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Egyptian Multi-Hyphenate Esaad Younes on “Accidental” Careers, Patriotism, and Positive Self-Image at Any Age

Shirt, Dries van Noten at Villa Baboushka; earrings, Jude Benhalim. Photo: Jabe

It’s 9am on a Monday morning and the Vogue team awaits Esaad Younes on set. She has sent word ahead of time that she is unwell. When she arrives, despite her smooth complexion and bright eyes, it’s clear by her downcast demeanor that she is under the weather. But ever the entertainer, as soon as the cameras flash, there’s a sharp shift in her manner, exuding her playful, charismatic charm from one shot to the next.

The following day, Vogue connects with Younes by video call. The veteran actor and media mogul is sitting in her office, barefaced, hair scraped back and emanating her famed magnetic energy. “Why do I always say that I’m the most beautiful ‘girl’ in Egypt? To help women break free of the tiny box that they’re placed in as soon as they turn 40,” she says emphatically. “I’m trying to tell them that they don’t need to believe that they’ve already got one foot in the grave. Get up and do something! Don’t bury yourself alive!”

An icon of beauty across generations (pictured in 1980 above and 1995 below), Younes has firmly secured a place in Arab entertainment history

Unlike many mature women in the spotlight, Younes is brutally honest about her age. “My beauty routine is pathetic,” she laughs. “I don’t use anything regularly; I just try and use some decent face wash and that’s it. Sometimes I’ll say to myself, ‘Get up and slap some cream on your face, girl.’ Her hair has been a frequent point of contention in the media in recent years, with many questioning if she wears a wig. In one appearance on actor Amir Karara’s talk show, she made him get up and pull her hair to prove that it was all hers. “I swear, it’s just styled well,” she assures. “I like the wrinkles that I see in the mirror; they’ve gone through it all with me. Just as time has affected my heart, it’s made its mark on my face. Whenever I walked into a room, even if everyone around me was stunningly beautiful, I always felt like I was special, that there was something about me. And that was what always drove me. When I looked at prior generations, the women didn’t know how to deal with losing their looks, they lost their money, their drive, some of them committed suicide, and I wasn’t going to go down that route.”

At 73, Younes is the stuff that legends are made of. Considered one of the most influential female figures in modern Arab pop culture, the always-colorful actor has a long and rich history in show business. Since the 1970s, her earliest days in the media, she has used her distinctively Egyptian voice to advocate for female and youth empowerment. Thanks to her heightened self-awareness, impeccable comic timing, and unforgettable partnerships with icons such as Sohair Al Babely in Bakiza wa Zaghloul (Bakiza and Zaghloul), Samir Ghanem in Hekayet Mezo (Mezo’s Story), and Adel Emam in Sha’ban Taht al Sefr (Sha’ban Below Zero), Younes secured a place in Arab entertainment history. Three decades after her first appearances on screen, she received widespread critical acclaim for her role in one of Egypt’s biggest budget, most internationally successful films, the multi-award winning Emaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building).

Hosting her award-winning hit talk show, Sahebat Al Sa’ada

Younes is a dedicated devotee of dynamic change. “I hate stagnation, which is why I truly believe that you should change your entire career once every 10 years. I only acted consistently in cinema for 10 years! In 1987, I made Laylat El Qabd Ala Bakiza Wa Zaghloul (The Night of Bakiza and Zaghloul’s Arrest), and after that, I decided to call it a day. I’m against specializing in only one thing. In entertainment, everyone has an expiry date.

Even then, I was very aware of that, and I was ready to turn my back on that period and start something new. I didn’t want anyone to cancel me, I’d rather cancel myself,” she laughs. “I’ve always been very business minded. If I think of something, I go for it; especially if it goes against the grain. I love rocking the boat. Change and development are an essential part of life. So, I’ll always rebel against rigidity.”

In 2000, she co-founded and was appointed CEO of Al Arabia Cinema, one of the largest film production and distribution companies in the Arab world. With Younes at the helm, Al Arabia Cinema has distributed and produced hundreds of feature films spanning genres from light comedy to festival favorites such as Daoud Abdel Sayed’s Rasa’el Al Bahr (Messages from the Sea), which was selected as Egypt’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards.

Coat, Hala Algharbawi; earrings, Fatma Mostafa. Photo: Jabe

As the vice president of the Egyptian Chamber of Cinema, Younes has played a leading role in developing, promoting, and preserving the cinema industry in Egypt. She is a vocal advocate for the rights of artists, leading to changes in the laws on intellectual property theft, pursuing dozens of unlawful internet download sites and satellite service channels illegally broadcasting Egyptian films. Speaking at the World Intellectual Property Organization Conference in 2011, Younes urged audiences to fight the erosion of culture and heritage that she believes is the inevitable result of undermining copyright. As an accomplished and opinionated writer, Younes has also written several books and published hundreds of articles for Egypt’s leading newspapers, such as Al Shorouq, Al Masry Al Youm, and Al Shabab magazine.

Skirt, Comme des Garçons at Villa Baboushka; necklace, ring, Fatma Mostafa; face jewelry by makeup artist. Photo: Jabe

Born in Cairo in 1950, a penchant for media and entertainment runs deep in Younes’s veins. Her father, Hamed Gamal El Din Younes, was a military pilot and an active participant in the Free Officers Movement that instigated the Egyptian revolution of 1952. He was also a celebrated journalist, writing for Rose Al-Yusuf, a popular weekly political news magazine. Younes’s mother and aunt, Kawkab Sadiq and Badee’a Sadiq respectively, were both talented singers and actors. Her maternal grandfather managed Ali Al Kassar’s famed theater troupe in the early 20th century and went on to establish the theater and acting academy in Kuwait. So, by default she grew up in the environs of cultural legends such as Bairam Al Tunsi, Ahmed Rami, and Salah Jahin.

Headpiece, stylist’s own. Photo: Jabe

As a child she was acutely aware of her need for independence. “I’m a multi-tasker by nature,” says Younes. “My dream was always to be the most intelligent person in any room and to learn as many skills as I possibly could to the best of my ability. I was never going to let myself be a jack of all trades.” By the age of 10, she had established a small portable library business, loaning out her parents’ extensive literary collection to her neighbors for a small fee. And it was there that she was exposed to all strata of society and began honing her observation skills, internalizing the different elements of what it meant to be Egyptian. Unbeknownst to her, she was laying the foundations of what was to be an illustrious career in character acting.

Gown, Maison Saedi; earrings, Jude Benhalim. Photo: Jabe

“I started working in radio when I was still studying tourism at university and around that time, I married my first husband and my daughter’s father, Nabil Hagrassy. He was already an established actor and so I was introduced to his friends in the industry,” says Younes. “Acting was a complete accident for me,” she laughs. “Never in my life did I think of acting nor did I strive for it; I was surfing on the waves that life threw at me with an open heart, and I was merely in the right place at the right time. So I truly believe it was meant to be.”

Younes currently divides her time between her roles both in front and behind the camera, taking on a number of new production and acting projects and hosting her award-winning hit talk show, Sahebat Al Sa’ada, which is in its ninth year. The title is a unique play on words, meaning both “Her Excellency” and more literally “the keeper of happiness,” a title that her devoted fans have bestowed upon her. “Originally the idea was that Sahebat Al Sa’ada was in fact Egypt,” she reveals. “After the 2011 revolution, the Egyptian identity was shaken. It was tainted with trends and behaviors that were not native to it. People started speaking, dressing, and even thinking in a strange and unfamiliar way. Verbally attacking Egyptian culture became commonplace. Our identity was being taken apart. Everything felt wrong.”

Skirt, Comme des Garçons at Villa Baboushka; necklace, ring, Fatma Mostafa; face jewelry by makeup artist. Photo: Jabe

It was this instinctive feeling of dread that drove Younes to make the show. “I wanted to create a program that treated people with kindness and re-instilled their confidence in the arts and the Egyptian cultural landscape, across all strata of society. By the third episode, my team and I were able to convince people that this was a program that the whole family could watch together, where they could laugh, learn, and remember the identity they were about to forget. So for people to give me the title of Sahebat Al Sa’ada is immensely generous of them and it’s a huge honor. Egypt is Sahebat Al Sa’ada, and I’m merely one of 120 million.”

To Younes, the next generations are the key to a better tomorrow, which means she is continuously striving to take deserving new talents under her wing. “I have great faith in our youth, and if I could give them one piece of advice, I’d tell them what my mother told me, ‘Don’t break like an ashtray, bounce like a rubber ball.’ Don’t break down. Always keep moving forward.”

Gown, Maison Saedi; earrings, Jude Benhalim. Photo: Jabe

After five decades of trailblazing, Younes has no plans to slow down any time soon. In addition to producing several new films, she’ll be reprising her role as sharp-witted, retired actor Haya in the second season of hit sitcom Kamel Al ‘Adad (Full House), as well as taking on roles in a yet-to-be-announced United Media Services series and the film Esabet Azeema (Azeema’s Gang), which is set for release in 2024.

So, what makes The First Lady of Happiness happy? A productive workday, cooking a great meal for her family (she makes a mean roast duck), and “knowing that I’m doing my best by everyone around me and that my reputation precedes me. I always say that you only really know somebody by what’s said about them behind their back, and I want people to say good things about me; because that’s the legacy that I’ll leave behind.”

Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Beauty editor: Michaela Somerville
Hair: Deena Alawaid
Makleup: Kasia Domanska
Production assistant: Basma Faramawy
Special thanks: Royal Maxim Palace Kempinski Cairo 

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