The name Raya Abirached has become synonymous with Hollywood in the Arab world. Forever engraved in people’s minds as the first ever Arab media personality to have made it on the other side of the world, she has interviewed the hottest stars, covered the biggest events and showed up on the most glamorous red carpets. In addition to her signature show, Scoop with Raya, on MBC 2, Abirached has also made a name for herself hosting the top entertainment reality show in the Middle East, Arabs Got Talent. Last year, she was also the presenter for the opening of the second edition of the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt. Clearly at the top of her game, Abirached opened up to eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham about her journey to success.
For as long as I can remember, I have been an avid follower of Raya Abirached as I watched her determinedly make her way forward in the entertainment business. Abirached grew up in Beirut, where she studied at the French lycée, and went on to earn a degree in Economics, followed by a master’s degree in Screen Writing, at Saint Joseph University. A master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from London soon followed, paving the way for her astounding success as an entertainment reporter, host and producer who seamlessly builds bridges between the Middle East and Hollywood. Her success, especially as an Arab woman, is making her fan base proud, and is inspiring other young people who dream to make it big in media. Working in the media myself, besides being a huge fan of Abirached, it was naturally an important opportunity for me to use this phone interview with an expert in the field to learn from her experiences. I started out by asking Abirached the traditional questions about her background, studies and upbringing, to which she replied with a slight chuckle. I didn’t realise the significance of that chuckle until I asked her what an interviewer should never ask a celebrity and she cheekily replied, “Asking them about their background!” At that point, I realised that interviewing a professional interviewer was going to be challenging, but also very interesting!
Raya Abirached may be at the top in her field of international entertainment media now; yet, surprisingly, her original dream could not have been more different. “I originally wanted to study political science in Paris, but my GPA wasn’t in my favour. I needed an A++ score, but only got A+, so I studied economics instead. On the side, I started working at a newspaper and a radio station, and that was when I realised that I loved media. When I later stood in front of the camera, after being offered to host a small segment in television, I knew that this was the job for me. Although I went on to study hard news broadcasting in London, at the end of the day, I decided I didn’t want to relive all the political turmoil I experienced in Beirut, in my job as well. Instead, I decided that entertainment would be the right thing for me since I loved movies,” she explains.
Abirached decided to take a shot at applying to a little known television network called MBC, based in the UK at the time, to see where that would take her. “I sent my CV and did a screen test, and they called me a few months later,” says Abirached. She was hired as a reporter for a show called MBC with the Stars. The show changed names several times at the beginning. It was MBC with the Stars, then Stars, and later in 2005, it was called Scoop, and aired on MBC1. “At some point, Nagla Badr hosted the Arabic part and I hosted the English one, but then she quit to pursue her acting career. I did the last season all alone, before moving to MBC2 at my insistence because I felt that it should be the flagship movie show on the movie channel. After that, we decided to spin it to Scoop with Raya, which has been airing for eight seasons now. We have since made a lot of changes to the show’s format. Scoop used to be also about music and sports, but I insisted it should stick to the cinematic scene, which is my passion,” says Abirached.
For Abirached, Scoop with Raya was a natural progression, professionally. Although her fans may not realise that most of her work happens behind the camera rather than in front of it, Abirached reveals that 99 percent of her job consists of producing the show. “I am the Senior Producer, and I have a number of assistant producers working under me. I’ve always been a producer; it’s my university background and it’s my area of expertise,” she explains.
Abirached admits, however, that at the beginning of her broadcasting career, she had to work hard to perfect her interviewing skills, especially when it came to interviews with some of the biggest personalities in Hollywood. “My first ever big Hollywood interview was with Sigourney Weaver at the Cannes Film Festival, and it really wasn’t good. I was still working with the regional TV station then. I was very young, and due to my lack of experience, was really nervous. Also, I used to have this huge crush on Tom Cruise, and when I look back at my interview with him in my early days, I can see how my face was as red as a tomato, even though my voice was contained and calm!” says Abirached, laughing. “That doesn’t happen now. Being star-struck is very unprofessional. If I show up with a fan face, I’ve lost the interview,” she adds.
It obviously didn’t take long for Abirached to redeem herself. “My first good interview was with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, which came a year after Sigourney Weaver’s, I think,” she recalls, “I got them Lebanese abbayas, which Meg really liked and she even wore hers! But back then, I had months to prepare for each interview. Imagine what it would be like if I brought gifts to every interview I did!” she adds with a laugh.
Abirached acknowledges that some of the celebrities she enjoyed interviewing the most include Hugh Jackman, George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Kate Blanchet and Will Smith. But she also experienced some disappointments. “My first interview many years back with Julia Roberts was very tense; I guess she was in a bad mood. But we had several excellent interviews after that,” recalls Abirached. She goes on to note, “When an interview is not going well, it must be handled very calmly, and with a little bit of authority, but not in a bad way! Everyone goes through bad times in their lives, and you shouldn’t automatically assume that it’s because they are divas. The more challenging they are, the more you can show your skill as an interviewer.”
With the challenges, came many crowning achievements of Abirached. “I’ve had many moments that made me feel like I made it to where I should be, like my first Oscars, Golden Globes and the big interviews. I remember attending my first Oscars,18 years ago. It was dreamlike being in that atmosphere for the first time. Everything you’ve grown up watching on television is there right in front of you. It also became more exciting when we started having Arab nominees. The first time of everything is always exciting,” she exclaims. Nowadays, as a seasoned red carpet expert, she has her own routine. “I like to have at least 12 hours of relaxation before a red carpet day, although I don’t always have the time for that,” says Abirached.
Although already established at that point, when Abirached added Arabs Got Talent to her résumé in 2011, cohosting it with Qusai, she solidified her standing as a household name with a different demographic. With the show now officially on its sixth season, it is interesting to hear Abirached recount how she came very close to not doing the show. “It’s a funny story. We started having casual conversations about me coming on board. Then, months went by, and all of a sudden, I got a call that we would start shooting the next Monday. At that time, I was interviewing Orlando Bloom in Germany and I was about to fly to L.A. for another interview. So, I was like, ‘I can’t be in Beirut by Monday!’ I called the head of production at MBC, and she said, ‘Raya, you have to make it happen,’ so I had to cancel my upcoming interview with Nicole Kidman! In hindsight, that was definitely the right decision. I’ve done many interviews with Nicole since, and Arabs Got Talent would only come once!” she admits with a laugh.
On top of adding extra days to Abirached’s busy schedule, Arabs Got Talent presented its own challenges for the newly minted competition show host. “It was completely different from what I had been doing for years, and doing weekly live shows is not to be taken lightly. But it also put me in contact with our young viewers, and Qusai and I, along with the judges’ panel [Najwa Karam, Ahmed Helmy and Ali Jaber], are very cohesive and we have had very little changes in the format. That’s what makes us special,” she says, adding that another perk was meeting all of the astounding talents on the six seasons of the show, “There was this one from the second season that stayed with me – a guy called Hassan Al Minawi who had a straw and made holes in it to play the flute. The reason he did this was that he had a school for music in Jordan and his students couldn’t afford to buy the instrument, so he came up with this technique. I still remember him fondly.” On the other hand, there are the quirky talents… “We live for those; they make the show extra fun! There was this Egyptian guy called Tarzan last year who was a fan of mine, and he wanted me to interview him. He was hilarious! I like the fact that they don’t take themselves too seriously. They just want to go on TV and have a good time,” says Abirached teasingly.
Abirached was also thrilled to host El Gouna Film Festival’s second edition last year. “I was approached by GFF’s organisers, and I thought that hosting a film festival in Egypt would be a great idea, especially that I’m not Egyptian, but I have a lot of followers there. I’ve always wanted to do something in Egypt, and I had a really great time,” she exclaims.
While her busy professional life is in itself a testament to Abirached’s mastery of the art of multitasking, her jobs are not all that she juggles. She is also a doting wife as well as a mum to her two-year-old daughter, Lola, who kept trying to catch her attention during our phone interview. “She’s getting to an age where she is disturbed if she doesn’t have my full concentration. It is interesting to see how, as they grow up, they become so much more sensitive to these things,” notes Abirached.
Due to the nature of her work, most of Abirached’s life is spent travelling. This was never really an issue for her until the arrival of Lola. “Thankfully, I have the right partner who supports me in everything I do, and he has a complete understanding of the nature of my job. However, we reside in London, and as a mother, it is now hard being away because I miss my daughter so much. In fact, I now travel even more frequently to make sure I see her whenever I have time off work. It’s exhausting, but totally worth it. I am very proud of my career and I try to be a great mum to Lola. If anything, motherhood has motivated me to work harder and know my priorities,” she explains.
Next for Abirached is covering the upcoming festival season, as well as working on the voice over for the Arabic version of the Angry Birds sequel. “It’s been a busy few months with everything happening at the same time, so maybe a proper holiday would be nice!” she says, as we near the end of the interview. adding, “Looking ahead, I’m not someone who worries a lot about the future because I am very much into managing the present. I feel like I have achieved many of my dreams, and at the moment, I just want more of the same.”
If you could only interview one celebrity over and over, who would it be?
What do you find is the best part of your job?
What is your favourite country to visit?
What is your favourite award show?
The Golden Globes.
When you’re not working, what is one thing that you like to do?
Spend time with my daughter.
What is your worst habit?
Eating too much ice cream.
What is your best attribute?
I’m a very faithful person.
Who is your greatest role model?
I don’t have a specific role model, but I look up to Cate Blanchett, and would want to be like her if was an actress.
What advice would you give to people who are starting out in the media?
Work hard, know your content, and don’t do it for fame. Fame is the result, not the goal!
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing right now?
Interior design! I love it! I like simple interiors… I enjoy perfectly symmetrical rooms, varied colours and designs.
Makeup by Ali Kattoua
Hair by Georges ElMendelek
Fashion Directory :
Piaff Boutique: Clemenceau Main Street, Beirut, Lebanon.
maisonBmore: Bmore’s Mall of Emirates, Dubai, UAE.
Nadine Aysoy Jewellery
Julea Domani: Dubai Mall, Galleries Lafayette, Dubai, UAE.
Label Queen: 741, Saifi Village, Beirut, Lebanon.