With her extravagant looks and numerous malapropisms, Chanel Ayan has quickly established herself as the breakout star of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Dubai. A model, wife, and mother to a teenage boy, the East African beauty stormed onto the scene of Bravo’s first international Real Housewives franchise with the tagline “They don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, they hate me because they are basic.” With an assist from Jamaican American designer and castmate Lesa Milan, Ayan has made moments out of events as innocuous as a moonlit group dinner and gatherings as fabulous as Dubai Fashion Week, occasionally ruffling the feathers of her castmates in the process.
While her taste for couture and almost childlike whimsy may be what immediately appeals to the sartorially inclined, Ayan’s story is more than an accounting of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It is a true rags-to-riches story: a young girl of Somali and Ethiopian descent raised in Malaba, Kenya, who survived a violent father and defied expectations of what her life was expected to be. From enduring genital mutilation as a child to choosing to marry for love instead of an arranged marriage, Ayan’s story is one of survival and defiance, a coalescence of the parts of her culture that she holds dear and the new family that she has built for herself.
When Vulture sat down for a one-on-one with Ayan at the Baccarat Hotel, she revealed that her trip to New York for the first Dubai reunion had been a bit of a hassle because she lost her American passport and its replacement was delayed, which would extend her stay. What resulted was a whirlwind tour of the Bravo-verse in the tristate area, culminating in a guest appearance at Teresa Giudice’s wedding.
In the premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City’s13th season, cast member Leah McSweeney waits patiently in Central Park as a petite Black woman strides into view sporting a mask adorned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and a hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the names Yusef, Kevin, Antron, Korey, and Raymond, also known as the Exonerated Five, who were convicted and later vacated of the aggravated assault and rape of a young white woman in Central Park. McSweeney would later go on to introduce the woman from the scene to Sonja Morgan as “Black-girl magic personified” and proceed to request her presence at the infamously anachronistic Morgan townhouse for brunch. Eboni K. Williams has made her grand entrance into the Real Housewives franchise, and true to the messaging in her debut book, Pretty Powerful, she is using all of the available tools at her disposal to make her mark.
“Everything I seek is owed to me,” Williams states unabashedly. “I also make it my first business to be worthy of everything — to show up in a capacity of unadulterated, unimpeachable excellence.” That conviction has brought her to a place where she feels she can set her own terms, introducing the New York Housewives to someone else’s experiences for the first time, as opposed to merely having them endure a culture shock.
Being the first to accomplish something is not an unfamiliar feeling for Williams: Her life and career have been punctuated by firsts, from being the first Black woman at her law firm to the first to host an early prime-time show on Fox News. “We all start connections, start conversations, and start developing ideas about one another before we utter a word,” Williams points out, doubling down on the ethos of Pretty Powerful, which emphasizes that the choice between substance and appearance is a false one. “I had a lot of intentionality around what I was trying to convey to this new group of friends and women, from the Central Park scene where I wear the Exonerated Five on my chest to the bold pink blazer-dress in Sonja Morgan’s townhouse, where I’m conveying femininity but also strength.” Her sartorial references are all crafted with an objective in mind, down to her donning a Howard sweatshirt in the distinctive pink-and-green color scheme associated with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, a nod to the historically Black organization’s founding chapter as well as a subtle acknowledgment of Vice-President Kamala Harris, all reinforcing the central theme in her book: “an awareness and leveraging of how we package and present our femininity as an aesthetic that is uniquely authentic and impactful.”