Model of the moment, Tara Emad has left her mark across Egypt and beyond, plastered on billboards, filling magazines and dominating runways, all by the tender age of 21. Here she talks hard work, family values and scaling the fashion ladder in heels.
When we arrive with Tara Emad at the rooftop of the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, for our interview in the glass-encased Upper Deck lounge, we have to make our way across the outdoor pool area and up the stairs to get there. But it’s raining. Not a few casual droplets left over in the clouds kind of rain, but torrential downpour rain. I glance awkwardly at Tara, unsure of how to proceed. “You wanna make a run for it?” she asks, flashing a smile. And it’s that easy going spirit that perpetually radiates from the towering brunette that has helped her secure her spot in the modelling world, earning a reputation for being easy to work with and landing her avalanche of gigs by only 21.
Firmly entrenched in the industry since the fresh-faced age of 14, there was never any question in her mind about what she wanted to do. “I’ve always wanted to model since I was a kid - since I remember any memory of myself, I always imitated girls and fashion shows.” A few TV ads peppered throughout her single-digit years eventually turned into her very first cover, which took her onto the runway for a few shows as a teen. “In my first show they asked me if I could walk in heels and I was like, don’t worry I got it all under control – but I’d NEVER walked in heels before,” she laughs, burying her face in her hands. “I was so scared but I’m like, Tara you’re gonna do this, this is your chance, make it or break it. I was 14 at the time.” That show eventually turned into a verified, veritable, full-fledged modelling career. Now there’s nary a billboard in the city that her doe-eyed face isn’t plastered on, a runway her and her mile long legs haven’t strutted down, nor a campaign or designer she hasn’t collaborated with.
Her ability to ascend the modelling ladder at such a young age is part sheer commitment on her side – “when I started out, each and every Saturday for two years I used to go to modelling courses it; was a huge dedication,” – but must also be partially attributed to her ever-present professionalism. And her dedication extends to ensuring that she creates an atmosphere around her where people genuinely want to work with her, not based on her appearance or abilities, but her work ethic. “It’s about your attitude and your behaviour. If you’re not a person that people are comfortable working with, you’ll never book a job,” she says simply. “People will want to work with a model because they know what they’re doing, they’re professional, they’re not here to fool around. Because there’s a lot of money involved in this; there’s a client, there’s a photographer, there’s a makeup artist... So when you come unprepared, or you’re complaining every two minutes, you’re basically wasting everyone’s time.” She says all this in earnest, all wide-eyed innocence, clad in perfect off-duty model attire complete with a fedora, leather jacket and kaleidoscopic assortment of accessories scattered on her wrists and neck. Her demeanour is so cute and bubbly, she's such a darling, that her syrupy sweetness could almost come off as disingenuous, except she seems sincere in her sentiments.
“I believe that the behaviour of the model and her attitude can dramatically change the perspective of people towards her, especially in the industry where it’s everything. If you’re nice to the people, if you respect people, that’s what earns your reputation,” she says honestly. There is something innately childlike – but not childish – about her, but she’s smart; she knows what to say and what not to say. Hardly a rookie, the girl has been on the opposite side of a lens her entire life; she’s adept and accustomed to the limelight, the interviewing process and flashbulbs. She has the uncanny ability, like politicians, not to evade the question but to set her answer on a path where she carefully emphasises the points she wants highlighted. But it does not seem like a manipulative manoeuvre; she’s simply aware of the spotlight on her.
Her rise to model of the moment can be partially attested to familial support. “My entire family has always supported me. It’s a blessing,” she says sincerely. Despite that, she’s aware that her chosen profession is not exactly an exalted career choice, particularly in the Arab world. “Of course, some people view modelling as negative. Look, since the beginning, I knew I’d face a lot of criticism and negative energy from people because of my career,” she says before pausing for a moment. “It’s. Just. Another. Job! I’m trying my best to change people’s perspective towards modelling in Egypt and in the Middle East. But it breaks my heart when I’m sitting at university and then this girl goes ‘I want to act but my dad says no, we don’t have girls who act.’ Then it makes me think, why is my family supportive while others are not?”
Her family’s mixed lineage – her mother in Montenegrin, her father Egyptian – may account for their slightly more open minded approach to her career. It certainly accounts for her looks, which blend Egyptian with European and have certainly been a large part of her success. But there are loads of pretty girls and it becomes clear that it is instead her ability to translate her appearance into a 2D visual vernacular that has enabled her to rise in the industry. Though she’s shy – not insecure – in person, the minute the camera is aimed at her, you’ll see her come alive. “I’m still not 100% confident but in front of the camera... it’s a whole new Tara up there. It’s like, I’m confident, I don’t see anyone around me, I could shoot in a street with a million people staring, and I just don’t see them. I’m in my bubble.” She is undeniably in her element and with every rapid fire click of the camera she is constantly altering her poses; not radical changes, but tiny, incremental adjustments that still carry a visual impact. “It’s this person you become when you’re in front of the camera,” she says of modelling, her eyes glistening, “It’s a person that’s inside me that no one else sees except the camera.”
And though she’s a natural in front of the camera, she’s not that type of girl who brushes it off her talent as OMG, I’m so beautiful and it all comes so easy to me. “If you want to stay in the industry you have to continuously work on yourself; your diet, your food, your face, your poses; everything related to this business basically,” she says frankly.
Though modelling may be tedious at times – “wearing a thin chiffon dress in below freezing temperatures... that’s the worst thing ever!” – she freely admits it is not rocket science but gracefully so. “Yes, I guess when you think of it, modelling is easy – you walk in heels, you take pictures, you try on dresses, that’s it. But it’s still hard because you have to have patience, you have to continue to work on yourself. If I want to do different photo shoots for different clients, I have to learn new poses. I have to know myself, my flaws, how to not accentuate them, how to look better in pictures. So it’s all about training.”
Though she may concede it is not a typically difficult career even if you do have to work at it, she refuses to see it as a vain one. “I don’t think that modelling is a superficial job. Because you learn so much; it’s just a different type of experience,” she says. But a profession largely based on someone being paid to look pretty could easily be classified as such. “Well, in the beginning, when I started modelling, I didn’t think about it,” she says slowly. “But later on I’m like, what am I adding to society when I’m taking pictures or doing fashion shows or basically, feeling happy with this dress on or with this makeup or with this photo shoot? I don’t have to be adding something huge as much as it’s these little moments of people seeing something nice and feeling happy. When I put a dress on, I’m not promoting myself, I’m promoting the dress. I’m making the designer happy because this is their work being showcased, so he or she is the star of the night. That’s their hard work and I’m there to support them, and I’m happy doing this.”
Her own support system comes largely in the form of her mother, who has managed her career from day one. At the same time, her mother is often discussed as a source of contention in Cairo’s style circles. Notoriously protective of her daughter, some have criticised her involvement in Tara’s career. “People have to talk to her first before coming to me, because she’s the manager, she’s the one that deals with everything. And lots of people are like, ‘no, we don’t wanna talk to you mum,’ and I’m like, then you can’t talk to me because she’s not my mummy, she’s my manager,” she emphasises. She says this not defensively, but as though trying to truly get her point across; people need to respect her mother’s professional role in her life, regardless of familial relations. “It’s so hard for people here to understand that. When it comes to work, she is my manager. That’s it.”
Another point of contention that has swirled around the 5’ 8” model is the persistent chant of “Tara et7ara2et (Tara’s overexposed).” She’s heard it before, and she resents it but, ever the professional, she answers without aggression. “Check each and every photo shoot. I look painfully different in each and every one! If they think I’m burned out, then why are clients hiring me to work again?” she asks simply. “From time to time, I’m like, oops, I’m here again. But when you change your characters in shoots, it shows the different perspectives of that same person, so different people want to work with you. You can’t take every job, of course, so it’s about playing it smart,” she explains. “I need to establish myself so people don’t say ‘I want this girl’ they say ‘I want Tara’ – Tara by name.”
And people certainly want Tara. Her modelling career is currently progressing in parallel with a burgeoning acting career. Last year she nabbed a role in Adel Imam’s Sa7eb El Sa3ada. She was in Paris when she discovered she got the role, on the brink of signing with an agency and staying in the city for a while. “I left everything and I was here the next day. I dropped this huge modelling opportunity for this acting opportunity but because I believe it was a HUGE chance for me and it was a big step that I wanted to take so I had to drop Paris for it.” But she has no intentions of quitting her forte – “I’d never swap modelling for acting because modelling got me where I am so it has a special place in my heart and I love it,” – even though her acting career may be taking off. This year, she’s about to start shooting for not one, but two Ramadan series; Bein El Sarayat and 7aret El Yahood. Though she can’t divulge too much, in the latter, she’ll be playing a Palestinian girl and we’re certainly intrigued to see it.
Though Tara Emad is still 21, an age where the biggest accomplishments most of us could boast was the ability to down half a bottle of tequila and still make it to university the next day, the girl who just turned legal has already carved out a significant career for herself, dominating the modelling scene in Cairo and making her mark onscreen as well. Independent, intelligent, and incredibly talented, she has her sights set on even more and, given her track record, we have no doubt she’ll accomplish whatever she sets her mind to.
Photography my Mahmoud Asfour.