women

Whether it’s changing hair colour or switching faiths, sometimes truly amazing things come out of the most unexpected choices

“Becoming a Muslim has made me a better person”

Author and TV presenter Kristiane Backer, 46, lives in West London.

 “I converted to Islam 16 years ago, after a relationship with the Pakistani former cricketer Imran Khan. Before then, I was a presenter for MTV, travelling all over the world interviewing stars like the Rolling Stones. But I felt empty. An entry in my diary from that time says, ‘ If my plane crashes, I wouldn’t care.’

The turning point was when I met Imran at a dinner party, I was raised in Germany as a Protestant, but religion wasn’t part of my life. I travelled with Imran to Pakistan and loved the spirituality and warmth of the people. People there live their lives to please God and the different value system recognises things like inner beauty, which was refeshing having worked in an image-driven industry. Imran and I broke up after 3 years, but Islam had taken root in me and I decided to convert.

My parents struggled to understand, but the worst reaction came from the German press. They ridiculed me and twisted my words and eventually I lost my job. It was traumatic, but my faith pulled me through and it felt like a fresh start.

Interpretations of Islam vary, but I’ve harmonised my beliefs with my European identity. I pray five times a day and meditate. At first, some of the lifestyle-changes were hard to adapt to. Giving up alcohol was easy, as I was tired of drinking at the same old celebrity parties, but when I first covered my hair with a hijab, it felt as if everyone was staring at me. I save it for prayers and conservative Muslim environments now.

People ask me if I’d go back to my red-carpet life, but becoming a person of faith is like discovering an inner treasure. Islam has given me a purpose and has helped me become a better person. I don’t have that emptiness anymore.”

“Giving up my six-figure salary made me happier”

Jane Mason, 39, is the founder of Virtuous Bread and has been with her partner, Enrique, 47, for nine months.

“I’d always wanted to get to the top of my profession. For 15 years, I was a strategy consultant working with some of the world’s biggest banks. It was satisfying when my 14-hours days paid off and I could change the direction of a company for the better.

I stayed in five-star hotels and earned over $ 317,000 a year. But I always felt something was missing. I hankered for simple things like growing veg and baking my own bread. During my time off, instead of luxury holidays, I backpacked across Vietnam and supported a children’s home in Cambodia.

In 2009, I was offered $ 3,200 a day to work on what seemed an amazing project, but it turned out to be my worst-ever contract. The management team was greedy and dysfunctional, and friends said I aged ten years in 3 months. After a particularly awful meeting, I realised no amount of money was worth feeling as if I was failing. That was when I quit and decided that this career wasn’t for me.

I realised I wanted to do something more virtuous to help people on a community – rather than a corporate – level. So I decided to change the world through bread. It took me a year to get my idea off the ground and at first I thought I was going insane using up my savings, but in spring 2010, Virtuous Bread was born. Now I teach bread-making to prisoners, school children, stressed executives and pensioners and my ‘bread angels’ network has helped women set up micro businesses, baking and selling bread within one-mile radius of their home.

The financial rewards are small and I’m lucky to earn in a month what I used to earn in a day. But the emotional rewards are huge. I love getting letters from people who say baking bread’s helped them. And had I not done a presentation on how bread can bring communities together at a conference in Berlin, I’d never have met my partner Enrique. You can’t put a price on that.”

“Going blonde transformed my confidence”

Hairstylist Helen Timofti, 28, lives with her partner Sean, 31.

 “I’d been a brunette all my life. Though I used to envy the women with golden locks who came into the Paul Edmonds salon where I work, I never felt brave enough to take that step.

But last April, I was ready for a change. My five-year relationship had ended and after my friend recommended Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, about the power of positive thinking, I decided that I needed an overhaul. Despite making other people’s hair beautiful, I’d spend only five minutes styling my own.

I was terrified, but Steven ( a colourist at the salon) was very persuasive and, when the final foils came out, I was amazed at the outcome, I began wearing red Chanel lipstick and treated myself to killer  Topshop heels. Within a few weeks, my style changed and I felt sexy again. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and even led me to Sean. We met in a bar a few months later; after several dates, he admitted he had always liked blondes, so I doubt he’d have approached me if I’d still had brown hair.

Of course, there’s more to life than hair, but I believe that once you decide to make a small change in your life, more positive changes follow. Starting a relationship and buying my dream flat since going blonde are proof of that. I’m also more confident and having more fun, so I know it was the best decision I could have made.

“Adopting a rescue dog gave me a new perspective”

Romy Westwood, 31, is director of the Affordable Art Fair, Hampstead. She’s been with her partner John, 41, for two and a half years.

 “I longed for a dog for years, but John needed convincing. For a while, my busy social life and love of travelling stopped me committing. But last January, I worked with Battersea Dogs & Cats Home on an art fair and heard stories of abandoned dogs.

I started emailing John daily with pictures of dogs from Battersea’s website and it took only a week to change his mind. My mum said, “Don’t get a Staffle – it’ll bite your arm off!” But Captain Pickles was gentle and shy, and he didn’t jump up and start barking when we arrived at the centre. He had been found tied to railings and covered in scars. One look into his sad eyes and even John couldn’t say no.

It didn’t start well. Captain Pickles couldn’t stop shaking on his first visit to a park. Ten days later, we found out his insides were bleeding after a virus and he needed a $ 1,430 operation. Our insurance hadn’t kicked in, but I didn’t care about the price.

Once he recovered, his confidence grew. Now, I take him everywhere, including to the office. I don’t want children yet, but John and I are much closer now we have this family unit. Having a dog puts things into perspective. I save money for vet bills instead of shopping for clothes. Captain Pickles is so loyal and he’s taught me not to judge by appearance – he looks like a bruiser but he’s a softie. I may have saved his life, but he’s totally enriched mine.”

(By Lisa Harvey)

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