My Unorthodox Life has got households all over the world binge-watching the show since it launched on Netflix. Suzanne Baum talks to its leading ladies – Julia Haart and her two daughters, 28-year-old Batsheva and 21-year-old Miriam, about life as reality TV stars.
Just a couple of weeks since it premiered, My Unorthodox Life is already in the top ten of Netflix programmes currently being streamed. And it’s no surprise, with its Sex and the City-meets-Keeping up with the Kardashians approach to glamour, family relationships and drama, the show is addictive.
It follows the life and career of Julia Haart, the 50-year-old CEO of Elite World Group, the world’s biggest modelling agency that counts Naomi Campbell and Kendall Jenner on its books. We also see Julia as an outspoken matriarch, helping her oldest three children navigate the trials and tribulations of their 20s, alongside her second husband, Silvio Scaglia (chairman of Elite World Group), all from the luxurious trappings of their New York penthouse, always with a glass of champagne in hand. So far, so Kris Jenner.
However, what makes this reality show so compelling and jaw-dropping, is Julia and the family’s extraordinary back story. Nine years ago, aged 42, Julia fled an ultra- Orthodox Jewish community in New York’s Monsey neighbourhood, after saving money through working in secret as an insurance saleswoman. Her children, Batshiva, 28, Shlomo, 25, and Miriam, 21, then followed her into a secular life, while her youngest son Aron, 15, remains more tied to the community.
Uneducated and with no prior business experience, Julia then went on to launch her own eponymous shoe range, which she sold to La Perla who she then became Creative Director for in 2016. She then moved to Elite World Group and married Silvio (and she claims, didn’t tell him about her past life for the first two years of their relationship). According to recent reports, Elite World Group was valued at $90 million when Julia took over as CEO in April 2019, and its value soared to more than $1 billion after two years with her at the helm.
Julia is also a fashion designer and throughout the nine episodes we get to see her wearing everything from micro mini skirts to leather catsuits. She also has a penchant for talking openly about sex in front of her family. It is a far cry from the modest life she used to lead, living under the name of Talia Handler until 2012. And as much as it is compelling TV, there are many who have been quick to criticise the show for incorrectly portraying the ultra-Orthodox Jews as extremists. But what are the family like off camera?
CEO of the Elite World Group.
How do you feel now the show has premiered on Netflix?
“I am so grateful that it has been so warmly received. It is honestly as though I am living my real life, but on steroids. What you see on the show is exactly how my family and my life is, so to have exposed all that to the world is mind-blowing.
Some viewers are saying that the show is very far-fetched. How close to the truth is it?
I can assure you it is very real. You cannot make it up. What you see on our show are real authentic stories. Of course sometimes the odd scene may seem a bit heightened but everything you see is what has happened.
Do you have any regrets about throwing your life under the spotlight?
Not at all. I didn’t need to persuade the kids to be on the show. They were as excited as I was to showcase our family life. The same can be said for when my kids, well the older three, made a decision to leave the community. I never once had to ask them to follow me.
All I did was to try to expose them to the real world bit by bit, one step at a time. I told them how beautiful the world is, how important it is that they should be allowed freedom, be independent.
With many emotionally charged scenes on the show, what was the hardest to film?
None of them were hard to film. The most difficult time I think is now. When I first left the community, I didn’t tell a soul [about my past]. So, to share my very personal journey with the world, now is the hardest time seeing how people react.
How did you manage to gain so much confidence?
Look, for 42 years I played the role of devout wife and mother. I knew I had so much more in me but it was bubbling at the surface.
That’s why it was so important to share my story. It goes to show that if I can do it, an uneducated person with no work or life experience, anyone can. I gained confidence slowly, it has taken a lot of time.
What do you say to those who have criticised the programme, believing it has shed bad light on the Ultra-Orthodox community?
That couldn’t be further from the truth. My issue was never with Judaism. It was purely and solely with fundamentalism. You can be religious but you can choose how you want to live. I have a huge love for Judaism and am proud to be a Jew but I don’t have to conform to some of the strict rules that were once enforced upon me.
Trust me, it didn’t happen overnight. I’d been planning my escape for years. Had I not have left the community when I did I would have killed myself.
Have you stayed in touch with anyone from your community?
Four friends I have remained close to, yet only two of them went to my recent launch party for the show. The others admitted they feared the repercussions from members of their community. That made me sad but I don’t hold it against them.
And then there was even a friend who asked to be removed from my wedding video. She didn’t want to be associated with me anymore which made me even more determined to share my story as everyone has a right to live how they want to without being judged.
How did you know what to do, how to survive, outside of the life you had only known?
For years I read every book I could get my hands on. Reading can educate you in so many ways. Teaching myself how to sell insurance helped me get some of my own savings. By soaking up as much literature as I could I taught myself how to get on the work ladder secretly.
For someone who had to dress so modestly, how did your relationship with fashion become the forefront of your life?
I loved fashion for as long as I can remember. I taught myself to sew when I was around 16 years old and as a form of escapism I was drawing my entire life and buying fashion magazines and hiding them [from my family] because fashion was not an acceptable career in my world.
Clothes were meant to conceal your body and that was their only purpose. In my old community, I was not to draw attention to myself for fear of a male seeing me and then having a sexual thought about me. Now, choosing what to put on my body is the ultimate freedom as women should be allowed to wear whatever they want!
You are very outspoken about sex and women pleasuring themselves on the show?
Sex should not be a dirty word. The fact the first orgasm I had was at age 35 — with a vibrator, after 16 years of marriage, is crazy. [Especially as there is a Jewish commandment called omah, which obligates a man to provide pleasurable sexual intercourse to his wife on a sexual basis if she desires it.] I never heard of an orgasm, let alone a vibrator. Then when I left the community and threw myself into the world of dating, I couldn’t believe what I had missed. With my second husband Silvio I learnt you can be married, have a great sex life and still remain an independent business woman.
Sex is just a normal part of life and nothing to be ashamed of. Having my own vibrator and buying them for my daughters is something I am proud of.
What is the main message you hope viewers will take from the show?
There are so many women in so many situations who have been told that they don’t have the right, or the capability to go out and work or be on their own and be independent. And I realised that I have a responsibility here… it’s a story that I need to tell. Never hold yourself back, ever.
Do you ever watch yourself on the television?
Of course I do as I need to critique myself. In fact, out of all of us I probably am the most critical of the show. I have learnt a lot from seeing how the clothes I wear look.
For example, when I am wearing a crop top and pants when I bend over, I don’t like the stomach area that peeks out so I won’t be wearing that again. If there is a season 2 I won’t be wearing that sort of outfit again.
Does that mean a new season is in the pipeline?
I can’t say for sure but watch this space. Put it this way, all the family would love it if there was!
It was difficult in so many ways but my new life is so incredible, it may have taken time to adjust but now I am so grateful for so many things.
Even though I covered myself up I always loved fashion and the best thing about leaving my old life behind is that I can wear what I want, free of judgement and enjoy following my own path in life.
You seem to have maintained a good relationship with your father Yosef who remains in the Orthodox community?
The best thing about my parents is that despite their very obvious differences, they always put us kids first. Unlike other divorced parents, we were never left to choose sides. For both of them, family values were at the heart of everything.
On the show, your relationship with your husband Benn is portrayed as a loving one, yet it is obvious Benn is still taking his time to be on the same page as you when it comes to religion?
We married so young at the age of 19 and have had to navigate on our own terms balancing our religious beliefs. I am sure it has not been such an easy ride for Benn – from me wearing trousers for the first time to embracing a more glamorous life, but he supports me in everything I do.
I am so grateful to him as Benn was the peace maker during the time when I refused to speak to my mother.
I didn’t speak to her for a while and it was Benn who kept those lines of communication open. I blamed my mother for telling me to do one thing all my life and then suddenly break all the rules herself. Now there is no more animosity between us and I am totally in awe of her and everything she has achieved.
App developer and Julia’s youngest daughter. She lives at home with her mother.
Your independence and on the show makes you stand out from your siblings who seem more reserved. Were you always like that?
It seems so. I was a very curious child who asked questions about our way of life from a young age: Why wasn’t I allowed to ride a bike? Why couldn’t I go to sports camp?
All the things my mum had been thinking in her head but never said out loud. The fact I did gave her the push.
Your mother credits you for saving her life. Is that a huge burden to carry?
Not at all. It makes me proud as having me be able to speak my mind, break rules and stand up for what I believed in, even at such a young age, helped her so much. It actually makes me feel so proud.
How did you feel moving out of Monsey?
It was like entering a world of yes after living a life of no.
I could eat shrimp if I wanted too and date a girl or boy, it made me feel empowered. Being able to live my life openly is what everyone should do.
Does your mother’s openness to talk frankly about sex ever embarrass you?
Absolutely not. I have no qualms when it comes to talking about sex – I totally agree with my mother that women pleasuring themselves should not be a dirty thing.
When my mum bought me a vibrator at the age of 16 I hid it from my friends but now it is all about the vibrator – I talk about it like everything else.
How do your former friends feel about the show?
I have one amazing best friendwho also happens to be called Miriam and who has stuck by me from day one.
When I left the community she sent me a long text saying it was a terrible idea. My mother’s advice was to reply, ‘let’s agree to disagree’ and that worked.
What about your relationship with your siblings? Do you always get on as well as you seem to do on camera?
We argue, we make up, but we always have each other’s backs. Which reminds me of when my brother Shlomo was punched and called a dirty Jew in the street for wearing a kippah. That anti-Semitic attack made me so mad. Everyone should be allowed to live how they like, religious or not. And that pretty much sums up the show.