France's Courtesan Couture
Benhamou, Rebecca, Newsweek
Byline: Rebecca Benhamou
Zahia Dehar has peddled her tabloid scandal into a fashion fairy tale.
As the woman at the center of one of the most high-profile sex scandals ever to hit French sports, Zahia Dehar has become the ultimate tabloid sensation. It all started in April 2010, when--at age 17--she was reportedly presented as a "birthday gift" to national football star Franck Ribery by an alleged pimping network at a Paris VIP nightclub. The scandal broke in the press when Dehar was quizzed by French police investigating the illicit ring. Dehar told the cops that Ribery and fellow footballer Karim Benzema had paid her for sex even though she was underage (prostitution is legal at age 18 in France). Set to stand trial in June, both men now face a possible three years' imprisonment and a $60,000 fine.
But while the allegations continue to tarnish their career and the image of French football, Dehar has capitalized on her notoriety, shifting her saga away from the crime pages and into the fashion section. This past year she launched her own brand of lingerie with the help of the Hong Kong-based First Mark investment fund, and the line has become a darling of the French fashion industry's glitterati.
"Since I was a little girl, I've had this passion for fashion and for what makes women look beautiful," Dehar says. "I'm very proud of what I've achieved so far ... I'm concentrating on my brand for the time being, but I've got so many other dreams, and I'm constantly brimming with ideas."
Between fashion shows and television appearances, this year is shaping up to be a busy one for Dehar. Last month Zahia, From Z to A, a documentary directed by Hugo Lopez, aired on French national television. Giving a peek into Dehar's pink-colored world, it focuses on the creation of her latest lingerie collection. "Zahia is sort of contemporary myth, which is both sad and beautiful," Lopez wrote in a letter to French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur the day the film aired. "She is a media icon, perhaps the most scrutinized French personality at the moment, the person that people most fantasize about." A day later, on January 23, Dehar showcased her second couture lingerie line at the Palais de Tokyo during Paris Haute Couture Week. The line received mixed reviews in the press, as did its creator--while some people see Dehar as a modern-day Cinderella, others believe she is an opportunist. Though she rarely gives interviews, Dehar still wishes to defend herself from the negative publicity. "The one thing that I'm truly proud of since the scandal broke is that I've made my dream come true," she says. "I no longer feel oppressed by the media. My brand created jobs in France and gave me the opportunity to work with the best craftsmen."
On January 31, Dehar was again in the headlines after announcing that her next collection would be made in a French studio founded by former workers for Lejaby, one of France's best-known lingerie brands, which went into liquidation in December 2010 (it has since been reborn as Maison Lejaby under new ownership). "I made this choice because I wanted to support Lejaby and also because I was looking for the best possible savoir-faire," Dehar says. "I'm looking forward to having my whole line produced here, because it's the best quality." (A smart move, considering that President Francois Hollande's government has been exhorting customers to buy "made in France.")
While her wildest dreams may be coming true, Dehar's life hasn't always been la vie en rose. Born in Ghriss, Algeria, in 1992, she emigrated to France with her mother and younger brother when she was 10 years old and didn't speak a word of French. …