Laughter fills the living room of a modest Al Barsha villa as we watch a video of graduation students dancing around a statuesque woman in an off-the-shoulder gown. “I designed it myself,” beams Ameni Esseibi, watching herself twirl in her figure-hugging dress. “Dubai is not an easy place to find stylish evening-wear for women my shape,” she says about her US size 14-16 figure. “Generally, they have no shape and are very classical. So, I had the dress made exactly as I wanted.”
Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Tunisian-born Esseibi has been lauded as the Arab world’s first curvy model. “I don’t love the term, but I’ll take it for now,” she smiles. “I’m hoping that one day I’ll just be described as a ‘model,’ and that the boxes we’re put into due to our size, color, and origin will be obsolete.” It is the eradication of these stereotypes that has driven the 20-year-old model to persevere, even if hers hasn’t always been the most organic of journeys. “I always get asked how I was discovered, but it wasn’t like that,” she explains. “I decided it was what I wanted to do, and that I would make it happen. I’m surrounded by girls who don’t like their bodies; I want to show them that you don’t have to look a typical way to achieve what you want.”
Esseibi recounts how she contacted “so many” modeling agencies in an effort to convince them there was a market for a model of her stature. “It hadn’t been done before. I would talk about breaking the mold, filling a gap in the market; I chased up agencies constantly – I was relentless.” The burgeoning model with a go-get-it attitude watches motivational talks on YouTube over breakfast, counts “life lessons” as one of her top Google searches, and repeats positive affirmations in her bedroom every morning. She began collaborating with local photographers to build a portfolio and eventually her persistence started paying off. After considering a few offers (and rejecting one that required her to gain 20kg), Esseibi signed with a local agency in September last year.
Was she right about the gap in the market? Was the Middle East ready for its Ashley Graham? She was spot on. Esseibi has since been inundated with events, shoots, and shows, to the extent that she decided to take a year off from her marketing communications degree. Shortly after signing her contract, she was asked to model at the Middle East launch of 11 Honoré, a size inclusive online fashion boutique. “This region is desperate for beautiful clothes for women who are bigger than a US size 12. When I was asked to model at the launch, I was overjoyed. I finally felt like the voices of the women in the shadows were being heard.”
When it comes to style, Esseibi has two modes: “Comfortable and chilled or ball gown,” she laughs. “I do streetwear and bare face, or, if I’m going out, I’ll get totally dressed up with full-on makeup. I love Moschino for daywear and for evening-wear it has to be Dima Ayad. I mostly buy high street because the sizes fit better, and I’ll shop on Namshi because it has a curvy section and I can easily see what suits me.”
Along with signing a modeling contract, she’s hired an influencer agency to help build her brand, but is determined to do things the right way. “I refuse to buy Instagram followers,” she insists. “I’ve been brought up to work hard and be rewarded for it. Anyone can pay for followers.” She uses her account as a platform to help breed self-confidence in young women and encourage others to follow in her footsteps. “Since I was signed, agencies in Dubai have taken on more than 20 curvy models,” she smiles. “Social media is my way to make a difference. I want everyone to have positive female role models who show them that beauty comes in different shapes and sizes, that you need to learn to love yourself.”
Who are Esseibi’s role models? “I have amazing women in my life. Bil Arabi founder Nadine Kanso is my friend’s mom and has been a big influence since I was a young girl. Nadine, my mom, and grandma shaped my obsession with fashion, and, alongside my dad, raised me to be strong-minded and confident.” It’s this strength that Esseibi called on when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, six months after her beloved grandmother passed. “I had to grow up pretty quickly,” the model remembers. “Mom moved back to Tunisia for chemotherapy and I was left to look after my dad and little brother. I became the woman of the house.” While her mother’s cancer is now four years in remission, Esseibi admits she has seen dark days. “I know I lost a big part of my childhood but my experience has given me strength and determination.”
Esseibi talks about the importance of wellness and understands that the online name-calling she faces is reflective of the insecurities of those who troll her. She laughs about her love of food but is conscious of portion control, and is quick to champion Arab women. “I’m really inspired by Rym Saidi Breidy,” she says. “She’s shown me that a woman from Tunisia can be a top model.” Her love for her home country is a reoccurring topic. “I visit Tunisia all the time. I have so many friends and family there. It’s a beautiful, multicultural place; everyone should visit,” she says with a dreamy look, gazing longingly at a line of framed, holiday postcard-style pictures that decorate the wall outside her bedroom. “You see how gorgeous it is?” she asks, beaming as we stare at the images of whitewashed buildings and tree-lined hills overlooking an azure coastline. “I want to make Tunisia proud; everyone proud.”
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