Beauty entrepreneur and internet personality Mona Kattan opens up about being raised by immigrant parents in Tennessee, and why you shouldn’t enter your daughters into pageants
“I grew up in Tennessee, from when I was a few months old until I was 13. I have happy memories of living there: the simplicity and how everybody is friendly, which I think created a lot of our values of being kind to people. But it was definitely hard that my parents were Iraqi immigrants. To this day, my parents don’t speak very good English, my mom especially, so we did feel like outcasts there.
Being different was difficult, but it created advantages later on. First of all, it made me and my family close because we didn’t fit in with other people; that’s what made our bond so tight. We spent all our time together. It made us stronger. Being the child of immigrants makes you have to become funnier or more interesting because you have to work a bit harder to make friends. It was a plus in the long run, but as a child, when I didn’t fully understand it, it was hard.
Living in Dubai, where nobody fits in, I finally realized how it feels when you do. After moving to the emirate, I realized, nobody here fits in either! It’s weird to feel like you’re suited somewhere. My mom entered me and my sister Huda in beauty pageants when I was only four. It was her way of feeling like she fit in and was validated in society because it made her part of the ‘cool mom’ groups. It was her little way to find happiness, although I don’t fully understand why she did it now.
To tell you how I really feel about pageants… I’m not a fan. I think that they cause a lot of insecurities. I know that times have changed in the industry, but I still think that they teach the wrong things. I don’t think you should be judged on your looks as a child. It caused a lot of insecurities for Huda because she didn’t win. I won, so it didn’t cause insecurities for me, but it made me feel like I had to be perfect all the time. I was in pageants in the late 80s and early 90s, and people wanted you to look like a Barbie doll. If you did, you’d win. It’s terrible to teach people that. Even though today, Huda and I run a beauty brand, we are about selling a feeling of confidence, not a standard of beauty that’s cookie-cutter and unrealistic. We teach people that they should celebrate who they are and not try to look like something they’re not, because that’s dangerous and not what we are trying to do with Huda Beauty.
If I had any advice for someone considering putting their child in a beauty pageant, I would tell them not to. Not unless it was a pageant that had different criteria and wasn’t judged on looks. Being exposed so early on in my life made me not want to be exposed as an adult, so even when we were starting out with Huda Beauty, I preferred to be behind the scenes. Huda came up with this little term – she calls it ‘pageant princess syndrome’ – because every time a camera came near me I’d be uptight and almost do the pageant wave because I was so conditioned to put on this picture-perfect look. I had to break out of that, especially with our reality show, because you can’t. It’s super fake.
I feel like realness is the future – we don’t want to look at people who are uptight and perfectly polished, acting like a robot. You want people to keep it real and then you can connect with them that way. My mom made me stop pageants when I was seven because they required me to wear a bikini. My mom is quite traditional; she said, ‘No, you can’t be in a bikini onstage.’ What’s funny is that after she took me out of it I was so sad – then I wanted to be a part of them! But as for the bikinis… It’s creepy! I don’t know if they still do that, but they shouldn’t.
Pageants definitely impacted our careers because our obsession with beauty, makeup, and transformation started then. It began on a much deeper level for Huda, she became obsessed. She loved doing my makeup and playing with my hair; I became her little doll. And, pageants were exciting. It was fun to be celebrated for my beauty, but the older I became the more I realized that it wasn’t right. I’m not about some people being celebrated for being beautiful and others not. Everyone should be celebrated for their beauty. People need to focus on celebrating individuality and the things that matter.”
As told to Rachel Silvestri
Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography: ABDULLA ELMAZ
Style: MOHAMMAD HAZEM REZQ
Hair: YAZAN AL-DIRABANY
Makeup: CHLOE WIDERA
FASHION COORDINATORS: JIHAE YUN, ELENA MENEGALDO
PRODUCTION: ANKITA CHANDRA
WITH THANKS TO BLOSSOM TREE