Originally published for Vulture on August 18th, 2022.
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.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What convinced you to do Real Housewives of Dubai and join the Bravo world?
I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t know this was a big deal when I got approached to do it. I brought Lesa into the show, and Lesa brought Nina in with me. The more I kept on talking to people, I realized that it was a big deal. I come from a very tiny village of less than 1,000. This is something that I would never have dreamed of when I was a little kid.
You have a nuanced background and experience, but everyone has this very specific perception of people who are from East Africa and Somali culture.
I’m born Muslim. I’m very proud of it. Maybe I don’t follow as much as I should, but I also think it’s between me and God. God knows that I’m a good person. There are 1 billion Muslim people in the world, not just five people that describe who we are. So in that way, I love that I’m speaking about it and being proud of it. I have issues with Somali people who feel like I am not as good as I should be in my culture because I wear short dresses, I bring a glass of wine, I wear wigs. I would love them to see that 40 years ago, 50 years ago, Somalia wasn’t like that. I need to represent the whole 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 that’s where I was born and raised. I am not saying that Somalia is not open-minded, it’s just different.
I’m not in politics. I’m in entertainment. I’m only representing myself. If you can learn something from me, I’m happy, but I’m not here to represent a whole culture. Honestly, I forgot I was Somali when I started filming; I just became too open. I would have never had wine. I thought, This is just gonna be an American show. Nobody’s gonna see it. Now I’m everywhere in Kenya. Every newspaper, every magazine, TV show — they’re talking about me.
Has your family in Kenya watched?
My sister is very religious. She sent me a picture from the newspaper in Kenya and was like, Explain yourself. They never see me like that because when I go home I’m very modest. Then a lot of the Somali community started calling me names, being upset that I said I was Kenyan, but most of them don’t realize that there’s a whole province in Kenya that is just for Somalis. I don’t even talk about my mom being born and raised in Ethiopia. My brother the other day wrote to me and said, “Oh my God, you’re just crazy. Every time I watch an episode, I don’t know what you’re gonna say.” One of my sisters is very supportive; she watches every episode before it airs, but most of my family doesn’t send congratulations. It’s more, Oh my God, you’re embarrassing us.
How has it been for you to watch the show and navigate public feedback at the same time?
When I watched the first episode, when I said to Brooks, “Look at your face, look at my face, bitch” — like, girl, that is a lot. But there is nothing that I filmed that I would change. I think I would have loved to speak more about my dad because I want to bring awareness to child abuse and domestic abuse. Also, I should have focused more on explaining the situation of my hot cousin. Like, okay, this is a cultural marriage, this is common, and I don’t think there’s something wrong with it. This is something that’s been in our culture for generations. Just because I am in this western world now doesn’t mean I want to dump my culture.
Coming out of this you have issues with both Carolines. What do you think was the biggest cause of the shift?
For me, before we started filming, Caroline Stanbury called me for an hour and said to me, “This is not for you. It’s for me and my friends.” Me and her share a best friend, so I think she knew that I was very outspoken, so she was trying to discourage me from being part of the show. That’s where our problems started. She has an ego — I’ve been in a show in England, I’m famous, I’m better, I’m this and that. But I’m a Black woman from Africa; it doesn’t mean anything to me. I feel powerful on my own 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 other Black girls down just to feel accepted by the “queen of England,” basically being the minion of Stanbury. Me and Lesa really supported her a lot in recent episodes; we’re always on her side trying to make her feel good, but she just backstabs us and puts me down. That kind of situation just makes it so hard to trust her. And then she just lies a lot. Literally, 95 percent of the stuff she said on the show.
People who followed Stanbury from Ladies of London were surprised by her demeanor in general. She seemed disengaged if she wasn’t the focus of attention.
She didn’t want to film with me most of the time. She just wanted it to be all about her. It didn’t work out because I would have loved to film with her more, and the moments I filmed with her I actually enjoyed it, so I just feel like there was a lot of missed opportunity. But the ego took over her.
She just always tries to find a problem with me for no reason. She specifically told me you have to wear white at her engagement party. Nina’s dress looked more like a wedding dress. Even if I wear a plastic bag, I’m still going to look good because I’m a Black gorgeous woman.
I want to talk about your relationship with Lesa, which a lot of people have responded to. You have affirmed each other and just generally have good banter. How has it been navigating the show with each other?
I met Lesa six, seven years ago, and I’ve lived there for 18 years. I’ve never worked with a Black girl designer, so for me, it was like, Whoa, who are you? Let’s get to know each other. I thought, Let me connect her to the right people, but she doesn’t need that because she’s so successful in our own way. She’s so confident; she uplifts me a lot when I’m down and when I start my businesses. She’s very loyal and she’s very supportive.
It’s not that easy in Dubai to have Black families that can stay together as friends. I like my son going to their house on his own. I like picking up her kids and hanging out like family. We do vacation together all the time. But you also don’t want to mess with her; Jamaicans and Somalis are both fiery. My mom grew up in Ethiopia, and Haile Selassie went to Jamaica, so I’m connected to this woman forever.
Did you see yourself permanently settling in Dubai?
I never thought I would live here for 18 years. I thought three, four years, five years, you know. At some point, Taj wants to move back to the U.S. and go to college here, so I’m not going to live in Dubai if my son is in America. It’s 15 hours away. My husband can be 15 hours away, but not my kid.
Eighteen years ago, it was not as open as it is now, especially as a Black person — you were either working in a restaurant, a hotel, a valet, or something. Now, it’s different. You can find Black people teaching in private American schools like my son’s school. There are good jobs. But you still have to follow the rules. Respect goes a long way.
There was a lot of conversation before the show started where people were expressing their concerns about reports from activists, and I think the show has tried to, at different points, kind of confront those hard conversations. Was that something that you were ready to handle when it comes to Dubai?
There’s a lot of misconceptions, especially in America, about the Middle East. When I go to Idaho, and somebody’s like, “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, take a train. I don’t worry where he’s gonna be going, what’s gonna happen to him; it’s very safe in that aspect in Dubai where I live. Locals are very, very kind. All they want is just respect.
There’s some stuff I don’t like about America. For example, taking women’s rights of not having a baby. What gives you the right to tell that to somebody? What if somebody is raped and doesn’t want to keep the baby? Every time I read a transgender woman has been murdered in America for being themselves — where I live, I don’t see that.
Are there any relationships with your colleagues that you wish you would have been able to address better?
I feel Stanbury didn’t give me a chance, but there’s a lot of things that I like about her. I would like to fix my relationship with Nina. It’s not good right now because I called her mashed potatoes without butter; she’s not happy about it. That’s the difference between me and them — they throw jabs at me, I’m okay, I can take it, and when I do it, they take it too personally. At the end of the day, I want them to be happy and the best version of themselves. They’re very good mothers and businesspeople. We do clash, but I really don’t want to hurt anybody, but because I still want to go to heaven, and the determination right now, it’s not good. [Laughs.]