Movie star, singer and sex symbol; Nicole Saba is all that and more. With controversy surrounding her every move and heated commentary surrounding her every action, she never shies away from pushing the envelope. In this month’s cover feature, Fashion Director Maissa Azab tames the beast and brings out her more romantic side, while Hassan Hassan finds out what makes her tick, the kind of man she’d like to marry and the shyer side of the Arab world’s sexiest triple threat…
Before this interview, my only impression of Nicole Saba stemmed from that infamous scene in the movie El Tagroba El Denmarkia (The Danish Experience): the busty, bodacious platinum blonde descending off a plane to a salivating Adel Imam and Tamer Hagrass. It was the defining moment of her career.
But here’s the catch: Nicole Saba is actually smart. She’s much more than lips, boobs and blonde hair. All the assets are there, but there is something more. She looks in the mirror with a discerning eye, fluffs her hair and pouts: “I’m not sure how this looks.” It has nothing to do with vanity, and everything to do with vocation. She understands that her looks, her actions and her image are definitive factors in her success. She understands the power of the sex symbol. As a former member of Lebanese girl group, Four Cats, she was much more vixen than performer. She’s since managed to propel herself into the realm of serious actress and relatively good singer.
In an industry rife with jealousy and backstabbing, Saba has made it a point to work with people she is comfortable with. And that includes her over-bearing manager – a Melody Man look-a-like who is loud, boisterous and bellowing at me to ask her about her career. But Saba doesn’t wait for me to ask. She’s eager to talk about her latest project – a reality television show where she mentors kids trying to make it in show business. “I liked the idea of Aard Khas (Private Screening) and didn’t mind appearing as Nicole Saba. It’s about a group of boys and girls who like to act and leave their work to do so. It’s a very good insight into how the industry works and how it’s developing.” She talks quickly, pouts at her manager and then turns back to me. She puts her hand on my knee, looks me straight in the eyes. She’s drawing me in, making sure I’m on her side.
Then she tells me that she’s gearing up for a huge concert at the Cairo stadium this summer. “I’m performing alongside Tara McDonald,” she says, in a flurry of words. “You know, the girl who sings I’m in Miami, Bitch…” Saba then starts to dance as she beat boxes the rest of the song. She’s constantly moving and fidgeting. “I’m not a routine person. I get bored of the way I look, and I always try to change my look and what I do. I’m full of life, I’m very hyper and very funny; I can’t just sit still. This restlessness comes out in whatever character I’m playing. It’s a good thing; people don’t get bored of me.”
Still, it’s easy to overlook what an impressive roster of films she has. She played the bint balad (country girl) in Qisset El Hay El Shabee (A Ghetto Story), the action hero in Tomn Dastit Ashrar (One Eighth of A Dirty Dozen) and, most recently, Queen Nazli in a TV series to be aired next Ramadan – quite a surprising turn for her. “Acting is what gives you a serious presence in the industry. Singing depends a lot on the way you look, people can say ‘her voice was fixed; she looks good… whatever’, but not everyone can act. So acting was very important for me; it helped me build my career and create a more serious name for myself.”
Do you think you’ve been typecast as the sexy foreign girl?
I hate it. It’s been a problem for me from the start of my career. After El Tagroba El Denmarkia, I didn’t star in a movie for three years. Everything I was offered was based on my looks and the whole sexy thing. It took time for me not to be seen just as the typical sexy girl. I changed my hair colour and was very picky about the roles I accepted.
How did the hair colour change help?
I wanted people to think I was closer to them. Being blonde gives off a whole diva vibe, but when you’re acting the role of someone who isn’t rich, there has to be believability. Hair colour makes a major difference, so I changed it. The choices of roles also made a difference. By taking on more challenging roles, people see there’s more to me than my looks and that I’m up to the responsibility of the role.
What do you enjoy more, singing or acting?
I love both. I love being on stage. I have a lot of courage when I’m there. I’m in my element and I’m queen of the kingdom. I have guts and I love interacting with the audience. There are album singers and live singers; I’m the latter. Acting is my archive; it’s a testament of my talent, not like a music video that’s forgotten after a few months. It’s more serious.
Ok, it’s time for more personal questions… is there a love in your life?
For years now, I’ve been hearing rumours about my supposed marriage. It bothers me because when it’s the right time, I’ll say it. Why would I hide it? The rumours do get to me but I just ignore them. I don’t come out in interviews and clarify my personal life or take a stance – I just ignore them, but deep inside I do get upset.
When you do find love, how would you like to celebrate?
I’d love to have a nice big wedding. It’s supposed to be this one amazing day in your life. You have to be with the people you love and your friends. I’ve been to all of the industry weddings in Egypt and sang at thousands of weddings, so the least I could do is feel that these people are celebrating with me. It has to be a happy day and I would love to have people smiling, laughing and dancing with me. It’s a nice feeling… one that I want for myself.
What are some of the worst rumours you’ve heard about yourself?
I don’t think there’ve been bad ones to the extent of bad, bad. They wrote that I was taken to jail once. It was a court case over licences at a concert that I sang at. Some confusion over the licences…
At this point Nicole flips around to the photographer who is showing everyone pictures of the dress. “J’adore Dior,” she coos to everyone in the vicinity. She’s not being evasive; she’s just buying time. Maybe hoping I’ll let it slide. She turns to me, places a hand ever so delicately on my knee and asks me what she was saying. I let the question slide.
Do you consider yourself controversial?
No, not at all… maybe my work… like my song Tabye Kida (I’m That Way), was controversial. It was talking about independence and freedom. Not everyone in Arab society accepts this – which is why all the teenagers and the younger generation loved it; they loved that someone came out and expressed how they felt.
She starts to fidget again, coos something about being a Cancer and both of us being the same star sign, meaning we’re going to have a hell of a time manipulating one another. I throw in a few more questions…
What do you love about being an Arab woman?
We have limits. I like that. I don’t agree with the idea of a no-holds-barred type of freedom. Maybe you think I’m contradicting myself, coming out in my video clips and touting independence and freedom. Yes, I talk about independence, but it’s about independence of character. I started working, studying and living by myself when I was very young. So I’m talking about the freedom to take care of oneself, to express one’s opinion. And the freedom to leave a man who is treating you badly; not the freedom to just go out and party.
Do you ever feel like an alien?
Of course. When I first came to Cairo, I felt like an alien. I know people were thinking, ‘Who’s this blonde girl? What is she wearing? What is she doing?’ So yes, I felt like I didn’t fit in.
What do you do when you feel like that?
You’d be surprised, but I’m incredibly shy. I hate feeling like people are watching me. I hate feeling prying eyes. I don’t go to a place unless I have someone with me; my mother, my manager or my assistant. I don’t like to walk into a place and feel people staring. I get very shy; I’m never like ‘Oh, look at me’.
And with that her manager asks me to wrap it up. She smiles, I smile, the whole room looks at her as she gets up and leaves… and I don’t believe it bothers her one bit.