Ilham Mestour: Hair Queen with Pirate Roots

Ilham Mestour: Hair Queen with Pirate Roots

by marlies|dekkers

Royalty and celebrities like Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and Naomi Campbell trust her with their hair and she could easily paper her walls with all her Vogue, Elle and Harpers Bazaar covers. But at heart, Dutch-Moroccan hair stylist Ilham Mestour is, and will always be, a pirate.

Marlies: Ilham, I couldn’t think of a better hair stylist for our pirate shoot than you. Your skills and technique, the way you perform under pressure… On top of that, I think you are a bit of a pirate yourself. Am I right?

Ilham: Absolutely! I’ve had to fight my way up and have always charted my own course. Also, I’ve known many ups and downs, which I think is typical for a pirate life.

Marlies: I hear you! A smooth, easy life is so overrated. (Both laugh). Tell me about your pirate life. You were born in Morocco, right?

Ilham: Yes, born in Casablanca, raised in the Netherlands. But every summer, we would stuff our car with presents and drive to Morocco. It’s one of my fondest childhood memories: standing on deck of the ferry from Spain, feeling like we were traveling to the other side of the world.

Marlies: Casablanca struck me as a world of contrasts: there’s poverty, but also the splendor of the Four Seasons, for example.

Ilham: Exactly. Driving past the luxury hotels with my family, I promised myself: “One day, I will stay in a 5-star hotel.” In the meantime, we were sleeping in two tents on the beach!

Marlies: How about the more traditional relationship between men and women in Morocco? How did you experience that?

Ilham: Having married a liberal man, my mother never had to play a subservient role. It was a marriage of equals. But in Casablanca, the men were treated like kings. My grandmother kept a basket with eggs hidden underneath her bed. She allowed us women only one egg during the weekend, but my uncle was served one every morning! “That’s mean and unfair!”, I told her, and would rebel by sitting down with the men to eat.

Marlies: Luckily, Arab women have their own strong, supportive communities, like you see in the hammams…

Ilham: And at the hairdressers! Oh, the stuff that went on behind those curtains! When the headscarves came off there was smoking, drinking, laughing, dancing. Forget about Shakira, these women know how to shake their hips! And they are not afraid to touch themselves and each other. I think Western women can learn a lot from that kind of sensual solidarity and celebration of femininity.

Marlies: I love it; a pirate community of women making their own rules! You actually lived in Morocco for a few years, right?

Ilham: Yes, one summer holiday I told my parents I wouldn’t go back to the Netherlands with them. I was only nine but knew exactly what I wanted. When I came back after about six years, my parents expected me to become a lawyer or a doctor but as soon as I visited a hair academy I knew: this is my destiny. Having watched hairdressers work their magic as a little girl in Morocco, it was now my turn to transform women! I forged my parents’ signatures on the enrollment papers and took several jobs at places like McDonald’s to pay the college fee myself.

Marlies: Wow! Where do you think your work ethic comes from?

Ilham: Both my parents were hard workers, but in Morocco, I watched my grandfather get up at four every morning to sell herbs in the market. He didn’t call in sick a day in his life. And I learned: if you sit on your ass, nothing is going to happen. No work is no money is no food. It’s that simple.

Marlies: How did your parents find out you were studying hairdressing?

Ilham: My mother found a bag with hair equipment under my bed. I received a beating at first, but my dad caved in and said: “Okay Ilham, just make sure you become the very best.” I promised I would, and I did. He was a heart patient in the end, but in the hospitals, there would always be a stack of magazines with my work on his bedside table. “Look what your sister has accomplished!”, he would tell my brothers. “That’s OUR name!”. He died 6 years ago, but I promised to always use his last name. I still do.

Marlies: To me, you are the shining example of my motto: Dare to dream, dare to grow, dare to be.

Ilham: Thank you! Yes, I started by dreaming big. “Who is the best hairdresser in the world? Luigi Murenu? One day I’ll work with him.” Then I worked my way up like a pirate conquers ships: from sweeping up hair in a salon to doing Queen Máxima’s hair for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. At my first big show in Paris I wasn’t allowed to touch any hair, just hand clips and spray to senior artists. But as soon as one of them stepped away, I jumped in. “Who are you? Brava, you did an amazing job!”, the ‘chef the cabine’ said, looking at my work. Guess what? It was Luigi Murenu himself!

Marlies: And the rest was history… Thank you, Ilham, for showing us that when you dream big, work hard and grab every opportunity, the sky is the limit!

 

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