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Youssra on Celebrating 47 Years in the Industry, and Why She Still Has a Lot to Give

As Youssra celebrates 47 years in the industry, the trailblazing Egyptian’s star shows no signs of dimming – and her legacy affirms the boundless capacity of the human spirit.

“I have palpitations, I have tears in my eyes,” Youssra tells me after a short pause to collect herself. I’ve just shared a message Hend Sabry sent me about her, in which she describes Youssra as, “The quintessence of stardom who’s transcended to another level where time and age don’t matter.”

“I love her genuinely,” Youssra says of Sabry, explaining her emotional response. “And I believed in her from day one, when she was 14 and I gave her her first prize.”

It’s the eighth day of Ramadan and Youssra has just broken her fast. We had scheduled the interview late in the evening, at a time that didn’t interfere with her Iftar. “Fasting makes you feel disciplined, and it helps clear your spirit,” she tells me from Cairo.

Discipline – specifically the notion that stardom is about diligence as much as about artistry – comes up again and again in our conversation. For Youssra, a woman whose impact and staying power have given her a quasi-royal status in popular culture, celebrity is about more than acting. “I worked very hard for it. And not only as an actress,” she says. “It’s a behavior. It’s a way of life. It’s a lot of work on yourself.”

vogue arabia youssra

Top, gloves, Georges Chakra; earrings, Ferozah; headpiece, Lilia Fisher. Photo: Amer Mohamed

Everything about Youssra exudes perpetual motion. Arguably the most iconic actor in the Arab world with almost a hundred films and television shows to her name, the 69-year-old superstar speaks of future projects with the kind of joyful excitement you’d expect from a newcomer. “I still have a lot to achieve,” she says of what lies ahead. “It’s as if I’m a little girl.”

Born Seveen Nessim in Alexandria in 1955, Youssra admits to having had a rough upbringing, particularly after her parents’ divorce. Aged 14, she was made to live with a father who was adamantly opposed to his daughter’s ambitions to work in film. “He refused the idea of me pursuing a career as an artist,” she tells me, adding that she felt “half-paralyzed” when she worked on her first few films while still living with him. “But when I gained my freedom at 21, I had to build myself. That was the beginning of Youssra.” She pauses for a few seconds. “I knew then that I must succeed.” It’s around that time that Egyptian director Abdo Nassr suggested she change her name so that “people would know how to pronounce it properly.”

Blazer, pants, Maison Pacinthe Badran; earrings, Ferozah. Photo: Amer Mohamed

I wondered if her father’s uncompromising parenting style and his opposition to his daughter’s chosen career had infused Youssra with even more drive and ambition to break into the movie industry. Untethered from the restrictions of family, Youssra’s career took off almost from the start. She rose to fame in the 1970s with roles in lower-budget mainstream productions, but quickly began collaborating with some of the Arab world’s most renowned cinematic names like Youssef Chahine and screenwriter Wahid Hamed. She would eventually work with Chahine on four films, including Alexandria Again and Forever (1989), a semi-autobiographical work in which a director finds himself obsessed with his leading man as well as with a movie star, played to perfection by Youssra. The center of attention on screen as well as in life, Youssra believes her superstar status carries with it a serious responsibility to her fans not just to entertain but to inspire. “Being a star is being so many things,” she tells me when I ask if she feels pressure to live up to certain expectations, “you should be a dream.”

vogue arabia youssra

Jacket, Maison Pacinthe Badran; earrings, stylist’s own. Photo: Amer Mohamed

Youssra also credits her collaboration with Adel Emam, one of Egypt’s most renowned male leads, for some of her biggest career successes. The pair worked together often over the decades, perhaps most notably for international audiences on the film adaption of The Yacoubian Building (2006), based on the novel by Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany. In it, Youssra plays Christine, the proprietor of a piano bar in Cairo where Egypt’s remaining cosmopolitan elite gather. Her character’s haunting rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” serves as a swan song for the country’s golden days of diversity and openness to the world. More recently, Youssra has starred in popular television series like Rose & Layla (2024) alongside Nelly Karim, a comedy about two female private investigators who fall afoul of a criminal gang. It’s that range, from drama to comedy and everything in between, that has kept Youssra relevant at an age when some actresses may find it difficult to adapt to the demands of younger audiences.

Jacket, pants, Maison Pacinthe Badran; earrings, gloves, belt, stylist’s own. Photo: Amer Mohamed

At almost 70 years old, Youssra gracefully fields the admittedly unoriginal questions about the pressures of aging in front of the camera, especially for women in an industry still very much obsessed with youth. “I have never felt my real age,” she tells me. “My heart is young, my brain is young, my thinking is young.” And it’s perhaps that approach that has helped Youssra appeal to newer audiences: starring in television series, recording the occasional hit song, and even taking part in the Arab version of the fashion reality show Project Runway. “My biggest achievement is to know how to communicate with all ages,” she says with confidence, even if, despite her more than three million followers on Instagram, she says she despises social media, the platform most younger people now use to consume content. “Social media is killing a lot of people with disinformation,” she says with a sudden tinge of anger in her voice, “and it sometimes puts the wrong people in the spotlight.”

vogue arabia youssra

Top, pants, gloves, Georges Chakra; earrings, Ferozah; headpiece, Lilia Fisher. Photo: Amer Mohamed

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Youssra’s public persona extends beyond her screen appearances and into the world of fashion. “Part of being a star is how you present yourself,” she says when I ask her about her obvious love of clothing and design. The notion that Youssra has a responsibility to her fans – an obligation almost – to embody a certain old-world glamor is ever present in her on-screen and online persona. There are images of Youssra in metallic floor-length gowns in bold hues on her social media accounts, draped in one of photographer Hassan Hajjaj’s Moroccan blankets wearing a tasselled Andy Wahloo fez on one of her last Vogue shoots in Marrakech, or this month’s starker leather, latex, and black-and-white lace looks. “Being an artist means being many women in one,” she says. Rather than retreating into neutrals and safer fashion choices, age seems to have brought out an even bolder version of Youssra, more self-confident in her experimentations than previous iterations.

As we settle into our conversation, I realize that in so many ways, Youssra does not fit the Arab woman stereotype. In addition to a celebrated career and strong-headed desire for independence and artistic freedom, Youssra’s personal life stands in stark contrast to that of many women in the Arab world. She married Egyptian director Khaled Selim in 1996 but the couple did not have children. It’s a twist of fate Youssra says she has no regrets about.

Dress, Marmar Halim; shoes, Mach & Mach; gloves, hat, stylist’s own; earrings, bracelets, Ferozah. Photo: Amer Mohamed

“There was a time in my life when I was really fighting to have them, but now I thank God that I don’t have children when I see the cruelty of the world,” she says with surprising candor. “I don’t know if I could have tolerated anything happening to them.” By not having children of her own, Youssra says she’s instead embraced a chosen family composed of the offspring of her many friends.

“The children of my best friends, they are my children. They treat me as their godmom. If there is something they can’t tell their mother, they tell me. So really, I have many children, in fact,” she says in a giggle. “In the end, the choice of God was better than my choice.”

We’ve been speaking for over an hour, but Youssra still sounds as excited as she did when we first connected. It’s easy to see how she has maintained such a commanding presence in the entertainment world with her direct, no-nonsense style. She admits to being unvarnished in the way she sometimes shares her opinions. “I’m nice, so when I’m not nice, it’s because I’m not.”

So, what’s next for the multifaceted icon? Yousra doesn’t miss a beat: “After 47 years, I feel like I haven’t done anything yet. I still have a lot to do. What? How? I don’t know. You can never know. I still have a lot to give.”

vogue arabia youssra

Jacket, pants, Maiso Pacinthe Badran; earrings, gloves, belt, stylist’s own. Photo: Amer Mohamed

Originally published in the April 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Style: Yasmine Eissa
Hair: Saeed, Mido, Hosam, Arabi, Ramy, Mahmoud
Makeup: Dina Dimitry

Production: SNAP14
Local producer: Nadia El-Dasher
Local line producer: Hala Amin
Digitech + lighting: Anna Kaganovich
Production designer: Zeyad Abbas
Art director: Ahmed Emad
Style assistant: Mohamed Hijazi
Local production coordinator: Marwan Rizkallah
Production assistants: Haidy Ayman, Ashraf Zaki
Creative producer: Sam Allison 

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