Early last winter, when protesters in Tunisia began gathering in the streets to demand the ousting of dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, one woman was cheering them on from what might seem an unlikely perch—her elegant stone villa in Milan.
Afef Jnifen, a reed-thin beauty with a gleaming smile and a mane of thick brown curls, had made her own bid for freedom back in 1988, leaving Tunis to model in Paris just after the coup in which Ben Ali seized power. By then, Jnifen had already weathered one dramatic clash with the authorities, having been arrested by Tunis’s police superintendent during the country’s 1984 bread riots. As she was walking home from school one day, the officer tried to block her way; when Jnifen pressed ahead, he smacked her on the leg with his nightstick, and she hit him over the head with her purse—in which she was packing an extra-heavy bottle of Lancôme’s Magie Noire perfume. Carted off to a holding cell, she was released the same day, thanks to the influence of a high-placed family friend. But when Ben Ali took over in 1987, Jnifen decided it was time to move on.
“I knew that if I stayed in Tunisia, I would always be getting in trouble,” Jnifen says, sitting in the living room of her high-ceilinged Paris apartment. “I’m a fighter. And I wanted to be in a democracy, where I could say what I thought and didn’t have to worry about my house being bugged. I could never live in a place where I didn’t have freedom.”
In the years since, Jnifen has put her freedom to use in a variety of ways: building careers as a model and an Italian-TV personality; acting as an occasional agitator for Arab causes; and marrying the dapper silver-haired yachtsman Marco Tronchetti Provera, one of Italy’s wealthiest tycoons. And although Jnifen has never played any kind of official role in politics, friends say she’s a one-woman advertisement for a certain kind of modern liberated Arab woman—one with enough charm to coax a laugh out of the Sphinx. “Afef is very strong and intelligent and aware but also full of sweetness,” says her friend Naomi Campbell. “She’s taken a lot of steps forward for her country and her culture.”
Early on, Jnifen, 48, honed her social skills in places like Baghdad and Tripoli, where her father—a politically moderate but staunchly traditional Muslim—served as the Tunisian ambassador. In her early 20s, though, she delivered him a double whammy of disappointments, marrying a young Tunisian pilot and becoming a model, which involved frequent travel to Europe for jobs. Jnifen’s friends recall a buoyant, party-loving prankster who enjoyed flouting protocol, particularly in the stuffiest of settings. At a Christmas party at the Palace hotel in Gstaad during the early eighties, Jnifen wore a trick bow rigged with a tiny water tube and took great pleasure in squirting fellow guests, including Hosni Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal. “Afef loved being naughty, but of course, everyone would have talked about her anyway,” says Jalila Hashemi, her sister-in-law at the time. “She has always had this special kind of animal beauty and intense charisma—it’s a combination that literally stops people in their tracks.” One such person was photographer Jean-Paul Goude—who, when he spotted Jnifen walking on the beach while he was shooting a Club Med ad with Carla Bruni in the Bahamas, put Jnifen in the ad and suggested she go to Paris and meet the designer Azzedine Alaïa. Soon she was a favorite model of the top designers, bouncing between Milan and Paris while working for Armani, Fendi, Gaultier, Cavalli, and others.