Zahia Dehar walks the runway during the Zahia Couture Show as part of Paris Fashion Week Fall / Winter 2012/13 Paris, France. (Photo by Dominique Charriau/WireImage)
Who is Zahia Dehar? In France she’s so infamous she’s known as only Zahia (pronouced Zy-ah), the name she’s also given to her new couture lingerie label and brand. With her long mane of peroxide hair, Barbie doll body and cat shaped eyes, she’s graced the pages of Vanity Fair and the cover of V magazine. Algerian-born Dehar is the new darling of the fashion world, having already shown two of her collections at Paris Fashion Week this year. Karl Lagerfeld shot her lookbook himself; she’s been photographed by David LaChapelle and artists Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard; Vanessa Paradis wore one of Zahia’s designs in her first photo shoot post-break up with Johnny Depp. Isabelle Adjani wants to make a documentary about her, and she’s only twenty years old.
But Dehar isn’t the darling of the football world. Just three years ago she was working as an escort in Paris, and was in the middle of what was the biggest sex scandal to rock the French sporting world, involving two of France's top footballers and allegations of underage prostitution.
Dehar moved to France in 2002 when she was ten years old, after her parent’s divorce. The relocation derailed her - her family was separated, she didn’t speak French, changed schools several times, and was bullied. At fourteen she dropped out of school, and began to frequent the nightclubs of the Champs-Elysees, where she was propositioned for sex. In early 2010, right before the South Africa World Cup, details emerged that French star footballers Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema had paid for sex with Dehar when she was only sixteen. While prostitution is legal in France, soliciting in a public place, brothel ownership and paying for sex with a minor is illegal. (Although there are calls to outlaw prostitution in France altogether.)
The media attention shot her to fame. Dehar began to appear regularly in the tabloids and gossip columns, the French media calling her ‘La Scandaleuse’ - the scandalous one. In May 2010, she featured on the cover of French tabloid magazine Paris Match in a short dress, standing by the swimming pool of the home she shared with her mother and younger brother, with the headline ‘I was Ribéry’s birthday present’. In her tell-all interview, she said her first paid-for sex was with a client when she had just turned sixteen. She charged €2,000 a night or €500 for a "moment of pleasure”, calling herself as "an escort girl, not a prostitute”, and claimed she was "never part of a network. I don't give my money to anyone. I do what I want, I have paid or unpaid sex with who I want. No one makes me and when I don't want to, it's no."
After the dust from the scandal settled, Dehar disappeared. Her fifteen minutes were over. She says of the fallout from the scandal “I spent six months crying. I thought I’d never get out out, that I would die like this.” When Dehar re-emerged in the public eye months later, a metamorphosis had taken place: gone were the trashy clothes and dark roots in her hair, she had rebranded herself as a new high-fashion Bridget Bardot, or as artists Pierre and Giles called her “a new Eve, innocent and luminous”. To launch her new look, she starred in an avant-garde film dressed as a fashionable Alice in Wonderland, armed with only a whip and a feather duster. Collaborating with director Greg Williams, she also featured in strange short film called Bionic - the story of a sex doll (Zahia) who exercises her own free will.
Perhaps this is the narrative that Dehar wants to give herself: the sex toy who chose to become something else. And the fashion world has certainly been fascinated by her transformation, Lagerfeld even saying that what makes her so interesting is her allusion to France's 18th-century courtesans, "a purely French tradition that the whole world admired and copied". Tongue-in-cheek, part of her last lingerie collection had the theme ‘Gift’. Stephen Gan, Editor-in-Chief of V Magazine, tried to sum up her charm - “Pop culture, the world, need personalities like Zahia… she represents fearlessness, freedom, and femininity… and who doesn’t love the story of a bad girl turned good?”
Dehar doesn’t seem able to escape her bad girl past though. When asked by French magazine Libération if her new life is a fairy tale, Zahia replied “No, a fairy tale is when everything is magical. Here, it's more complicated.” Her idea of femininity seems problematic too: overtly sexual, her couture collection features women fashioned as stylised Barbies, nymphets, flowers and cakes. But maybe this heavily sexualised aesthetic is the frame through which you see the world if you’d spent your formative years as a prostitute? Now both Ribéry and Benzema have been ordered to stand trial for soliciting an underage prostitute, as part of a bigger investigation into the underbelly of French prostitution. But Zahia has moved on. The media pack for her last lingerie collection says “Zahia Dehar proves that nothing is impossible to those who can dream. She captures our imaginations and leads us to a kingdom where Woman is queen. We are witnessing the genesis of a house of fashion.”