Beth Blatt

By her own admission, Beth Blatt has “a chequered past”. After college at Dartmouth, the American had a promising career in advertising but quit after three years to become an actress in musicals. She toured the US and the world until a 5-week stay in Tokyo turned into three years when she landed a regular TV and radio gig. “It was great being an expat there because I was allowed to do all sorts of work I had no experience doing,” says Beth. “I became the pop-rock music critic for the Japan Times, had a role in a Godzilla movie – and started writing lyrics with the composer of the musical I’d done.”

After Japan, and with a six month-detour in Hong Kong (where she met Red Pear Theatre founder Hilary King), Beth moved back to New York City with the decision she preferred writing to performing. She was accepted in the prestigious (and free of charge) BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop where icons such as Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic) became mentors. “I worked hard and my work was recognised, developed and produced. Then one day I realised musicals are so US-centric and that ‘The World’ was missing in my work. I wanted a purpose beyond that. And so I created my music-for change-business, Hope Sings –Singing Stories of Change to Change the Stories of Lives.”

Beth believes the power of music can change the world. “Not an original belief, I know. But my vision was to combine the specifics-rich stories favoured by musicals with music from all over the world to reach casual listeners in a deeper, more transformational way.” She started by commissioning Latina singer-songwriters to create songs inspired by success stories of women whose lives had been uplifted through microloans.

Then one afternoon on a playground in NYC, Beth heard a mom who worked at the United Nations talking about the formation of UN Women. “And it just popped out of me: ‘They need a theme song.’ The mom introduced her the UN’s head of communications, who was “rather taken aback by my idea, but didn’t say no” and, through Hilary King, she was able to reach out to composer Graham Lyle (What’s Love Got To Do With It). With Somalian songwriter Clay, they created “One Woman,” which became the finale for the UN Women launch at the gorgeously-gilded UN General Assembly. “When thousands of staid diplomats and bureaucrats stood and sang along – well, it’s one of those moments you treasure forever.”

The next thing that popped out of her mouth: “Now you have to record it.” Beth spent the next two years working every connection she had – cold-calling managers and Googling to assemble a cast of some 25 internationally-acclaimed artists, including Brazilian Bebel Gilberto; Indian Anoushka Shankar; and Angelique Kidjo from Benin. On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2013, the recording was released and Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon (below with Beth) ended his speech by quoting Beth’s lyric: “Shine, Shine, Shine – We shall shine.” This gifted her another treasured moment.

Every year since, groups perform the song on International Women’s Day at the UN and beyond. “If you are reading this and have a sudden urge to sing the song here in the South of France, please drop me a note. I’ll share the score, lyrics – even a karaoke backing track.”

Beth is a long way from New York and the UN General Assembly. So how did she end up here? “We moved to Paris from New York in July 2022 when my husband’s work transferred him over. We were both itching to come – he is French, an Antibois, and I was a French-German language major in college. We’d spent little bits of time in France over the years, but nothing substantial.”

The minute Beth landed in the City of Light she hit the museums, the historic monuments, the churches, and immediately discovered amazing women she’d never heard of. “I did what I always do. I started ‘writing’ them.” Her Forgotten Women of France series includes Clotilde, first queen of France; Christine de Pisan, first female professional writer in Europe; and Marie-Thérèse, the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette – who survived the Terror and three years in prison.

Marie-Thérèse’s story was the richest and Beth turned the monologues into a play. “I went on a tour of the Chapelle Expiatoire, the Paris memorial to her parents that she had helped build. I’ve always wanted to create site-specific theatre, which takes place in a cool space relevant to a character’s life. I asked the guide there if they’d like to attract more Anglophone visitors. Turns out they did. Six weeks later, I brought a group of women there for a combination visite dramatique and one-woman-show. They loved it – so I’m now figuring out what to do with it next.”

For the past few weeks, Beth has had the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on her radar. She is committed to doing a presentation of new material about women who stand up for themselves and others. “Since I’m spending time in Paris and Antibes, I decided to do something in both places on November 25.”

In Paris, she discovered Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, who built the first shelter for battered women in Paris, and was a patron of the arts. On the Coast, two women have grabbed her attention: Béatrice de Rothschild Ephrussi and Eileen Gray. “Their stories are unexpected and heart-breaking – I long to bring them justice, dramatically. That’s what this Forgotten Women of France project is about for me. Telling the stories of women who’ve been erased from or misrepresented by history.”

This is where Beth needs help. “I’m looking for more stories of brave women that need to be told. I want to connect with historical sites who would value my bringing their spaces to life – and attracting more Anglophone tourists. I’d love to talk with organisations that help women who are dealing with violence – including, but not limited to, abuse from a partner, being forced into an early marriage or deprived of an education.”

Beth has been non-stop since she relocated to France 15 months ago and being fluently bilingual is definitely an advantage. “I grew up just outside of Chicago and from age four, went to a small private school attached to a teacher’s college. A French woman wanted her kids to go there, so she offered to teach French lessons. I started French at six, in first grade. I continued through high school, and in college, where I studied in Toulouse one year, worked the next summer in La Rochelle at a Credit du Nord. Years later, I married a French man. I guess France is in my destiny.”

She considers it a privilege to live on the Côte d’Azur. “I love Paris – the energy, the culture, the people I’ve met – but I feel it’s almost a physical need, to have this nature, this space around me. And I’m discovering amazing women to write about here, too. Wherever I am inspired and have stories to bring to life I am a happy camper.”

And Beth just learned that she has been awarded an artist’s residency at Le Chateau de la Napoule in Mandelieu. “I’ll get to spend a month there with the goal of bringing to life the story of Marie Clews, and her husband Henry. I’m thrilled!”

Article first published October 21, 2023.

Runa Ray

Sustainable luxury designer Runa Ray reminds me that there is more to the Prince Albert Foundation than meets the eye. (WATCH VIDEO above.)

Sure, since it was created in 2006, the non-profit organisation PA2F has given out more than €100 million in grants and been involved in 750 projects dedicated to planetary health, including Beyond Plastic Med: BeMed, Human Wildlife Initiative, Forrest and Communities and, in our backdoor, the fantastic Pelagos Initiative. And yes, the PA2F Planetary Health Gala attracts some pretty big names: Leo, Sting and Redford.

Yet if you happened to stop by the first edition of the free Green Shift Festival last week on Promenade du Larvotto, you would have witnessed the Foundation’s other star power: partnering with those not–so–celebrity names who work relentlessly at a grassroots level using art to inspire a public shift of consciousness when it comes to environmental issues.

One of those stars is Runa Ray. The bio-couture designer was in Monaco for the Festival June 7-10 encouraging people to write messages of their commitment to the ocean as part of her Ocean Flag initiative, which is an endorsed activity by the United Nations Ocean Decade 2021-2030.

“I have been working with the Foundation mostly as a sustainable fashion designer,” Runa told me at the Green Shift Festival. “And this is using fashion’s waste for a social cause, which connects humanity and speaks about environmental purpose, which can be linked to climate justice and social justice.”

The Bangalore-born artist added, “These messages are going to be sewn and this specific flag will be displayed at COP28 UAE in November. People across the world – orphans in Ukraine who have sent in their commitments, India, the Indo-China border, San Quentin State Prison, and now people from Monaco – have all sent in their messages.”

Photos Facebook Martine Ackermann

According to the UN, “A three trillion-dollar industry, fashion is responsible for 20% of the global wastewater generated through pesticides for land cultivation, dyes and textiles – which often flows back into the ocean.” The UN says that the Ocean Flag “aims to bridge the gap between fashion’s environmental pollution and educating the public on the detriments of climate change on the ocean through the lens of fashion.”

In addition to being involved with the UN’s Ocean Decade, the author of Fashion for Social and Environmental Justice also works with the UN Environment Programme Faith for Earth. “I have used fashion as activism and education to engage youth and future decision makers and educate students in universities on the intersection between climate change and Peace,” she said.

Runa grew up in a city in the south of India, where the most coveted professions after graduation were medicine, engineering and dentistry. “It was important to be educated in the sciences whereas arts took a back seat,” she described. “India was still adapting to the post-colonial era for the need of the above mentioned professions and peer pressure was at its best with students vying for top honours to establish themselves and the names of their families.”

She studied science but found herself at a crossroads: become a doctor or pursue fashion, a new career path introduced by her mother who said “the world had enough doctors and that fashion could use some help.”

Runa was one of the prestigious few who were chosen to be a part of the ministry of textiles India and study fashion. “Fashion was nascent and I, being of the creative bent of mind, decided to enrol myself at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. It was an arduous process of selection wherein only 120 students were chosen for four centres all over India.”

She excelled in what she described “a wonderful journey where I won the best design collection award”. This led to a Master’s at the Ecole Supérieure des Industries du Vêtement in Paris under the Chamber of Commerce. Studying fashion and marketing helped Runa gain industrial experience in factories and couture houses, where she “notably came across fashion’s waste not just from the standpoint of consumer waste but that which existed within the industry from prototypes to printing, dyeing and even packaging.”

She continued, “One should understand that waste starts from the sketch that is created, from paper to prototype and the final product. This is what probably inspired me to take on being an environmentalist. I loved creating wealth from waste and using fashion as activism to educate and advocate for policy change.

“As I further explored the industry, I came in contact with the highly fragmented garment sector from nomadic workers to the denim industry, which employed young boys to scrape at jeans for the faded look using only sand paper and led to occupational lung diseases because of the fibre in the air, to the tanning industry and dyeing industry, which discharged effluents into water ways at night.”

This would further her reason to connect the arts, humanity and science for the benefit of mankind through fashion. “An environmentalist is one who keeps the environment in the center of everything that they do. I am a fashion environmentalist because I keep nature in the epicenter of my designs, to benefit and find ways to reduce carbon footprint within the industry, and any process that could contribute towards it.”

For Runa, it is “extremely important” to go to the source. “As a fashion designer, it is imperative to understand where your clothes come from, to understand the geography, the geo-political causes, the livelihoods of people engaged, the impact of economy on prices and the control of governments on natural and synthetic fibres.”

She literally goes to the source. “For my Himalayan expedition, I travelled to four villages in Ladakh to document the pashmina goats, their rearing, harvesting of their fur and making it into yarn and final conversion into products. Most of the pashmina farming is government owned, where subsidies are given to the herders. The communities are pastoral and semi-pastoral who depend on goats and yak for income.

“The goats are combed in summer months to get the fine pashmina fur, which is then sent to the de-hairing unit where it is cleaned of any debris. The hair is then sorted into variations depending on their length. The hair is further taken to communities in the mountains of which one would make the yarn and they are paid for their efforts. the yarn is collected and taken to the next village which spins the yarn to sweaters and other products. The products are collected and then sold in the wider market.

“With the advent of climate change, most goats are dying and pastoral communities are moving out into urban dwellings to find jobs, which means that by 2050 we would have most of our pashmina farmed and not free-raised as they are currently in the Himalayas.”

Runa, who dressed Grammy award-winning artist Laura Sullivan, will be creating a multi-episode docuseries to be shared with the Prince Albert Foundation to enable wider learning. “It is only right to help amplify the work of the Foundation through fashion and arts, to connect with science and throw light on relevant issues of climate change through storytelling,” she emphasised.

Photos: Facebook Fondation Prince Albert II de Monaco

The fashion environmentalist YouTuber was a sustainable hit at Monte-Carlo Fashion Week on May 19 this year when she presented “The strait of couture” in collaboration PA2F. “I used seaweed as the main agent to print the fabric. By using the ancient art of Floating inks which was prevalent in 12th century Japan, I created unique organic prints which negated water wastage and pollution.”

When it comes to fashion and clothes, Runa says the biggest misconception that most people have is that if they donate used clothes to charity, most of the garments find a new life. “This is untrue, because most garments end up in the land fill, as only gently used and slightly worn ones make their way into the secondhand market.

“The one tip I can give consumers is to not follow trends, but stick to classic buys that will last for years, where quality and style will never go out of fashion.”

Runa Ray is currently working on a trip to Sudan to connect with displaced communities and their dying art of weaving, which is impacted by civil war.

Article first published June 18, 2023.