As she gears up for her upcoming show at Riverside, Star Academy 8's winner Nesma Mahguob narrates her journey to fame, from the excitement of singing on Broadway stages to the challenges of being a plus-size TV star.
Sitting on a lavish grey couch overlooking the mythic Nile as she gears up for our interview at Zamalek’s upscale Riverside, Nesma Mahgoub radiates a peaceful glow. It’s not the restless, glittery smile you would expect from a swiftly rising pop star, but rather the glaring state of mind of someone who knows she is transiting through her own authentic path. As the make-up artist finishes with the last retouches, Mahgoub hops up on her heels and is ready to dazzle in the same location that will see her performing her spellbinding songs next Wednesday 16th of September.
The winner of Star Academy 8 and the owner of a mesmerising voice, Mahgoub has just released her self-produced video clip Hob Ekhwat, the first in her debut album Hat2olly Eh. But, far from being a sudden breakthrough, her victory on the Arab show was only a step in an artistic career path that led her from Opera singing to musical theatre, having represented the first-ever Arabic version of Les Miserables on a Broadway stage. Her repertoire ranges from Oriental music to Western Pop, Rock, Jazz, and even Hindi. As if that were not enough, she also has a passion for dubbing movies, having mastered Disney’s hit Frozen.
“I’m not a person who has a favourite something. I tend to get bored quickly, I like to sing different genres and I don’t want to restrict myself. I play all the games with myself to see how far I can go,” she tells us, “What sets me apart is that in my concerts, I present a full show because I want people to live a different experience. My musicians and I create a big bubble of positive energy that we throw to the audience, and the feeling when they respond back with the same energy is indescribable.”
A piano player, a singer, and musical theatre artist, Mahgoub puts her energy and passion working as a voice teacher in Fabrica, an association for musical theatre that jumped to the world stage when it crafted the world’s first Arabic version of Les Miserables and took it across four states in the USA, including Washington DC, and reaching the Broadway stage in New York. “We translated it to colloquial Arabic because we wanted it to be the voice of the people. We are now working on the orchestration in Egypt,” she comments.
Having kicked off her career at the tender age of 10, Mahgoub says she “took it seriously”, from the beginning. “I wanted to learn everything about music and be academic, not to just have a talent. I wanted to know how to take it to the next level, to the maximum,” she says as she lists performances at the Opera House’s children’s choir, the Jugend Musiziert festival in Germany, and AUC, where she undertook a Bachelors in musical arts.
But in 2011, her name burst onto screens across the Arab world and rose to fame, as she won the popular reality show Star Academy 8. “By then, I had performed on many stages, but being seen by everyone on TV 24/7 and having only a week to prepare was a very intense experience; it was a hectic show,” she says. "I learned a lot as it was a very different social experience: we were 20 different people from countries around the Middle East, who had to accept each other whether we liked it or not.”
The greater challenge for her, however, was to prove herself. “I love challenging myself in anything I do, especially in music. I had this challenge to work on myself and my songs. That’s why I focused more on my development rather than being social with people,” she says.
Being a plus-size singer was not easy for the young artist, who had to bear the burden of condescending looks and harsh comments. “The environment actually made me feel very bad. Everyone around me would love my voice, but they would look at me like ‘ah… if you lost a bit of weight it would be much better,’” she recalls.
“But the problem is created by media,” she asserts, “In Egypt, in the old days, the fatter a woman was, the more men loved her, because they felt she was from a good family, she was fed well, she had enough in her life so that she wouldn’t ask for more. But nowadays, media switched the whole idea and put standards for the perfect body, so everybody is running behind these standards to be recognised and be well treated by people.”
Two years and a 25-kilo drop later, people suddenly began to treat her differently. “Now I feel like a star rather than just a singer,” she says. But her decision was grounded not on the results of social pressure, but on the search for a healthier lifestyle. Having tried numerous diets with specialists, Mahgoub decided to follow a friend’s advice and simply break her meals. “I had tried diets, but I couldn’t stand being forbidden from eating food I had in front of me. So I thought about changing my lifestyle, dividing my meals into several small portions, and see if it worked. And if it didn’t, people should accept me the way I am. Now, it is just the way I live,” she says.
The fixation with slim bodies in the music scene is, for the rising artists, another sign of the yet immature entertainment industry in the Middle East. “When I found Adele and realised how people appreciate her, I was shocked. Why do you think it is ok for her to be appreciated, but you don’t do it in Egypt? People concentrate on very superficial stuff here, they worship anything that comes from the outer and leave quality music hiding in the underground world,” she says.
According to the star, there is a growing gap between superficial, low-quality pop music making it big in the commercial world, while good-quality music “keeps crawling and searching for themselves in the underground scene." “I kind of find myself somewhere in between, trying to reach the level of arts from the underground with the resources of the commercial world, trying to work this magic together, combining both,” she says, “That’s why I admire Magda Loumy’s career and the way she stood against all commercial genres, becoming in the end commercial, but true to who she really is”.
Speaking of her idols, she can’t help but smile at the mention of Beyonce, an artist who represents the “full show” she aims to set out for. “She works really hard before shows, preparing for it and very aware of how important a show is. That’s the direction I want to go for.”
Find out more about her upcoming show on Riverside's Facebook page here.