Mirna El Helbawi

Writer or Influencer?

Writers are often the unsung heroes behind our favourite content and it’s rare that an author becomes a recognisable celebrity the way actors and musicians do. With the advent of social media, however, Mirna El Helbawi, the witty Alexandrian author of two bestselling novels, is changing that with her popular blog. With over half a million followers on Instagram, the author of Mor Methl Al Qahwa, Helw Methl Al Chocola (Bitter Like Coffee, Sweet Like Chocolate) and Kundalini, has in fact become a recognisable influencer thanks to her blog fans and Instagram followers. eniGma’s Ezz Al-Turkey touched base with El Helbawi to discuss her thriving career and how she is handling her moment in the limelight.

Growing up, Mirna El Helbawi was in love with reading and storytelling, but she did not catch on to her talent in writing until she reached adulthood. She started out with an online blog where she documented her every day thoughts and feelings, with friends and family as her main audience. Before she knew it, more and more people were tuning in to her blog. Encouraged by her friends to make a career out of writing, she got a job at a weekly magazine in Cairo, while pursuing her studies at the Faculty of Tourism & Hotel Management at Alexandria University. After eventually graduating with high honours, El Helbawi then moved to Cairo to continue working at the magazine as a writer and editor. “Working in the magazine was amazing, despite being tough. Before that, I had never thought about becoming a writer even though I had always communicated my feelings through writing. I used to write letters to everyone when I didn’t know how to say things,” she recalls.

Today, the once wide-eyed writer trying to make it, has two bestselling novels under her belt after being shortlisted in 2016 for the Arab Journalism Award. She did not, however, keep writing at the magazine for long, even though she was enjoying it. When she was asked by a friend starting a radio station, NRJ Egypt, to co-host their show, Men Ta’ta’ Le Salam Allaikom (From Beginning to End), she jumped at the opportunity to discover another side of journalism. “I had never thought about radio hosting before. It was a completely new experience for me, and I loved it. However, writing remains my main passion because it gives you room to say a lot more than you do on the radio. On air, you have about a two minute section between every song when you can actually speak. That’s never enough time to say everything you want to say,” she confesses.

In 2018, El Helbawi created quite a buzz in the publishing world in Egypt with the release of her debut novel, Mor Methl Al Qahwa, Helw Methl Al Chocola (Bitter Like Coffee, Sweet Like Chocolate). Recalling the book’s path to publication, El Helbawi says, “I never thought I’d have a book out. I had been writing these stories just for myself. It wasn’t until my friend read them and told me that I should publish them as a book that I began to seriously think about it. It made me kind of anxious actually, to have people read my stories. But it paid off and the book did really well, which was just so crazy and so special.” When El Helbawi had showed her book to the publisher, she was told they would get back to her in three months, so she waited anxiously for their call. Interestingly, it was not until one of her Facebook posts went viral and caught the publisher’s attention, that they called her back to tell her they had decided to publish her book!

Working on her second book, the pressure on El Helbawi was stronger than ever. Naturally, expectations were very high after the success of her first book. Inspired by her passion for travelling and discovering the world, she finally released Kundalini this year. It was totally different from her first book. “When someone does something well and people like it, it’s hard for that person to stray away from that. However, I didn’t want to write the same book twice. My first book was more existential and kind of dark, while this one was definitely more adventurous and exciting. I knew that it was a risk to make this huge change, but thankfully, the readers loved it and I’m so proud of it,” she exclaims.

While El Helbawi is no longer with NRJ, it was there that she met her fiancé, singer Mohamed Attia, who first rose to fame on Star Academy. As she got to know him, she was captivated by his charm as well as his witty personality, and they became friends. Eventually, what started as friendship and mutual respect blossomed into something more and they recently announced their engagement, which created another buzz for El Helbawi on social media.

The happy couple are enjoying posting videos and pictures together nearly every day, sharing their happiness with their followers. El Helbawi admits, however, that the increased attention on social media has not been all smooth sailing. Having suffered from an anxiety disorder, it took a lot of effort for her to tune out the negative comments to their posts and to focus on the positive ones. Her loving fiance gives her tremendous support and helps keep her grounded. “We’re very compatible because we both have the same morals and believe in equality for everyone. He doesn’t have that toxic masculinity in him. He’s extremely supportive of everything I do and he’s always cheering me on. It’s become easier to ignore the negativity we sometimes get from people, because what we have is great. Yes, we occasionally fight and argue like all couples do. But we never show that on social media,” she explains.

In public, El Helbawi is often stopped for pictures with fans. While some insist it’s because of her social media presence as an influencer, she begs to differ. “People sometimes tell me I’m ‘just a social media influencer’. What they overlook, or refuse to understand, is that I don’t have all this success because of social media. I have it because of the career I had before being on social media. I worked so hard for where I am today. There’s nothing wrong with being a social media influencer, but that’s not what I am. At the end of the day, I’m a writer,” she explains confidently.

Just last month, El Helbawi took to Instagram to announce the idea for her third book, but she did not disclose too much about it. “Writing is what makes me feel the happiest and free. This third book will be real, like my previous books, but it won’t be a novel. That’s all I can say for now,” she giggles excitedly.

“I’ve reached places I never thought I’d reach because I challenged my fears,” says El Helbawi, in conclusion. “If I hadn’t challenged my anxiety, I wouldn’t have published two books. If I hadn’t left Alexandria, I wouldn’t have had this wonderful career. If I hadn’t joined radio, I wouldn’t have met Attia. I feel like everything I did really made my life what it is at this moment. However, no matter how famous I become or how much reach I have on social media, I’ll still always feel like the girl next door.”