it was just us in New York sorting out our issues and doing what was best for us. In Pakistan it always felt like a million other people were in bed with us.
Talking about your modelling days, while you did a fair amount of conventional stuff, you also did some path-breaking shoots like the glam rock one with Tapu Javeri.
For me the shoots were my art, it was my way of expressing myself as an artist. I went on an incredible journey with Tapu Javeri. The work we did reflects how close we were. If my house was burning Tapu would be on speed dial. Many of the other photographers in my early days bullied me. For them I was this dumpy kid from Lahore. It was always Vinny or Iraj they preferred. But they constantly tried to pit us against each other. The night I won the Lux Style Award was when I finally got my due. It was liberating.
What was it like when you got to New York? What did you do for money?
New York brought clarity to my life. Bloomingdales was the second job I applied for and I got it. I am a luxury specialist. I collaborate with Chanel, Dior and all the luxury brands on the fourth floor. We curate wardrobes for exclusive clients and stylists. The training for the job is rigorous and endless. You constantly attend fashion seminars. You spend time at Chanel HQ learning the two hundred steps it takes to make a Chanel shoe. You begin to understand all the dynamics of the business, the thematic contents of a collection. I always loved fashion but it was only in New York that I understood it. The work is global. You’re dealing with clients who fly in from Buenos Aires or St Petersburg to buy an entire season. I have my own client book which I have built up over three years. We’re not allowed to say who but at the last Met Ball we managed to source a stunning pair of architectural Fendi shoes from the runway for a celebrity client. She was a sensation! It’s like being given a canvas to paint.
How tough was it for a Pakistani girl to make it in New York?
You have to use your wits. You must have faith in yourself. At the end of the day it wasn’t anybody’s sifarish or someone’s maama or aunty putting in a good word for me. I got it on my own merit.
How did your friends respond?
My real friends have been very supportive. In Pakistan maybe I was bored and needed something to keep me busy but I don’t need 700 friends any more.
Have you ever thought of doing a project in Pakistan – things have changed substantially since you left…
I’ve never wanted to go back with my tail between my legs. Though some thought I should when Ammar and I broke up. They said oh you’re still young, you can get married again and have children. But I wasn’t looking to grow babies. I wanted to grow up.
You’ve also had a very contentious relationship with your father, the politician Ghulam Mustafa Khar?
Here’s the thing – I think we’re both finally at peace. I had to do a little bit of growing up and realize everyone can’t be exactly who you want them to be. People have said really crappy things about my father but I also know we love each other and at the end of the day that’s what really matters. There would be times when my father would call me out of the blue when I was really having a terrible time. When you’re a supermodel everyone allows you to misbehave. It’s time to heal – you can’t be angry all your life.
I wanted to ask you about body image. You’ve been all sizes.
The skinniest I’ve been is when I first started dating Ammar. That’s the hottest I’d ever looked and it was also the time I was the unhappiest and really struggling with some demons. I had to look into the mirror and say, Aaminah is this really how you want to be? Be it eating or substance abuse. I didn’t like whom I had become. I learnt to be nicer to myself. And if that meant not being a size zero or a size four then so be it. And if that means I’m a curvy woman and I can’t possibly squeeze into the clothes that I wore then that’s okay. The world isn’t going to collapse. Your worth isn’t dependent on the adulation you get from others. We all change. Aaminah Haq at 42 is not what she was at 25.
What are your favourite NYC hotspots?
I avoid so called ”hotspots” as it’s kind of a cliché and touristy to frequent one, especially if you are over 30. I prefer going to neighbourhood gems that are fun and full of character, and moreover are devoid of Instagrammers constantly posting selfies because they want others to know they managed to get in. So no Tripadvisor suggestions for me!
What’s your desi food stop in NYC?
Kabab Kings and Haandi. I am mad about the biryani there!
If you’re looking for peace in NYC where do you go?
My R&R begins the moment I walk into my apartment.
What’s your commute to work like?
I’m fortunate that my daily commute isn’t longer than about 10-15 mins.
Your NYC evening ritual?
Walk into the apartment, take off my shoes and jacket, play with my cat Barack, check on the garden, put on some music and pop in the shower to wash the day away.
What’s your favourite weekend getaway?
Favourite NYC art space or museum?
The Neue Gallery – I love, love, love it. The restaurant there is also one of my favourite places to eat. Also, The Frick.
New York togs – what do you wear when out and about?
I spend 5-6 days a week in a work environment so what I wear most days is tailored to that with the option to carry over to dinner. A tailored jacket or fancy cardigan with a silk blouse, worn with suit pants or a pencil skirt. I like to keep my look clean, and rarely wear any jewellery to work, unless I have a big presentation. Shoes: kitten heels, loafers or a moto boot depending on what I’m wearing it with.
The Shape of you
She has the longest legs I have ever seen. They go on and on. Don’t tell me you’re not jealous. One of the most successful catwalk models of any era in Pakistan needs those kind of legs. The only other model who could compete was Iraj Manzoor, whose career spanned several generations of fashion statements. Together, they reigned over the ramp. They were our Naomi-Linda-Christy-Helena-Cindy-Claudia all rolled into two.
Aliya Zaidi still models periodically, last seen striding down the catwalk in a dramatic Shamaeel ensemble a few years ago. Her in-your-face “glam-boyance” (new word alert) can be a bit intimidating, but it is a 100% fit for the show-off nature of the ramp and the more glamorous designers. Zaidi, as she is more commonly known in a fashion industry full of Aliyas, can be seen AND heard; it was never her fate to be a wallflower.
As the years go by Zaidi has learnt to flaunt her sexuality with devastating precision. She’s also filled out, the hips began to curve out wantonly, her limbs seemed more Amazonian and undulating. Two kids and a lifetime later, Aliya Zaidi can prowl with the cultured knowledge of a panther. Simultaneously, her Facebook page began to read like a who’s who of the rich and famous in Hong Kong. Her holiday photos and infinite selfies betrayed a persevering wanderlust for the most exotic hotspots in the world.
Zaidi today is sheer drama; she is also a fiercely dedicated mother, having unexpectedly opted to be a stay-at-home mom quite early in her career. Yet in some ways, over time I have found it challenging to distinguish her from her image and images. Chatting over the crackling on Skype, she seems distant at first. Maybe a busy world does that to friends; the currents take us adrift and we sail towards our own sunsets, she on Hong Kong time, I on GMT.
The Aliya Zaidi of today summarizes herself for mass consumption; it’s a lesson in quality control. For a person who seems utterly sociable she paradoxically also clings to her privacy; you will see the Aliya she wills and not a centimetre more – but at five feet 9 inches she already stands tall. “The fragility is there, but it’s not for the world to see,” she confesses. Maybe it has receded to a safe place or maybe she’s all grown up and knows this is an interview, not a friendly chat. Either way I miss her. That regime-free, funny chatterbox Aliya Zaidi I used to giggle with when she (occasionally) skipped lightly off the pedestal.
When you left Pakistan you were at the height of your career. Did you want to move at that time or was it circumstances?
I left my modelling career at its peak, got married and moved to New York. I became a streaming media specialist for a big corporate and had the best time. But I would leave my son sleeping in the morning, come home at night and he was already sleeping. I was essentially making money to pay someone to look after my son! So we decided I would stay home and focus on the baby.
I always saw you as an ambitious person. But you opted to be a stay-at-home mum?
It’s a different stage of your life. In Pakistan there is a great support system when you have a baby. But in New York you have to do it all yourself. My mother worked. She was a principal of many colleges. I would come home from school and she wasn’t there. But in Pakistan you have everyone from aunts to in-laws to pitch in. In New York it’s just you.
So why the move to Hong Kong? It’s the other end of the world from New York.
We moved to Hong Kong about eleven years ago when I was pregnant with my second child. It was a great opportunity and a total leap of faith. It was a difficult time, my mother was very ill. I was seven months pregnant and put on bed rest. But I tell people to give themselves time in a new place. That first year will always be about adjusting. I’ve been in HK for eleven years and there’s no where else I’d rather be.
You’ve now lived twenty years outside Pakistan, so almost as many years as you’ve lived in Pakistan.
Correct but my heart is there. I am a Karachi girl. It’s my place, it’s my people. I live it up. You know me, I live big, I live large. You can leave Karachi but Karachi doesn’t leave you. I have a friend here in Hong Kong who calls me Karachi not Aliya.
So you are working now, yes?
My children are my priority so whatever I do has to work around that. I do charity events and I style food – there was this casino in Macau where I styled the shoot for 19 restaurants. But for the main part I buy properties that need TLC, do them up and rent them out. I can’t imagine going back to working for someone again. I don’t like buying places that are ready to go. I sit and work with architects, getting permits and all the nitty gritty. It’s about vision and transformation. That’s what excites me.
What was the first property renovation you did? And the most recent one?
The first was in New York on the Upper East Side – a gut renovation one-bed. Somebody had been living in it all their lives and it had not been updated since the sixties. I could knock down walls, put in pocket doors. I just did up a beach house in Malibu with light floors, made it white and clean. Now it’s a place in Hong Kong. Property values here are beyond New York and London – people from China walk in with suitcases full of cash to instant-buy.
How is your own house different?
For eight years I was in a Hong Kong high-rise on the 57th floor. An ultra-modern space with 20-feet high ceilings. Now I’ve moved to the beach and wake up to the sounds of waves. This one is full of colour, it has all my art and sculpture acquisitions over the years peppering it. This is me: I’m all colour, loud and fun! My heart is like that. My personality is like that. I love fashion, I love glamour. I will dress up even if it is to go to the market.
When I think of you in your modelling days in Karachi I remember you like that on the catwalk but you were much more toned down in real life.
As an 18 or 19 year-old student I obviously didn’t have the confidence or the experience or the cash. My values are the same. I am trying to make a smaller world for myself. When I lost both my parents within 7 weeks I think the barriers went up. I cut down on my friends. You don’t need as many people as you think you do. I am trying to create a smaller, richer world for myself
This is a question not an accusation. Would you say that all your friends while being ethnically diverse in a melting pot of a city, all come from the same social class?
You’re right. Hong Kong is the financial hub of Asia. To live here you have to be able to afford the rent and even the groceries. Nothing is grown here, it’s all imported. The school fees are ridiculously high. You’re brought together in a particular class just by definition of being in a place like Hong Kong. In New York you could be sitting next to a millionaire on the subway.
Have you picked up any Chinese?
I speak Cantonese. I have a driver and car but I use public transport. It’s not like Karachi where everyone shops at Aghas. I like going to the local markets to pick up vegetables. And I go to China for the tailors because I like designing sometimes. That’s what I like about living here. Hong Kong is a crazy, chaotic place.
You were the skinniest girl I knew and now you have curves. This filling out of Aliya Zaidi lends you new drama…
I feel more attractive now than I did in my modelling days. I am very happy with the body I have today. And so is
We’ve talked for nearly half an hour now but you just mentioned your husband. How is married life this many years down the line?
Asghar makes the money but he doesn’t need to worry about his clothes, his family, his food or his holidays. I do it all.
Is that because you’re a caring person or is that because you’re a controlling person?
Both. If I didn’t care I wouldn’t control.
So people who you care about have to worry?
What are your favourite HK hotspots?
The Pulse in Repulse Bay, Wyndham Street/Lan Kwai Fong for bar hopping. Four Seasons rooftop for soaking up sunshine. I go to the House of Qi for my weekly chilli fix – have to order the whole crab, the veggie in chilli oil and the chilli prawns.
What’s your desi food stop in HK?
Either home or one of my friend’s homes. Unfortunately, the desi food at commercial establishments in Hong Kong is not TDF.
If you’re looking for peace in HK where do you go?
Either the beach or a two-hour decadent massage – the joys of living in Asia.
What’s your commute to work like?
I love public transport here, it’s clean and efficient.
Your HK evening ritual?
Dinner with my kids, listening to their daily stories.
What’s your favourite weekend getaway?
The beach, so many close by. Hong Kong has a lot of natural beauty and we love to hike and swim. I love where we live, Repulse Bay which is right on the beach. I just love the beach and the mountains
Favourite HK art space or museum?
I love the Science Museum, followed by a walk on the promenade overlooking the harbour and views of the magnificent Hong Kong skyline.
Hong Kong togs – what do you wear when out and about?
Before midday it’s mainly yoga gear and tracks. But I love dressing up second half of day. Love that Hong Kong is a dress-up town. I enjoy wearing bright colours when the weather is grey. Probably something from Cavalli, Dolce and Gabbana, Milly, Pucci or Halston Heritage.