We’re 27 minutes into our interview when Elisa Sednaoui-Dellal’s eldest son, Jack Zeitoun, interrupts our conversation for the first time. He wants to know if he can play with a friend, and his mom, distracted, loses her train of thought. “I’m sorry, I’m terrible at multitasking,” she apologizes—a considerably modest declaration because, well, are you familiar with the wildly varied professional titles she juggles on a daily basis? She started out as a model, has starred in a slew of acclaimed films, and, (aged 24), co-directed a documentary with Martina Gili, titled Kullu Tamam (Everything is Good); and that’s all before she started her namesake foundation, aimed at providing hands-on learning experiences to children, in 2013. It is as if Sednaoui-Dellal knows nothing but how to multitask, actually.
She was always a natural at it. Born Elisa Sednaoui (the addition of Dellal came after her marriage to British entrepreneur and former art curator Alexander Dellal in 2014), her childhood was spent splitting time between Italy, Egypt, and France. Bullied at school, (“the kids in Italy had a hard time pronouncing my name”), she turned to modeling young as a means of independence, and landed a string of standout gigs right out the gate. Her highlights reel is lengthy and impressive, but among the most name-worthy drops she’s appeared in multiple Chanel ad campaigns. Initially, she used her fashion career to satiate wanderlust [“I moved to New York for five years and then London for another five, but every day I was waking up in a new place”], but when her appetite for travel waned, she stuck with it for the paycheck. “You can’t model on the side,” she continues, speaking in an accent that’s both clear, but hard to place. “To make money you have to work really hard—people always underestimate how easy it is. For me, modeling and acting were never the end goal; I was always looking for a job or a purpose that would really motivate me to change the world for the positive.”
Sednaoui-Dellal’s career has been laser-focused on doing just the thing with her own organization in recent years. Specifically, she’s been drumming up support for Elisa Sednaoui Foundation’s (ESF) multidisciplinary and community-based young educators program, Funtasia, while simultaneously growing into the role of being a mom, a wife, and moving countries. “When I first had the idea to start the foundation, I was seven months pregnant with my first son and living in London. Now I have two boys, and we recently relocated to Los Angeles.”
Funtasia is her passion project and, to date, it’s provided close to 6,000 children in Italian and Egyptian classrooms, youth centers, and after-school clubs with vital skill sets. Via practical learning initiatives centered around everything from health to theatre, gardening, cultural integration, conflict and emotional management—plus more—the program hopes to inspire a new generation of analytic and innovative thinkers, regardless of a child’s socio-economic background, gender, or race.
Sednaoui-Dellal’s climb to philanthropic activist was precipitated by a childhood dream of becoming a diplomat. It’s an ambition she’s yet to achieve, but feels that she has, at least in some parts, thanks to the positive results of the program. “Life changes and you have different priorities, but the success of Funtasia proves the power of guidance. With it, both children and adults are able to work together to create safe environments and further their learning.” Sticking with modeling, in this aspect, has had its advantages: “When I was shooting Kullu Tamam in Egypt, I had this realization that I had so much opportunity from the network I had built through the industry to draw attention to something other than my fashion career,” she says. Right now there are nearly 20 educational establishments under the ESF Funtasia umbrella, with more planned soon in Morocco and Mexico. The foundation’s central training hub is in Luxor, but there are others in Italy.
If you were to find Sednaoui-Dellal on a rare off-day, she’d ideally be spending it alone, reading and writing. She says that one of her goals is to make space for more creative pursuits, including perhaps another film. These objectives are generously peppered with more quality time with her family. “The honest answer is that as a mom you never feel like there are enough hours in the day. Every time you don’t spend a spare moment with your kids is hard.” Her quandary boils down to two words that most moms can relate to, she says matter-of-factly: “mom guilt.” Still, she continues, the support of a good partner goes a long way. “I’m a big believer in marriage, but it’s a lot of work. You need to stay aligned and communicate with each other—always.”
The experience of running Funtasia has made her aware of how the program would have benefitted her at a younger age. Even now, she admits, she could use sharpening her managerial skills. “We want to create an environment where we can all advance, not just the kids. For me, witnessing the teaching of the teachers has helped me in turn learn how to lead a group, facilitate brainstorm sessions, and also how to give and receive constructive feedback. If people—including me—are constantly expecting to be helped, we’re never going to learn how to help ourselves. It’s about fostering empowerment for everyone and localizing communities. If we continually separate refugees, for example, they will always be considered as ‘other.’ It all starts with educating children first.”
Longterm, Sednaoui-Dellal has grand plans for ESF, but she’s open about the challenges ahead. She’s also optimistic, because every opportunity to talk about it gives her ideas greater bearing and momentum—including this week’s special feature with Semaine. “I’ve been wanting to work with Semaine on something ESF and Funtasia-related for such a long time, and finally the stars have aligned,” she says to close. “This feature is exactly what it’s all about—creating collaborations between different universes.”
By Elsa de Berker for Semaine.
Photography by Davey James Clarke.