When we searched for the ideal cover girl for our wedding issue – someone with both innocence and a mischievous hint of sauciness, one name kept coming up…Yasmine Abdel Aziz. And Egyptian cinema’s darling was willing to oblige. For our exclusive shoot in Cairo’s fairytale-like Ministerly Palace, Yasmine was swathed in acres of lace, silk and satin by some of the region’s, as well as the world’s, top designers. Meanwhile Senior Editor Amy Mowafi got girly and gossipy with the hilarious actress on the set of her latest film.
Our negotiation-cum-pleading is falling upon deaf ears. The staff of the Ministerly Palace, where the Enigma shoot is taking place, is taking no prisoners. They’re preparing for a big event in the palace grounds that same evening and they need our dozen-strong crew out as soon as possible. With less than two hours to go and another three shots to complete, everyone is understandably tetchy. While we delve head-first into panic-mode, Yasmine Abdel Aziz is momentarily and unusually still. She is deep in concentration. As the harassed hairstylist tugs at her hair, she silently twirls an over-sized white feather (a prop for the next shot) in her hands. And then, quite without warning, she stands up, holds the feather behind her head, and starts quacking like…well, like a duck. There’s a split-second of silence as everyone takes in the unexpected scene, and then a raucous out-break of laughter. Job done. Game, set and breaking of tension. And she’s not stopping there. There’s much crossing of eyes, and sticking out of tongues and enough remarkable facial expressions to make Jim Carrey jealous. And so it carries on throughout the rest of the bright sunny afternoon.
Yasmine is the consummate entertainer; and it’s not about acting, it’s not about an audience or a film crew or a script. This stuff is in her blood. And yes it’s all a little slapstick and over-the-top, but this is Egypt, this is what works. Either way Yasmine does not belong in the pages of a polished perfected glossy. She belongs in those old-school Egyptian publications. The type where the over made-up celebrity blows kisses at the camera and points cheekily at the reader. She belongs on those old caricature-ish hand-painted Egyptian movie posters. And that’s not to insult her. Quite the opposite. Make such an observation to her face and she’d likely take it as a compliment, because Yasmine is nothing if not ‘of the people and for the people.’ She’s about the mass-market, the populace, the 70 million Egyptians who adore her and can’t get enough her. She’s about films like Zaky Chan (a fast-paced comedy adaptation of The Bodyguard); about comedic adventures like the Eid 2006 blockbuster Ha Ha Wa Tofaha or the hilarious 2005 summer smash Harim Kairm. This isn’t high-brow stuff, but it’s box-office gold. Add a stint on Fawazeer to the mix (the all singing, all dancing annual Ramadan TV extravaganza), and it’s little wonder she’s become Egyptian cinema’s darling.
She’s the girl next door, only better looking. On the big screen
she’s exceptionally accessible. And in an era of reality TV, with audiences
accustomed to closely relating to their ‘stars’, this accessibility makes
her the ideal 21st century celebrity. In person, she’ll make you feel
like you’re her best friend forever. She’ll whisper conspiratorially,
grab your hand, pinch your cheek and she’ll let you in on the joke,
the secrets and the gossip.
When we first meet at the Enigma Spring Party at 35 she wastes little time getting giggly with the girls. She’s wearing a figure-hugging knee-length satin black dress that flaunts her old-school curves to perfection. Her short black bob making the famously baby-faced star look even younger (this is a thirty-something woman who has gotten away with playing several teenage roles). But she refuses to take off the accompanying gold scarf from around her neck. “No way,” she says. “The cleavage this dress gives me is just ridiculous.” She takes a quick glance around her to make sure no one is looking and then momentarily pulls the scarf aside to show the Enigma girls what she’s talking about, “Look, I’ll end up punching someone’s eye out with these! I had no idea it would look like this, but we were already running late and I had no time to think of something else to wear, so the scarf stays!” And she laughs, and we laugh, and before long we’re talking about men and makeup and all those other girly bonding things. When she finds out I’m single, she rolls her eyes dramatically and in an over-exaggerated matronly voice launches into a hilarious “there just aren’t any men left in this country” speech. Despite the bemoaned male shortage, Yasmine long ago got lucky, bagging herself an exceptionally supportive husband. And she promises to tell me all about him next time we meet.
A few weeks later we’re chatting again, this time on the set of her latest film Kar Kar co-starring El Limby’s Mohamed Saad. We’re sitting in a rickety bedroom in a depleted old mansion on the outskirts of Cairo. An old wooden four-poster bed is sagging under the weight of Yasmine’s costumes, and her personal assistant, along with a hairstylist and makeup artist, are working manically to get her ready for the first scene of the day. On the chipped dressing table sits a mini-DVD player. “I always have this with me when I’m on set,” she says. “I just love movies, especially big Hollywood blockbusters.” She then pulls out the rest of her collection to show me. There’s a whole load of action films to mention including Collision and Inside Man which features “her favourite actor ever” Denzel Washington. “I love him. He’s brilliant,” she says. “And I love J-Lo. She can sing and dance and do it all. There aren’t actors like that anymore. She’s a real entertainer!”
“Ok,” I eventually start. “With this being our wedding issue, I’d like to talk about your marriage. Do you mind?”
“No of course not, go ahead,” she replies, flashing me one her 1000 mega watt smiles. “Mohamed,” she says, turning to her hairstylist, “Shut your ears, this is girl talk only!” And so I ask her if marriage turned out the way she expected. Never one to miss out on the chance to throw out a pithy remark, her reply is immediate, “No, it’s much better!” Yasmine went into marriage with the typical misgivings of the independent woman. “I thought marriage would be much worse than it actually is. I was worried it would be suffocating and a burden. You hear all these horror stories. But for me at least, the opposite is true. I feel protected by marriage. It has given me stability and most importantly, it has given me a family.” Family comes in the form of her gorgeous four year old daughter – also (somewhat confusingly) called Yasmine. “That girl is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” she enthuses. “Everyone says that your wedding is the best day in your life, and yes it’s great, but the most important day in my life was definitely when I gave birth to Yasmine.”
According to Yasmine (senior), marriage is like…a watermelon. “No, I’m serious,” she says when I start laughing. “You really can’t be sure what it’s like until you break into it. I was engaged for three years but that’s no guarantee of anything. There are people who know each other forever and they get married and have the shock of their lives. The person they’re living with is not the same person they thought they knew. So I guess I was lucky. And I’ve also learned that love has little to do with the success of a marriage. Yes it’s important, but it’s not the factor that’s going to make or break it. It’s all about understanding. You need to be on the same wavelength, have the same values, directions, hopes and dreams. You need to have the same goals in order to get through the hard times.”
On the record, she’s reluctant to talk about her courtship with her husband Mohamed Halawa, much less give away any details about his life or his work. “I’ll tell you all about it when we’re alone and when the recorder is switched off,” she says winking. But she will say this, “I’m a big believer that the person you end up marrying is completely down to destiny. So whatever your expectations or wishes or desires, marriage is something preordained from God the day you’re born. You might have your eye on a certain person, or be right on the brink of marriage and then suddenly it all goes wrong. On the other hand, marriage might be the last thing in the world you’re thinking about and suddenly you find yourself wearing a big white dress.”
So it follows that the decision to marry a non-celebrity was not a conscious one. “It just happened,” which is probably a good thing, as it seems to have protected her relationship from the harsh media spotlight her celebrity cohorts’ marriages have suffered. And despite her precociousness, feistiness and friendliness, it helps that she shies away from unnecessary publicity. “I don’t like attending big events or big parties. Unless I have to be there for work, I’ll avoid them. I’m so busy, my schedule is so packed, I have few moments to myself, so I’d much rather spend them at home with my husband and daughter or with my close friends and family, cooking, watching movies, going to the gym…just doing regular things.” Her friends are the same ones she grew up with, and in the leafy suburbs of Maadi where she lives, she’s gratefully left to her own devices; her neighbours unaffected by her celebrity.
“So are you a good cook?” I ask. She adopts a common-as-muck accent and bursts out with, “Of course, habibti, I make the best eggs with basterma (dried cured beef).” And then she nicely asks me to leave the room while she changes into an outfit for the next scene, a pair of cut-off jeans and a brightly coloured pinafore dress which, like the rest of her on-set wardrobe, she’s picked out herself. She asks me to help her choose some accessories, and then hurriedly bundles everyone out of the room.
Outside, in the soaring gold leaf covered hallway, I start talking to the film’s director Ali Ragheb. “Yasmine is such a pleasure to work with,” he says. “She has such an amazing sense of humour, and is so professional. She never complains and has no airs and graces whatsoever.” And Ragheb thinks he’s figured out the secret to Yasmine’s unique brand of popularity. “This is a girl who essentially grew up in our living rooms. Ever since she started appearing in ads, we’ve seen her blossom into this talented actress. And there’s a sense of fun and mischief about her which I think really speaks to the Egyptian people. Plus the characters she chooses are ones the general population can relate to. Nothing controversial or isolating, so we really feel like she’s one of us. It’s an irresistible combination.”
Less than 10 minutes later, Yasmine is just-about-ready for her close-up. Her assistant is busy sewing a rebellious button back on the pinafore dress, and we pick up where we left off – still on the topic of ‘wedded bliss’. “When is comes to women like us – who work and are successful – it’s important to marry someone who is completely secure and of course successful in his own right,” she says. “Someone who really wants you to succeed and takes pleasure in your success. If my husband and I are out together and I start getting a lot of attention from fans, he’s always really happy for me, because it’s a sign I’m doing well in my career.” Her husband might be unaffected by her fame, but the implications of her stardom have started to take a toll on Yasmine. “It’s definitely changed me,” she says. “I no longer have any freedom or privacy. I might be trying to get some shopping done in the supermarket, and I’m concentrating on what I need to buy, and I look a mess, and then suddenly there’s a group of people wanting to say hello. And it’s very sweet, and they’re always so nice, and of course I appreciate it, but it does get hard sometimes.”
And yet Yasmine is not about complications. She doesn’t attempt to showcase ‘interesting’ contradictions as often so many celebrities indulgently do. She’s a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of gal. You can like it or lump it. But chances are you’ll love it. She doesn’t strike me as one of life’s great analyzers and that might just be the secret to her seemingly boundless bounciness. When I ask her how she prepares for her roles, the answer is telling. There’s no talk of ‘research’ or ‘getting into character’. She says simply, “I think about the right clothes, the right hair and the right makeup.” As director Ragheb says, “Yasmine is the most ‘real’ and natural actress in the world. None of it is forced. Once the camera is rolling, it just happens. It’s like magic to watch.”
It’s the same simplicity when you ask about her journey to fame. This was never her big dream, there were no major challenges along the way, and there are no inspiring anecdotes to reminisce over. Her mum’s friend owned an ad agency and decided that a 13-year-old “very naughty” Yasmine had a face made for the small screen. She appeared in a number of ads, was spotted by a big producer and asked to appear in her first TV series. “And that’s really it,” says Yasmine. “It just sort of went from there. I never once thought, ‘I really want to be an actress.’ This just happened and it’s worked out so I’ve stuck with it. If you’d asked me when I was younger what I want to be, I would have told you an interior designer or maybe an ad director, but never an actress.”
It’s rare to come across such an unpretentious actress. And it’s endearing. She’s irresistibly unaffected and delightfully down to earth. I try to engage her in a conversation about the power of film, about meanings and messages but she’s having none of it. “Look, there’s no point in doing a film with a big important message if it doesn’t make money at the box office,” she says. “I’m not acting for myself; I’m supposed to be entertaining an audience. That’s not to say my roles are superficial. Far from it; in Harim Karim for example my character was a divorcée, and the film explored the implications of that; how she’s treated by society, at work and by her family. And that’s an important issue, and something increasingly more girls are facing. But I hate it when people go on about ‘the message’ and undermine comedy films, assuming they’re of less value. The Egyptian population has enough problems. They go to the cinema to be entertained, and if I can do that, then I’ve done my job.”
And then there’s a knock on the door. They’re finally ready to start filming. We make our way outside where I’m given a premium seat next to the director’s chair. The camera starts rolling, and Yasmine Abdel Aziz – being pushed by an insane looking Mohamed Saad – comes careering out of the villa’s entrance on top of a bright blue suitcase. She makes a big show of falling off; he makes a big show of pulling her up. It’s all a little slapstick and a little over the top, but it’s the stuff which Egyptian comedy is made of and she’s undoubtedly the best at it. The director shouts “cut!” Yasmine laughs, I laugh; the whole crew is laughing. And come the film’s release this summer, I’m willing to bet that millions across Egypt will be laughing right along with her.