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From poor Kazakh village girl to glamorous San Francisco model

18 march 2014, 16:16
2

Shortly after Kazakhstan became independent in 1992, the collective farm where Zhanel Ali’s parents worked was divided into private plots.

The collective in the southeastern town of Jetsay had produced wine grapes, but the parcels that each collective worker received were too small to make a living from grapes.

So most of the families planted cotton, Zhanel said.

It was back-breaking work, remembers the poor village girl whose story would have a Cinderella-like happy ending in an unexpected place: the United States.

By studying hard, Zhanel would get a scholarship to Eurasian National University in Astana. Her bachelors degree in computer science would give her a shot at a master’s degree in the United States. And – the biggest surprise of all -- her exotic good looks would open the door to a modeling career in San Francisco.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

Zhanel will never be able to forget the tough days picking cotton near Jetsay.

During the harvest season her family – like all the others in the area -- would be in the fields for weeks on end.

Zhanel is tiny – maybe 5-3 and 105 pounds – but she would pick up to 100 kilograms of cotton in a day.

“I worked like a dog all day long, and made $2 to $3 a day,” she said.

She remembers covering her face with a scarf to prevent the swirling dust from choking her.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

At the end of the day, her face was two-tone, she laughed. The part covered by the scarf was light, while the uncovered part around her eyes was black, she said.

When her mother died at 37 while Zhanel was in high school, she had to get up early in the morning to milk the family cow and bake bread for her father and younger sister.

At night she studied hard. She wanted a better life than what the village offered, she said, and “studying was the only way out.”

She became the top student in her class and won a scholarship to Eurasian National University.

When she came to Astana, she said, she realized for the first time that not having perfect Russian was a handicap.

She hadn’t needed Russian where she’d grown up – everyone spoke Kazakh.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

But Russian was important in Astana. In fact, most of her university classmates preferred it over Kazakh.

Students at Eurasian National – like those at most universities in Kazakhstan -- can choose whether to take classes in Kazakh or Russian, and she of course chose Kazakh.

“But even my Kazakh group mates often spoke Russian with each other,” she said. “I was always worried about whether my Russian language was good enough. I remember hating this, and thinking, ‘Why should I be struggling in my own country?’”

One day she concluded that her Russian “would never be that good,” she said. “So I decided to study English on my own.”

That move would pay off.

When she graduated from Eurasian National three years ago, she couldn’t land a decent job.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

After several weeks of searching she decided on a whim to go to the United States.

“Life is full of risks,” she said, “and I decided to take a big one. I didn’t even have anyone to meet me at the airport.”

She enrolled in a master’s program in computer science in the San Francisco area.

She also got a job in her field, taking advantage of a U.S. regulation that allows foreigners to work in key professions with critical shortages of American workers.

The computer-science job led to her obtaining a coveted Green Card, or U.S. residency card, which opened up other job opportunities to her. She got into the real estate field, for example.

Then one day she attended a fashion show. She was so captivated with the show’s producer that she attended a workshop he gave.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

It would change her life, letting her meet people that would get her into modeling.

She did runway work plus magazine and newspaper shoots. Glamorous stuff for a once-poor village girl. Cinderella had found her glass slipper.

“It was wonderful having on a nice dress and captivating the audience,” she said. “And it’s so much fun – you feel like a star.”

Audiences were fascinated with her exotic looks, wanting to know her ethnic background. She looked a bit Asian but had big round eyes.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

Some Americans thought she was Latino, some Indonesian. No one guessed Kazakh. “When I told them Kazakh, they were surprised,” she said.

San Francisco’s modeling crowd was great, Zhanel said. They weren’t snobby, as some might expect. “It was really easy to work with them,” she said.

As her English improved, Zhanel said, she gained a feeling that anything she wanted to do she could.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

But she missed Kazakhstan, so she returned to Astana recently.

Now brimming with confidence in the city where she was once insecure because of her imperfect Russian, she even knows the profession she’d like to pursue here: healthy food.

She believes a poor diet was the reason her mother died young.

“There is so much high blood pressure and high blood sugar here,” she said. “I’d like to help Kazakhs change their eating habits.”

Underscoring her feeling is that she looked all over Astana one day for a basic vegetable -- spinach.

Aware that obesity has become an epidemic among young Kazakhs, Zhanel noted that “when you eat the right food, you never gain weight.”

Whether she models in Kazakhstan depends on whether offers come her way.

She’s certainly got a wide-ranging portfolio of photos to show she has both the beauty and the glamour.

Not bad for a poor village girl who once worked from dawn to dusk picking cotton.

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali

Photo courtesy of Zhanel Ali


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