Julia Haart on saving lives through Netflix's My Unorthodox Life: 'No voice can silence progress'
After spending decades in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where women were not allowed to participate in sports or sing or dance in front of men, Julia Haart realized she wanted a different life for herself and her four children.
"I had no friends. I had never gone to college. I didn't know anyone. I'd never lived in what I call 'the outside world,'" Haart — who documents her new life on Netflix's reality series My Unorthodox Life — tells EW of leaving her community at the age of 43. "That's why so many people from my world, women who leave, they don't make it. They commit suicide. They become drug addicts. And then my community says, 'Oh, you see, they were messed up. That's why they left.' But the reality is that they couldn't manage to survive in this world because they weren't equipped to do so."
Now, as CEO and co-owner of the talent-management company Elite World Group and author of the upcoming memoir Brazen (coming March 2022), the reality star and fashion industry success story is sharing her experience in hopes of giving others the strength to take control of their lives. Here Haart, now 50, speaks about why she's signed on for My Unorthodox Life, the incredible positive messages she's received and frustrating negative reactions she's faced since going public about her experiences, and how she plans to continue empowering women — be it in the face of oppression or in the boardroom.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to tell your story in such a public way?
JULIA HAART: It took me eight years before I got up the courage to tell my story. It was a very difficult decision to make because I knew that I would get attacked and vilified, and it would open up me and my family to censure. I had to change my phone number since the show has come out. I've had death threats. It wasn't an easy choice to make, but I chose to do it because — whether it's that you live in a restrictive or repressive society or environment, or you're just in a bad marriage, or you would've been told your whole life that you are less than — I felt that it was a story that hopefully can provide other women with inspiration and hope. And I felt that it was something I have to do.
What was most on your mind as you were filming the series?
We are so proud that we were very careful to incorporate and show a vast spectrum of Jewish people and how different kinds of Jews live their lives. I wanted to make certain and clear that I love being a Jew. I think religions all have beautiful pieces in them — the issues I had with my world had nothing to do with Judaism. And I think that message really came across, that it's a show about love and accepting each other for who you are. My daughters and I — and even my son — have received tens of thousands of messages from people in our community and people from the communities around the world saying, "Please, please, don't stop." "Please continue speaking at all for us, we are too afraid to speak, but your speaking gives us courage." I had one young woman tell me that because of the show, she decided not to commit suicide. She was literally in the midst of planning her own demise, and then she watched the show and it changed her mind.
And then there are the death threats.
It's never pleasant — but if you attack fundamentalism, fundamentalism is going to attack. The reality is that I need to keep speaking with love and kindness and make sure that no voice can silence progress and that I will keep on speaking, and we will all keep on speaking, and we will keep on demanding change until the day change is made.
That's a mission that extends to your professional life as well.
When I took over Elite World Group, we transformed it into a talent media conglomerate. And the concept is that we can shift the power into the hands of the talent, because they have the audience. They're the media. And so with that power, if we truly help them transform them in a brand, they get longevity in their career. They get financial independence for the first time. We can create a world where financially independent women don't have to stand in line and wait for someone to choose them.
What do you want to say to those who don't share your criticisms of your former community?
All I could do is tell my story and open the door to a very closed and hidden community through my experiences. And, as I say very often, this isn't a happiness contest. I don't think that everyone in my world is unhappy, or went through all the same trauma that I did. I certainly cannot speak for every person. I'm speaking for myself and to give courage and encouragement to the other women like me who feel stuck.
If they want to attack people who point a light... If people would spend the amount of energy that they utilize to keep things in the dark to say, "Hey, these rules are wrong. Let's change that..." If that anger could be directed towards the unjust laws, how much better a world we would have? If people didn't look at a change as a threat, rather saw change as a positive step forward, right? The reality of the world I lived in was that the laws are unjust. The fact that a man can divorce his wife for any reason. She burned his food, that's the reason for divorce. If he doesn't like the perfume she wears, that's the reason for the divorce. It's literally written into the law. But a husband could beat a woman and she's not allowed to divorce him. That's the law there. And that law is wrong.
So — rather than focus on "I'm happy," "I'm not happy;" or this person's emotions, that person's emotions — let's remove the personal. Let's not make it about anger. Let's say, "Hey, this is a beautiful world. And there are some laws there that are wrong." Women were treated like this everywhere 300 years ago. But in the last 300 years, the laws in the outside world have changed. These laws can change too.
I can carry the hate as long as it leads to change. It's all worth it.
My Unorthodox Life is currently streaming on Netflix. Brazen is available for pre-order now.