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Pakistani Southern Belle

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Profile
Jul 31st, 2023
0 Comments
659 Views

article by Meredith McKinnie
photography by Troy Blendell

Growing up in the South while in a Pakistani-American household informs Nadia Elahi’s perspective. Through that juxtaposition, Nadia shares her life experiences and social commentary in the blog Pakistani Southern Belle.

Story Mill Entertainment Studios in Columbus, Georgia, recently purchased the rights to Pakistani Southern Belle and will be adapting the blog for the TV screen. After decades of chasing the Hollywood dream, teaching in and around Los Angeles, and writing in her spare time, Nadia is on the cusp of achieving the Hollywood attention she first identified as a child at Jack Hayes Elementary in Monroe, Louisiana. Existing in two cultures simultaneously, Nadia has the unique ability to see America as both an insider and an outsider. From her childhood years receiving questions like, “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” to becoming a California resident in her early 20s and witnessing the Hollywood shift toward unique voices with stories that deserve to be told, Nadia feels she has come into her own just as people are beginning to pay attention. 

In the 1970s, The News Star in Monroe profiled the Elahis, noting the significance of a Pakistani family in the Monroe area. Nadia’s uncle came to the United States with his wife who was an American Baptist missionary from Swartz. Nadia’s father, Morgan Elahi, always the dreamer, set his sights on following his brother to America. He married Nadia’s mother Venus, the couple having met in Pakistan, and set out for the States. Soon, the Elahi family unit established itself in Northeast Louisiana. Nadia’s older sister Mercy was born in 1974, followed by Nadia in ‘76 and brother Roger in ‘78. With the South Asian community in Monroe being so sparse with Pakistanis, many of the Elahi children’s friends hailed from India. The Elahis being Christian, and the Indian children being Hindu or Sikh, the desi friends eventually drifted apart. At the time, many Americans were unfamiliar with Pakistani culture or where to locate the country on a world map – the Elahis’ typical response being “Close to India.” After working as a milkman, Nadia’s father bought an old school convenience store unaffiliated with a corporate chain. The family ran the store for the bulk of Nadia’s time in school, which provided a bit of street credit, as her father hosted school car washes in the parking lot. Nadia insists, “It made me feel popular,” a critical detail in an elementary girl’s life. In the 6th grade, Nadia auditioned for three, separate one-act plays. She was cast in the first play as Narrator 1, and her friend Vanessa Perkins was cast in the third play as Miranda, in a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Vanessa and Nadia bonded as self-identified dreamers, anxious to become stars somewhere else. Having originally desired to become a lawyer or a fashion designer, Nadia got bit by the allure of stardom, knew she belonged on the stage indefinitely, and set out to be an actor, telling anyone who bothered to ask. 

Nadia discovered writing between plays, composing her first story about a talking frog. As her interest in drama developed, Nadia wrote two plays in high school, one performed by Nadia, Vanessa, and their peers, and one 90210-esque play that she only let her girlfriends read. Though Nadia enjoyed crafting stories, she remained laser focused on acting, even after graduating from Ouachita Parish High School in 1994. Her parents insisted she get a college degree, so she enrolled at ULM, then NLU, majoring in Speech Communication and Theater, and minoring in English. Meanwhile, Vanessa received her B.F.A. from the Webster Conservatory in St. Louis; she then studied classical theater at the Oxford School of Drama. In 1999, the school friends reconnected and moved out to LA, finally putting themselves right where the stars live and breathe. Vanessa and Nadia got jobs at Universal Studios as tour guides, intent on climbing all the way to the top. 

Nadia’s first stint in Los Angeles lasted from March of 1999 to January of 2002. Her father Morgan died in May of 2000, and it altered Nadia’s world. Grief made the once bubbly woman turn into a shadow of her former self. As a result, many of her friendships strained, and Nadia struggled to keep up with her Hollywood life. Recognizing her father’s death as a profound experience, one that would require time and reflection, Nadia decided to move back home and seek solace in her writing. Intended as a brief reprieve from the pressures of Hollywood, Nadia planned on returning to LA soon. Initially though, she felt like a failure. At church back in Monroe, she felt everyone’s eyes on her, the girl with the dream now back home because she couldn’t make it, another young person with unrealized dreams. She missed her freedom in California, yet she needed to grow and grieve. She took a job at a local religious private school, yet she didn’t enjoy the regimented structure or the lack of creative freedom. Though she intended to write, teaching sucked all of her energy. 

In the spring of 2002, Nadia attended Mercy’s graduation from optometry school. Watching her sister walk across that stage, Nadia thought, “I want to do that.” She started eyeing academia and enrolled in a creative writing class at ULM with professor Bill Ryan. In the fiction class, Nadia experimented with writing prose and began reading more. Escaping into literature allowed breaks from her own mind. She was able to write without the weight of the world on her shoulders. With Professor Ryan’s encouragement, Nadia pondered graduate school. Though she didn’t want to teach, she knew taking classes meant she could focus solely on writing and grow as an artist. During her fourth and final semester of grad school, the department offered Nadia an English composition class. She hesitated to accept, but was encouraged by ULM Creative Writing professor Jack Heflin. On the first day, she wore glasses and a khaki pencil skirt, trying to play the part of a college professor. The students surprised her; they actually listened to what she had to say, and Nadia learned the profound difference in teaching mature students. Always one to crave creative freedom, academia afforded her that luxury, and she fell in love with the college environment. 

      With newfound confidence and an M.A., Nadia moved back to Los Angeles, intent on pursuing her writing. Community college campuses dominate the California landscape, and Nadia took part time jobs with Rio Hondo Community College and Pasadena City College. She also worked full-time at an ad agency, but Saturday classes at the community college allowed her to juggle a jam-packed schedule. For 7 years, Nadia was a freeway flier, a term for instructors who teach classes on multiple campuses simultaneously. Inspired by friend and fellow colleague Briita, Nadia applied for a full time spot at Los Angeles Community College (LACC). The benefits of a full time slot allowed more writing time. Nadia wrote several stories, a screenplay, and some poems, a few of which were published in a local literary journal. She nurtured two loves in her life, connecting with students and creating new content. Tenured within 4 years, Nadia is in her 10th year at LACC and served as Vice Chair of the English Department, Co-Director of the Honors Program, and Editor-in-Chief of a literary magazine, bringing her creative writing endeavors full circle. 

In 2017, Vanessa started a blog, and Nadia thought, “I should start one. Everyone else is.” The world around her, particularly the strained social environment, generated thoughts in her head. She kept pondering an incident that occurred post 9/11. A peer at Universal Studios had said, “We need to go to all the 7-11s and just round everyone up.” Enraged and hurt, Nadia composed an email about the 9/11 backlash and sent it to several friends, one of which forwarded it to the gentleman who made the comment. People appreciated hearing her perspective and the gentleman apologized, clearly unaware of the impact of such generalized statements. Likewise, when reading online commentary about the 2017 Women’s March, Nadia chimed in voicing support for the marchers. And again, a random woman sent a Facebook message referencing an assumption about Nadia’s religion and heritage. These two incidents sparked the first blog for Pakistani Southern Belle. Nadia says, “I wanted to tell people who I am.” She was tired of hearing people speak for her and about her, with little to no real information. The blog’s tagline reads: 46yo+Single+Pakistani+American = We’ll see where this goes. Each blog entry focuses on one of those facets of Nadia’s life or a combination, life as she experiences it from her juxtaposed vantage point. Within the first year, Nadia wrote 10 blogs on Pakistani Southern Belle, and dared to question, “Could this become something else? Could this be a TV show?” She invited her longtime friend Vanessa for drinks to find out. 

While Nadia had moved back to Monroe for a few years, Vanessa stayed in Los Angeles and found success in playwriting. She initially worked in the corporate world for Walden Media, followed by Third Star Films and Pistol Lady Productions. She served as Co-Artistic Director at Sacred Fools Theater and authored two award-winning plays: Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara, followed by Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton. The latter was written for and starred her husband since 2008, actor French Stewart, best known for playing Harry Solomon on the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, and more recently playing Chef Rudy in the CBS sitcom Mom. Nadia remained close to the couple, in and away from Los Angeles, and sought their advice on the future of Pakistani Southern Belle. Vanessa loved the idea, and Nadia wanted her friend involved. Aside from Vanessa’s screenwriting experience, Vanessa was present for most of the events in the blog, the women hailed from the same small town, and they navigated Hollywood together. Vanessa advised Nadia to create a beat sheet – a brief outline of the plot points of each episode. Nadia dove into the task, additionally reading Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, heavily recommended in the industry at the time. Two years later, Vanessa surprised Nadia having written the dialogue for Episode 1. The ladies took multiple passes at the script, realizing their sense of humor varied. Nadia joined Vanessa’s writing group and received valuable feedback, and edited the script which was finalized in 2022. 

In 2022, Vanessa and French Stewart moved to Atlanta, a life change spurred by the pandemic. The couple realized with French shooting scenes primarily in Vancouver and Atlanta and Vanessa holding meetings online, they could raise their daughter Helene in a new city with more space and a slower pace. Vanessa took a job with Story Mill Entertainment, initially as the Vice President of Development, though now as Chief Creative Officer where she helps craft a slate of projects for the company. Story Mill Entertainment produces TV and film projects, a small studio with two soundstages. Vanessa pitched turning Pakistani Southern Belle into a TV show to the studio, introduced Nadia to the executives, and they agreed to film the pilot episode and shop it around to streaming platforms. Nadia is the kind of fresh voice and unique perspective Story Mill Entertainment has been looking for, the company motto being: Stories that matter by people who matter. While Vanessa is new to television entertainment, she is not jaded with the industry and is anxious to try new things. Vanessa notes that migrating from plays to TV is a natural transition, as she searches for the right people to shepherd collaborations. Some of Vanessa’s favorite TV writers started with playwriting as it offers a unique perspective for the high-quality television we viewers have come to know and expect. 

While the TV show is inspired by the blog, and the blog is inspired by Nadia’s life, some critical differences became necessary for the adaptation. Familial characteristics vary from her real life, and classroom interactions are embellished to nourish plot points. The show follows Nadia in her 30s as opposed to the 46-year-old writer of the blog. As Nadia and Vanessa took passes at that first script, Nadia kept veering back toward reality, namely the right now, and Vanessa tugged the work in another direction. Vanessa kept telling Nadia, “You can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” The past will be depicted through flashbacks, showcasing Nadia’s life in Monroe, her other life in LA, and her experiences in higher education. Vanessa and Nadia are still fleshing out the next 8-10 episodes. After decades of writing, Nadia is uniquely proud of this work. Story Mill Entertainment will shoot the pilot in 2024 and then shop it to streaming services. Nadia’s nervousness is laced with excitement and bits of lingering insecurity. Admittedly, she wonders if anyone will care. But with time and experience comes the confidence and willingness to put herself out there again. With Vanessa Stewart by her side, she feels ready to step into this new medium and into the spotlight she identified so many years ago. 

Pakistani Southern Belle
Website: https://pakistanisouthernbelle.com/
Facebook: Nadia Elahi
Instagram: @pakistanisouthernbelle

Story Mill Entertainment
Website: https://www.story-mill-entertainment.com/
Facebook: Story Mill Entertainment
Instagram: @storymillentertainment
Twitter: @Story_Mill_