Interview & Intro by: Cacy Forgenie
This week, a ray of sunshine walked into our offices in the shape of Kenza Fourati, the first Arab model to pose for Sports Illustrated.
Discovered in Tunisia in 2002,Kenza placed third in the Elite Model Look Competition after being encouraged to enter by a friend of her family, and has since posed for the likes of Vogue and Marie Claire.
Politically conscious, smart and beautiful, Kenza exuded a sophistication, charm and inquisitiveness that rivaled many of the great beauties we’ve interviewed here over the years.
And why not? She’s educated, she’s politically aware, she likes to dance, she has great style and is breaking ground.
We spoke to her for nearly an hour over espresso and green tea while it poured sheets of gray outside in New York. She wore a black top with a matching wide brim black hat, a pleated, pale blue, full length skirt by Maje, a beautiful silver and turquoise ring purchased from a little shop in Paris, and an intricate silver ring from Ethiopia, a gift from her sister. The Hand of Fatima, a khomsa, was worn as protection around her neck. We were 43 stories above midtown and our conversation was far from dry. Here’s some of what we discussed.
How does being a Muslim woman from Tunisia work with being a model?
I get this question a lot, but I don’t see it as being exclusive. Of course, the culture is a little bit conservative, but it’s not a problem either. Also, I think Tunisia has a specific place in the Arab world and in Africa because it is a tiny Muslim country; but it’s very open minded. It’s the first country to start the Arab Spring for example.
When you consider the relationship between Islam and the West, it seems that North African countries are more tolerant about certain things regardless of religious beliefs. For example, Morocco is seen as the “free spirit” of Muslim nations.
Tunisia is way more free than Morocco [laughs]. It’s true! Even if you just look at the laws. We had family planning, the protection of women, divorce, abortion rights around the same time as in Europe; so way before Morocco! Algeria was a colony, Morocco and Tunisia were “protected” by the French. The Arab world is seen as an entity, so different from the rest of the world. But, North Africa is different from the Middle East. And it’s true that, I think, we have a stronger bond with the West — geographically, too.
If you were asking me how it is to be a Muslim in America, it’s much harder to be a North African in France than to be a foreigner here in America. Have you ever been to France?
Yes, I’ve been to France a few times.
What did you think?
There are a lot problems there, especially with citizens from former French colonies.
Yes, there is a social problem. For example, we had the revolution on January 14th, before the Egyptian Revolution. The riots were growing and growing. We watched other foreign countries take a stand with Tunisia and the last country to stand with us, the one we have the strongest relationship with, was France. They almost took the side of the dictator. The French politicans didn’t get it at all. At that time, that action was almost like a divorce. But the press and the majority were supportive there. On the other hand, Obama said he would stand by the people fighting for their rights.
You have a great political awareness. Is it the same with other Tunisians from your generation?
We had a dictator for 23 years. We never experienced democracy. Now that people fought for it, everyone feels very involved so I am absolutely not an exception. Like every other African country, it’s a very young country where the majority of the population is under 30. And social media is extremely powerful there. But now that the word is free, it clashes a lot.
I’ll give you an example: I worked with some young artists from Tunisia and we did a body painting photoshoot, a poem of Victor Hugo about how love for the other is the only redemption possible. It made the cover of a magazine and you can’t imagine what the reaction was!
We are at a point now in Tunisia where we are free. We should be able to portray art like this if we want to, as the extremists are allowed to express themselves too. That is a debate that we want to create but it must be a peaceful one.
Can you talk about your experience in France?
My grandmother is French so I was there often. I went to the French lycee (school) in Tunisia so I feel French as well. But when I moved there to live, the experience was different. I remember people suggesting to me that I shouldn’t say I was from Tunisia! I found that very shocking at the time. I thought, “Why would anyone ever suggest that?”
I am proud of where I come from. I didn’t think twice about changing my name so I could work more.
What was your experience in New York like?
The first time I came to New York I was 14, I was on holiday and I loved it! I knew that I would come back to live here. It’s a city that makes you feel, very quickly, at home.
Have you ever been to a mosque here?
You’ve never prayed in New York?
I don’t pray in mosques, it’s not a common place for women to go. At least where I come from.
A lot of people are converting to Islam here, especially people from the Black community.
Yeah, there’s a deep history with that, that goes back many years. It has to do with the oppression Black folks were going through after slavery ended and after the Great Migration from the South to the North for economic opportunity, segregation and Jim Crow, where people were being lynched and discriminated against.
The Nation of Islam was the organization that’s responsible for the Islamic consciousness of Black Americans, people like Wallace D. Fard, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.
Malcolm X was a Muslim, right?
But he converted late in his life.
Yes, he converted late in his life. He was a hustler and he got locked up, came out of jail and joined the Nation of Islam. A lot of Black Americans who are converting have similar experiences. They are converting while in prison or when they get out.
When you are in such dire situations, you go into yourself, and start to think politically; think about your place in the universe and in America; and Islam speaks to them. That type of Islam, because there are so many versions of Islam.
That’s the thing most Americans don’t understand: that Islam isn’t just a monolithic thing; there are so many ways of practicing Islam. There’s a mystical aspect of Islam, there’s a strict version of Islam where there’s no room for interpretation or association. Islam is very complex but traditional media portrays it as extremely dangerous and corrupt.
And it’s not like that; and I think that’s what Malcolm X discovered, too. He was a certain type of Muslim in America but when he went on Hajj he discovered that white people can be Muslims, too. His consciousness changed again. When he returned from Hajj, he was a different person. The Islam he saw around the world was different from what he saw and experienced here and it upset the balance of things.
What do you think of the riots in London? It made me think of France with the riots they go through every few years with young people.
Exactly! I was having a conversation with a British friend yesterday. In France, it’s still very difficult to find a job or an apartment if you have a certain type of name or look, so people from second generations mainly grow angry against the system. It’s not the same in the UK. You can’t compare the two, I think. I truly believe though there is a malaise worldwide.
Yes, it is difficult but the similarities they share are that there are young people doing these things.
Because they don’t have jobs, no money; and their anger is growing. It’s terrible.
Do you come from a large family?
No, I come from a family of women. Women are very powerful! That’s why I believe in women’s rights and why I fight for it. The rights are there in the laws, but the mentality can still be too conservative. It has to improve.
How did you become a model?
I was scouted in Tunisia. A friend of my mother’s suggested I enter the Elite Model Look Competition.
I think it’s very important now to see that there is Islamophobia growing all over the world and there is a problem with communication between the two worlds. I think it’s important to send the right message that there is no exclusivity. I grew up in a Muslim culture but I can still be a swimsuit model, too! Why should the two be exclusive? It is not, I am very supported back home.
How long ago was the competition and how long have you been modeling?
The competition was in 2002. I started modeling a few years back after finishing high school. Then I moved to Paris.
What was your reaction when you learned that you were shooting for Sports Illustrated?
When I got the call for Sports Illustrated I was, of course, very excited and proud. It’s a huge opportunity and, in a way, an accomplishment to be featured in such an institution. I had, for half a second, mixed feelings about how it will be perceived back home, but I was wrong to feel this way when I saw how proud people were.
Who is your favorite designer?
[Laughs] I have a lot!
Did you go to university?
Yes, I did it online because I was working. I have a degree in French Literature from Sorbonne; and then I started a Master’s in filmmaking.
Who are your favorite filmmakers?
I have a lot but I like some Truffaut. Les Quatre Cents Coups ( “The 400 Blows”). I liked “400 Blows” a lot.
And who do you like in literature?
I like writers who tell stories, like Giono, Calvino.
What do you like to do for fun?
I like to dance! I like to go dancing, usually. I like to hang out with my friends.
What kind of music do you like to dance to?