Loved and feared in equal measure, Wafaa El Kilany has never been afraid of courting controversy. Her in-depth reports and searing interviews with some of the region’s most famous figures, from Fifi Abdou to Amr Adib, have already passed into legend. Enigma’s Omnia Zaied turns the tables on a master interviewer…
Nothing can be more intimidating than interviewing another interviewer. Especially when she’s one of the biggest television hosts in the Arab World and a woman who has a reputation for revealing her guests’ deepest secrets. Wafaa El Kilany has mesmerised both media mogul Safaa Aboul Seoud and Sheikh Saleh Abdullah Kamel, owner of the ART network, with her sultry looks. She has charmed Rotana owner, Prince El-Waleed Bin Talal, with her wit and she’s won over Sheikh Pierre El Dahir, the head of LBC, with her experience. She’s been flattered and criticized and everything in between. And she’s never let any of it go to her head. From slaughtering Fifi Abdou to embarrassing Farouk El Fishway, to getting the best of Amr Adib, no one has been safe from El Kilany.
The truth is El Kilany, host of hit show Bidon Rakaba (Uncensored), always had something special about her. When she was a little kid and you’d ask her what she wanted to be, she’d say a journalist. But as she grew older, she forgot about that dream. Her father encouraged her to join the Faculty of Political Science at Cairo University, and she did. Yet fate wouldn’t let her dream slip away that easily. In 1998, as a senior, she met someone from ART who encouraged her to audition for the station, because he saw “there was something special” about her. Young, adventurous and enthusiastic, the fresh graduate went for it and was swiftly offered a job as ART’s reporter in Italy.
Yet taking the leap wasn’t easy. “My mum totally refused and it was my dad who, after negotiations, agreed to let me try it for three months to see how it goes,” she says. Somehow, the three months turned into seven years. “The moment I stepped off the plane, I started freaking out. I was so afraid of failing and not being able to make it on my own, especially as I had no experience whatsoever.” But her fears proved unfounded and the fresh graduate went on the ride of her life and got her chance to shine. With a little help from Safa Aboul Seoud of course, who believed in her and took her under her wing. As El Kilany explains, “That’s why I’ll owe her and Sheikh Saleh Abdullah Kamel forever – they taught me everything I know”.
After being transferred to Lebanon and working there for two years, El Kilany was ready to move on, “I needed to apply what I’d learnt and there was nowhere else to go in ART. That’s why I accepted an offer from Rotana TV,” says El Kilany. At Rotana she got her big break as Prince El-Waleed Bin Talal gave her the freedom to do what she wanted. She was put at the helm of Ded El Tayar (Against the Flow), getting up close and personal with a plethora of the Arab World’s most famous public figures. “At the beginning it was challenging because at the end of the day, it’s a music channel and that’s what viewers expect from it. So at first I was limited to interviewing only music-related guests.”
Slowly but surely, she managed to interview writers, thinkers and politicians and soon she ended up showcasing political, social and sexual issues, in one hit episode after another. It was then she gained her reputation as a celebrity slayer and made a name for herself that has come to be recognized, respected and feared. As an Egyptian woman shining on a pan-Arab channel, she also managed to draw the region’s attention to herself. “That’s one of the things that made me really proud, because Egyptians are usually very stubborn about watching non-Egyptian channels. So for me to get their attention and make them watch me on a Lebanese channel was an achievement.”
At the same time, she was working on creating her own family. She got married in 2008 and gave birth to a baby girl. “I had to stop for a while because my pregnancy and delivery were quite tough and I had to stay at the hospital for an extended time.” But she came back better, stronger and even more confident with Bidon Rakaba on LBC in 2009; creating quite the stir when she interviewed renowned Egyptian writer, Nawal El Saadawi. “I was intimidated to come back to TV because I had been away for a year and half, and now had a baby to take care of. I used to spend each day with my daughter and start work after I put her to bed.”
Nevertheless, the hard work paid off, and Bidon Rakaba became a huge success, causing quite the controversy in the Arab world. El Kilany manages to put her guests under the spotlight with no place to escape. “I just get pushy, but I don’t even feel it. Not until I watch the episode. I know sometimes not answering a question is an answer in itself, but I just can’t stop. The truth always scares people and I seek truth,” she explains. “That’s why it can be hard to interview actors or performers in general, because they’re very sensitive about their image. They never want to reveal their true beliefs, which puts me in a corner as a host. My job, and what the viewer expects from me, is to get answers from the guest that they never thought they’d hear,” she adds.
Which is why anyone who gets an invitation to be interviewed by El Kilany, often thinks twice. “A lot of people have refused to be on my show. Whenever my producers contact them to be on a programme they’ll say yes at first, but once they hear my name they suddenly remember a trip or a prior engagement!” she says laughing. But she still has a lot up her sleeve and the list of the people she wants to interview gets longer every day. “I’d love to interview Prince El-Waleed Bin Talal – I read his book and was completely blown away. I’d also love to interview President Muammar Al-Gaddafi of Libya, because I was born there and he’s quite a character; Gamal Mubarak would be a great guest and many more.”
Although El Kilany is daring and controversial, she lets her conscience censor what she says on TV. “A media person should be responsible for every single word they say, because we have the power to inspire and affect thousands of people,” she says passionately. “Just like Amr Adib for example. Someday I’d like to be able to help people and make a real difference to their problems instead of just asking and listening.”
Moving between Lebanon, Egypt and Italy, El Kilany is at the top of her game with much more to offer. She has new questions to ask and new guests to interrogate, while also taking care of her family. “I am at a place where I’m very happy with my life. When I go home and my daughter runs up to me, it means the world to me,” she says. As she wraps up to go feed her daughter, I ask her one last question. What would she say to her 18-year old self today if she had the opportunity? She laughs. “Learn how to be more careful and less emotional… and just graduate, get married, have five kids and stay at home!”