In one of London’s most exotic Oriental locations, Enigma’s Style Director Mohieb created a sumptuous world of couture and diamond dreams where the Arab World’s biggest celebrity couple were treated to the ultimate glamour fantasy. Meanwhile, Mona Zaki and Ahmed Helmi, who rarely agree to be interviewed together, sat down with Senior Editor Amy Mowafi to give her an intimate portrait of love, life and plenty of laughter.
Ahmed Helmi is most definitely not a purple crocodile boots kind of man. He picks up the £35,000 pair, holds them up, and contorts his face into one of those signature exaggerated expressions upon which he has built a stellar comic career. I shouldn’t laugh, I’m worried that he might actually be a bit annoyed, but it’s Ahmed Helmi, so really, how can you not laugh. And then the sales assistant brings out another pair of shoes which our Style Director has earmarked for the shoot. These are deep red velvet with a gold crown insignia. The kind of shoes one ought to team with a silky house robe, cravat and pipe. And just behind us, amongst the railings of couture, there’s a minor commotion going on. People are doing double takes, phone cameras are clicking, a disbelieving whispering is reaching a rather audible crescendo. They’re desperate to get a photo so they can go home and tell their friends back in Saudi, or Kuwait or Cairo “You’ll never believe who I saw, in London, in Harrods…Ahmed Helmi.” Meanwhile Ahmed Helmi, in London, in Harrods, takes one look at the velvet shoes and collapses into a fit of giggles. So basically it’s ok, he’s going to go along with all the eccentric insanity, because he’s a big star and the bigger the star the more debts they’ve already settled with their ego. And judging by the reaction we are now garnering, a thousand miles away from the Egyptian silver screen, Ahmed Helmi is most definitely an Arab superstar.
As big (if not bigger, but we shall come to that later – yes I actually asked them who they thought was more famous) is Mona Zaki. His stellar wife. One of the best loved and most famous actresses the Arab world has to show for itself. Together they make a celebrity couple powerhouse to rival Posh & Becks – well in the Middle East at least. It took nearly three months of planning, but that same morning we finally got them to London and they’ve brought along a precocious, adorable bundle of bounciness: their four year old daughter Lilly.
We’re preparing for a truly extravagant shoot we’ve dubbed “A Glamour Fantasy” and they couldn’t be more accommodating. Now I hate to use the word, but there really isn’t a better way to describe them. Mona and Ahmed are actually very…nice. They’re genuine, decent-as-you-like people and in the world of celebrity that’s one hell of a rare commodity. A week earlier, back in Cairo, I mentioned to Ahmed, in passing, that I was having trouble finding a plane seat to London. 15 minutes later I get a phone call from the airline company. Ahmed has pulled his celebrity strings and I got my flight confirmation.
Hours after their arrival, they were sitting in the Gloucester Park Apartments, the beautiful location we’ve arranged for their stay, and it’s all picture-perfect domesticity. Lilly sits at the dining table, colouring pencils in hand, informing me in as serious a tone as she can muster that the Little Mermaid is her favourite Disney character. Meanwhile Zaki is all self-depreciating banter: “Lilly is actually quite tall for her age,” she says, “which is lucky as we have a certain person’s nose to contend with,” and rolls her eyes over at Ahmed.
Dressed in a dark knee-length grey smock, black leggings and ballet pumps, Mona is far from your average preened and overly polished Arab celebrity. But then that’s always been part of her appeal – she’s accessible. The girl next door, only cuter. Not sexier, or hotter, but cuter, like one of those ‘Love Is…’ big brown eyed cartoon characters. And the dynamic between her and Ahmed, cloying as this might sound, is actually delightful to watch, easy going and laced with wit. As the Enigma TV cameras are set up in preparation for our interview, the couple cosy up on the sofa. He throws his arm around her, pulls her in, whispers something that leaves her laughing hysterically, and for the next two hours, the hilarity, interjected with plenty of honesty, continues…
Let’s start at the ‘once upon a time’, Mona what were you like as a child?
I was really naughty, but only with people I was really close to. I spent so much time on my own that I didn’t get on easily with everyone. I was incredibly independent for my age, probably because I used to travel so much, so I was definitely different to most Egyptian children. It still takes me a while to feel comfortable with people, not everyone gets to see that other cheeky side of me!
Did you always want to become an actress?
Not at all! I never had anything like that in my head! It happened completely by chance. I was 13 and a huge fan of the actor Mohamed Sobhy. My mum ran into him randomly and found out he was looking for young new talent and holding open auditions. So I figured I’d go, just so I could meet him. So I go, and of course I never actually get a chance to sit with him, and suddenly he calls me up on stage and asks what I’ve prepared. I told him I had nothing ready. And for some reason he said, “Well I think you can act, go home, put something together and come back and perform for me.” So I went home and learnt a small part from Sherihan’s role in the play Aashan Khater Eyoonk (For Your Sake) and a few weeks later performed it for Sobhy. I felt so silly and shy doing it and I was laughing throughout the whole thing, so I was really surprised when he said I could be a good actress. He took me under his wing and made me fall in love with acting. The way he dealt with the people he worked with was so different to how most might perceive the industry; very decent and genuine.
So how about you Ahmed, tell me about your childhood…
Well I was in this gang of thieves, and I was doing really well, and kept getting promoted. Pretty soon I was the head of that gang.
No, seriously Ahmed!
Ok, but I was actually always out and about, getting into trouble on the streets. My parents would try to get me to stay home but it was impossible. As far as my aunt was concerned, I was the ultimate nightmare. To her the only way to be a decent boy was to stay at home and drink out of a glass, and there I was drinking out of a bottle all day long.
So how did you go from being this wild child to wanting to become an actor?
Well that also came about by chance. I’d always dreamt of meeting the actor Mohamed Sobhy…
Really, it was never in my plan to act. I studied décor at an Art Institute.
Mona: He doesn’t have much time to do it now, but he’s a very talented artist.
Ahmed: During my final year at the institute, my friends in the drama department roped me into playing the part of some crazy poet in a play that I’d designed the set for. Actually most of these kids became some of the famous actors you know today. Anyway after the performance everyone insisted I should be studying drama. Of course I didn’t take them seriously. Before that I’d only ever acted in the bathroom.
What exactly were you acting out in the bathroom Ahmed?
The part of someone taking a bath.
For both of you, was there a particular moment when you thought, ‘ok, I’m famous, this is it’?
Ahmed: Someone’s car crashed into mine one afternoon on Shehab Street in Mohandessin. So I got out really angry, shouting and swearing. The guy in the car sees me and starts laughing uncontrollably and then I notice the whole street is watching and laughing. The entire thing just looked ridiculous. Then this woman came up to me, said she loved my
movie Selim Wa Taaban (Snakes and Ladders) but told me I needed to calm down because I was making a scene and the best thing for me was to just walk away. So I got back in the car and I never forgot that.
But that must be hard, constantly having to control your impulses like that…
Mona: The only time when you can really enjoy your work is when you’re in front of the camera playing a character. Outside of that it’s very difficult to just be yourself. You can’t go out like other people; you can’t live normally.
Ahmed: She’s not talking about people coming up to you to say hello or take a photo. That’s wonderful. It’s the being forced to control your real feelings or reactions, always having to be aware of how you’re being perceived. It can get incredibly suffocating and sometimes it gets to the point where you feel like you might be losing your humanity.
So there’s never been a point when you’ve thought, ‘to hell with this’, it’s just not worth the sacrifices?
Mona: Even if I knew what I know now when I started, I’d still do it because nothing beats that buzz of immersing yourself into a character.
Ahmed: I might give it up as long as I could still be involved in something artistic.
Mona: That’s because you know how to do a million different things. Acting is all I have!
Ahmed: I mean I’d never be a diplomat or anything like that. But anything artistic gives me that same buzz Mona is talking about.
What about all the media pressure, how do you cope with that?
Ahmed: Well apparently, we get divorced about 16 times a year! There was this one journalist who decided that I had hit Mona. The guy was actually describing the features of our home in his article. He wrote that ‘she ran from the living on the left to the bathroom at the end of the corridor’. It’s just ridiculous.
Mona: Sometimes they really do make up this stuff up from scratch! At the beginning it used to get me really down, but you learn to ignore it.
Ahmed: There are people who murder and steal, that’s the real news and yet that gets forgotten too! So you learn to put things in perspective.
The life of a movie star is pretty insane when it comes to scheduling. How do you manage with two of you at it, while trying to bring up a daughter at the same time? Mona, what if Ahmed turned around and asked you to say at home?
Ahmed: We fell in love and got married when we were both acting and nothing has changed.
Mona: You know what’s funny; most of my male colleagues feel it would be very insulting for their wives to work as actresses even though they’re actors! It’s just so hypocritical, it drives me insane. We definitely don’t have that in our relationship.
Ahmed: I don’t buy this ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ stuff. And if she is going to stay at home, why does she have to cook and clean if you can afford for her not to? If you can hire help, you should do it.
So Ahmed, what would happen if tomorrow Mona’s career just catapulted onto a whole other level and you got left behind? Few Hollywood couples have survived that sort of pressure…
Mona: Well I think Ahmed is a bigger star than me right now.
Ahmed: I don’t agree with that. I think it’s about artistic value.
Mona: He’s just trying to digress now!
Ahmed: No listen, I’m not trying to prove anything. I don’t think it’s just about box office profits. If one film makes 5 million LE and the other makes 20 million LE you can guarantee the more profitable one is a comedy. That’s just the way our society works and it has nothing at all to do with talent.
Mona: Look Ahmed, just answer the question without the unnecessary analysis!
Exactly, I mean how would you really feel if you suddenly became known as Mr. Mona Zaki?!
Ahmed: I married her when no one knew who the hell I was. For years people had just seen the back of my head on the kids’ programme I was presenting. I could have exploited our situation to get her to act with me and help my career. But I wanted to prove myself first.
Mona: It’s true. Ahmed really doesn’t have those sorts of complexes.
Ahmed: No one gets jealous of their own daughter or brother, certain relationships are just beyond that and that’s the way I feel towards Mona. I’m content within myself.
Well now that you’re both, shall we say ‘equally’ famous, when do we get to see Mona and Ahmed on screen together again?
Mona: Well, we’re actually searching for the right script at the moment!
Ok Mona, give me three words to describe Ahmed…
Smart, caring and loving.
Ahmed, your turn….
Baby…There are times when I feel she is like my daughter. Especially when she comes back from abroad and she’s spent all her money! I also look to Mona as a sort of guru, my source of wisdom.
Mona: You’ve never told me that before!
Ahmed: There are times when I’m not sure what the right thing to do is, and I know Mona will know best. I trust her opinion implicitly. She also taught me how to dress. I had no idea what I was doing before she guided me!
Ok, I need a third word Ahmed…
Mona: It can’t be that hard! I came up with three straight away!
Ahmed: What did you say? That I was smart? How about she has a ‘smart smile’. Is there such a thing?
Mona: Ahmed, what are you talking about?!
We spoke for over two hours, but with such beautiful images to showcase, we’ve only been able to scratch the surface! So to watch the interview in full, and get an exclusive behind the scenes peek at the making of Mona & Ahmed’s ‘Glamour Fantasy’, log onto the fabulous life at www.enigma-mag.com