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She spells style
By Ayesha Azfar
A magna cum laude, Frieha Altaf maintains that she always wanted to be a professor of art. Her home is strewn with sculptures that include an imposing bust of her father. At college the wooden walls of her room were splashed with bright yellow paint marks. She wore bracelets made out of plastic bands meant for holding together soda cans. With her purple lipstick and tight black leather skirt, these were imaginative accessories, writes Ayesha Azfar
“We are a very smart people,” says Frieha Altaf, comparing the entertainment industries in Pakistan and India. “We are very hardworking. We’re better-looking, that’s for sure. Go to India, you’ll see for yourself.” That’s pretty much Frieha all over: patriotic, passionate about her beliefs and convinced that they can’t be wrong. Just as well that her sentiments are positive, for translated into action they have given Pakistan’s once lacklustre glamour industry a badly needed shot in the arm. At the moment, she heads four companies, dealing with several aspects of the entertainment field.
A magna cum laude from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the US, Frieha Altaf maintains that she always wanted to be a professor of art. Her home is strewn with sculptures that include an imposing bust of her father. At college the wooden walls of her room were splashed with bright yellow paint marks. She wore bracelets made out of plastic bands meant for holding together soda cans. With her purple lipstick and tight black leather miniskirt, these were imaginative accessories.
Altaf was never one to be cowed by raised eyebrows, but she does possess a sense of occasion. When she exhibited her paintings –– part of her art thesis –– of Makkah in college which she attended in the 1980s, she wore a demurely cut white blouse with a long, electric blue satin skirt. “That’s a vintage piece,” she exclaims, “I still have it.”
As for the paintings, they were a swirl of colours –– and at least to the inexperienced eye the quest of a young girl for spiritual realms. But religion is something deeply personal to her. “Religion is all inside you, it’s the kind of a person you are, it’s not what you wear or the colour of your skin. I am very religious, I have a lot of faith in God. I have a lot of questions also. My education doesn’t allow me not to question.”
She recalls how in her last year in college she was completing a course requirement for her thesis “Calligraphy as an art in the Islamic religion.” The Cold War was still raging although détente was in the air. An aging professor, long since dead, explained to his class that the third alternative to capitalism and communism was Islam because it exemplified a way of life. “He told us that once capitalism goes and once communism goes, Islam will be the focus of the world. He said that 20 years ago.”
Altaf’s immediate plans after graduation did not materialise. She had wanted to join a university for a Master’s degree in art but the lack of funds kept her at home, away from her dream. She modelled and worked with an advertising agency for three years, then took off to America, though not to university.
She married and returned to Pakistan, and then found she could not go back to her husband because she was refused an American visa. So she thought about a Canadian residency, but still needed the money. That was when someone advised her to do a fashion show. Catwalk was born and in December 1989, she organised her first event. “I did everything on my own,” she recalls. “The NOC, the sponsorship… and after that event the offers kept pouring in. My husband and I split up after I found he was not being very faithful to me.”
The popular Lux Style Ki Duniya for PTV proved to be another high point of her career. For all her outward appearance and high-flying connections, Altaf does not view fashion as a prerogative of the elite. (At college, in the middle of the November chill of upstate New York, she would say, “Even if you have one sweater you can wear it with style.”) Lux Style Ki Duniya was a branded programme, but, according to her, “what it did was to take the fashion from the elite to the masses ––– the trickle-down effect.” Conversely, she says, there is the “trickle-up effect”, when “something is on the street and comes up. In the 1980s, that was what was happening,” when the elite borrowed from folk attire.
Soon after, she started her modelling agency Cats and married a Canadian in 1995. She found she couldn’t have it the way she wanted: six months in Pakistan and six months in Canada, so she decided to pack her things and take up residence in her husband’s country. Restless as ever, she did a two-year diploma in fashion school and became a modelling instructor. She also worked for a large clothing chain.
When her marriage failed, Altaf came back to Pakistan in 2000 – her annus horribilis. That was the time when two beloved family members died and when she found herself almost penniless. She took up a job with the media group but soon left when she found herself inundated with other work offers.
“I wanted to control my own environment,” she says, “You have to be hardworking and a little creative and then people will just come to you. I am a doer. I don’t believe in talk. Competition is heating up and you have to maintain your standard and your own niche in the market. You do that by making sure you give quality. I am very particular about that.”
But for all her enthusiasm, over the years, Altaf’s exuberance has mellowed and smiles have replaced her once ready laughter. She has known sorrow and travails: the death of a beloved father and brother, failed marriages ––– one of them involving an acrimonious court case for the custody of her two children ––– and sudden desertion on the point of tying the nuptial knot. “I am scared of Him,” she says, pointing heavenwards, “I am scared for my children. I am scared of losing my mother. For me, life is very precious now.” Not that she has ever been known to show her fears. “Courage,” she quotes from an issue of the Reader’s Digest, “is the art of being the only one who knows you’re scared to death.”
Putting aside lost loves, Altaf says she has made work her passion. “I have done television productions, product launches, exhibitions, sporting events. I do the Lux Style Awards every year.” But the part that she enjoys most is carrying out research for the events, whether it is a Tuscany-theme wedding or a cultural show. “I go completely crazy,” she smiles, as she describes how she spearheaded the wedding preparations for the son of a local media tycoon. “It was held in the Baradari and I planned a Kashmiri theme wedding. I worked on it for three months and got the maalis to grow kunwal kay pattay”. She even managed to get black swans to float around in the water.
Evidently, that hasn’t been enough. Altaf’s now trying her hand at transforming uncut human diamonds into polished gems. She recently took on actor Shaan, with some degree success, and claims that she transformed him from a misunderstood performer to someone the elite could relate to. “When I met him I realised he was just like us. It’s just that he had not been exposed properly,” she says. Only time will tell about her endeavours with Shoaib Akhtar, cricket’s bad boy.
At the national level, she says that “the country lacks serious PR. For instance, I think that Mukhtaran Mai is a heroine. I wish that she was held up as an example and it was said that ‘this is the woman who represents the country’. In the face of adversity she is educating people in her village to make sure that what happened with her does not recur.” Bad things, she says, happen everywhere. “But you have to say, ‘this is awful, we apologise and we’ll make sure it never happens again’. Unfortunately, we still live in a feudal set-up. The politicians are an uneducated, power-hungry class and will not let the poor man get educated. You want to create a soft image for Pakistan? Educate everyone.”
As darkness falls in Altaf’s pocket handkerchief garden, memories of her husky laughter cross the bridge of years. Today, there are ghosts in her life ––– but vastly different from the ones she encountered when “tumbler talking” with a group of friends one windy night in her hostel. “It’s not been an easy ride and some people just get tested more than others,” she says. A case of taking these “broken wings” and learning “to fly again and live so free?” Perhaps, but her restlessness will not allow her time to reflect on that. For the moment, Frieha Altaf’s canvas is teeming with other ideas.