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Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

Hanaa Ben AbdesslemHanaa Ben Abdesslem, born on the 18th of October, 1990 is a Tunisian model. She has worked with such designers as Jean Paul Gautier, Vivienne Westwood, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, and Anna Sui. She is the first Arab model to be featured in the Pirelli calendar and is also the first Muslim spokesmodel for the French perfume and cosmetic house Lancôme.

Ben Abdesslem was a contestant on Mission Fashion 2 in 2007, the Lebanese version of Project Runway where she placed second. She was studying engineering before deciding to become a model.

In 2010, she signed with IMG modeling agency and got her runway debut in London with Vivienne Westwood in 2010; She walked for Givenchy in the same year.

In 2011, she walked for such brands as Chanel, Thierry Mugler, Giambattista Valli, Ralph Lauren, Anna Sui, Oscar de la Renta, Jean Paul Gaultier, Narciso Rodriguez, and Hermès.

Lancôme signed Ben Abdesslem in 2012, making her the first Muslim spokesperson for their brand.

She has posed for Vogue Paris, Italy, Netherlands, Thailand, Spain and Germany. Ben Abdesslem has also been featured in W, Dazed and Confused, V, and the Russian magazine Interview.

Haute couture brand Ralph & Russo chose Ben Abdesslem to close their 2014-15 Autumn/Winter collection. In 2016 she moved to NEXT Model Management worldwide.

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem is a 5 foot 10 inch beauty who lit up the modeling scene in 2010 and in just two years has made significant strides. Her runway choices have been selective: only the top shows from New York to Paris, including Oscar de la Renta, Givenchy and Chanel.

Earlier this year she landed the modeling holy grail - a cosmetics campaign, with Lancome - making her the first Arabic woman to front a major beauty brand. She certainly stands out with her short dark haircut and high cheek bone structure, but her soft demeanor is what's truly captivating.

Hanaa Ben AbdesslemHer hometown is Nabeul, Tunisia and when askled said her personal style is a mixture of minimalist and rock chic.

"During the summer, I love the warm glow that the sun at the beaches in Tunisia provide. This summer, I have traveled to Cannes, New York, Paris, Brazil and Tunisia, but my favorite location is still Tunisia, of course!"

"I would like to go on my next vacation to visit Turkey - Maybe to Bodrum and Istanbul with my mom."

This Muslim model - who doesn't drink alcohol or smoke - is hell-bent on changing perceptions of the modelling industry at home in Tunisia.

She told New York Magazine: "(People in Tunisia) have this misconception of what modeling is about. Modeling can be a career choice, too. I plan to change this misconception within my culture."

This rising star Tunisian model has walked the runway for Vivienne Westwood, Givenchy and Ralph Lauren - she is a dead ringer for another Lancôme spokesmodel Isabella Rossellini. Youcef Nabi, President of Lancôme International, said: "It’s incredible how much Hanaa reminds me of Isabella Rossellini."

"I met an Arab woman named Sophie Galal, who shared my views and ideas about changing and exposing the true challenges of the modeling profession for the Arab world."

"She soon became my manager and presented me to IMG."

But despite her intentions to shake things up, the Muslim model is still immensely proud of her roots. She remarked in an interview: "My country is rich in history and traditions."

"It’s a culture that’s been influenced and shaped by a succession of previous civilizations that includes the Berbers, Phoenicians, Romans, Fatimid Arabs and the Ottomans."

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem"I grew up surrounded by all these influences and I am proud to be a part of that culture."

The decision to hire a North African model was no doubt more than a coincidence. The modelling industry is beginning to expand, looking for girls from across the world to represent diverse cultures.

Paul Rowland, head of Ford's women's division told the New York Times: "My ideal legacy at Ford would be to open up the idea of beauty, not only being classic but being global."

"I want to find girls in Egypt or Sri Lanka or India — all the places where people don’t look."

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem is engaged! The Tunisian model announced the happy news via Instagram.

“Out of all of my fingers, this one is now my favorite! It sure does have a ring to it - Never thought I could experience such joy until I met you. You have opened my heart to a new part of life, making it complete. I say yes to you my darling, I say yes to life, to an endless love,” she said of her engagement to long-time love, Amerpal.

Speaking to Vogue.me, Amerpal revealed how he selected his bride-to-be’s engagement ring. “The ring was made for Abdesslem by Van Cleef & Arpels at their Mayfair branch. It is set with a diamond so exquisite. It is representative of Abdesslem’s beauty.”

As for the wedding, the couple revealed that they are going to tie the knot with a traditional Tunisian ceremony, in Abdesslem home nation of Tunisia.

The model’s choice of attire will also pay homage to her roots. Abdesslem told Vogue.me that aside from wearing a traditional Tunisian dress during the religious ceremony, she will also don a contemporary dress crafted by a Tunisian designer.

People are beyond excited for the Tunisian supermodel, who first made waves in the Arab world in 2012, when she became the first muslim to lend her face to Lancôme‘s international campaign.

Abdesslem was also the first Arab model to be featured in the Pirelli calendar (a glamour trade calendar published by the brand’s UK subsidiary) and, has also modeled for some of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses. Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta and, Thierry Mugler, being a few. That’s not all, the 28-year-old has also been a muse for Azzedine Alaïa, for many years.

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem“One of my first gigs was with French Vogue and one or two months later I signed a contract with Lancôme - this was one of my biggest dreams.”

This is how Hanaa Ben Abdesslem describes the stellar launch of her modeling career. With her high cheekbones and jet-black pixie cut, the Tunisian model has walked for some of the most prestigious fashion houses. Ben Abdesslem, who was one of Vogue Arabia’s cover stars alongside Farida Khelfa, Kenza Fourati, and Afef Jnifen. She has graced the runways of Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, and Vivienne Westwood. A game-changer in her own right, Ben Abdesslem was the first Arab model to feature in a Pirelli calendar and the first Muslim brand ambassador for cosmetics maison Lancôme.

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem made shock waves in the Arab world when she was announced as the face of Lancôme – one of the first times a woman of Arab descent has performed such a role for a large-scale beauty company.

Since then, Ben Abdesslem has become a role model and an inspiration to women in the Middle East and beyond. Right now, you can find her walking the runway at international Fashion Weeks and enjoying a fast-paced life of travel, fashion, and fun.

Though she has access to and appreciation for the industry’s top designers, Ben Abdesslem’s personal shopping preferences might surprise, and so will her personal style. This down-to-earth beauty prefers finding unique pieces in far-flung locales and wearing jeans and T-shirts to the fashion world’s more flashy fare.

"I love artisanal boutiques in Tunisia, as well as stores that offer unique pieces. My style is casual and consists mostly of jeans and T-shirts with a few accessories. It is influenced by fashion trends and what I feel best reflects my personality."

"I stay healthy by eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and these are always available to me in my favorite travel destinations like Istanbul, Dubai, and Lebanon. I go to the gym at least three times a week. I don’t have a personal trainer, but I work out with my manager and friend, Sophie."

Hanaa Ben AbdesslemOn the day after walking in Chanel’s spring/summer 2011 Haute Couture show in Paris, Tunisian model Hanaa Ben Abdesslem returned to her homeland to volunteer at a refugee camp during the Arab Spring - indicative of a girl with her priorities in order.

Back in 1935, Bettina Ballard, at the time a young Paris-based fashion editor for American Vogue, recalled attending a Madame Alix Grès presentation at the couturier’s cramped salon on Paris’s Faubourg SaintHonoré.

Keeping her audience waiting as she pinned together her last dress backstage, Madame Grès’ show finally began with the appearance of her favourite model - "a beautiful Indo-Chinese girl who would weave into the room, draped skintight in jersey.”

Since couture’s earliest days, Paris designers have been known to scatter their intimate presentations with a host of exotic beauties. Long before the advent of jet travel, such models imparted a certain flair to their creations, while alluding to a larger more cosmopolitan world far beyond the walls of the couture salons.

In the 1920s, exiled White Russians were much in demand for their reed-thin frames and aristocratic allure. While the 1950s saw the emergence of feted mannequins such as Alla, a Eurasian beauty with soaring cheekbones who became a star attraction at Dior’s shows, in addition to Balenciaga and a Givenchy favourite China Machado, whose blended Portuguese and Chinese ethnicity was captured by Richard Avedon for the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.

Relegated to the margins of fashion history until recently, the presence of these multi-ethnic models at the Paris couture houses points to the fashion world’s early fascination with the culturally ambiguous.

The evening before presenting his autumn/winter 2012 couture collection - with lights emanating through the windows of Jean Paul Gaultier’s headquarters in Paris. Inside, moneyed clients and jaded editors alike must pass an inscription heralding the "future of the proletariat" on their way up to Gaultier’s couture salon - an obvious reminder of the building’s previous life as the home of the French Socialist party.

Upstairs, the couture workrooms would be in a buzz as the house’s petite mains work late into the early morning to complete a number of half-finished gowns.

Hanaa Ben AbdesslemIn the middle of this tiny tempest stands Gaultier, calmly conducting a final fitting on Tunisian model Hanaa Ben Abdesslem who is wearing the wedding gown that will close his show.

Pinching at fabric and adjusting the dress, the designer steps back to examine the dress on her, all the while carrying on multiple conversations with the heads of his ateliers, consulting sketches pinned on every available wall surface, and reaching for a nearby table piled with a profusion of glittering jewels, gloves and headpieces.

The Tunisian model beams as the designer perches a skeletal top hat of ivory satin on her head. “That was a big moment for me,” confides Hanaa, seated in a crowded café in Midtown Manhattan a few days after Gaultier’s show.

“It was a huge honour to be picked as the bride, especially since Gaultier was one of the first designers to use me. He’s very down to earth and funny backstage, and it’s his ability to engage with people that makes working with him so enjoyable.”

At the time, few of the editors or photographers in attendance could guess the androgynous beauty’s background, let alone her name. When she first began working in Paris and New York people often assumed she was French or Spanish.

“I would tell them I was from Tunisia, and very few would have heard of it or could point it out on a map,” recalls Hanaa, who flies in the face of Western assumptions of what an Arab woman should look like.

Translating more naturally to an international audience, her hard-to-pin-down exotic looks earned her a coveted beauty contract with Lancôme. Her universal appeal also serves to highlight the diversity of skin tones and features found throughout the Arab world, the result of a cross-cultural mix that has been going on for centuries.

Yet Hanaa’s appearance on international catwalks has also sparked a debate within the region surrounding local beauty standards, one in which she often didn’t fit in to.

“I was very aware that I looked different from a young age. Especially being tall and skinny in a culture where having voluptuous curves is considered beautiful,” she remembers.

Hanaa Ben AbdesslemHanaa pointed out that modelling gave her a sense of confidence and empowerment. While working in Beirut’s fashion industry early in her career, she also observed an approach to beauty that differed considerably from its Western counterparts.

“When I first began modelling in Lebanon, the girls tended to be heavily made up and it was always this extreme notion of beauty,” said Hanaa who wears very little make-up.

“There seems to be this perception that in order to be attractive you need to wear a lot of make-up. But I think the fashion world has a responsibility to show young girls that there are different ways to be beautiful, and that there shouldn’t be only one standard to go by."

Although the decision to chop off her hair into a Jean Seberg-looking bob helped catapult her career into international recognition Hanaa struggled with parting from her long tresses. “I was by no means the first Tunisian woman to cut her hair short, and there are plenty of women there today who continue to wear their hair that way. But I was initially hesitant because since childhood it’s been engrained in us that to be beautiful, Arab women must have long hair.”

“I remember asking the hairdresser to cover the mirror. I didn’t want to watch the process, but when I finally looked at myself I was very happy with the results. It was very elegant and androgynous at the same time,” recalls the model who found an unexpected fan in her mother.

“Although she was absolutely in tears when she first found out I had cut my hair, the irony is that she’s now grown to love it. When I walked Gaultier’s recent show, all the girls had to wear long wigs and she told me she preferred my shorter hair after seeing pictures of me on the catwalk.”

That Gaultier should have picked the 22-year-old from the Tunisian village of Nabuel to close his couture show came as no surprise to those who have followed his career over a 30-year span.

Considered one of fashion’s most influential and original thinkers, he has long been inspired by subcultures that have encompassed British punks, Mexican surrealists and the Paris North African immigrant communities.

His fascination with the other also extends to his choice of models, frequently prodding and questioning prevailing notions of beauty by casting a diversity of ages, genders and ethnicities in his shows.

Hanaa Ben AbdesslemAmongst his long-time muses is the French-Algerian style icon Farida Khelfa, who was recently tapped as the new face of Elsa Schiaparelli. During the 1980s she frequently appeared in Gaultier’s shows and ad campaigns before becoming the directrice of his couture salon; a powerful position that afforded her access to both the clients and ateliers.

As far back as the 1930s, the Paris couture establishment included a number of Arab personalities within its ranks. Amongst them was Madeleine Vionnet’s Egyptian manager, who presided over the couturier’s Art Deco salon at 50 Avenue Montaigne, ensuring that her creations appeared on the best dressed women of the day.

This tight-knit circle of couture devotees also included a number of clients from the Middle East who frequently appeared in the society pages of top fashion magazines, such as the dark Egyptian beauty Madame Elouy-Bey as well as Madame Henri Pharaon of Beirut.

Although there have been rare instances of young women from the region breaking into the modelling business over the decades, their stories seldom surfaced in the mainstream media.

Lebanese-born Mona Ross was one of the few to have pursued a successful career in the early 1970s, modelling for the likes of Dior and Balmain in Paris, as well as Oscar de la Renta in New York.

For Hanaa, who spent her childhood leafing through French fashion magazines in search of faces that resembled her own, there were few tangible examples of a successful Arab model.

“There weren’t any role models that I could single out to show my parents that modelling could be a viable career choice,” recalls Hanaa, who came to admire Farida Khelfa long before the two eventually crossed paths during a chance encounter after Chanel’s spring 2011 couture presentation.

“I went up to her after the show to tell her how much I admire her, and she asked me where I was from. She couldn’t believe that an Arab girl had made it to the Chanel runway.”

Her icon, who invited her to dinner shortly afterwards. “She asked me about my dreams and what I would like to do after modelling. I told her I wanted to take everything I had learned from this experience and channel it into something positive back in Tunisia - like the many talented young Tunisians she wanted to expose to the world."

Their conversation that evening inspired Farida to create a documentary about the role played by Tunisia’s youth in the country’s regime change. Une Jeunesse Tunisienne captured a moment in their lives, a snapshot taken exactly six months after Ben Ali fled the country.

With the help of Hanaa and her older brother Walid, who also appear in the film, Farida was able to tell the stories of young artists, photographers and dancers who became cyber-activists in their bid for positive change.

“I was very inspired by her can-do attitude, and it made me want to do more for my country,” Hanaa adds.

Hanaa Ben AbdesslemNot content with her new-found fame as the first Arab face of Lancôme, the Tunisian-born model has also been using her growing influence to bring attention to humanitarian causes in her homeland.

“I wasn’t with my family in Tunisia when the revolution took place, and because of that I felt a need to give back to my country in some way and take part in its transformation,” says Hanaa.

One of the ways she decided to give back was to volunteer at the Ras Jdir refugee camp by the Libyan border, where 25,000 people were seeking refuge from the civil war.

For Hanaa, who had flown in the day after modelling couture on the Chanel catwalk, it was a surreal experience travelling to another world in the span of 24 hours, where thousands of tents stretched into the horizon.

“It wasn’t just about distributing food to families, but the simple act of listening to them. There were so many mothers and young girls who had made the journey on their own, and what they needed more than anything at that moment was a sympathetic ear,” she explained.

The experience opened her eyes to the possibility of using her own connections to the fashion world to improve the lives of others in her country.

“That’s why I decided to join Esmaani (Listen to Me), an association in Tunis that provides a network of resources for people in need, from hospital care to food. It’s not about waiting for the government to provide these resources, but taking the initiative to do it oneself."

"I realised that, being a model with an international audience, I have a responsibility to bring attention to important causes in my country. If my voice and presence can help in some way then I will do it,” says Hanaa, who would also like to help Tunisia’s burgeoning fashion industry by collaborating with students at ESMOD, the fashion school established in the capital in 1988.

For a small country hugging North Africa’s Mediterranean coast, Tunisia has had a long relationship with the fashion world. Its picturesque towns and desert oasis have been used as a backdrop to countless fashion shoots, while Paris has attracted a number of Tunisian-born talents over the decades.

Hanaa Ben AbdesslemAmong them is the late designer Loris Azzaro, whose glamorous beaded evening gowns, featuring daring cut-outs, came to define the decadent 1970s.

“I let myself get carried by the atmosphere of the country of my childhood with its spiced odours, colours and perfumes - a country where my preferred colour is everywhere, azure of the sea and sky,” recalled the designer who counted Marisa Berenson, the era’s ‘It’ girl and legendary model, amongst his fans.

Ironically, Berenson’s grandmother, the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, was often inspired by traditional Tunisian dressmaking techniques, which she would later interpret into some of her most iconic designs.

Having first visited the country as a child with her father, later in life Schiaparelli purchased a house in Hammamet, spending much of her retirement travelling between Paris and Tunisia until she passed away on November 13th, 1973.

Leila Menchari, Hermès’ legendary creative director, is another Tunisian transplant who has made an impact within Paris’ fashion circles. Since 1977 she has been concocting the whimsical window displays at the maison’s Faubourg Saint-Honoré premises; earning her a retrospective in 2010 at L’Institut du Monde Arabe.

Leila was introduced to the fashion world by another fellow Tunisian, Azzedine Alaïa. Through him she met the couturier Guy Laroche, who hired her as an in-house model. Considered a master amongst Paris couturiers for his deep knowledge of garment construction, Alaïa has earned the respect of fashion editors and models alike, who clamour to wear his innovative body-contouring knits and expertly tailored suits.

“I’ve always wanted to work with Alaïa. He’s a true artist,” says Hanaa who, like the talented Tunisian-born designer, is leaving her imprint on the fashion world.

Despite her success, the model is quick to point out that challenges still exist for Arab and Muslim girls looking to break into a business that rewards exhibitionism over modesty.

“You grow up very quickly in this profession. I remember when I first began, I would encounter girls backstage at the shows who were much younger than me yet seemed a lot more mature. I had to be strong early on and not compromise my values."

"Most of the designers, photographers and publications I work with respect my decision to not pose nude,” says Hanaa, who has been photographed by the likes of Mario Sorrenti, Terry Richardson, Mario Testino, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.

“I’ve been lucky to have worked with some visionary editors and photographers over the years who have helped nurture my career,” adds the model, who also dreams of posing for Steven Meisel and Paolo Roversi one day.

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem“When I was growing up, there weren’t any fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar Arabia that offered an alternative platform for fashion and beauty in the Arab World. It is one of the reasons I was excited to work with this publication,” adds Hanaa, who has also grown as she continues to learn the ins and outs of the business.

“Modelling is very much about character building. When you find yourself having to use the subway in a foreign city or ask for directions, you become self-reliant very quickly. Being independent is probably one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in the last few years,” says the model, crediting her manager and modelling agency, IMG, with creating a support system that has helped her grow professionally.

Raised within the comfort of an extended Tunisian family, there was always a brother, uncle or cousin available to lend a hand; a level of security Hanaa had to do without as she began travelling around the world on modelling assignments.

“In a sense my agency has become my second family when I am away from home. Whether I am in Paris or New York, I know I can always stop by their offices if I need anything. Sophie Galal, my manager who is originally from Saudi Arabia, has also been incredibly supportive. Because we share a similar cultural background, she understands where I’m coming from and some of the challenges I face.”

Hanaa is also changing perceptions within the fashion industry; especially in a post-9/11 world where misconceptions about the Muslim and Arab World persist.

“People I’ve encountered often assume that being Muslim means one is extremely conservative. There is also a tendency to look at the Arab World as one big monolithic entity with little variation from one country to the next, when in fact there is a rich diversity of ethnicities, cultures and even religions throughout the region.”

“In the West there seems to be this fixation with the veil, and journalists often ask me if I wear a burqa when I’m back home. Little do they know that women in Tunis were one of the first in the region to discard the veil, and that many progressive laws were passed over the decades to protect their rights".

“I try to explain that the veil isn’t simply a part of the region’s traditions, but also a choice women have in the way they choose to express their cultural identity. Within a single family one can find a mix of generations who choose to go with or without the veil, and respecting that freedom of choice is important.”

“Success in the fashion world is often based on being in the right place at the right time. Today the industry is ready and willing to listen to our stories, and a lot of it has to do with the changes sweeping through the region. But it’s important to remember that even if that door has opened, it can close again. It’s now up to us to keep prying it open in order to maintain our presence in the fashion world.”

From an interview in Harpers Bazaar Arabia

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Bonesetters Waiting Room

In the Bonesetter's Waiting Room:
Travels Through Indian Medicine

BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week India defies definition, and the story of medicine in India is similarly rich and complex: shaped by unique challenges and opportunities, uniting cutting-edge technological developments with ancient cultural traditions, fuelled by political changes which transformed the lives of millions and moulded by the energy of forceful individuals. Here, Aarathi Prasad investigates how Indian medicine came to be the way it is. Her travels will take her to bonesetter clinics in Jaipur and Hyderabad and the waiting-rooms of Bollywood's best plastic surgeons, and introduce her to traditional healers as well as the world-beating heart surgeon who is revolutionising treatment of the poor around the globe.

Like a Virgin

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Sexual evolution is a slippery business. Like all mammals, we humans seem to have been left no choice in the matter: even though it is costly, inefficient and dangerous, if we want to reproduce we simply have to have sex. Yet most human cultures tell the tale of a maiden who gives birth untouched by a man; and in the wild there are plenty of creatures such as turkeys, komodo dragons, sharks and the "Jesus Christ" lizard (which walks on water, too) that take various approaches to reproducing without sex.

In LIKE A VIRGIN, the biology writer Aarathi Prasad discusses how reproduction without sex is achieved in animals and explores why evolution hasn't made it an option for humans“ yet. In doing so, she provides a quirky, entertaining and perceptive overview of the mysteries of evolutionary biology, sex and reproduction – past, present and future.

It is a remarkable story that ranges across Greek mythology, natural history, agriculture, conservation and medicine; takes in some of the most exciting areas of developmental genetics and molecular biology that other popular science books largely ignore; and is packed full of a cast of amazing characters, be they obscure animals or eccentric scientists such as the respected geneticist Dr Helen Spurway who in the UK in the 1950s unwittingly sparked a nationwide search for a virgin mother.

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Publisher: Oneworld (UK/US)
Pub Date: 16 August 2012
Status: Draft manuscript
Length: 288 pages

All rights available excluding:
UK & Commonwealth, US, Arabic (Arab Scientific), Japan (East Press)

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Yabanci is a book by a Dutch woman who moved from Holland to Turkey to start a new life in a Turkish village overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A great read for those who are considering a move abroad or have lived in a different culture. Available in English as an ebook or in Dutch in both print and popular ebook formats... take a look

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