Helen Alen, Beautiful, Gracious, Giving, Wife Of a Diplomat, Mother, Teacher, and Style Icon
I was mesmerized by Helen the first time I saw her style post in Style Your Way To Success Over Fifty. I know you all were, too. She blew the numbers off the charts with “Likes” and I knew we were in for a treat. How can one woman project so much charisma, warmth, and style sense in a photograph?
We fell in love with her home, so tastefully decorated, chic and upscale, yet warm and inviting.
Her outfits are simple yet thoughtfully composed as they fall over her body like a soft waterfall. Helen draws us in with each and every photo, and she does not disappoint with her generosity and openness about her life in South Africa as a diplomat’s wife.
I wanted to know more about Helen. And finally, here is her story….
Let’s begin by having you tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on the 6th of April 1955 in the Queen Victoria Hospital.
My mom and dad carrying me.
I started school at the age of five and used the bus service to attend school. School was quite far from home. After matriculating at Helpmekaar Girls’ High School in 1972, I attended Witwatersrand Technical College and completed a two year diploma course in Business Studies, accounting, speech and deportment, and shorthand… for those ladies who remember the time before the invention of recording and dictation machines.
Primary school photo, a tradition in South Africa.
The summer after graduating I had to get my first job. This was a step moving from a dependent child to a more independent adult. I kept imagining myself working as a personal assistant for a director of something related to the fashion industry. I had no job experience, all I had to my name was being a high school graduate and a college diploma. I finally got a call back from one of the places I had applied to. It was not my first choice but it was a job. I worked for this company for several years. My lucky break finally came when I applied for a job at the South African Wool Board as PA to the director of the fashion department. Little did I know that my future husband worked in the same building. The Chilean Embassy rented office space from the Wool Board and as fate wanted it we bumped into each other when entering the building. That’s another story for another time.
Santiago, Chile. A fun photo with colleagues when I worked at Berlitz, Int’l. I taught Spanish speaking adults — luckily I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish then!
You told us you’re married to a diplomat. Would you care to share what the life of a diplomat’s wife is like?
Nobody tells you how to be a diplomat’s wife, you learn every day. As a diplomat’s wife I had to get involved in fundraising, entertain and attend functions organized by the diplomatic community or the local community.
The most frightening time for me was when we arrived in Mendoza, Argentina and my husband invited about 20 people for dinner. I decided we would have a typical South African dish, Bobotie which I knew how to prepare. At the time I wasn’t confident enough to serve a Chilean dish, because I was a newly-wed “freshly imported” South African woman. Needless to say, the guests did not like the bobotie consisting of spiced minced meat with raisins, with an egg-based topping served yellow rice, accompanied by sliced bananas and desiccated coconut. Their reason, you don’t mix salty and sweet! I can just imagine you ladies thinking “Helen what were you thinking?” They all ate, but carefully removed all the raisins before taking a bite, and NOBODY added the sliced banana or coconut. First lesson learnt. Prepare simple food, not something exotic.
You have to have a very good marriage to be a diplomat’s wife because it can be very lonely especially if you don’t have children. When you have children with you it’s easier because you meet people through the school.
We’ve been posted to Italy (Florence), Argentina and Paraguay.
Our time in Florence accompanied by diplomats from Colombia and Peru. Ricardo is on my left. We are in Assisi, Italy, the birth place of St Francis.
A beautiful view of the Tuscan Valley.
On the streets of Rome.
Alexandra was born in Argentina in 1996, at the end of Ricardo’s five and a half year term in Argentina.
Alexandra was a real fashionista and still is. She used to open my drawers and take out my scarves and drape them around her.
Alexandra and Ricardo in Cape Town, on the beach. In the background the iconic Table Mountain.
We came back to South Africa in 1999 when Ricardo applied to return to South Africa because he fell in love with the country. This is when we decided I would stay in South Africa so that Alexandra could have continuity regarding her education. Ricardo has since been posted to Kenya and Ghana, and is currently in Chile where he will be spending two years before he gets posted abroad again.
What’s the quirkiest thing about you?
Stripping down to my underwear almost immediately upon getting home. Door closes. Bam! In my pj’s.
Talking to Mr Darcy, my Persian cat like he is a little person. “Who is my handsome boy? Is it you? Yes, you are the most handsome boy in the world.” He is the little man in our house. He is the archetype of the aloof romantic hero in our suburb, and is still looking for his Elizabeth Bennett.
Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice).
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
I never wore pants when younger, always dresses and heels. I only started wearing pants after I had Alexandra.
A cocktail party I attended at the South African Airforce base in Pretoria.
I have a terrible fear of general anesthesia. When I was trying to fall pregnant with Alexandra I went for many procedures which required general anesthesia. Ladies, I would clean the house back to front, thinking that if I were to die the second wife could not say that I was a lazy wife. I laugh if I think back now. It never occurred to me that Ricardo might not meet someone soon, or might not even remarry.
What is an issue you may have faced at one point in your life that may have affected your confidence, and how did you overcome it?
Trying to get pregnant took over my life, especially because it took longer than I expected. I got sucked into a whirlpool of sadness and obsession. I went for infertility treatment and three IVF’s over a course of thirteen years, but it never happened for me. Sadly, I could not change my circumstances, however I had to learn to cope with the challenge. I “grieved” for a long time and questioned God. It was a whole process to get to the point of acceptance. The point when I accepted God’s will for my life, and that He had something better in store for my life, was the point when I found peace in my heart. Seven years after accepting God’s will for my life I was pregnant — at the age of 41. What I learnt was that I had to accept God’s timing. God gives us hopes and dreams for certain things to happen in our lives, but He doesn’t always allow it at the time we want it to happen. He makes it happen when the time is perfect.
What brings you the greatest joy? What advice would you give a woman who is still searching for her joy?
My trust in God brings me joy.
My beautiful daughter Alexandra brings me the greatest joy in life because she is my most precious gift from God.
My pride and joy, Alexandra. She is studying a BA degree in Fashion Media. She will graduate at the end of 2018.
My husband Ricardo brings me joy. Knowing that he is always there for us, loving us and taking care of us.
Our family vacation in 2016, the desert in Dubai.
Being with close friends, who I can laugh with, admit my sins to and be fully myself without any act.
An enjoyable evening with friends in Argentina. Most of them are teachers I worked with. In Argentina you do as the Argentina s do. Don’t expect them to arrive at 7 o clock for dinner, they arrive at 10 or 11 o clock.
As long as I am alive, I will be a student. Learning about the self, through healing, acceptance, friends, strangers, elders, research and even going back to university. Traveling, and learning about other cultures and traditions. Doing random things, for example, Alexandra wanted to show me a handsome boy while driving one day. I didn’t see him. I made a U-turn right there to drive back and go and have a look at the boy. Needless to say, she thought her mother was crazy.
To the ladies of the group, find joy in the little things in life, make others laugh. Nothing beats putting a smile on someone’s face. Get dressed everyday – FOR YOURSELF. Even if you just go grocery shopping and ABOVE ALL wear some red lipstick…you never know. On a more serious note, find peace with God and trust Him with everything in your life. Once you have this peace you will find joy. Never stop learning new things, we are never too old to learn. There are so many interesting things happening out there. Connecting with under served communities or people going through difficulties. Helping them see the hope and faith.
How would you describe your personal style?
As all you ladies well know by now my signature is my pearls and my red lips. I love red lipstick, I never go anywhere without it. My look is minimal, modern and ladylike. I am 5 feet 9 inches tall. I love boxy jackets with my jeans. I LOVE JACKETS, ALWAYS MAKES ONE LOOK ELEGANT. When I buy jeans I always look for that extra detail, something different, which is not found on other jeans. I usually wear my jeans with heels when I go out. At home I change the heels for Oxfords or slip-ons depending on the season.
Perfect pink and pearls…a bit of alliteration.
I love solid colors and seldom wear prints. My solid colored dresses make a simple, elegant statement and are easy to style . Solid colored separates are easy to mix and match. When choosing solid color separates I also look for detail which makes the garment unique, for example buttons, sleeves with a unique detail or a blouse or shirt with detail on the back.
Pointed toe shoes with medium heel.
I love pointed toe shoes with a medium heel. I want to feel comfortable if I have to wear them for the whole day. I LOVE SHOES, TOO. I CAN’T WALK PAST A NICE PAIR OF SHOES. Shoes are important to me. If the shoes are not right, the outfit is not right (maybe it’s just me). To summarize, I try to buy clothes that are elegant and timeless. I sometimes splurge on a trend, but not often.
How has your personal style changed, if at all, after fifty?
My style has never changed. I have always known what I like and what I am looking for. I can walk into a store, without trying on and choose what I want. I can also see when there is nothing I like.
What is your favorite style trick or tip?
Since jeans and a white blouse are basic, I sometimes add a long army green or taupe vest to give dimension and depth to my look.
OOTD for Life Grand Cafe.
In summer I like to style my black dresses with beige and nude tone accessories for a lighter effect.
Please tell us about your daily diet
Alexandra and I follow a simple diet. We eat lots of grilled fish, chicken and sometimes a piece of grilled steak. We love salad, but we always add feta cheese to our salad. I chop up some coriander (fresh), sprinkle it over the salad and drizzle it with olive oil. We also always have fruit in the house.
I try and drink as much water as she does, but it’s difficult for me. I LOVE COKE. That is my only sin when it comes to sweet things. I don’t have a sweet tooth at all. I prefer savory snacks.
I try to go to the gym three times a week. At times it’s difficult because there is always something to do. If I don’t go to the gym first thing in the morning I don’t go. I can’t first run errands and then go to gym. Doesn’t work for me.
Do you have a bucket list? If so, what is one thing on your list?
I’d love to visit Ireland. Whenever you are on the island of Ireland, you’re never too far from the sea. I’d love to visit Mourne Mountains in County Down, to put on my walking shoes and climb to the top of Slieve Donard. My love for literature makes Dublin is a must-see. Nearly every pub can be linked to one of Ireland’s great writers; Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. Ireland’s rich heritage and a natural beauty makes it a number one on my bucket list, but I’m sure the people of Ireland exude warmth and makes everybody feel welcome, like our Heather Raymond Rainey and Pat Mulcahy.
But I must also admit that the romantic in me would love to visit Ireland…..because of the movie, “PS I LOVE YOU.”
Please share an inspiration quote.
“Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.”