Published in Nov-Dec 2022
Mark Twain once said: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I think of his words after I meet Aamna Haider Isani as after our chat, I conclude that Twain’s words could well be describing her.
This is because Isani, the publisher of Something Haute, has managed to make her interests (including fashion and lifestyles) an integral part of her work and attributes them to the fact that she comes from a “very artistic family… There has always been an appreciation for art and literature in our home.”
It was “an itch to write” that led her to the offices of Libas while pursuing her Master’s degree at Government College University in Lahore, in response to an ad they had posted. She got the job. After completing her Master’s and getting married, she moved to Islamabad and joined The News, only to re-join Libas on her return to Lahore. In 2004, the family moved to Karachi and she started to write a regular column for Dawn’s Images called After Eight – “about the chattier side of society”– and joined Instep where she eventually became editor.
Her beats have centred on art and culture and she has covered major fashion weeks and related events in Pakistan and overseas, interviewed top-notch celebrities and authored two books: Nabila Says and Tapulicious 2.
During her time at Instep she began her blog Something Haute. “I had an obsessive writing disorder and needed to write every day and so I started a blog.” The response was so positive that she registered her blog as a portal in 2012 and five years later started a YouTube channel. She now works at Something Haute as publisher full-time with a small team.
Isani does not delve into the difficulties that she may have faced to further her career, although it could not have been easy to grow as a professional and work for the country’s leading newspapers and later establish her own portal and emerge as an influencer. Instead, she prefers to talk about the fact that she has been lucky to find mentors and friends who encouraged her to write and improve her work and an audience with whom her work has resonated.
She adds that the only pressure she faced during her career was to “get the best story” and was fortunate that she “came from a place of privilege” which allowed her to pursue her love for writing. She says she does not write so much anymore as most of her work requires her to be in front of a camera and describes it as “one of the biggest tragedies of her life.”
One of the things that differentiate Isani from her colleagues in print and digital is that she is extremely soft-spoken, speaks in measured tones and is not opinionated or aggressive – she sounds almost serene; in fact, she actually listens. Perhaps this is why her interviewees open up and allow her to bring out their most sensible – and interesting aspects, unlike most celebrity-driven shows. She feels strongly about keeping her critiques constructive. “We don’t need to pull people down or ridicule them.”
She is not a confrontational journalist by any means and this is evident when I read some of her interviews, including one with Shahrukh Khan, in which she focuses on his ‘real life’ role as a father rather than why his recent films at the time were such duds.
“I didn’t want to ask him questions that he had already answered – I wanted to bring out something new for my readers. I knew that he was passionate about his kids and that is why we talked about that.”
She does, however, admit to having a “protective streak” for celebrities (which they don’t necessarily see and think the opposite at times) and when I comment that celebrities are treated like demi-gods, she disagrees. She says that they “receive flak” easily from the public and cites the recent example of artists being criticised for attending the Hum Awards in Canada rather than staying in Pakistan and helping people affected by the floods.
“When a cricket series takes place, no one will object to it, although cricket too is entertainment. People will not mind it when our cricket team sits in first-class lounges, travels by business class or celebrates their birthdays. People don’t react in the same way to celebrity events or even all-women cricket matches.”
She attributes this to “dysfunctional religious values,” and this “great patriarchy we have… Where women or their clothing are concerned, people have little tolerance.” She attributes this tendency to social media where people have the urge to react immediately rather than thinking before commenting.
Another thing that she holds close to her heart is her integrity. Although she is an influencer, she says, “our policy to advertisers is very clear. Either you give us content that has editorial value and we will cover it in the way we feel is best. You will rely on our ethics and moral judgement about how we cover it. Promotional content is clearly marked as paid content on Something Haute and my personal pages.”
This brings us to her infamous clash with Deepak Perwani in 2020 during which he body-shamed her and accused her of taking money for reviews. “Deepak and I have always had a love-hate relationship,” she muses. “I don’t think he meant what he said; it’s just that people of that generation think it is okay to say such things. Let’s forget that he used the word fat or challenged my intellect, what affected me most was the fact that he questioned my integrity.”
Respect is extremely important to her and she prides herself on being an ethical journalist as well as the fact that she has been able to attract an audience that includes women who are plus-sized and middle-aged (she describes herself similarly with no qualms).
“After following my handles, they were able to think that ‘if she can be so confident and happy in her career and life and be positive and brave, we want to be like her.’ It was very encouraging and gave me confidence.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, she recently launched a fashion channel on YouTube called AHI in July 2022; the name comes from her initials; it is also a Hawaiian tuna and means sea serpent in Vedic.
“I liked the association with water and fish as I am a Pisces… I love snakes, which I feel are misrepresented, so the name clicked. We have a very successful programme on AHI called Fashion Fortnightly.”
Although she has managed to make her interests the crux of her work life, she has plenty of others. They include reading (no surprises there; she is reading biographies these days to understand human nature as homework for her work). She adores her two sons and prides herself on being a hands-on mother. “I think I went into labour during an interview and didn’t stop working during my pregnancies.” A major de-stressor for her is art therapy and she paints infrequently and loves romcoms such as Holiday or “escapist” fare such as Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon.
Tai Chi is another important interest (she discovered it during her trips to China). It helps her “balance mind, body and soul.” She says that she manages her mind through her work, reading and writing, and her soul with meditation and prayer (“I am a very spiritual person, and my major ‘insurance’ is my relationship with God”). However, she is “struggling with the body part” as she would like to be more athletic and lose weight “for health reasons and nothing else.”
This need for balance and symmetry is prevalent in her study where we are seated as everything is aligned, colour coordinated and devoid of clutter as is the rest of her tastefully decorated home. It strikes me that perhaps her work is driven more by beauty than anything else she has mentioned earlier.
As if to substantiate my thoughts, Aamna Haider Isani admits that she looks for something beautiful in every scenario. “If you’re in a cave, find that sparkle. If there are dark clouds, find that silver lining. I’m just looking for beautiful things despite the doom and gloom in order to bring some semblance of happiness to people. That is the bottom line. As Keats’ said: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’”
What is it that they say about great minds thinking alike? Wishful thinking perhaps.