The Best Of The Best: Joelle Mardinian Gets Candid About What Drives Her Life And Career
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"I have always wanted to be known for being the best at what I do,” the Lebanon-born and London-raised Joelle Mardinian says, matter-of-factly.
If you count her followers on social media -for instance, her Instagram account has crossed the 16 million followers mark at the time of writing- Mardinian is among the MENA region’s top social influencers. Her Joelle Show on MBC1 is the longest running makeover TV program in the region, making her one of the most popular Arab TV presenters.
In view of this, vanity can be explained, if not expected, and therefore, it piques my interest why there is nothing in Mardinian’s demeanor to even suggest it. “It doesn’t matter what it is, be it a fitness instructor, an underwater baby instructor, or a makeup artist, I have always been competitive, and I don’t want to be in second place,” she continues, without sounding pretentious, although nothing about her and around her is modest. “I always want to be the best. I want to be at the same level as other people who are the best, if not better than them, but never behind.”
Her voice, echoing the perhaps harsher, more serious tones of responsibility, serves as proof that Mardinian is the entrepreneur at the helm of Joelle Group, a beauty conglomerate which includes the high-end beauty salon Maison de Joelle (since 2008), cosmetic clinic Clinica Joelle (since 2013), skincare brand Joelle Paris (since 2014), and more recently, a line of colored lenses, EyeCandy.
And as I carried on my conversation with Mardinian, I started to feel like there must be some deeper force at work beneath her drive to join what she considers to be a hallowed category of successful individuals in society. “I get too jealous, too hurt, and I beat I myself up, actually- this is a personal thing, nothing against those people,” she explains. “I want the best for them, but I want to be like them. If I am not like them, if I’m not reaching that level of perfection that I see in other people, I get super hard on myself.”
Her level of achievement does come at great personal sacrifice. Yet, Mardinian hardly mentions it. And so, she will talk about checking social media, emails, and messages immediately after waking up, working for 18 hours per day, and not resting until literally falling asleep, only to support her objection against those who are not willing to pay the high price of hard work. “To all the people who comment that they’d like to have ‘a half of my wealth,’ I say that they can have it all, if they can work this much,” she says. “It really hurts me, because I’ve been working since I was 14 years old. I was babysitting at 14. I was working at a kids’ shoe shop at the age of 16. I qualified as a fitness instructor at the age of 17, then a makeup artist at 22, an underwater baby instructor at 27.”
Going back in time, Mardinian tenderly traces the arcs of her love for Lebanon by describing her happy childhood spent in the mountains surrounding Beirut, while the intonation of her voice becomes clearer and more deliberate when explaining that her mother -also a makeup artist- instilled in her the work ethic that, in London years later, resulted in Mardinian styling celebrities enlisted by Sony Records. Dubai, she says, opened its doors for her in 2004, and quickly after she launched the Joelle Show on MBC1. “It has been about me showing to the world what I can do with one person, how I can transform her,” Mardinian says of its success throughout its many seasons. “I have been tested every week. I saw it as if every week I was sitting in an exam, and not as just presenting a show. It isn’t about me, what I look like or what I wear, but what I am actually delivering to that other person.”
The beginnings were hard, to say the least. “At the time, I couldn’t read Arabic properly, I didn’t have the script, and so on,” she adds.
Her effort paid off though, and before long, Mardinian started building a beauty empire. Launched in 2008, Maison de Joelle started out as a high end salon at the Kempinski Hotel in Dubai, and today, it has 14 franchises in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Tunisia, Bahrain, Jordan, and Algeria. It is Mardinian’s very first entrepreneurial endeavor. “I had zero knowledge about starting up and running a business,” she says. “I remember overseeing the tiles on the floor, the wallpaper, every chair, literally. I don’t know why but I always have this burning feeling that I want to do more. It’s never been about money. I didn’t even think about how much money it should be making, I just wanted it to be the best salon in the region. End of story. Full stop.”
In a moment, a flashback to the beginnings of Maison de Joelle unearths discomfort, and Mardinian describes the heavy burden of entrepreneurial risks. “People just see the glamour, but they don’t understand the sleepless nights, or that, for example, for Maison de Joelle I had a partner at the beginning, and then he wanted to exit,” she says. “I was going to the bank personally, begging for a loan, and I had to take two to buy him out. It had been four years before I made one dirham. I was working so hard for something that wasn’t making me any money. That opened my mind to other celebrities who start a business and don’t get past three months, because they don’t want to work on something that isn’t lucrative or giving them cash, but for me, it has never been about that.”
And so, she persevered. The salon rode out of the 2008 financial storm quite successfully, and Mardinian recalls that the income incurred after it, in 2010 to be precise, was the highest the business has ever seen. However, Maison de Joelle also taught Mardinian a key lesson on entrepreneurship, which is to always have a cost-conscious approach when running a business. “I remember that one of the very first steps, a very tough step, that I had to make was being forced to sack seven staff in one day, so that I didn’t go bankrupt,” she says. “I had over-hired, which you shouldn’t do at the beginning, until you build the name, and so on. It was a lesson about costs and overheads, and not only thinking about my vision of how the salon should look like.” Her next venture proved to be easier.
Joelle Mardinian, serial entrepreneur, television host, and makeup artist. Source: EyeCandy
Clinica Joelle is today a cosmetic clinic with branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and franchise operations in six countries, including KSA, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, Egypt, and Bahrain. It came to life in 2013 due to Mardinian unintentionally finding herself at the cross of the supply and demand curves of the region’s plastic surgery industry- her Just Joelle TV show grew her network among the region’s best plastic surgeons, while Maison de Joelle attracted a steady stream of customers interested in those treatments. “I thought that I should open a medical center, because I had the connections with the best in the industry, and, on the other hand, people trusted me enough to always ask for my advice,” Mardinian says. “To be honest, it was easier for me to run Clinica Joelle than Maison de Joelle, because at a medical center, you are dealing with doctors, very professional people, and there is a different standard. However, there was a new lesson to be learned, and that was how to deal with these doctors, and how to approach them when you wanted something to be changed. They have certain standards of how they are used to being treated, and we have learned to handle that, successfully.” Hearing Mardinian speak of this, I can’t help but feel that this was just another challenge that she had tackled and overcome saying, “End of story. Full stop.”
One year later, in 2014, Mardinian was ready for her third lesson on starting up yet another successful business, and it came in the form of Joelle Paris, a skincare and haircare brand with a wide range of products that are today available across the GCC region, as well as globally through an online store. “After we launched Joelle Paris, the biggest mistake was that I gave it to one beauty chain, exclusively,” she says. “In my mind, I thought they would take Joelle Paris to the moon because we gave them the exclusivity, but that was when I witnessed that departments in other people’s businesses could be such failures. The staff really did not care. So, the biggest mistake was to trust that someone will represent you well, and I realized that I represent myself much better than anyone else.”
In addition to learning that her marketing prowess was hard to find, Mardinian was reminded of the dangers of letting one’s talents slide. “When I see the potential that a person has and what they can achieve but they don’t use, it hurts me,” she explains. “In many cases, they have been given an opportunity that I have never been given. I’ve always had to go after what I want. I still go and pitch to everyone. I don’t have this, ‘Oh, I’m Joelle, if they want me, they should come to me’ attitude. No, it’s not like that at all. I still go after what I want.”
I can believe this sentiment- the only moment I see Mardinian slouch throughout our conversation is a moment when she utters, “So, yes, I’ve learnt so much along the way.”
But then, in the split of a second, she starts talking about her latest project, EyeCandy, a line of colored lenses. “It was born during the lockdown, because I had not had time for it before,” she says, energetically. “Three years ago, I realized the huge industry of contact lenses, but I wanted to do it right. I used to look at the branding of other brands and wonder why they all were black. They should be colorful and beautiful. I also used to think that there were not many differences between the colors and shades of the lenses, but I had already had three big businesses. Then, with the lockdown, all of my businesses were closed, so I finally had the time to work on it.”
In being sold online, EyeCandy can survive any crisis, she says, and that opens space for my question on whether her confidence as an entrepreneur was dented throughout the COVID-19 crisis. “The world is never going to go back to what it used to be, so whatever business we were in, we should not dwell on the past but create something new, something that will move with the times,” she responds. “One big advice can be derived from the fact that I have never stopped at just the salons, and thank God I did not, because the salon business is really suffering, not just mine, and especially after this pandemic, as people are choosing to look more natural. Plus because of social media, everyone is learning, for example, how to do different hairstyles at home. So, fewer and fewer people are going to salons to be beautified. Thank God I opened Clinic de Joelle, and so the most important thing is not to concentrate on just one thing.”
This mindset explains why reaching one entrepreneurial peak after another has never left her feeling drained, but determined to come back with renewed force, and that is not something of a novelty in her family, she says. “My father was never with fewer than three jobs,” Mardinian adds, before continuing with her advice for fellow entrepreneurs. “We all must be working on something on the side, on an additional thing, even if it is something small, just to have something more to rely on, and then the next and the next and the next. We can all do so much.”
Our conversation turns to her family, and her three children, and how after spending her early childhood in Beirut and her formative years in London, Dubai is where she has situated herself in the world. However, Mardinian starts explaining that, out of the three cities, she still cherishes the most her memories of Lebanon, but its troubles over the past few years, especially with the 2020 Beirut blast, has left her feeling resentful about her nation. “I used to say that I don’t like Lebanon, but now I know that it has always been anger,” Mardinian says. “I’m angry at what politicians did to my country. I’ve always had to deal with that pain and carry it in me and with me.”
It was then, in the midst of her describing her tense relationship with Lebanon -somewhere in between her saying, “They have robbed me of my country, they have failed me,” and her reiterating that her career “has never been about the money but about being successful”- that I realize how much this early wound has shaped Mardinian’s philosophy of life. It seems as if being successful is a patriotic duty for Mardinian, to serve as proof that failure does have an alternative. “I want to be a role model for those younger than me,” she says, and that’s perhaps the best note I could have wished for in terms of an end to my conversation with Mardinian- as she’d probably say, “End of story. Full stop."