We’re pretty picky here at S&F specifically with the men we date, the friends we keep, and the people we choose to feature on our blog. But like many of the other amazingly talented Iranian Americans doing big things– Ashley Momtaheni is truly one of a kind. There aren’t a lot of people out there who are wildly successful, but manage to stay incredibly sweet, easy to talk to, and truly courageous.
I walked away from this interview feeling like I had actually learned something– just hearing about the lessons that Ashley’s learned through her experiences and her accomplishments is jaw dropping. I literally hung up the phone with her and felt a sudden urge to go save the world (I obviously didn’t, but you get what I’m saying). The best part? Ashley got one step closer to her dream job after our interview with a new position at Warner Brothers and S&F couldn’t be happier for her. We wish Ashley all the best and hope that you joonies walk away from this interview as awestruck as I was.
ASHLEY MOMTAHENI: RISK TAKER. HALFIE. JOONMAGNET
– Tell me about yourself…
I was born and raised in New York. I grew up in a town called Scarsdale, which is 25 minutes outside of Manhattan. I’m a halfie- my father is Persian and my mom is actually this 5 foot 10 blonde hair, blue eyed “glamazon” woman. I have a brother who’s five years older.
The experience I had growing up partially in Manhattan opened my eyes and allowed me to learn about the Iranian culture in a different way.
I grew up very close with my father’s side of the family. Most of our relatives- his siblings- have moved to the U.S. since the Revolution. They’re scattered between Florida, DC, Virginia and New York. I always had a strong connection with that side of my family and then this extended family that consisted of people my father knew when he was growing up in Iran. They came here together to study and work– they’ve been like aunts, uncles, and cousins — I grew up with their kids.
I learned about my Iranian culture through this extended family, as well as my family on the East Coast.
Although, I didn’t grow up in a fully Persian household — I was still immersed in the culture. My mother can cook Persian food better than my dad can. It was awesome to see my mother adapt to the culture.
I’ve never been to Iran but, it’s on my bucket list.
When I was a junior in college, I moved out to L.A. and that’s where I got the second world Persian 101 education. The culture is very strong there.
– How is the West Coast different from the East Coast?
Iranians on the East Coast are doctors, lawyers and teachers. I aspired to be in the entertainment industry and on the West Coast, it was great to see people with similar backgrounds doing the things that I aspired to do. It was eye-opening and inspiring. Going to the West Coast allowed me to have a greater understanding of people that grew up in a way that was different to me — and I was able to learn from them.
– Are the stereotypes about New York true?
In New York, you grow up quickly and you see things as they are. New York is a no bullshit kind of place. If you don’t like somebody or somebody doesn’t like you, you know within the first five seconds- they’re not trying to hide it. You are exposed to everything.
You walk down Fifth Avenue and there’s Prada and Gucci… and then there’s five homeless people right on the street.
You’re never absent minded from the fact that there are so many different degrees of life– it wakes you up. You’re not sheltered from any of it. It’s a place of tremendous opportunity and you can literally do anything you want– the opportunity is right in front of you. I think New York is a blessing and a curse.
I think there are so many degrees of life that should be appreciated and you have to slow down to do it. It’s nice to feel surrounded by people who know you– to feel nurtured and loved– because it can get cold and lonely in the city life.
I’ve always struggled between choosing New York or L.A. I think L.A. has a better grasp on enjoying life, taking time to be outside and appreciating, whereas New York is go go go. I love California- one day, I will go back and never return.
– What made you go to California?
I went to a small school in Connecticut. I really enjoyed myself the first year and then I got totally claustrophobic and suddenly, hated it. It’s a small school- very preppy, which is great- but I would have probably been better off going to a school in the city. One year, I was set to study abroad in Florence and then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. This made me completely change my mind and there was just no way I was going to leave.
A few months later when my mom was doing a lot better- I heard about this program at my school where they sent students to LA for a semester where you can intern and take classes. I went out there for a semester and I started interning for a film production company (part of Warner Bros.) and I absolutely fell in love with it. Before I knew it, the semester was over, but the company said I could stay. I had to withdraw from my university to be able to continue.
I ended up reapplying to college and finishing my degree so that I could stay in L.A. to work.
Being in LA was something that was totally different for me– completely out of my comfort zone and it forced me to grow up. I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for that experience, I would not be anywhere close to being able to do what I do now. It broadened my horizon from my personal life to my work life to learning more about my culture. It was the best experience I ever had.
I always suggest that people should go abroad or spend time living in a place that isn’t quite like their home because you are forced to learn a lot about yourself. The things that we take for granted whether it’s our friends and family, or even the type of people you are surrounded with — leaving all that behind changes your perception on things.
Leaving my home to go to California bonded my father and I.
For the first time I could relate to his experience of leaving home and moving thousands of miles away from his family to go out and pursue his dreams.
Then here I was, this girl who would never even cross the street by herself because my parents were always watching over me– and suddenly, I was doing something very similar to my father.
I sort of felt like him– and I was very grateful because his insight and his experience helped me get through that transitional time. His advice was spot on. I was raised to have a dream — to work hard and go after what you want — and the support and strength you need will follow you if you keep your eye on the prize. My father did that with his life coming to America and it’s something I tried to model myself after when I went to L.A.
– How did you deal with the transition after graduating from college and finding a job?
I’m super close with my family and they wanted me to come back to NY to see if I could find something there. I wasn’t really sure about what I wanted to do so I decided that if I ultimately wanted to live in LA then I would have to start in NY. So I left LA and spent six months unemployed and going out of my mind, and living with my parents.
I didn’t understand why I had to come home and I was second guessing everything… but I ultimately, found my way to Good Morning America.
If you want to be in film, which was my ultimate dream and goal- doing that in L.A. is the standard. In NY, it’s very different because there isn’t much film activity here- there is a lot of TV activity and News is the entertainment industry here. I took a temp job at Disney doing freelance design for seven months. During my time as a temp, I found this job listing at Good Morning America for a Production Assistant and I asked HR at Disney if they would recommend me. I had been there for awhile and I had developed good relationships so they called ABC, but the job had already been filled.
HR called me and said that there was another job available at Good Morning America- an Office Manager position that had nothing to do with the show and I was told that I would never go to the studio, but that it’s a great entry level gig. She had called me at 8pm and I was totally off my game. She was definitely pre-interviewing me and I just totally blew it- she kept asking me questions about GMA (Good Morning America) and I hadn’t really done my research.
But a week later, she emailed me and asked me to come in. Of course, I did my homework by that point. I met the people in the department and got the job. I was there for a month when one week the senior producer of the show told me that this new guy is starting soon and she asked me to take care of him – show him around and introduce him to the logistical duties- since everyone else was away at the Royal Wedding.
So when he came in, I went up to him and introduced myself. That week, he was being sent to LA to shoot a story and I had to deliver his blackberry last minute – when I did, he asked me stay on board and work with him. So he ended up being my boss and I was promoted to an Anchor Producer for the show- and it’s been so much fun. It’s been a crazy fun ride– in the mornings, I prepare segments for the show. I produce one of the segments on Good Morning America and I also do all the assistant duties, making sure that everything is prepared for the host to do well on the show. I also had the opportunity to travel alongside the hosts.
It’s been an exciting time in News and GMA has beaten The Today Show for the first time in 16 years.
Good Morning America is now the number one morning news show and it’s just been very exciting to be a part of all of it.
I couldn’t have asked for a better boss and team to do it alongside with. The people I’ve worked with have just been tremendous role models for me.
– What was the most challenging part about your job?
Well, I go to work at about 3:30 am and I don’t stop working until about 6 or 7 at night. You have to really love it because otherwise waking up at those hours is a little crazy. News in general can be crazy.
The first story I ever worked on was when Bin Laden was killed and I will never forget that the first time I cut my own piece was when Amy Winehouse died.
When Whitney Houston died, I was at a restaurant having dinner with a friend, and I had to leave the table to rush back to the office to see what needed to be done and how to handle it.
When breaking news happens, your world changes and you feel everything a lot more because you get so many details on the inside– details that don’t always make it on the air.
It’s interesting to see how all the details develop and we all do our best to ensure that it’s the most accurate portrayal of information because it is important to inform people about their country or where they are living or how we solve problems as a country or as a community.
The better we can inform people on how to manage these situations then the better they can function, and in the end, that bleeds into how we are as a country. As terrible as the Colorado shooting was, the fact that all those people went in and tried to save as many lives as possible restores faith in an odd way.
In the news, a story is handed to you on a silver platter and you have to decide how you want to execute it and get it to the media. In film, you have to start from scratch.
TV and News is like a one night stand and film is like a committed relationship.
With film, you could spend years on it and when you’re standing at the premiere, there is still something you wish you could change — it’s like a marriage.
My dream still remains to get back into film.
*SIDENOTE: ASHLEY JUST GOT A BALLER JOB WORKING IN FILM AND PUBLICITY FOR WARNER BROTHERS. We are so excited for her that her dream is becoming a reality.
I’ve really learned so much at Good Morning America and feel so blessed to work with people who I know are the best in the business.
You never know where life is going to take you. I was raised to believe that work is the one thing that will never fail you. Friends will disappoint you and fail you– relationships are the same, but work never does.
You can always find work if you do good work.
I’m a “more person.” I’m always thinking of the next thing. I went from being told that I would never have anything to do with the Good Morning America show as the Office Manager to where I was working everyday IN the show. Never settle for what anyone tells you. There is always another opportunity in every situation, you just have to make it for yourself.
It’s a very Persian thing to do: you don’t take no for an answer.
– How have you been able to overcome any challenges with the cultural conflict of being Iranian American?
Having my father’s side of the family choose to actively teach my brother and I about the culture and the food was really amazing. My family always called me “Ashley joon” and I literally thought my middle name was “joon” growing up. If somebody asked me when I was being born if I wanted to be French or German or something else, I would always choose what I am. I identify myself as entirely Persian even though I’m half.
I’ve never met someone who works harder than my father and I see that in my friends and family members. Recently, with the stuff that’s going on in Iran– the fact that the Middle East across the board has gotten a terrible reputation for what’s going on- I only wish people could see past that and read Persian poetry, or have dinner with a Persian family and they would just realize that our culture is about love.
There are bad people in every country. Some people are good and some people are not good, it doesn’t matter if they are American, French or Swiss. That’s the part that I find myself trying to protect because I strongly believe our Iranian culture is one of the finest and most beautiful because of the traditions.
It is through our tradition that we keep alive the legacy of love, care, friendship and family that our parents and grandparents were raised with.
– Were your parents strict?
They were protective. My older brother definitely got away with more than I did. It’s funny though because back then, my dad would say I wasn’t allowed to date until I’m 30. Now that I’m 24 and single, he says “I’ll find you someone.”
I was definitely very shy. I was basically a nerd- homework and my studies were very important. I definitely wasn’t a rebel. But I grew into the person that I am today- I take more risks now. My parents were caring and they didn’t want anything bad to happen to me– I probably should have never taught my mom how to text message.
– Do you like Persian guys?
I am not opposed to it. I would totally marry a Persian guy because I think my dad is awesome and I see the way he is with my mom– if I can have that then I would be pretty lucky.
My type: dark hair and features, tall, dark and handsome. The Napoleon complex is also really great- it compensates if the height is not there– as long as they are totally arrogant about it– I’m down.
– What advice do you have for the younger generation of Iranian Americans?
Know that you are capable of doing anything. We come from a very long line of hard working people that believe in that process of working your way up. People have big dreams- and as long as you dream big, you can do big.
In high school, if girls were mean to me, my dad would say, “Focus on your work– people can take a lot away from you, but one thing they can never take away is your hard work.”
Never close doors for yourself. Know your culture, be interested and learn about where you came from – every family is different. Know that you can create your own path and your own destiny, and never take no for an answer. You have to find happiness, but I think striving for more and pushing yourself is a wonderful tool to keep you looking forward to everyday.
– What are three things you value most?
My relationships with others- whether its friendships or loving relationships. It’s part of the experience- interacting with people is a really amazing gift, whether it’s good or bad– it’s the kind of things you learn from another human being that is priceless (even when other people suck).
– How do you like your Fessenjoon?
Fessenjoon with CHERRY RICE. Get to a Persian restaurant ASAP- there is totally a hidden menu and it is so delicious. I could sleep with a side of Fessenjoon and cherry rice.
But I also like my Fessenjoon with a treadmill because that sh*t sticks with you, let’s be honest (in the best way possible).