Ayesha Omar is many things: an actress, a style icon, an activist and an artist. This fortnight she speaks to Mehek Raza Rizvi about fame, fortune and family
It wouldnâ€™t be wrong to say youâ€™re one of Pakistanâ€™s most coveted style stars. Do you feel thatâ€™s helped you in your profession? Or on the contrary, have you ever feared that might take away from people taking you seriously as an actress? Â
Thank you so much for your kind words. I was always a tomboy growing up and not really concerned about what I was wearing. My wardrobe was simple and functional; I never followed fashion icons or magazines. In fact, even when I first joined the industry, I wasnâ€™t too fussed about my style statement. Itâ€™s only in the last six to seven years that Iâ€™ve started to have fun with fashion, by figuring out what my preferences are.
Iâ€™m an artist; Iâ€™ve studied painting, so I use my outfits as a sense of creative expression. Keeping that in mind, yes, Iâ€™d say fashion does give me a medium to translate my artistic sensibilities into a tangible form. It allows me to express what Iâ€™m trying to say without actually having to say it. It also helps me bring the characters I portray to life, because I style them myself.
â€œIâ€™m an artist; Iâ€™ve studied painting, so I use my outfits as a sense of creative expressionâ€
â€”on her style
On the other hand, though, itâ€™s true that sometimes when a lot of stress is put on how an actor is dressing, it can take away from them being taken seriously for their craft. I wouldnâ€™t say this is a fear of mine, but I want to be remembered as a hardworking actor, host and activist, not just a style icon. Thereâ€™s way too much focus on external appearances, which also becomes a point of comparison between contemporaries. An actorâ€™s sense of style does matter to some extent as itâ€™s part of oneâ€™s image, but it should be a secondary concern.
You mentioned in one of your interviews that your accident was a defining moment in your life. How did it change your perspective?Â
Sometimes in life you experience something that alters your perspective on things completelyâ€”my accident did that for me. When you witness death so closely and see your whole life flash in front of you, it makes you rethink a lot of things and reassess your priorities. Iâ€™ve definitely started valuing life more, particularly the little things in life, like small acts of kindness. I feel Iâ€™ve now become a lot more empathetic to the struggles of other people and have realised the importance of being there for people in their time of need. More importantly, Iâ€™ve understood how to be there and when to give space to someone coping with pain.
This experience also gave me a lot of clarity regarding who my real friends are. It was a real eye opener in that sense. Above all, I felt a deep sense of gratitude as my connection with my creator and my belief in His divine plan became much stronger.
â€œIâ€™m very fortunate to have grown up with my friends whoâ€™re my sisters and have really compensated for the lack of support from relativesâ€
â€”on friends like family
The fame and influence celebrities enjoy puts immense responsibility on them to use it wisely. Do you ever feel burdened by the constant spotlight?
Yes, of course I do, as do all other public figures. Thereâ€™s this constant pressure of behaving the way people want you to. The criticism we receive isnâ€™t limited to just our work, but extends to personal preferences as well: from what we eat, to our relationships, our choice of clothing, etc. Oneâ€™s life does change once youâ€™re in the public eye; anonymity allows you to live your life the way you want, but you donâ€™t have that privilege as a public figure.
Despite being human, thereâ€™s very less room to make mistakes, because people are extremely unforgiving and sometimes it can take a toll on you. Having said that, I also enjoy the responsibility and feel very thankful that I have a voice that enables me to talk about issues that concern me. There are so many people, young people in particular, that look up to us for direction and also various occasions where we get to be representatives of our country. Itâ€™s a duty I take seriously and feel immense gratitude for.
One of the reasons we love you the most is for being outspoken and never being afraid to stand up for issues close to your heart. How do you deal with the inevitable backlash though? Especially on social media.Â
Youâ€™re very kind. It does take a lot to be that way because many things arenâ€™t received well. In the end, you just have to stay true to yourself regardless of any backlash. As long as your intentions are right and you arenâ€™t hurting anyone, you should stand by what you believe in. Eventually people understand your point of view as well.
Itâ€™s true that you do need thick skin to survive the negativity. Social media in particular can be such a dark place, but then thereâ€™s also light and love. Where there are haters, there are also people who show support and faith in you.
Have you experienced any prejudice as a woman in your line of work?
When I first joined the industry, I was fresh out of collegeâ€”very young, trusting and friendly. I dressed a certain way, because I grew up in a progressive household. I studied with boys in college and went to a school where there was freedom of decision-making and confidence building, so I was forward-thinking as well I guess. All of this led to a lot of preconceived notions and prejudice against me.
People thought that because I was new so they could say and do whatever they wanted. I feel I was judged for my pleasant nature and the way I dressed; I was stereotyped. Iâ€™ve faced both, sexual and verbal harassment. Nothing has come easy to me and Iâ€™ve had to learn things the hard way. Iâ€™ve had to build a hard exterior and keep people at a distance to be able to be taken seriously.
Also, because I moved away from Lahore and didnâ€™t have family in Karachi, I didnâ€™t have any backing or anyone to protect me. Knowing this, multiple people have been unfair and unprofessional with meâ€”with full knowledge of me being the sole breadwinner for my family. Iâ€™ve had to face delayed payments many times; many of them still owe me money.
People whoâ€™re close to me know that things havenâ€™t been so smooth for me and Iâ€™ve worked very hard to get where I am. Iâ€™m extremely committed and professional and have developed strong a work ethic. Despite that, people have so many assumptions about me and thereâ€™ve definitely been times when I had to prove them wrong.
With the conversation on gender equality and feminism on the rise, how important is it for female actors to choose their roles carefully and avoid playing the damsel in distress?
I find conversations about gender equality and feminism heartening. In an environment where so much is being said and done to protect and empower women, itâ€™s extremely important for female actors to choose their projects wisely. The stereotypes created by society are validated by our content, so we must make sure we arenâ€™t responsible for carrying such ideas forward, as this affects the women in our society on a daily basis.
The media plays a very crucial role in influencing peopleâ€™s minds. Female actors should avoid opting for characters thatâ€™re detrimental to the role of women in society and that glorify injustices against them, whether itâ€™s enabling domestic abuse, rape culture or victim shaming. This is the reason why you see me in such limited projects; I donâ€™t agree with plots where you see women surrendering to their circumstances.
â€œWhen you witness death so closely and see your whole life flash in front of you, it makes you rethink a lot of things and reassess your priorities. Iâ€™ve definitely started valuing life more, particularly the little things in life, like small acts of kindnessâ€
â€”on her brush with death
Out of all the characters youâ€™ve portrayed, which one do you relate to most and why?
Itâ€™s always tough to choose, as thereâ€™re lots of them with different shades to their personalities. But if I had to pick, it would be my character in the serial â€œKaisa Yeh Junoon.â€ I played the lead role, who was a very strong and principled girl who grew up to be a determined, solid individual with a lot of integrity and self-respect. She was also studying to be an artist, so I really related to her. We shot this project in London, Mumbai and Karachi, so we travelled to three different cities and I worked really hard on it.
What is Ayesha Omar like at home? Tell us about your childhood and family?
I was born in Karachi, but after my father passed away when I was only a year and a half old, my mother, brother and I moved to Lahore. My mother was a young widow, whoâ€™d only been married a few years. She had no emotional or financial support from the rest of our family, so she raised us singlehandedly. I saw her working very hard to provide us with an education; she started teaching at a school, gave tuitions and also drove a school van that she bought with the help of a friend.Â My mother did everything she could to make ends meet; sheâ€™s sacrificed her life for us, but of course there was a lot of financial insecurity and anxiety related to that. It was very hard for me, as a child, to see my mother going through this. But, today I feel that I get my sense of independence and strength from her. Iâ€™m very self-sufficient, just like her.
My brother and I went to an expensive school that we may never have been able to afford without our merit scholarships. But this also meant that we had to work very hard on our grades. We were studying with rich kids but couldnâ€™t afford to be spoilt the way they were. My mother also encouraged us to participate in extra-curricular activities, so I was very active in the school choir, theatre group and art workshops. Growing up surrounded with such cultural experiences makes me who I am today.
Despite the difficulties, I feel my childhood was full of love and warmth from my six best friends and their families. Of course, sometimes I did complain to God when I saw all other kids had two parents, but Iâ€™m very fortunate to have grown up with my friends whoâ€™re my sisters and have really compensated for the lack of support from relatives.
After graduating from college, I started supporting my family and became the sole breadwinner and have been since then. My brother is doing his PHD in Denmark right now, so he still has a few years to go. It makes me really happy to see him doing what heâ€™s doing and also to see my mother enjoying retired life and taking care of herself. The three of us have always been very very close. I hope my mother is proud of me today.
â€œFemale actors should avoid opting for characters thatâ€™re detrimental to the role of women in society and that glorify injustices against them, whether itâ€™s enabling domestic abuse, rape culture or victim shamingâ€Â â€”on choosing roles wisely
At home, Iâ€™m very domesticated. When I moved to Karachi, I shared an apartment with flat mates and continued doing so for thirteen years. Itâ€™s only been a year and a half since I started renting my own apartment. I never thought Iâ€™d be able to live alone, but Iâ€™m honestly loving it! I love doing up my space and creating this zen haven for myself that I love coming back to. I enjoy hosting and feeding people as well. Iâ€™ve surrounded myself with a lot of plants, since nature calms me and I try to stay clean as much as I can with my eating habits. Iâ€™m gearing towards a more holistic lifestyle and staying away from artificial and synthetic productsâ€”that applies to people as well. Iâ€™m beginning to realise that more and more every day and try to be around wholesome, positive energy only.
SHORT & SWEET
Pakistani actresses whose style you admire?Â
Meesha Shafi, Kiran Malik and Mahira Khan
Hina Dilpazeer, Sanam Saeed, Saba Hameed, Sawera Nadeem, Azfar Rahman, Adnan Siddiqui, Ali Rahman, Mikaal, Ahsan Khanâ€”there are so many!Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Theater, film or TV?Â
Film, theatre and TVâ€”in that order
Your biggest strength?Â
My resilience, self-sufficiency and ability to balance things
Being unable to say no
Favorite â€˜90s jam?
Michael Jackson and The Cranberries all the way!
What was the last lie you told?
I lied to someone about working today when I actually just wanted to be by myself
Last impulsive buy?
A pair of shoes
One habit of yours that annoys your family?
My sleeping pattern
Do you have a nickname?
Some of my friends call me Jacks, while others call me AO
A decision you really regret?
Thereâ€™re quite a few work decisions I regret, along with some personal decisions
Favourite movie quote?
â€œMay the force be with youâ€
â€œAfter all, tomorrow is another dayâ€
â€”Gone with the Wind
â€œYou make me want to be a better manâ€
â€”As Good as it Gets
Photography:Â Najam Mahmood
Wardrobe: Saira Shakira
Coordination: Centaur One
Jewellery: The Jewel Company
Styling: Arbaqan Changezi
Hair & Makeup: Sonia Nazir