It’s with great anticipation that the crew in the Cairo studio await the arrival of Fifi Abdou. With her outrageous personality and bombastic social media presence, the Egyptian star can be considered an unlikely match for Vogue Arabia. No doubt her exuberant presence is the topic on everyone’s lips, from the junior prop assistant to the senior styling team. “Fifi in Vogue… That’s going to be interesting,” someone says.
As she arrives, Abdou is exactly how we expected her to be. She is warm and friendly, and her bare face reveals a beauty that is often hidden under heavy layers of makeup. “Can you believe that I’m wearing my pajamas to arrive to such a shoot?” she says, making everyone laugh.
Makeup and hair are, in fact, a big topic for this transformation, as the actor and dancer seems to have second thoughts after giving our team carte blanche for her styling for the photo shoot. “I want big lashes,” she insists, now more serious. The team pushes back, reminding her that, from the start, the deal was to present a more minimal version of Fifi Abdou.
Although her makeup and hair takes almost four hours, Abdou keeps people laughing during the process; even handing out chocolates. Though she’s an easy target for criticism and mean-spirited jokes, Abdou is an undisputed comedy icon in the Middle East, and someone who knows how to capture hearts by just being herself.
Looking at her upbeat public persona, it is hard to imagine that Abdou had a difficult start, yet became a celebrated belly dancer and actor, who has starred in more than 20 movies and TV shows. As a child, Abdou sought refuge from her abusive mother with her uncle. He pampered her, giving her the love, attention, and, most importantly, taste of freedom she so craved. This empowered her to pursue her passion for belly dancing, which she did from a young age, despite her family’s misgivings. She went on to make her acting debut at the age of 23 in the 1976 film The Message, alongside Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas. This role was followed by a number of films, series, and plays, the most famous being Al-Hakika w Al-Sarab (Reality and Illusion).
Abdou believes she can play all types of characters, with a single exception: the decadent dancer. Though she’s portrayed this role in the past, she categorically refuses to do it again. “Belly dancing is far from decadent. I used to dance, but at the same time I was taking care of a whole family, supporting myself and bringing up my daughters.” While she only regrets one film – the 2012 comedy Muhimma Fi Film Kadeem (A Mission in an Old Movie) – there are a few dream roles on her wish list still, including working with big names like Sherif Arafa, director of Al Mamar (The Passage).
She loves belly dancing and fiercely defends it, defying anyone who attacks her and underestimates its value. Belly dancing rewarded her with love and opened the doors of local and international fame, enabling Abdou to win the hearts of people. She, in return, danced for everyone, including presidents from all over the world. She’s even walked the red carpet at the Cannes film festival, and sat with Hollywood celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone and Elizabeth Taylor.
The 66-year-old Abdou is comfortable in her own skin and satisfied with her work as a professional belly dancing artist. She has no remorse and feels no shame, even though the profession is not always valued in the region. The long years haven’t marked her face or soul with wrinkles, but made her character more experienced and her thinking more mature. While it’s true that belly dancing is like a spoiled child she won’t abandon, she knows how to leave it behind when she’s at home, where she can be her true self: a devoted wife and mother. She won’t prevent her daughters from pursuing the art if they have a talent for it, she shares, because she believes belly dancing is a universal art that all people understand.
She’s keen to thank God first, then her efforts, dedication, and her fans. Can we mention her fans without spontaneously uttering her famous phrase, “Khamsa mwah” (“five kisses”)? She shares the details of her life on her social media accounts and her fans share in her happiness at her achievements and successes. They also grieve with her when needed and understand when she can’t share something personal. This positivity and sincerity in both good times and bad bring her much bliss – yet she’s always keen to show them the bright side of her personality and life; believing that, as an artist, she should keep smiling, no matter what happens. “The artist is a candle that burns from the intensity of pain to give light, hope, and happiness to the audience,” she says.
She speaks of her fans with pride and love, and sees her 5.5 million Instagram followers as the best proof of her humanity and fame. “The fans’ eagerness and longing are the biggest proof of my stardom, along with the invitations I receive to participate in various shows and events,” she asserts. The secret of this strong relationship between Abdou and her fans is sincerity. She makes sure to be genuine and humble. At the same time, she imposes limits based on mutual respect and sincere love. She’s faced her share of hate, though – in the comments section, among the praise, there are always remarks about her figure and class. In response, she says confidently, “I don’t impose my art on people. I trust myself and my art. Those who don’t like Fifi, her dancing, and her life can stop following and browsing her social media accounts. They see me as an old woman, but I believe that I can still dance in a respectful and polite way that does not harm anyone, especially since I am young at heart.” She adds with her usual wit, “Let’s ask the audience about my age! Everyone gives me a younger age than I really am. I’m a good, spontaneous, and natural woman, and this is reflected in my appearance, so I look younger.” Of course, she even sends her kisses to the haters, saying, “Love you so much, and here is ‘Khamsa mwah.’”
Abdou radiates joy and energy when she dances, skillfully keeping her pain and suffering hidden. It hasn’t always been this way, though, and there was a period of five years when she gave up and became a victim of her pain and grief at her brother and sister’s passing. She stopped dancing and gained weight, losing the fitness and elasticity she used to enjoy before. She was shocked back into reality one day when she noticed herself in the mirror. She remembered how happy dancing made her, and decided to use it as a remedy for her anguish. She worked hard to regain her strength and with persistence, found her way out of the crisis. This is how she learned that what doesn’t kill her, makes her stronger. She refused to fail. All she wanted was to do what gives her satisfaction. Even since then, she’s been able to overcome vulnerable moments and transform them into a source of strength and positive energy. “Like everybody, I like strong people who have the ability to overcome their weakness. I try to appear happy to people however sad I am,” she says. Armed with this frame of mind – and the love from her fans – she was able to deal with the sadness.
Today, Abdou is an artist in the full sense of the word. While she travels across the world to spread her art and joy, her heart is particularly inclined to Lebanon, the country she considers as her second home. Her happiness is embodied in a picture taken by photographer and fine artist Youssef Nabil, who adores her. “She is such a warrior, a simple and bold woman. I like her courageous way in defending belly dancing in our society, be it verbally or by means of dancing despite her age. She granted belly dancing a ‘dignity’ in the recent decades, and I share the same attitude with her because in my work, I always seek to uphold this art form that we’ve maintained in Egypt since the age of the pharaohs,” he shares.
Fifi Abdou is proud of the different periods of her life. If there is something to regret, it would be the five years she spent away from dancing, caught up in grief. What does she wish for today? To lead a healthy and respectable life, praying to God that people don’t stop loving her as a dancer and a human who never wears masks or abandons her true nature. Finally, let’s send “Khamsa mwah” for fans, and “Khamsa mwah” for haters till the end of life.