Photo Credit: Chris Haston/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
With her flamboyant looks and plenty of sass, Chanel Ayan has quickly established herself as the breakout star of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Dubai. A model, wife and mother-of-a-teen, the East African beauty burst onto the scene in Bravo’s first international Real Housewives franchise with the tagline, “They don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, they hate me because they’re simple.” With the support Jamaican-American designer and castmate Lesa Milan, Ayan has turned events from innocent moments like a moonlit group dinner to fabulous gatherings like Dubai Fashion Week, occasionally ruffling her castmates’ feathers.
While her fondness for couture and almost childlike temper immediately appeals to the fashion-savvy, Ayan’s story is more than a depiction of the lifestyle of the rich and famous. It’s a true rags to riches story: a young girl of Somali and Ethiopian descent raised in Malaba, Kenya, who survived an abusive father and defied expectations of her life. From enduring female genital mutilation as a child to choosing to marry for love rather than an arranged marriage, Ayan’s story is one of survival and resistance, a growing together of the parts of her culture she holds dear and the new family that will she built for herself .
As Vulture sat down with Ayan for a one-on-one at the Baccarat Hotel, she revealed that her trip to New York for the first Dubai reunion had been a bit awkward because she had lost her American passport and his replacement was delayed. which would prolong their stay. The result was a whirlwind tri-state tour of Bravo-Verse, culminating in a guest appearance at Teresa Giudice’s wedding.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
What made you decide to do Real Housewives of Dubai and join the Bravo world?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know it was a big deal when I was asked about it. I brought Lesa to the show and Lesa brought Nina. The more I spoke to people, the more I realized it was a big deal. I come from a very small village with less than 1,000 inhabitants. This is something I never dreamed of when I was a little kid.
They come from nuanced backgrounds and experience, but each has this very specific perception of people from East Africa and Somali culture.
I was born a Muslim. I’m very proud of it. Maybe I’m not following as much as I should, but I also think it’s between me and God. God knows I’m a good person. There are 1 billion Muslims in the world, not just five people describing who we are. That way I love to talk about it and be proud of it. I have problems with Somalis who feel that I am not as good at my culture as I should be because I wear short dresses, bring a glass of wine and wear wigs. I would like to see them that Somalia was not like that 40 years ago, 50 years ago. I have to represent all of Somalia and I can’t do that because I was born in Kenya, grew up in Kenya and followed a lot of Kenyan culture because I was born and raised there. I’m not saying Somalia isn’t open-minded, it’s just different.
I’m not in politics. I’m in entertainment. I’m just representing myself. If you can learn something from me I’d appreciate it, but I’m not here to represent an entire culture. To be honest, I forgot I was Somali when I started filming; I just got too open. I would never have drunk wine. I thought this was just going to be an American show. Nobody will see it. Now I’m all over Kenya. Every newspaper, every magazine, every TV show – they talk about me.
Did your family watch in Kenya?
My sister is very religious. She sent me a picture from the newspaper in Kenya and said: ‘Explain yourself. They never see me like that because when I go home I’m very humble. Then many in the Somali community started scolding me because they were upset that I said I was Kenyan, but most don’t know that there is a whole province in Kenya just for Somalis. I don’t even talk about the fact that my mother was born and raised in Ethiopia. My brother texted me the other day and said, ‘Oh my god, you’re just crazy. Every time I watch an episode, I don’t know what you’re going to say.” One of my sisters is very supportive; She watches every episode before it airs, but most of my family members don’t send congratulations. It’s more, oh my god, you’re embarrassing us.
How was it for you watching the show while navigating the public feedback?
When I watched the first episode, when I said to Brooks, “Look at your face, look at my face, bitch” — like, girl, that’s a lot. But there is nothing I filmed that I would change. I think I would have liked to have spoken more about my father because I want to raise awareness about child abuse and domestic violence. Also, I should have focused more on explaining my hot cousin’s situation. Okay, this is a cultural marriage, this is common, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. This has been part of our culture for generations. Just because I’m in this Western world now doesn’t mean I want to shed my culture.
If you come out of this, you’ll have problems with both Carolines. What do you think was the main reason for the postponement?
Before we started filming, Caroline Stanbury called me for an hour and said, “This isn’t for you. It’s for me and my friends.” Me and her share a best friend, so I think she knew I was very open, so she tried to keep me from being part of the show. That’s when our problems started. She has an ego – I was on a show in England, I’m famous, I’m better, I’m this and that. But I’m a black woman from Africa; it means nothing to me I feel strong alone, whether I’m on TV or not.
Brooks is a very sad situation because it’s so hard when you see another black girl trying to put down other black girls just to feel accepted by the “Queen of England” who is basically Stanbury’s minion is. Me and Lesa have been really supportive of her in recent episodes; we are always on her side trying to make her feel good but she just stabs us in the butt and fucks me up. That kind of situation just makes her so hard to trust. And then she just lies a lot. Literally 95 percent of what she said on the show.
People who followed Stanbury from Ladies of London were generally surprised by their behavior. She seemed absent when she wasn’t the center of attention.
She didn’t want to film with me most of the time. She just wanted it to be about her. It didn’t work out because I would have liked to film more with her and I really enjoyed the moments I filmed with her so I just feel like there were a lot of missed opportunities. But the ego has taken over.
She just keeps trying to find a problem with me for no reason. She specifically told me that you have to wear white to her engagement party. Nina’s dress looked more like a wedding dress. Even if I’m carrying a plastic bag, I’ll still look good because I’m a beautiful black woman.
I want to talk about your relationship with Lesa, which a lot of people have responded to. They have confirmed each other and generally have good banter. How did it navigate the show with each other?
I met Lesa six or seven years ago and have lived there for 18 years. I’ve never worked with a black designer, so I was like, Whoa, who are you? Let’s get to know each other. I thought let me connect her with the right people but she doesn’t need to because she’s so successful the way we do. She’s so confident; She lifts me up a lot when I’m down and when I’m starting my business. She is very loyal and she is very supportive.
In Dubai, it’s not that easy to have black families who can stay together as friends. I like it when my son goes to their house alone. I like picking up their kids and hanging out like family. We always vacation together. But you don’t want to mess with her either; Jamaicans and Somalis are both fiery. My mother grew up in Ethiopia and Haile Selassie went to Jamaica, so I’m forever linked to that woman.
Have you settled permanently in Dubai?
I never thought that I would live here for 18 years. I was like three, four years, five years, you know. Eventually, Taj wants to go back to the US and go to college here, so I won’t be living in Dubai when my son is in America. It’s 15 hours away. My husband may be 15 hours away but not my child.
Eighteen years ago it wasn’t as open as it is now, especially as a black person – you either worked in a restaurant, a hotel, a valet or something. It’s different now. You can find black people teaching in American private schools like my son’s school. There are good jobs. But you still have to follow the rules. Respect goes a long way.
There were a lot of conversations before the show started where people expressed their concerns about reports from activists, and I think the show tried at various points to confront those tough conversations. Was that something you were ready with when it comes to Dubai?
There are many misconceptions, especially in America, about the Middle East. If I go to Idaho and someone asks, “Where do you live?” And I say Dubai, they’re like [Gasps.] “You might not be safe there.” I’m safer there than anywhere else in the world: my son can go to school, walk around, go to the mall, catch a train. I’m not worried about where he’s going, what’s going to happen to him; In Dubai, where I live, it’s very safe in that regard. The locals are very, very nice. All they want is just respect.
There are some things I don’t like about America. For example, a woman’s right not to have a baby. What gives you the right to say that to someone? What if someone gets raped and doesn’t want to keep the baby? Every time I read that a transgender woman in America was murdered for being herself – where I live I don’t see that.
Are there relationships with your colleagues that you wish you could address better?
I feel like Stanbury didn’t give me a chance, but there are a lot of things I like about her. I want to repair my relationship with Nina. It’s just not good because I called them mashed potatoes without butter; she is not happy about it. That’s the difference between me and them – they chase me, I’m okay, I can take it, and when I do, they take it too personally. At the end of the day, I want them to be happy and the best version of themselves. They are very good mothers and businessmen. We crash but I really don’t want to hurt anyone but because I still want to go to heaven and the determination right now it’s not good. [Laughs.]