Beauty, Brains & Annie

For about two hours every day, from the time we have our lunch break till the time we can absolutely not slack off any longer, the Xpozé office stops being a pandemonium of screams, non-stop meetings and phone calls, and turns into a hub of tranquility where we make it a point to forget work and relax by just joking around, engaging in some light gossip and catching up on each other’s lives… and those couple of hours were a bit more fun and exciting this month because our New York correspondent and your model extraordinaire Annie Ali Khan was in town.
People may remember Annie as the stunning beauty who looked amazing in print and even better on screen, but I’ve always known her to be a lot more, and the time I got to spend with her as we worked together on this issue proved just that. Not only is Annie one of the most vibrant models I’ve ever interviewed, she’s a lacquered entrepreneur and a self-proclaimed geek who loves applied mathematics, writing and cooking.
Here, Annie and I talk about the last three years of her life and how they’ve defined her: everything from relocating to New York City and getting married to grad school and her everlasting love affair with Pakistan, modeling and journalism…

Well, the main reason why I moved to New York was obviously that my husband Sofian lives there. We had met a few years ago in New York and hit it off instantly. We knew there was a connection, but there was no romantic interest initially. Then a few months later he followed me to Karachi and our families met and things started to get serious. At some point we had to make a decision whether I’d move there or he would come down here… and in the end it was I who had to make a sacrifice.
I consider moving there a sacrifice only because uprooting from your home is a very difficult thing to do. I was born in Pakistan and had lived here all my life. Everything I know is through the context of this country; everything I’ve learnt, my work, friends, my family, my cat… everything was here. Giving all of that up and moving to a whole new world to start over was nothing short of a sacrifice! It wasn’t easy, but it had to be done, and I’m glad I did it because sometimes you need to make certain changes in your life. Marriage itself is a major thing that happens to you but for me having to relocate made it an even bigger change than it normally is for people.

I don’t think there is anything in common between my life in New York and the one I’d left behind in Pakistan. I was doing so much fashion wise here; I had started to attain the freedom to do all the things that I absolutely loved doing. I was truly living my life the way I wanted to live, and it so happened that I was having a great time doing it! Career wise it was a very exciting time for me, and then all of a sudden I found myself in a new city, getting married and trying to understand how the new place worked. It was quite an adjustment!
One of the great things about New York, however, is that someone or the other is always visiting, so you get to keep meeting familiar people regularly. My visiting friends and family played a huge part in helping me adjust to the new city and lifestyle. And so did Mehreen Jabbar. She happens to be a very good friend of mine and she’s been living in New York far longer than I have. She’s always been a source of strength for me, and has always given me good advice on how to go about things there. When I saw how well she was doing there and much fun she was having, I realized that I could do it too!

Sofian is a terribly creative human being and he’s very down to earth. Anytime I see him, he’s living his dream and I really admire that. I believe respect and admiration are the foundation of any good relationship and I’m so glad we have lots of it in ours!
He and I first met during the shooting of one of Jal’s music videos that he was working on in New York. Like I said there was no love interest at first at all. I came back home and he followed me back to Pakistan a few months later. Then for my birthday he gifted me a very cute video where he’s writing my name all over New York City with my favorite song playing in the background. It was very nicely done, believe me… and even though I’m a sucker for great aesthetics and a good music video, it still took me a few years to say yes as I wasn’t ready to relocate. But love won in the end, I guess!

One thing a lot of people don’t know about us is that we’re both big sci-fi geeks, so conversation was never a problem… in fact, it was always pretty fantastic! I’ve always been kind of geeky. I mean, I was a computer engineer before I got into the industry, and you might have a hard time believing this, but Steven Hawkins was my idea of a dream date! So it was kind of great that I ended up with a geeky guy!

I guess we’ve both done a lot of cheesy and romantic stuff for each other. The music video he made for me took the cake, obviously, but he’s done lots of other stuff too like book us on amazing trips together etc. Since we’re both a couple of geeks, our idea of romance is also kind of geeky. Like for instance on Valentine’s Day, I made him a little children’s coloring book with little stick figures of the two of us. It was our “Book of Love” with all the things we do together and the things I love about him.

Sofian and I also watch a lot of dry documentaries together. We’re not party animals at all, but it still used to bother me a lot in the beginning that we would both be home on a Saturday night watching documentaries. It doesn’t anymore though as I’ve started seeing it for what it really is: us spending time together! Just the other day we watched a documentary on the oldest caves ever discovered somewhere in France. It gave me goose bumps, and having Sofian with me then was really amazing.

The entrepreneur that I am, I decided to do a show in New York called “New York Loves Annie” shortly after moving there. We did thirteen episodes of that for Play TV. It was a lot of fun as my husband directed and edited it and I was producing and hosting it. We basically visited every burrow of New York City, interviewed people from New York and even had a few friends who were transiting through the city come on the show. It was a great experience not only because it was something new and exciting, but because it kept me busy. I needed to do the show to stay connected to Pakistan. I wanted to make myself useful where I was, and felt the show was a good way for me to stay connected to my life in Pakistan.
Other than “New York Loves Annie”, I started writing for Xpozé, which was again something I love doing. I also did a telefilm with Mehreen Jabbar, Tooba Siddiqui and Faisal Rehman.
There was a time when Saqib Malik and Deepak Perwani were visiting New York and we decided to do a shoot together. Saqib directed it and we got his cousin Ali to do the photography, and we had a ball of a time! This was back when I was still doing the show, so later on I asked Saqib to be a guest on one of the episodes and he agreed, which was also quite enjoyable. Amean J was also visiting once and we ended up doing a whole episode dedicated to Photography.

A lot of people have told me that they think I left too early; that I would have benefited a lot by staying here a few more years. But I don’t see it that way. In fact, I don’t even think I left to begin with! I was just doing other things… I’m married now and I went to school; both things probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed here. So, at the end of the day, who’s to say what’s too early and what’s too late? Maybe if I’d stayed back I would have been able to sustain myself as a successful model for a longer period of time. I certainly was doing other things besides modeling so it wasn’t like it was my only source of income. I was branching out into production and acting… I was doing music videos, which I believe also require some amount of acting as they’re all about role playing; you’re in front of the camera and being someone else.
Then I did “Meri Un Suni Kahani”, which was a proper serial I did for Hum TV with Faisal Qureshi. It required a lot of hard work, especially because my character had a lot of different tones to it. I’ve never been much of a ramp model but as far as commercials and photo shoots and television work is concerned, I was totally out there. I did a few major shoots with FAQ, She and a bunch of other publications including Xpozé!

The point it, I’m here on a short vacation right now but I hope this is one of many trips to Pakistan. A lot of people say that I’ve left Pakistan. How can I leave Pakistan? I’m made of Pakistan. I’m much more aware of my Pakistani identity now than I ever was while living here!

You know I’ve always loved fashion, and that was the one thing that hit me when I moved to New York City. Watching women wearing fabulous creations by Norma Kamali on the streets and pairing it up with uber contemporary stuff, you just can’t help but want to be a part of it all! People live fashion there; they live the persona they create for themselves, and I really admire and love that form of creative expression.
Other than fashion, writing is also something I absolutely love and am familiar with and don’t find boring at all! Fashion and writing are the two things that I really love, and I love to communicate and be just around people. Everything that I’ve been through over the last few years forced me to ask myself a question: If I were to relive my life, who or what would I want to be? And my first answer was that I want to go to school again to pursue my two loves. And at the end of the day, how many people get that opportunity?

School is something my husband and I decided on because we felt that when you go to a new place, a very effective way of understanding the culture and people is by going to school. You make friends and fit in quicker.
I knew that if I was going to go to school, I would go to one of the best out there or I wouldn’t bother at all. The two options were NYU and Columbia but I never sent an application to NYU. So, like all the good things in my life that I’ve done with good intentions, Columbia happened to me! As you probably know, Columbia has the best journalism school in the world, and it happened to be right in our backyard! Well, not exactly our backyard, but it’s definitely very close by.
Columbia in itself was an exhilarating experience. I got to spend one whole year learning from and in the company of great American writers. My core professor in the third semester Dale Maharidge has won the Pulitzer. His book has inspired Bruce Springsteen to write songs about him! My magazine writing professor John Bennet, who was a senior editor of the New Yorker, was an amazing human being who taught me a lot more than just magazine writing. I truly feel that I’ve been blessed to have known and spent time and learned from these people. The whole experience has humbled me. One thing university has done has made me realize how insignificant I really am. You know there are so many people who’re quietly doing such amazing work despite the many obstacles that stand in their way. So yeah, Columbia was a great experience and I would literally give anything to relive that one year!
Andleeb also played a pivotal role in the whole process. She was one of the three people that wrote very generous recommendation letters for me, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

Pakistan on the whole has changed very dramatically over the last couple of years! Security was not such a big issue when I used to live here. Our country has gone through major transformation in terms of the Taliban war and all the insurgency and extremism; the people are going through an ideological crisis and everyone’s begun to question the very ideology of Pakistan, which I think is a huge difference! People were not this depressed when I was here, and events like Salman Taseer’s murder and the recent Bin Laden episode are making things worse. It’s really high time we as a nation become clear on who we are and where we’re headed. Someone very wise said decisions made by time are never wise…and we need to make our own decisions and not leave everything on time!

Living outside Pakistan, I find myself defending the country so many more times now… my husband and I often have these discussions and I always tell him that I’m not an American. I may live there and enjoy the privileges that any civilian living there does, but at the end of the day, I’m a hundred percent Pakistani… Of course there are things happening that are really testing our hopes and courage and beliefs, but at the end of the day we will pull through. One thing I really believe in is humanity and the spirit of my people. I believe in my spirit, and things can go really bad but they can never break our spirit… as long as that’s intact, we will always pull through!

To be very honest, when I came back, I didn’t know what to expect. I literally returned to Pakistan with zero expectations and a lot of optimism: the same way I approach everything else in my life.
I came back with an open mind and so far it’s been fantastic. I’m very excited about the shoot with Xpozé and Rizwan-ul-Haq! Even Saqib Malik has asked me to work with him on a project… Andleeb has given me this wonderful opportunity to guest edit Xpozé. So yeah, I think Pakistan has welcomed me back with open arms and that’s really confirmed what I’d always believed: That I’d never really left! It was just a short break while I pursued other things, and I had always planned on coming back. And now that I’m here, I do plan on returning every so often because like I said, where else will I go? I’m made of Pakistani matti after all!

Right now I just want to concentrate on Xpozé and do a decent job of what I’ve been asked to do. You can do something perfunctorily and make money and go home… or you can put your heart and soul into your work…that’s what separates an entrepreneur from a creative individual. Magazine writing is something that I’m new to. I mean, I have interned at a fashion magazine before I went to Columbia but I’ve never been thrown into the pool and be asked to guest edit such a savvy publication. It’s huge, and I want to give it my full hundred percent!

There are a lot of things on my to-do list as usual. I definitely want to act more here as well as in New York. I want to do more magazine writing in both the places as well. I want to seal my status as a cosmopolitan citizen of both Pakistan and New York!
Don’t have any serious plans as yet as I’ve literally just gotten out of grad school. I have been offered a job with Al Jazeera English, however, but that’s a totally different direction, so I’m still thinking about it. I’ve also been offered a magazine writing position with Hearst publications in New York. I’m also interested in working with a few magazines here so let’s see how things work out!
I would love to do more work with Mehreen Jabbar as well… and if an opportunity to do a Pakistani feature film comes along, there’d be nothing like it! I think that would actually be a dream come true, actually! Every girl has a filmi heroine inside her but especially for women in the industry, our ultimate dream is to do a film, because that’s everlasting, right!?

Cooking is the one thing Sofian and I do together every single day! I’ve always loved cooking and I made it a point to cook regularly after moving to New York. I don’t know if a lot of people would agree with me on this, but it’s much easier to cook there than it is here!
Giving someone a nice home cooked meal is my idea of perfect love, it’s my way of being romantic for Sofian. His idea of being romantic is chopping for me. So I do all the shopping and cooking, and he chops! That’s the time we spend together in the kitchen every single day no matter how tired we are or how late wither of us comes home…no matter how simple the dish is, we’ll put something together!
I’ve really gotten into making Moroccan tagine lately and I’ve even bought a clay pot to cook it in. It’s very easy to make, really. You just put the ingredients into the clay pot and everything cooks slowly. The result is amazing! Sofian is very fond of this pasta I make that has a very naught name; it’s called Puttanesca, which means ‘Whore’s Pasta’. It’s a delicious tuna pasta and even though I’m not a big pasta fan, I just love Puttanesca too! He also likes Chicken Karahi that I make for him every once in a while as well.

I think the one thing I’m positively blown away by is how much the fashion industry has grown over these past couple of years. I’m really encouraged by the number of fashion shows and fashion weeks we’re having now.
My favourites amongst the new designers would be Adnan Pardesy and Feeha Jamshed. I also think what Rizwanullah is doing is very strong conceptually. Mohsin Ali’s stuff also looks very promising and I would love to try it out.

I went to see a movie at the Atrium with my family the other day and this guy came up to me and asked for an autograph saying that he remembered me from “Meri Un Suni Kahani.” That was a pleasant surprise, especially after all these years!

I’ve been inspired, supported and nurtured by incredible Pakistan women in the industry like Mehreen Jabbar, Nausheen Masood, Marina Khan, Sultana Siddiqui and Andleeb Rana. I always look to these women for inspiration; to learn from them…that’s where I get my strength from. I’m really grateful to all of them for being so open and friendly and to reach out to younger, newer people like me and support them and help and instruct them… having such inspiration is integral to anybody success; it’s most definitely been my secret ingredient!