An Interview With MSNBC’s Rula Jebreal

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I am so inspired by Rula Jebreal. The author, screenwriter, and foreign policy expert for MSNBC is not only worldly, beautiful, and whip smart, but has an incredible life story. Raised in an orphanage in east Jerusalem after the death of her mother at age five, Rula went on to study in Italy, receiving multiple degrees in physiotherapy, journalism, and political science. She is the author of the novel Miral, which won the Unicef Protection of Children award and was turned into a film by artist Julian Schnabel; it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2011. Rula is a fascinating interview. Here she talked with me about her journey, why it’s crucial to not rely on your looks, and why being surrounded by people who tell you the truth is important.

Bobbi Brown: What did you learn about beauty growing up in East Jerusalem?

Rula Jebreal: I grew up in an orphanage with this amazing woman Hind Al Hussein who was raising 1500 kids. She always so elegant; she would wear perfume—and she had a lot of perfume—mascara, and always lipstick every day.  She said you could fight a battle with lipstick and I thought really? But it matters! The way you feel, the way you look matters, it matters how people perceive you and how you feel about yourself. 

BB: She was clearly a powerful woman in your life, how did Hind Al Hussein influence you?

RJ: After the tragedy of losing my mother when I was five and my father when I was 11, I found a home that empowered me and gave me the best life.  She told us listen, “You might think that you are poor, that you are an orphan, it doesn’t matter, you can decide who you are.” She said, “You can rewrite your own destiny, you can start fresh, work hard, study hard and compete with the rest of the world, but compete on a different scale.”

BB: Were you exposed to the outside world, like television, famous people, or celebrities in the orphanage?

RJ: Yes, but fame in my country is different. For example, we had the first woman Prime Minister Golda Meir and she wasn’t beautiful, but everybody thought that she was sexy and powerful and great. I found her beautiful because of her brain. Then Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, these women are incredible, beautiful, powerful, these are the women that I always loved and admired. There is no privacy today and you are expected to always look good. We must judge female leaders based on what they say, their actions, their policies. I don’t think that we should judge them because their hair is not dyed or their makeup isn’t perfect.

BB: When did you realize that you were beautiful?

RJ: I wasn’t raised to think that I was beautiful, I was raised to think that I was nothing. I never got any attention until I was 18. Men in my country, for them, blonde women are the ultimate. Then I arrived in Italy to study. Somebody at the airport looked at me and winked, and I looked behind me thinking, who is he looking at? Then I realized that there was nobody behind me and I thought, “Oh my god, this guy is out of his mind, he is drunk or something if he thinks that I am attractive.” I slowly realized, while living in Italy, that the criteria had changed and dark skin was synonymous with beauty. I was actually considered beautiful even though I had dark skin. 

BB: Most women who look like you aren’t experts on international affairs; they don’t act the way you act.

RJ: I think it is because society rewards them for how they look and I came from a place where you have to prove what you can do in order to be loved, accepted, and then rewarded. I think that this is the shift between East and West. 

BB: You have such an interesting career. Tell me about what you do and how it all came about.

RJ: I am a foreign policy expert on MSNBC and I talk about all of the world’s problems, whether they’re in Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, or Palestine, and how that they’re related to the United States. It began when I was 28 and I wrote an article for an Italian newspaper, before September 11th, about the new order in the Middle East and Islamic extremism. I was invited to speak on Italian television and the channel’s owner hired me; they were looking for a more international perspective. Of course, in my field, you have to prove what you are capable of. You have to prove that you work hard, you study hard, you are knowledgeable, and you understand how the world is changing.

BB: When did you start wearing makeup?

RJ: I started wearing makeup immediately after I started working in television. I was the first anchorwoman in Italian television of foreign origin. The makeup artist would put on my makeup and I always felt uncomfortable, because I looked gray. It was never my color and they didn’t understand my skin tone. They didn’t have foundation that was good for me. It was always a struggle, until one day after many years of working, I went to Paris and I went to Sephora and finally I was exposed to the right makeup and I bought so much of it. Suddenly, I started feeling comfortable with makeup. I used to wear it only with television and now I can’t leave my home without putting on little mascara, concealer, and lip gloss.

BB: What are the make up colors that you normally gravitate toward?

RJ: You, Bobbi, changed my life in terms of looks because you’re your products arrived in Europe, many women with my skin tone felt relieved and safe. Finally there was somebody speaking to us, speaking our language and making colors that look good on us. I didn’t need to adjust to colors for white women. I had my own products.

BB: You have a daughter, did she ever come to you with self esteem issues or questions?

RJ: Fortunately, no, but sometimes she would come to me and say, “Mom, I hate that I have pimples.” I would say, listen every woman at different ages has pimples, don’t become obsessed and think that this is your limit in life and this is what makes you not beautiful.

BB: Talk to me about your diet, what do you eat, what do you not eat? 

RJ: I love vegetables and I love fish. I’m a healthy eater, but it’s not conscious. I love sweets, carrot cakes, and ladyfingers, but I try to keep it to once or twice a week. I love a glass of champagne sometimes and a glass of red wine. I overdo it over the holidays and then I try to scale down. For many reasons I decided that once a month, I fast for a whole day and only drink water. It’s refined my body and my soul; even my brain works faster.

BB: Are you into anything in the beauty world, like facials or massages? Do you have a dermatologist?

RJ: I wish I had time for all of that! Once a year I get a facial, with television makeup you need to go and clean your pores. My nightly bath is my massage; it’s great after a long day with all of the oils. Then I have a nice glass of red wine or chardonnay and I watch a nice movie and then I can relax.

BB: What do you wish more young women knew?

RJ: Don’t rely on your looks because sooner or later you will age and your look will change. If you rely only on them, you will have a very short career. If you want to last, do something that will last for years to come. Rely on two components, your brain, hard work and then yes, combine this with good looks, but good looks come from who you are, what you stand for, from other qualities. And stay humble. When I go to talk at colleges, whether it’s Harvard or Yale, I tell them, even if you succeed at the highest of levels, you have to stay humble and you have to give back to your community—small things, big things.  The people you surround yourself with when you are rich, wealthy or famous, at the end of the day, they are yes men. I want to be around people who tell me, “Listen, what you said on television yesterday was not right.” I want critical thinking, for somebody to challenge me. You know, you want real people.

BB: You’re so right, and that’s so important. I love hearing your perspective. I’m honored to have you on the site. Thank you so much.

Photo: Henry Leutwyler