SHE IS THE DEFINITION OF BEAUTY INSIDE AND OUT - MEET GELILA WITH A HARD G

GELILA BEKELE: HUMANITARIAN

I met the inimitable Gelila Bekele at a photo shoot recently. We are both in a denim campaign launching this fall celebrating “strong” women. In between lip gloss and jeans, I did what I do - interview her, albeit casually unbeknownst to her. I was so taken by her authenticity, her beauty, of course, and her undeniable light. I knew she was a model-filmmaker-activist whose partner is the uber successful Tyler Perry, but what I didn’t know is what an impact she would have on me after only two short meetings. Meet her. Love her. Like I do.

 Instagram @gelila.bekele

Instagram @gelila.bekele

Catt:
You were born in Ethiopia. Tell me a little bit about the world you were born into.

Gelila:
It was a mix of both rural village and also the city. It really shaped, strangely, my adulthood as well.  Like the way I connect to places, what makes me feel at home and myself. Very free, climbing trees, drinking goat milk straight from the goat. It was very rural until I was about four and then moved to the city.  When you’re a kid you just adapt to everything.

C:
And did your parents raise you? Both your mom and your dad?

G:
My grandmother.  

C:
And you were there in Ethiopia until you were about how old?

G:
When I was almost nine we moved to Europe. We moved around a lot but I’m really thankful for that because I was able to adopt a language and be exposed to religion and culture and just different types of people in general. It really made me who I am. I truly believe that.

C:
You’ve lived in a lot of places. You have such a worldly energy and you’re also very accepting of others. There’s a loving light about you.  

G:
What you saw of me is probably really what you think and how you are as well, you know? I believe that. I have to be accepting. I always try to say there are two hands. One is fear, one is love. Which one do I choose in every situation, in every interaction?   I am not always successful. I truly believe in the universe and that God always has a plan. I came into the world from a very young mother, she was sixteen and gave me up so these little things happen because of that. But also I am very lucky to have such a strong grandmother and again the universe kind of...

C:
It takes care of you.

G:
Yeah, and it drops you as well. 

C:
Right? Awakens you often, teaches you too.  You mentioned your grandmother is such a strength and an influence on your life. Would you say, because this franchise is about empowering women and where we get our strength - so when you say you choose love and you say your grandmother was such an influence on your life, would you say she of all of the women in your world has been the biggest force?

G:
Yeah.  Your home is your first school, your first taste of everything.  I learned not only from the good things she practiced but also like the hardships or out of fear whatever she reacted to. You witness it. I witnessed it.  And I said okay either I take this, or I don’t. Of course later on, right? But all of the things that she represented was always love and she made sure education was a big thing.

C:
Has that shaped the way you mother a little bit? Your son is how old? Three?

G:
Three.

C:
Three years old. What has being a mother taught you the most? I feel like our kids teach us sometimes more than we teach them, you know?

G:
You know it was a very traditional upbringing and I try not to practice that so much. I love our tradition and I love our country but it can be very silencing to children because it’s like “I’m the adult and I know everything.” I have to kind of do the opposite at times because I think my son teaches me who he is and even from discipline I see what works and what doesn’t, and just what he needs. Just observing him and listening and just communicating. Yes, I’m his mother and I am the adult and there needs to be structure but also he has a voice.  The way I grew up was very traditional and like you can’t misbehave because you’re afraid!

 Instagram @gelila.bekele

Instagram @gelila.bekele

C:
Yeah that whole saying, “Children should be seen and not heard” as if they don’t have a mind of their own or something.  That always bugged me, I don’t love that one.

G:
Yeah. But all of the other things like the natural remedies that I use with my son, what I feed him, etiquette, and really understanding people and being a good listener, all of these things are what I learned from my grandmother for sure.

C:
What is her name?

G:
Almaz

C:
Almaz. Beautiful!

G:
She’d be telling me, “Stop talking right now!”

C:
No! I already love her.  You mentioned education. I know that that’s one of the very important issues that you speak a lot about. I read something that you said about a “thriving education” in Africa.  It’s not just getting the walls built, but it’s also sustaining it, getting kids there, and having a meaningful education. I know you are a model but activism is so important to you.  So how did the education piece become one of your causes?

G:
You can be from any part of the world but the higher education you have, there’s less close-mindedness, more openness. All of that is connected to education.  And I also see it within the modeling industry. A lot of my peers left either halfway through high school or started modeling at age 13, 14, so you can imagine where they were.  I was discovered my freshman year at UC Berkeley. I had five more years more than them. It really helped me handle my accounting and how to invest. These little things they really matter. And also from a global perspective, I knew that my career had an expiration date on it.  I believe beauty is five seconds long and what else is there? I think I owe it to myself to really further myself in my education and that I also owe it to those young girls back home who were my peers at some point as well to go back and give something. I don’t think examples should be limited to “Here I give you this and you follow me.” No, it should be “I build a road or I carve out a road so you take your own journey.”  Of course, it’s not easy, it’s a very long-term commitment but to see the results makes you really keep going.

C:
Did you finish at UC Berkeley?

G:
No! Haha.

C:
I see. Well, you’re obviously an accomplished photographer now among other things.

This book, Guzo, I mean you’re in print. That’s a big deal! You aligned your passion for photography with a charitable aspect. What did you learn most about that experience, this project?

G:
Well this, Guzo, it wasn’t supposed to be the project that it is now.  It was truly my eleven, twelve years of a journey through every part of Ethiopia.  Ethiopia has over eighty ethnic groups so I can’t even fit that into one book, no way.  So I started making mini films, mini-documentaries of the community and school and water projects - just all of the different things I would experience and I started to see these really beautiful stills on the screen as images.  So I thought, “How cool are these?” So I took these shots and made a book for a holiday or birthday or whatever. And when I got pregnant I was like, “What could I do?” A few friends said, “This just can’t be only for friends, you have to put it on the market self-published.” And so I did.  

C:
I love that. And now you also have your first film under your belt!

G:
Yes, the first film was more of like an educational thing and just connecting people. For me to have one foot in this society and another foot over here - to be able to share what I learned from that.

C:
One thing that’s so interesting about your place on this earth is how juxtaposed it is. What different worlds you live in obviously.  You know when you dip into Hollywood and New York and celebrity and cameras and a famous partner - there’s all that in one sense, but then you’ve got your other leg still in Ethiopia serving your brothers and sisters there.  What’s that like?

G:
We live the life that we choose to live, right? I think in many cases at some point, even if you are trapped or whatever the situation is, there is always a choice. Unless it is an extreme situation of course but I am me. It doesn’t matter what clothes you wear, your skin is still yours, your soul is still yours, and you act accordingly based on what you feel. I try to kind of practice that.  My existence in Ethiopia is still me and my existence in this part of the world is still me. I’ve had crazy moments where it was very hard for me in the beginning to kind of understand what the universe’s purpose was for putting me in these places.

C:
When you look at what’s going on in America in particular right now - what many would consider the very inhumane treatment of children, does it make you feel anti-American at times like this? Does it make you feel less patriotic?

G:
No, because I separate politics from people.  America is great because of its people. It’s compassion.  It’s a land that accepted all of us. There is a lot of brutality, there is a lot of oppression, there is a lot of mistreatment - for all kinds of people in history.  What makes it really really sad, because I am alive at this part of history right now today, today we are reliving what a lot of our ancestors lived through - their nightmares. I am a proud Ethiopian-American. I love this country.  My son was born in this country. I want to make it better for him and his friends. So that means fighting policies. I truly believe for every bad opposite, wrong, negative, experience there is an exact opposite: the good, the love, the beauty, the strong that fights through it.  I am 31 years old and most of my generation never witnessed the previous threats in this country. Civil rights were before us. Women’s rights were before us. So many presidents have come and gone. Living through different countries I realize that to vote, to care is something you must do.  I used to argue with a lot of my friends like “Did you vote?” and they would say “Eh, it’s not gonna matter,” and I think that people really understand that’s not true now. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on but if you want the future that you really really envision, how do you become active in it? I want to be part of that force that brings the good.   All of these things are on the surface now. Even that one tweet or one post that will go viral, one image of something powerful to force people to say, “I don’t stand for this so I’m going to be proactive and I want to change this.” Something happened. The women’s march. So all of these things that people are fighting for, I think it’s become stronger and I believe in the people. I don’t believe in politicians.  People make places. Land is empty without people, it is just land. No matter where it is, I love the US because of its people. I love my country because of its people. You have to make sure that everyone is okay. Right now there are all these extremes coming out because of fear and also there was this side that felt neglected so now power stretches its giant foot and stomps on people. That doesn’t last. Anything that was born out of fear falls.  I don’t care what regime, totalitarian, communist, whatever, fascist - it fell. I just hope that more people get on that wheel that want to change this.

 Instagram @gelila.bekele

Instagram @gelila.bekele

C:
Yes, so, so poignant.  So true.  

G:
It does not make me less attracted to America. If you are that person then you shouldn’t be here. There is a saying I love, “Like because, love despite.” So if you only like the US because of whatever reasons. If you love, you love it no matter what.  I mean you’ve felt the same, you have kids, two boys. As a mother, your heart breaks to watch these images. There was a thirteen-year-old African American boy shot by police because he ran. Yes, it’s wrong to run from police but he didn’t deserve to be killed.  How do you change that? I also believe in the arts. The arts are the biggest connectors. Whether you use film, photography, music, expressions, whatever it is, all of that connects us, changes us, it speaks to us, speaks to the younger, older, all generations.

C:
How are you so wise for 31-years-old? How? Have you been told that before? You have an old soul.  

G:
I am surrounded by really amazing people.  

C:
We need your reach to grow because I love everything you’re saying. So what’s next for you? I know you’re always in the moment, but beyond the documentary and the book, where does your passion lie as far as your work right now?

G:
I’m gonna be a pop star. I’m gonna form the next Spice Girls version 2.0!

C:
Yaaaaas! Can I be in the band? The old mother of two?

 Instagram @gelila.bekele

Instagram @gelila.bekele

One thing you take with you everywhere?
My wallet

Read a book or watch a movie?
Read a book. I don’t have a TV.

Favorite Ethiopian dish to eat?
There’s a lentil dish called Misr which means red lentil.  

Favorite place to visit?
Ethiopia I’d have to say because you can go from the desert to the jungle to the coast. It has everything!

Favorite Tyler Perry movie?
He hasn’t made it yet.  
C: Will you be starring in it?
G: Never

Catt Sadler