Returning to Pakistan in 1986 after having completed her education in the US, Frieha Ataf (Frieha) had one aim in mind—to work as an artist. Working as a painter and sculptor, it was during her exhibition in Karachi that she was asked to model. ‘I was working in advertising and sculpting and acting in theatre and television. After the exhibition, Sairah Irshad, who was the editor of Newsline, asked me if I could model for Herald.’
Her sister Nashmia was already modelling as was her brother-in-law and many other people, Frieha decided to give it a try. Paired with the supermodel of the time Atiya Khan, Frieha’s first shoot was a jewellery shoot with Rooha Ghaznavi as the photographer. While Herald journalist Samina Ibrahim helped with the styling, the modelling experience wasn’t quite what Frieha had thought it would be like. ‘It was very disorganised! There was nobody to do hair and make up, so you just had to do everything yourself.’
Unknown to her, that would be her first lesson in life and work because Frieha would go on to do everything herself as a model, as an event planner, as a model manager and as a woman. Right from her start as a model, Frieha started a journey where she would emerge as one of the strongest forces in the establishment of the fashion industry, pushing boundaries to dizzying heights of success and paving the way in advertising, modelling, event management, television production, celebrity management and much more.
Nevertheless that first shoot led the way for more work and it also led to one of the stellar combinations in modelling history. ‘Atiya Khan and I got paired together for everything.’ Not that there were many publications that one could consider, which left her picking and choosing work, eventually saying no completely. ‘There were Urdu magazines and hardly any English ones. At that time, Herald was a political magazine. There wasn’t much out there…Star, Dawn, Akhbar-e-Jahan and you didn’t want to do any of those. I said no to everything and I was just taking it for fun.’
Finally, something caught her eye simply for what it offered to the young woman who wanted more than just to appear in a publication, who expressed a desire to learn about the world and the entertainment industry and go beyond the shallow appeal of fame. ‘I got offered the Gul Ahmed Show and I agreed because it involved travelling. Again, I got paired with Atiya Khan. I met Tariq Amin at that show and it was the first time I had professional make up done. As a choreographer, I felt the creative energy, but as a model I did not.’
The reason for this was the negative reaction that had been hounding her for her work as a model. ‘It was the way people looked at you! Friends of mine who had been educated abroad with me, who had just come back from university, would say, ‘What are you doing? How can you stand there with your legs apart? And do you know jab mei paan ki dukaan mei gaya to tumhari tasveer lagee huee thi? You’re not going to get anywhere in finding a husband’.’
But for Frieha, hailing from an educated, enlightened family, none of this mattered since her eyes were always on the bigger picture. Living in a country that was still enveloped in a tight conservative fog, she was perhaps one of the few who could see the opportunities.
Linking with likeminded people including designer Maheen Khan and make up artist Tariq Amin and banking on old friendships with photographer Tapu Javeri, Frieha sought to work for a greater good. And so despite creeping despair at times, Frieha always found the strength to carry on.
After pulling off a successful fashion show with Maheen Khan in 1986, came the Pakistan versus India cricket cup in Sharjah and it would be Frieha’s first show abroad. Six models that had been flown out to Sharjah and Frieha was the youngest, aged twenty-two. ‘They asked me to do a show and I ended up going and doing the show for Maheen and really hit it off with her. But I also realised nobody knew anything and the show was so random.’ Consequently, Frieha didn’t just model, she also ended up organising the music and choreography. ‘So basically I started doing what I was gearing up to …for the next thirty years or so.’
Throughout this time, Frieha moved away from her artwork but continued to work in advertising and while doing theatre, branched out into television. All of this was risky because although women were found to be working in advertising, the media industry in general was not very female friendly and harassment was the norm. In television, actresses were generally perceived to be from the wrong side of the tracks, the exceptions being big stars like Marina Khan or Samina Peezada.
Frieha made it possible for the average girl to achieve that level of stardom and attain respect in society and that catapulted her into a becoming a role model. ‘I was in TV plays, I worked with Moin Akhtar in a play which was called Miss Rosie and it became a big hit. I think it was my theatrical background that really helped me become a show director.’
Seeds sown, Frieha took charge and decided that it was time to not just conduct shows—fashion or cultural—for the sake of them, but to also focus on quality. One of the first problems was resolving the lack of quality models and bringing in those who understood the power of modelling and what the job required.
This meant that one didn’t just recruit models who came from educated backgrounds, emancipated enough to understand the nature of modelling, but also appreciated the necessity of the role to maintain professionalism while working with designers who were paving the way for a formal design aesthetic to emerge. ‘I stuck to good shoots and good designers. I met Noor Jehan Bilgrami, Florence Rizvi, Naheed Asghar. There were these really good designers at that time.’
But all of this came at a high price. In 1988, Frieha got married and moved to the US. Returning to Pakistan, she found that due to visa discrepancies, she was unable to return to the US. Her husband and in-laws, who had reservations with her being a model and actress, abandoned her and she couldn’t afford legal help. ‘I needed two lakh rupees for the legal process. So my friends told me to do a show. I went to Maheen Khan and asked her to help me.’
With formal invitations, a fabulous playlist by Tapu Javeri and Frieha’s superb organisation, in December 1989, Pakistan witnessed its very first proper, formal fashion show—not a cultural show—but a fashion show. ‘I was a one-man show, I got twenty sponsors through the show, including my first client Lux which has been with me for three decades now. I got the music done professionally from Tapu and we had a team going. The show was a big success and people responded extremely well.’
Not only did Frieha manage to make the money needed, to but also changed the landscape for designers, models and the industry as a whole. Socially accepted, fashion shows would soon become the norm in Pakistan.
Tragically, Frieha ended up filing for divorce after discovering her husband’s infidelity and never returned to the US. ‘It was real heartbreak for me, serious heartbreak.’ With the heart and soul of a warrior, Frieha carried on without ever being aware of how she was the glue in what was beginning to form.
This was the most striking aspect of Frieha’s career considering her modelling work which kick-started it all. ‘You do what you do. You see what’s happening, you find a way of doing it despite the odds because you can see there is nothing wrong with it and you know your morality. You know your values, you know the system and you have been educated abroad so you know more than the locals. My first marriage was affected by all this because I was bold, I was beautiful and in the end when you become who you are, it’s just an affirmation you were right and they [in-laws and society] were wrong.’
(to be continued)