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Lebanese Abroad

October - November 2003

Mouna Ayoub: a beautiful life - at last

She’s one of the most popular Lebanese faces on the world scene and probably the most controversial woman in the Arab world today.  You see her everywhere – at the front row seat next to His Royal Highness Prince Albert of Monaco at the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo, at countless charitable events, at the Cannes Film Festival, Venice Film Festival… and certainly at every major fashion show in Europe and New York.

Mouna Ayoub… For years, the name of this Lebanese beauty has been associated with elegance and style.  But look deeper, and you’ll find a woman with incredible perseverance, determination and strong beliefs.

In her interview with Today’s Outlook, Mouna Ayoub opened up her heart, discussing her true feelings for Lebanon, her family, her aspirations and all that she holds dear.

Mouna Ayoub is often described as one of the richest women in the world. Ayoub is mother to five children from her previous marriage to a Saudi man, whom she divorced in 1996. During their 18 years of marriage, Ayoub had an extravagant lifestyle. She lived in a 30,000-square-meter palace, wore exquisite jewelry, had a collection of the world’s most expensive cars, private jets, and one of the biggest yachts in the world – the Lady Mouna. However, after living for 18 years beneath a shador that veiled her from head to toe and obeying the extreme rules imposed on women in Saudi Arabia, Ayoub began to yearn for the freedom she had been used to during her adolescence in Lebanon and France.

Freedom is something money can’t buy in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, though. The yearning, combined with marital problems, made her decide to start a new life, all on her own.
In 2000, Ayoub wrote La Vérité (The Truth), an autobiography that shot to the top of France's bestseller list and is still selling well today as a pocket size book. Based on this success, the book was later translated into Italian, Spanish and Romanian, and sold out shortly after publishing in all three countries – Italy, Spain, and Romania.

Ayoub’s divorce as well as her book made her one of the most controversial women in the Arab world.  Some despised her for daring to speak out – something very few Arab women would do – while others sympathized with her struggle for a normal life with some degree of freedom. 
“It’s hard to be judged by people who don’t know you,” said Ayoub. “What was written about me in some magazines in my own country is totally false. This proves the shallowness of some people as well as their laziness in their research into people’s real life and hardship. It also tells me that they lack integrity, a quality that is very important and certainly very essential if a journalist wants to gain respect from others.  Only my book, La Verité, tells the truth.”

Ayoub recoils from pretentiousness. “I’m humble and respectful to all kinds of people,” she said.  “I can be humorous, but sometimes sadness and certain memories hit me very hard and I stop laughing. Mostly, I consider myself to be a good mother and a very hard-working person who tends to put others ahead of herself.”

A passion for haute couture

Ayoub owns one of this century’s richest collections of haute couture.  For the past 24 years, she has amassed more than 1500 luxurious garments designed by the world’s most renowned couturiers including Jean-Louis Scherrer, Yves Saint Laurent, Gaultier, Chanel, Christian Dior, Atelier Versace, Carven, Balmain, Givenchy and Christian Lacroix. She also owns unique pieces by Lebanese couturier Robert Abi Nader and Saudi designer Yahya Al-Bishri.  Ayoub’s name is on every fashion show’s A-list, allowing her to keep an eye on the latest, most alluring designs.

Every year, Ayoub adds about 20 new designer outfits to her already enormous collection. Many of these sumptuous pieces have never been worn, residing instead on wooden mannequins around her living quarters.

“Couture dresses are hand-made. They are pieces of art that can either be worn or just displayed and enjoyed.  I use the most beautiful ones to decorate my living room while I keep the ones that are most meaningful to me in my bedroom,” she enthused.

“I get personal satisfaction from couture dresses, but it’s also my way of appreciating and supporting an art that’s disappearing. I am really fascinated by the hands that do this beautiful work. Sometimes it takes a dozen people spending a total of 1000 hours to produce these magnificent pieces,” added Ayoub.

On several occasions, Ayoub has loaned out some of these unique couture dresses to promote art events. In 2000, more than 120 dresses were exhibited at the Musée de la Mode de Marseille. Another exhibition, entitled Collection Mouna Ayoub, is currently being planned for the opening of the costume museum in Bilbao, Spain.

When it comes to her daily wardrobe, Ayoub defines her style as casual and modern; sometimes sexy but unusual.  And although she mostly wears beautiful designs by Dior, Chanel, Gaultier, Givenchy, Dolce & Gabbana, and Tom Ford for Gucci, her most favorite uniform consists of nothing more than a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a pair of tennis shoes. 

Keeping busy 

Ayoub is currently busy working on a number of projects. “One of my goals is to create an agency that caters to working women who need beauty-related services after 6pm either at a beauty salon or in the privacy of their homes. Beauty salons and hairdressers all close too early for any working woman to have a chance to get ready for an event.  Therefore, I want to offer these women beauty services, hairdressing, manicure, pedicure, makeup, even massages, all at a reasonable price, allowing them to feel and look beautiful after a long day at work. I see this as an international concept that could be established in a number of big cities,” she explained.

“Another project I have is to organize, with the support of big auction houses such as Christie’s, charity sales of all the couture dresses that wealthy women have accumulated but don’t know what to do with.”

In addition to these projects, Ayoub is busy with her business involving the Phocéa – a magnificent yacht she bought for $5.5 million in 1997 from French tycoon Bernard Tapie. To finance the renovations and refurbishment, she sold of her jewelry collection, including the Mouna Diamond, a unique VS1 clarity stone weighing 112.53 carats.  The Mouna Diamond is the largest Fancy Intense Yellow diamond in the world, and was sold by Christie's in Geneva in 1998 for $3,258,000 (about $28,773 per carat).

The sacrifice of the Mouna Diamond, along with many other pieces of jewelry, allowed Ayoub to invest $25 million in the Phocéa, and today, the yacht boasts a gym, eight staterooms, 17 bathrooms and three kitchens, all uniquely furnished. The weekly rate to rent the Phocéa is $217,000 during the high season, and $175,000 during the low season.

Lebanese at heart

Working on all these projects and attending a variety of events around the world keeps Ayoub on the move. “Before, I used to spend most of my time in Lebanon, Monaco and the United States, but now I spend it in Monaco and Santo Domingo, where I plan to buy a vacation house,” she said. “Of course, I still visit my country. I come to Lebanon to see my sister but my visits are very discreet. My sister and I are very close. When I’m with her I find peace and affection.”

Ayoub has spent her life living in a number of countries including Lebanon, Monaco, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the Dominican Republic, taking the best that every culture has to offer. Each country has affected her in a different way, making her the open-minded, international person she is today. Her fluency in Arabic, French, English, Spanish and Italian also makes her feel at home almost anywhere in the world. “I feel Americanized in some ways, and French in others.  I also feel Spanish in the way I move and look out for danger,” she said, “but I am first and last Lebanese. In some respects I also feel Saudi, and I could be easily offended when news reporters lash at Saudis left and right. Don’t forget that I have brought to this world five beautiful, smart Saudi kids who’ll make a big difference once they finish college. I believe in them profoundly.”

Ayoub is very proud of her Lebanese heritage and has fond memories of her childhood and adolescent years in Lebanon. Today, the smell of orange blossoms, thyme and olive oil immediately evoke memories of her homeland.  “When I was little I used to enjoy climbing orange trees and bringing fresh oranges to my mother, who loved them,” she said. “It was a way to tell her that I loved her more than anyone in the world.”

Working for charitable causes

Does Ayoub consider herself a success story? “A success story has too many meanings,” she replied. “If getting your freedom a success, then yes, my story is one of success.  But if success means working for a worldwide cause such as finding peace in the world, then I would say I’m unfortunately far from being successful. Many wars are being waged. As a result of that, millions of children are homeless and hungry. There’s too much misery in our world.  If I can’t, even slightly, affect the lives of those who are less fortunate, then I am a failure.”

This type of conscience has led Ayoub to become deeply involved in many charitable organizations around the world. Her efforts and support set an example for other social identities, encouraging them to try to make a difference in their society, particularly on a humanitarian level. 

Ayoub is a Board member for The American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), one of the world’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to the support of AIDS research. Since 1985, AmFAR has invested nearly $207 million in support of AIDS research worldwide.  Last May, along with Elizabeth Taylor, Sir Elton John, Donatella Versace, Elizabeth Hurley, Meg Ryan, Iman, and many other celebrities, Ayoub came out to support the fight against AIDS at AmFAR’s 10th annual Cinema Against AIDS gala in Mougins, France.

Ayoub has also been using her wardrobe collection to benefit a number of social and humanitarian events. Twice in the past two years, she has offered hundreds of items from her collection of haute couture, luxury prêt-à-porter and accessories for sale at Christie’s in Paris, giving the proceeds to the Children's Workshop at the Centre Georges Pompidou in France.

“Currently, I’m mostly involved with Amnesty International in a movement to stop honor crimes, the UNHCR – the UN refugee agency – the Centre Pompidou for the Atelier des Enfants, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” she said. “I’m becoming more involved with Care France, too, and so many other associations it’s hard to name them all.” Ayoub also supports the Monegasque Red Cross, Action Innocence (which fights pedophilia on the internet), La Fondation pour l’Enfance, and La Cinefondation, as well as her children’s schools. “In Lebanon, I helped build Maahad Beit Chabab for the handicapped. I hope it’s still going strong,” she reflected.

Beauty Favorites

Even after having five children, Ayoub still looks as fit as ever. Her health and beauty routine is, in fact, far from anything sophisticated. Instead, Ayoub prefers to stick to the basics – getting regular exercise and drinking plenty of water each day.

“To be healthy, you have to avoid drinking alcohol or abusing any kind of drugs,” she said. “The best way to stay healthy is by staying fit, and making exercise part of your daily routine. I exercise on a daily basis. My favorite sport is jogging because it’s a form of meditation, isolation, and you can do it anywhere in the world. I also enjoy swimming and tennis.”

When it comes to beauty, Ayoub says she prefers a natural look. “To be beautiful, you must be as natural as you can be,” she said. “I personally use Dior, Chanel, Dove, Cellex X, Mila d’Opiz, or Shiseido products, whichever is available. My favorite moisturizer is drinking water all the time. I drink three liters a day. It always shows on your skin, especially after a long flight.”

As for perfumes, Ayoub prefers Chanel No. 5, Envy by Gucci, Eau Fraiche de Bulgari, and sometimes she wears Eternity from Calvin Klein. And her favorite food? “These days, it’s nothing.  Absolutely nothing,” she confessed.

Family first

Ayoub believes that motherhood is one of life’s most important and sacred missions.  “If you fail in raising a loving and caring family, then I think you have failed in life, no matter how successful you are in your profession,” she said.

For Ayoub, the principal source of true happiness is, and will always be, her children.  She’s a person who puts family first and would trade any event in the world for spending some quality time with her children. “An evening with my children is my best source of happiness,” she added.

“The greatest accomplishment I have achieved in my life, is raising my family when I was able to,” continued Ayoub. “I know I could do better and I can be better as a person, but time is not on my side. Another disadvantage is that I work alone; I don’t like to delegate responsibility to others, and when it comes to serious issues, I don’t trust anyone except my children and my sister Sonia.”

Many changes are taking place in Ayoub’s life at the moment. But like most of us, she hopes the future will bring her what she desires the most.  “I hope that five years from now I’ll be helping my children to raise their children,” she said. “I’d also love to be more involved in humanitarian activities, and help as many needy, homeless children throughout the world as I possibly can.”

What advice would Ayoub, who’s been through so much, pass on to the young women of today? “Believe in your abilities whatever they are, educate yourself, and follow your heart wherever it takes you but face the consequences. Don’t depend on others, and work hard until you get things done the right way,” she said.

“For mothers, I’d say first and foremost love and educate your children because everything else in life can always wait.  And when stress or misfortune seem to be taking a toll on your life, pick up The Prophet by Gibran Khalil Gibran and Le Petit Prince by François de Saint-Exupéry. Read them over and over until you memorize them by heart. They’ll guide you in your search for happiness.”

Then came my last question to Ayoub: If you were to ask God for one wish, what would it be? Her answer: “To be with my children all the time, to hug them, to kiss them, to tell them time and again that they are the apples of my eyes and the reason for my entire existence.”