She is a legend. One of the few Arab stars who managed to stay on top for over 30 years. She has one of the most recognisable names in the entire region, yet manages to maintain an air of modesty and humility. eniGma’s Omnia Zaied uncovers the superstar’s secrets to fame, success, and staying classy.
How do you describe a legend? How do you sum up the history of today’s most popular actress in the Arab world? The late iconic writer Anis Mansour called Yousra “the international face of Egypt”; while an endless array of media outlets have covered every aspect of her life and career. So naturally it is intimidating to profile a living legend of Arab cinema like Yousra.
It was an honour to get the chance to interview Yousra for eniGma (this is the second time she is on our cover), but it was also a challenge. I was determined to unveil a side of Yousra we had never seen before.
As soon as she said hello, I was star-struck. The moment you meet Yousra, you instantly understand why she’s such a huge star. She greets you like an old friend because it’s part of her philosophy to treat everyone with equal respect and kindness. Life has taught her that nothing kills a career faster than a reputation for bad behaviour.
This is a woman who understands the true meaning of class. She evokes the golden age of cinema; the time of tuxedoes and glamorous dresses; when life was simpler, and people were happier. Then, even the celebrities carried themselves with an air of humility. “Young people like you are extremely unlucky,” she tells me as I sit opposite her in the living room of her family’s home in Zamalek. “You are unable to enjoy life as we did. It’s all about money now. No one understands the concept of stardom,” she says. For her, stardom is a lifestyle you have to work for. “Being a star is totally different from being an actress. A star is someone you can’t touch, and the closer you get to the star, the more you’re attracted to it. This is something a lot of people can’t handle.”
Before the fame and the glamour, Yousra enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle; one that let her have fun on her path to stardom. “There were times I didn’t have a penny in my pocket. But it wasn’t a big deal. It never upset me. I would borrow 10 L.E. from a friend and that would be enough to put gas in my Mercedes and to give the rest away without worrying about the following day,” she says. This simplicity and joie de vivre makes Yousra unique in her own way. She does not like to conform or live by the rules. No wonder she surprised everyone, when at the height of her stardom, she said she is considering taking time off totake acting courses in the US. It’s impossible to imagine any other star of her stature who would think of doing that.
Yousra is also one of the few Arab stars to have the appeal of an international celebrity. She modestly attributes it to growing up with the giants of Egyptian cinema and to the honesty of Egyptian critics. She considers the 1980s, when her star started to shine, a time when there was a general culture of success, and actors and filmmakers had an overwhelming desire to bring the whole film industry up to new heights. “It was a decade that gave us some of our best actors, writers, directors and journalists. They supported new faces and helped them find the right direction,” she recalls.
“When I was a nobody I used to sit at the same table with the stars of Egypt and they made me a star with them. I got to mix with the crème de la crème of Egyptian cinema. I sat with them, talked with them, and most importantly, I learnt from them,” she explains. She used to sneak into Faten Hamama’s sets with the help of her friend, Inas Al Degheidy, now a famous director, and she’d watch and learn. Hamama encouraged Yousra and told her she had potential. She also got to spend time at the home of legendary singer Leila Mourad, who was a friend of her grandmother. Mourad’s house was a regular destination for artists and intellectuals at the time. There, Yousra met Naguib Mahfouz who predicted she would be a big star one day.
As a budding actress, Yousra got her big break when director Abdel Halim Nasr gave her the lead role in Kasr Fil Hawa (A Castle in the Air) in 1980. She originally was being cast as a singer in the film, but Nasser decided to take a chance and give her the lead. Since then, there’s been no stopping Yousra.
Modestly, she attributes much of her success to luck. “I remember I was home reading about Soad Hosny preparing for a movie called Alf Bosa wi Bosa (A Thousand and One Kisses) then Soad passed the part to Mervat Amin, then all of a sudden I got a call saying that Mervat Amin declined the role and I was being offered the part! This was a dream come true. I don’t think anyone has ever been so lucky,” she says. Besides, good luck, Yousra, is always ready to acknowledge the people who helped her achieve success. “God made me who I am. God blessed me with an amazing journey. He put the right people in my path and they helped me become who I am today,” she admits. This included some of the biggest names in the industry who were supportive of her from day one; from directors, Abdel Halim Nasr and the legendary director Youssef Chahine, to the acting star, Adel Imam. Yousra and Imam’s collaborations created some of the best movie moments in the history of Egyptian cinema. They gave us unforgettable gems like Karakoon Fil Sharea’ (A Prison in the Street), 1981, Al Mansy (The Forgotten) and El Erhab Wal Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab), 1993.
It was Chahine who taught Yousra that she had to have a message and to give meaning to what she does. He cautioned her that while her talent was a gift from God, it is a gift that God gave to other people as well. So she had to stand out and keep working on herself to remain in a league of her own. Yousra also remembers how supportive the late Salah Jahine, Egypt’s leading poet and political caricaturist, was to her. He encouraged her to form an opinion about her political surroundings and to learn about everything happening in the world.
Yousra is also especially appreciative of her husband Khaled Selim’s support over the 17 years of their marriage. Yousra’s relationship with Selim has been the envy of many in her field. They’ve been through ups and downs but through it all, Selim has been a great companion to Yousra. “They tell you fame takes away from your personal life, or it forces you to do something or other. But this is not true. No one forces you to do anything, you are the one who is in charge of the decisions you make,” she says. One important decision she made was to stop trying to have a baby after years of undergoing treatment. She reached the conclusion that it was just not meant to be. “You have to understand that life is not your best friend, you can’t trust it. Don’t expect it to give you everything; this is the only way you will be satisfied. Fight for what you want but not to the extent that you lose sight of everything else,” she explains.
When it comes to the world around her, Yousra prefers not to discuss politics. Even though her movies like Teyoor Al Zalam (Birds of Darkness) 1996 and Al Erhab Wal Kabab foresaw much of the current situation in Egypt, she didn’t see the Egyptian revolution of January 25 coming. She understood its origins but she didn’t appreciate the actions of certain political groups that took advantage of the needs of underprivileged Egyptians. “The past couple of years have been very difficult for me. I was very pessimistic and I was afraid for Egypt,” she says. But she regained her sense of hope on the 30th of June, 2013. “We have a lot of problems in Egypt, such as the education system, healthcare, the economic situation, but we also have great minds and great talents. If we pay attention to them and give them a chance, they will make a huge difference in the future of this country,” she says.
But her own future is not something that keeps Yousra awake at night. She tells me about the new TV series she is currently shooting with MBC as she shows me the looks and outfits for her role as Queen mother Khooshyar in the series. Then she surprises me with the news that the series will not be airing next Ramadan. When it comes to next Ramadan, she states “if something good comes along I will do it, if not then I am not willing to repeat myself.” As for the future of the film industry and the much-maligned commercial films on offer these days, she believes that “having the kind of movies that are airing now is definitely better than having no movies at all. You have to keep the industry alive.”
Regardless of what happens to the Egyptian film industry, Yousra has already been immortalised as an icon of Egyptian cinema. Her stardom is here to stay. She will never leave the hearts or memories of her millions of fans around the world. And Yousra will always be there to pave the way for a new generation eager to learn from her and to follow in her footsteps, to become a true timeless star.
The Enigma Questionnaire
What five words best describe you?
Honest, straightforward, nervous, anxious, and a believer.
What is your most treasured quality?
I know how to forgive.
What would you most like to change about yourself?
Because I am a giver, I would like to give more to myself but I don’t do that often.
What qualities do you dislike in people?
Lying and hypocrisy.
What do you find attractive in a man?
His looks and his charm. I like a man who has self-confidence and knows when to use it.
Who are your real-life heroes?
My husband, he is a wonderful man and a great human being. He is a very understanding person.
If you could change one thing about the Middle East what would it be?
I would like us to be more united. When we are united, we are the most powerful nation on earth.
What do you love most about the Middle East?
I love everything about the Middle East.
What keeps you up at night?
If I have a master scene the following day.
What makes you laugh?
Hanging out with Adel Imam, he is hilarious.
What do you always carry in your handbag?
What is your proudest moment?
On June 30th, I was proud of Egyptians and of myself for being Egyptian.
What was your favourite hairstyle of all time?
In the 90s when I was doing the natural look.
What is your favourite beauty look?
The bronzed look.
What is the main beauty faux pas you see Arab celebrities doing?
They wear a lot of make-up. You have to use your natural beauty even if you have something you don’t like about your face; it probably makes you stand out so use it to your advantage.
What’s the secret to your timeless and ageless look?
I always take care of my face. I take a lot of vitamins and I put on a lot of creams. I never sleep with make-up on.
What beauty tip would you give to Arab women?
Take good care of you complexion. Allocate an hour per day to taking care of yourself and sleep well.
What is the one beauty product you can’t live without?
La Mer and Shiseido creams. I also love lipstick, especially Chanel and Guerlain.
Who are your favourite designers?
Stéphane Rolland and Christian Dior. As for Arab designers I like Hany El Behairy and Rami Al Ali.
ART DIRECTION & STYLING
Make-up by Sherif Helal
Hair by Taha Abdel Wahab
Yousra’s Assistant: Aleya