Intriguing secrets of Lady Luxe
When an online novel, Desperate In Dubai, hit the internet last year, it immediately attracted thousands of dedicated readers, all even more desperate than its characters to know what happens next. Helena Frith Powell talks to its anonymous author about her reasons for writing it, her Muslim roots and why she stays under cover.
“Only 10 people know my real identity,” she whispers on the phone. “I hope you won’t be the 11th.”
Lady Luxe, as her e-mail address identifies her, or Ghostwriter, as she prefers to be known, has a lot of faith in my powers as an investigative journalist. After reading her online book, Desperate In Dubai, talking on the phone and exchanging several e-mails, I still only know what she has chosen to tell me. In fact, until she revealed she was born in Britain, I thought she was South African.
Desperate In Dubai has become an online hit since Ghostwriter started writing it in May 2009. Thousands of followers have joined the Desperate In Dubai Facebook fan page and wait impatiently for the next chapter to be written. There are hundreds of comments, almost all positive, ranging from, “The story is addictive!” to, “What a brilliant read so far ? can’t wait for the next chapter. Inshallah towards your success!” and “Hurrryyyy up already!Please :):):) I’ve tried to keep myself from saying it, but can’t any longer!”
The novel is a tale similar in structure to the bestselling novel Girls Of Riyadh. There are four central female characters, chosen “because they represent the kinds of people living in Dubai”. They are: Lady Luxe, the rich young Emirati rebel leading a double life; Leila, a Lebanese bombshell constantly searching for Mr Right; Huda, a married woman with a husband who no longer appears to know she exists; and Sugar, an Anglo-Indian with a habit of getting into scrapes.
The lives of these four women are now the talk of the town. The anonymous author has often found herself discussing them with friends who are unaware that she is the writer behind their adventures. Rather like the heroine in Girls Of Riyadh who posts the stories of her friends on the internet, thus creating a huge following of readers, Ghostwriter owes her “fame” to the internet. She posted the first chapter on expatwoman.com and asked for feedback. “I was so nervous about what their reaction would be,” she says. “I waited for ages. The expat woman readers were fantastic, though – they gave me constructive criticism and motivation.”
Writing has long been an ambition for Ghostwriter and she saw a dull job as the ideal opportunity to get started. “When I first started Desperate In Dubai, I was at my previous job and bored out of my mind because I simply didn’t have enough to do and decided to liven up my working day,” she says. “I’m now in a far more challenging job, which is why I no longer have the time to write as much as I used to. At the beginning, I was posting one chapter a week, occasionally more. Now I’m lucky if I post once a month.”
One reason for writing a novel and posting it on the internet was to stay motivated. “I figured that if people were actually reading it, I’d have more of an incentive to continue writing.” But more importantly, the internet allows her to remain anonymous. This is the crucial thing to Ghostwriter, more crucial even than a book deal, which has been a dream since childhood. “If it is a choice between being published and everyone knowing who I am, then I would say no to being published,” she says. “As a Muslim writer from a relatively traditional and conventional family, maintaining my anonymity is an integral part of preserving my family’s honour and dignity. I have a story to tell, I want to tell it, but I don’t want to compromise my family’s beliefs and ideals in the process. There is no point in upsetting everyone I love.”
Does she feel that she is wrong in writing what has been described as fairly salacious material? “I am not doing anything wrong according to Islam; I am simply relaying it like it is,” she says. “But from a cultural standpoint a lot of people find it difficult that a Muslim woman is writing about some of the issues I do and I want to be respectful to my family.” When Girls Of Riyadhwas published there was much speculation as to which of the characters was closest to the author Rajaa Alsanea. Which of the characters is Ghostwriter most like?
“I relate to all of them, and they all have a part of me in them,” she says. “Lady Luxe has my feisty nature, Huda captures my more spiritual side, Leila’s materialism is something I think I also have but I try to keep at bay, and Sugar definitely has my quirkiness. None of them is based on me but all their stories have a bit of what I’ve experienced or felt.” She admits that she was born in Britain but will not be drawn any further as to her origins. She has lived in Dubai for three and a half years, is unmarried and gets her inspiration for the novel from people around her: “family, friends, acquaintances – and, of course, Dubai itself”.
Desperate In Dubai is now up to chapter 27, but writing does not always come easily. “Every chapter takes me for ever to start, as I just don’t know where to begin,” she says. “I may know what I want to say but I don’t know how I want to say it. “The first paragraph is always the hardest but usually when I get started, everything just flows.” She laughs and adds “a bit like when you eat Pringles – once you pop you can’t stop.”
Ghostwriter sounds young and like a very nice young woman. She laughs easily, is quick-witted and proud of her achievement with DID as she refers to it. So much so that she gave herself away during her interview for the job she has now (no, she can’t tell me what she does) because she was keen to impress her boss. So he is now one of the 10 people who know her true identity. But, she adds, he has promised to keep quiet. She says she will keep writing, book deal or no book deal. “When I’m old and frail and arthritis takes over my fingers and I can’t type any more, I’ll dictate my books and get someone else to transcribe them.”
Maybe that will be the 11th person to learn her identity. I am certainly none the wiser.
Chapter One: Meet Lady Luxe Lady Luxe has never sat so still in her life. She stretches her muscles as much as she can, given the restrictions of being in an (albeit, very comfortable) aeroplane seat. After almost seven hours of sitting in one place though, she feels like bounding out of her seat and launching into a Jane Fonda aerobics routine. She wonders if the cute guy beside her would join her if she did. Before she persuades herself to swallow her inhibitions and leap into a star jump, she finds that crossing her legs in a Buddha-like pose stretches her fatigued muscles adequately, and sinks back into her seat in relief. She can imagine Dubai’s expat newspaper headlines the next day had she decided to make a spectacle of herself. “X Heiress Loses The Plot”, the expat favourite would declare with undisguised glee, but the Arabic ones would refrain from such vigour. “Daughter Of X Has Publicly Shamed Herself And Her Family”, perhaps.
She sighs, already missing London’s grey skies, cool breezes and the beautiful fragrance of freedom. In London, Lady Luxe does not need to don a blonde wig over her thick, dark brown hair whenever she decides to have a little fun. Nor does she bother with the blue contact lenses that mask her own hazel eyes, giving them an ethereal look. In London, her abaya is carefully hung in her South Kensington closet, acquiring the slightest sheen of dust until it is time to board an EK flight back to DXB, her shayla lies discarded somewhere close by and her name is definitely not Lady Luxe. She is not the daughter of X, granddaughter of X and niece of X. In London, she is just plain Jennifer. She struggles to board the Tube with everyone else; she stands squashed against sweaty commuters with everyone else and in every restaurant she is served just like everyone else. She is completely anonymous; an ordinary, twenty-something girl living an ordinary(ish) life.
Shifting around in her seat and rearranging her legs once again, Lady Luxe mindlessly flicks through the movie options, realising upon reading the brief film descriptions that her life is probably far more interesting than any movie. For a fragment of a second, she toys with the idea of writing a screenplay about her family. A script full of dry, British humour intertwined with colourful Gulf jokes; English with a splash of Arabic, just like her. She knows she will never be able to, though. Her own scandalous double life, will guarantee the X family’s exile from the desert and her own head on a platter.
Sighing audibly, she grabs her huge orange Birkin from where she hid it under her black pashmina to avoid having to store it in the overhead locker, and rummages through it in search of something to occupy her mind. She comes across torn cinema stubs, old concert passes, dried rose petals and scrunched-up receipts – all reminders of her amazing three and a half years in London, of a time she knows she will never be able to get back.
“Having a bad flight?” Lady Luxe knew that the boy sitting next to her would eventually work up the courage to speak to her. There is something about her clear, open face that often encourages strangers to make idle conversation with her. “Not any more,” she flirts, watching his cheeks turn pink with pleasure. Recently graduated, he tells her that he has been headhunted by an American company in Dubai to join an investments firm. He shifts around in his seat, clearly not used to flying business, which she finds endearing.
“So where exactly is your office based?” she asks in a slightly British, slightly American and even slightly Arabic accent – the product of being born and raised in Dubai, studying in an International school and having an English mother. Her caramel complexion is also hard to place – too tanned to be of Iranian descent, too fair to be an original Emirati and too rosy to be Lebanese, most find it difficult to work out where she’s from. Her hair also makes her stand out from most of her cousins, who, with their frizzy jet black hair subjected to countless biolustre hair treatments, dark brown eyes and large noses (until they make the customary ‘coming of age’ trip to Lebanon to rectify it), envy her small, straight nose, glossy chestnut hair and greenish brown eyes.
Although the combination is definitely attractive, and with her lean limbs, small shoulders and trendy dress sense she often turns heads, Lady Luxe is not what you would call beautiful. There’s something mischievous about her wide smile though, and something strangely innocent about her bright eyes, and together with her infectious laugh, the full package can be lethal. “In Dubai International Finance Centre,” he replies proudly and slowly, careful not to fumble the words. She suppresses a giggle at his using the full name instead of the initials DIFC. Dubai is full of initials – DLC, DFC, DMC, DIC, DIFC, JBR, JLT, MOE. The city that has grown so rapidly has an equally fast pace. No one even has the time to speak slowly, and pronouncing a title fully is a gross waste of time.
“It’s obvious you’re a newbie,” she says. “I could do with someone showing me the ropes,” he says hesitantly. “Don’t worry, there are plenty of friendly people who would be happy to assist you,” she replies with a warm smile. Lady Luxe doesn’t mean to play mind games, but for some reason, she just can’t help it. From a young age, every word that she has uttered has held an underlying meaning – whether it’s negotiating for a new car, pleading for a new vacation or asking for a credit card with a higher limit, she has always had to choose her words carefully to get the response she wants. Now, at 21, it’s not just her father or her brothers she tests her verbal skills with. Every man (or boy) that comes in contact with Lady Luxe never quite knows where he stands, what she wants or what she’s thinking. Most of the time, that’s exactly how she likes it, but occasionally, she wishes that a guy would just read her mind and give her what her subconscious desperately wants – a stable, uncomplicated marriage. No cultural issues, no second wives, just love. But everyone knows that such a thing doesn’t exist – not in an Emirati girl’s life.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog www.beautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as contributing regularly for newspapers and magazines, writing short stories and studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Smullö that will be published in spring 2020.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and came out in paperback in April 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives between there and London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019