By Hannah Stephenson, PA
Anyone who saw petite firecracker Julia Haart at the helm of talent and modelling agency Elite World Group in hit Netflix series My Unorthodox Life, will know she’s a force to be reckoned with.
Frequently adorned in skimpy shorts and glitzy designer shoes, Haart, 51, invited viewers into her complicated life. At first, it might look like a Kardashian-esque spin-off, as she and her brood flit in and out of glamorous locations, fancy restaurants and sumptuous apartments.
Viewers see her swanky New York offices as well as her home, with its impressive closets of expensive clothes, while her designer-conscious children add drama to the mix, with dating dilemmas and relationships.
The difference is Haart’s backstory. Of Russian descent, less than 10 years ago she was known as Talia Hendler, a wife and mother living in an Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, just outside New York.
She says Monsey was a “fundamentalist” ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and she spent her youth caring for her seven younger siblings, before being matched and married off at 19 to Yosef Hendler, a man she barely knew.
Modesty required her to dress covered from head to toe, even in the height of sweltering summers. She wore a wig (sheitel), as rules stated women’s hair was not to be seen by anyone but their husband, and followed the instruction saying you need to put on the right shoe first.
Secretly, she loved fashion and would pore over magazines, drawing designs of the clothes she imagined wearing in the world beyond Monsey. She was always outspoken, confident and outgoing, and educated herself, reading the classics and any other literature she could get her hands on.
Haart secretly started taking birth control after having three of her four children, secured jobs in teaching at an Orthodox school, and later sold life insurance, squirrelling away enough funds to escape.
The catalyst for change was her daughter, Miriam, who at five years old started questioning things which had been in Haart’s thoughts for years – why she wasn’t allowed to sing in public, run in shorts, play soccer and basketball, or ride a bike without being covered from neck to knee.
Haart made her escape in 2012, previously revealing that she’d contemplated suicide before this point, and within a week founded a shoe brand. In a few years, she became creative director of luxury underwear company La Perla.
Now she has written her autobiography, Brazen. “My hope is that people who read this book will see a woman, at 42 years of age, walked out of her life, time travelled into the 21st century, didn’t know a single human being and still managed to succeed,” she says.
“I really pray this helps people on their journey to choose to change their lives – what’s making them unhappy, and what’s holding them back from pursuing their dreams.”
The Netflix series became a hit last summer, and is already filming season two.
“The show is snippets of my life, my present defined by my past. The book is the whole messy story,” she says. “It wasn’t easy. I made thousands of mistakes, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I still managed to succeed.”
When season one ended, Haart was married to Silvio Scaglia, founder of Elite World Group. They are now in the throes of divorce, but the book ends before their romantic relationship begins.
Meanwhile, her rather sweet ex-husband, Yosef, has remarried and left Monsey, while her oldest daughter, Batsheva, who was already married to a member of the community when her mother left, followed her to New York, but is also now reportedly going through a divorce too.
“Batsheva had the most difficulty. When I was raising her, I was fundamentalist,” Haart recalls. “I believed everything hook, line and sinker, so I was much more strict in her upbringing than I was with the rest of the kids.
“She grew up with the super rebbetzin-y [the name for a woman married to a rabbi] mother who prayed non-stop, and wrote in her book of sins. Then all of a sudden she turns 19, she gets married, and I say I don’t believe any of this any more, byeeee… And of course your head would spin.”
Two of her three other children also joined her in New York – Miriam and son Shlomo – while her youngest, 15-year-old Aron, remained with his father. It all makes for riveting reality TV.
So, what’s happened since the end of season one?
“You want to hear the craziest thing? My ex-husband left Monsey! He’s married to a very Modern Orthodox woman who does not cover her hair, went to a normal college and got a degree, runs her own business and is incredibly independent and part of the outside world,” she says.
“He moved to Teaneck, New Jersey to an extremely Modern Orthodox community. He took off his black hat! Aron has moved with him, but it gets even weirder. Buckle up. My ex-husband, who proposed to me in a parking garage, with the words, ‘Will you be my ‘eishet chayil’ [woman of valour], took his fiancée to Puerto Rico before they were married!
“He texted me there and said, ‘Julia, thank you for making my life better’.”
Haart is unquestionably entertaining with her compelling tales. She continues: “My son, who you think would be ecstatic, has become more religious. He’s still wearing a black hat. I keep saying, ‘Look at your father, he’s a religious man, he keeps Shabbos [the Sabbath], he keeps kosher, but he’s not fundamentalist any more’. But he’s 15, so I’m hoping it’s teenage rebellion.”
The worst thing about living in Monsey was her role as a woman, she says.
“In my world, your biology defines your destiny. All women are supposed to be the same, do the same thing, and are all put on the earth for the same purpose. They are all supposed to want to be mothers, be subservient to husbands, be behind the scenes – the ‘eishet chayil’ that helps a man be great. They themselves can only achieve greatness by proxy.
“The word ‘tznius’ – that concept of modesty – isn’t just talking about the fact I had to be covered from head to toe. I wasn’t supposed to learn, to study, I wasn’t allowed to get a higher education or live by myself. I was never allowed to achieve personal greatness.”
Some critics have accused Haart of anti-Semitism, but she’s having none of it. Instead, she insists her issue was with the fundamentalism she experienced.
“When I ask for laws to be changed, it’s not out of hatred or anti-Semitism. I am Jewish. I have been a victim of anti-Semitism hundreds of times in my life. I am literally standing in front of the world saying, ‘Hey, I’m a Jew, don’t hate me’.
“It is ludicrous to say a desire to better people’s lives and change archaic laws that should no longer exist and should never be part of authentic Judaism can be anti-Semitic. I love being Jewish. I’m proud to be a Jew.
“I don’t believe the world I grew up in is authentic Judaism. On the flip side, I’m not trying to harm Judaism, I’m trying to fix the archaic laws that are inauthentic to true Judaism, that’s all.”
As for reality TV, she says you get used to the cameras following you around. She is executive producer, so has some sway.
Away from the cameras, Haart has found ways to ‘decompress’ – meditating every day, spending time with her family, playing with her new Cavapoo called Joy, and dancing.
But things are never quiet for long in the self-confessed workaholic’s world.
“I’ve been in fighter mode for over 20 years – since 11 years before I walked out the door – and I’m used to it. I wouldn’t know what to do with peace and quiet and calm,” she says. “I’d be like, ‘Wait, no one’s attacking me? What should I do today?’”
Brazen by Julia Haart is published by Endeavour. Available now.