The sequined, full-sleeved Marques’ Almeida gown that Kuwaiti actor Haya Abdulsalam is wearing was heavy enough before she wore it to dive into the Indian Ocean. But there’s no complaining as she emerges slowly from the sea, pausing patiently for photographer Gianluca Fontana on the shores of the Pullman Maldives Maamutaa Resort. Abdulsalam remains professional.
From the early morning hair and makeup that involves dying her bright red cropped locks into a rich brown to the evening shots where she hides her shivers in cooler waters, Abdulsalam happily obliges, all the while maintaining an eye on the modesty of her outfits. “I love to be professional and people love me for that,” she comments. “I’ll give it everything and then we can decide afterwards if the pictures are right or not.”
As the metallic flecks of the dress mirror the water’s shimmer, the actor notes that she is delighted to be in the peaceful setting of the Maldives. “It’s the perfect trip for me; it’s very much like my personality,” she shares. “I like being in a quiet place where there’s no noise. I love swimming, I love animals, I love the beach, and I like getting a tan.”
The 36-year-old, who has dominated the small screen for more than 10 years as an actor and director, knows her career trajectory was not straightforward. A shy child who didn’t like schoolwork, she found herself short of the right grades to study interior design as she’d hoped; her family convinced her to enroll in a drama college instead. She graduated but, having not yet fallen in love with the craft, took on a secretarial role along with a job as a TV series’ set assistant, helping haul lighting equipment around. Behind the scenes, she discovered a passion for directing and, eventually, acting.
Her small-screen debut came in Oum Al-Banat alongside legendary Kuwaiti actor Suad Abdullah who, to this day (along with actor Hayat Al Fahad), is Abdulsalam’s biggest influence. From here, she navigated her way onto numerous award-winning television shows, including the Saher Al Lail trilogy that portrayed Kuwaiti life during the Iraqi invasion between the 60s and 90s.
When asked about gender parity in the industry, the actor is circumspect. “It’s a business where the female is the star,” explains Abdulsalam. “It’s not like Hollywood where the men are better paid. Here, it’s the opposite. Maybe because there are more female viewers, but the woman is the big thing, which is great.”
Despite being one of the Middle East’s most popular celebrities, taking home best actor awards at various international film festivals, as well as a long list of accolades from the Kuwait Ramadan festivals over the years, the actor, who has more than 6.7 million Instagram followers, is most comfortable when she is out of the limelight.
“I love being at home; it’s my best place,” she says, revealing that she shares her abode with nine cats and a dog. “I just lay around and watch TV. I’m happy,” confides the star, who has been married to fellow actor and producer Fuad Ali for five years. “There is something we do secretly,” she giggles. “My husband is a biker. We put on our helmets and people don’t know that it’s us, so we just pass by them happily. It’s our chance to be normal.”
The couple’s current project finds Abdulsalam in front of the camera and Ali as part of the production team. “It’s a 30-episode Ramadan series called Mannequin,” she shares. “It’s about a group of women working in a tailor shop, trying to live with a family curse that means they can’t have any men in their lives. It’s a fantasy with a message about empowered women.”
Female strength is a theme that has been present in her life since the day she was born. “My mother is a strong woman and she is my best friend,” she smiles. “She covers her head, wears a veil and an abaya but is confident enough to be super stylish. I let her pick my clothes; she has a great retro style.” Abdulsalam herself prefers a more casual look of jeans and T-shirts but is partial to a Chanel accessory.
“Being so dressed up for the shoot was a bit weird for me because I’m a casual person, but I loved it. It was a way of celebrating myself,” she smiles, running a hand through her short, wet hair. Letting out a satisfied sigh, she lies back in the infinity pool, listening to the water quietly lapping as her eyes reflect the blues and greens of her secluded escape.
Originally published in the January 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Read Next: Vogue Reviews: Pullman Maldives Maamutaa