There’s a reason why Egypt’s screen idol Yousra needs only one name, and no introduction…
It’s a warm spring day in Marrakech and Egyptian superstar Yousra is in a purple tuk tuk that’s rattling along old, narrow streets through a vibrant medina. Music from a local band playing on classical sintirs and castanets fills the air with its traditional rhythms. The carriage might not be classically regal, yet the moment feels very much like a royal parade – her majesty, the queen of Middle Eastern cinema, has arrived.
When Yousra enters the riad belonging to artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj for this anniversary cover shoot, the atmosphere drips with excitement. “We are in the presence of a legend,” says an awestruck assistant. The comment is no overstatement. A bona fide superstar, Yousra goes by one name. She’s starred in more than 80 movies, has received more than 60 awards, and this year was chosen to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Oscars. She has helped define Arab cinema and shine a light on the industry, which overwise might have been overshadowed by the West.
“It is a great honor for me to be on the Oscars academy,” says Yousra in her typically husky tone. The actor, who was one of three Egyptian celebrities (along with producer Mohamed Hefzy and director Amr Salama) invited to join the academy, is humble about the role. “I believe the academy is one of the most prestigious in the world, and being part of it means so much to me.”
In Hajjaj’s studio, typically a kaleidoscope of color and buzzing with organized chaos, Yousra is laughing, her genuine warmth settling any nerves the team members might have. She’s flying to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony in the morning, so there’s a time crunch to be dealt with. Unsurprisingly, she whizzes through each look without complaint – she may be a legend, but she is no diva.
Yousra credits her husband, Khaled Selim, for her grounded attitude. “I respect the way he can handle my life as an actor and the way he is patient. He is proud of me when I take a new step and it is a successful one,” she reveals in a rare quiet moment. The actor is not usually comfortable talking about her relationship – she “doesn’t want to jinx it.” Not that she runs from the notion of it, of course. When asked what makes them such a successful duo, she replies, “Please can you say, ‘God bless your relationship’ instead of asking such a question,” adding, “Khaled and I have known each other since we were children. Without him, I don’t think I could manage to do all this.”
Yousra was 17 when she realized she wanted to become an actor – before that, she wanted to be a diplomat. Her onscreen history dates back to the late 70s, with her debut in Abdel Halim Nasr’s Castle in the Air, and her breakthrough roles in Ebtesama Wahida Takfy and Azkiaa Laken Aghbyaa. She went on to work with prominent Egyptian directors – most notably Youssef Chahine – and rapidly established her position as one of the highest paid stars in the industry, as well as one of the Arab world’s most powerful women.
“I just always wanted to be impressive”
“I just always wanted to be impressive,” says Yousra of her career and work ethic, which has contributed to her lauded status. “If people don’t appreciate your work and don’t see you as a legend, you will never be a legend. You have to understand that you are working for people and that you have to be working to their expectations.”
“Being a legend, you must have something. You are not free as you were when you were unknown. You are always under a special kind of pressure, and expectations of people toward you. But without those people, you will never be a legend,” she explains, adding for future stars, “Be humble as much as you can but at the same time, don’t expose too much of your private life.”
While she prefers to maintain a guarded privacy, her “sad childhood” is something she does offer some insight into. “I had a tough life when my father took me from my mother,” she says emotionally about the separation following a bitter divorce. “From their divorce I learned that things can still go on and you just need to handle your children with care, love, and honesty. Give them the chance to express themselves. I have to give it to my mother as she was my friend, my mom, and my backbone. She gave me all this. She made me who I am today.”
And who is that person? “A feminist” who believes in equality at work and in personal life. It’s this belief that has seen her purposefully tackle powerful characters and taboo topics. “I choose to play strong roles for women because we have a lot of stories of different women in our society who can be legends but we don’t use them enough. I’m trying to put these legends in the episodes I make,” she shares.
“We changed laws – you can change life through cinema.”
While she hasn’t pursued a political path, she has used her status to help push boundaries and even change laws. “When I made the rape episodes for the Ramadan series Fawk Mustawa Al Shobohat, everyone was against it, but in the end, everyone was clapping and it received the biggest viewership ever.” The show led to Egyptian laws toward rapists being changed. “Before, the law said that a rapist should go to prison for only one or two months. Now, he is very much punished. We changed laws – you can change life through cinema.”
Outside of the film industry, Yousra works tirelessly as a UN Goodwill ambassador for the Middle East and Africa to change the lives of those less fortunate. “Before being an ambassador, I also did humanitarian work, but being an ambassador offers much more responsibility,” she says. “I’m honored because being a Goodwill ambassador is trying to put the good in everything you do, not only in the mission you have.”
Her reach and engagement with her audience and fans is incredible, especially for someone who shuns social media – she simply will have no part in it. In fact, it’s the only time during the interview when her behavior shifts. “Before, we were stars without social media. Now I feel like anyone can be a star,” she says. “People listen to me because they know I’m not a hypocrite. I talk when I believe, and when I believe it comes from the heart.”
Not chasing likes has had little effect on her career – if anything, fans respect and idolize her more. When it comes to her own role models, she is quick to cite actors Faten Hamama and Nadia Lotfy, as well as her mother. “I had a lot to learn from these ladies, in all aspects of my life, and was lucky to have them,” she explains. “I’m proud that my mother was truly proud of me. She gave me the best love, care, and the best example in my life.”
Her father was somewhat more critical of her career, infamously slapping her across the face following her first onscreen kiss. “It’s something called الدنيا†علمتني†(what life taught me),” shares Yousra of the memory. “It didn’t make me ashamed at all that I did it. On the contrary, I’m proud of each and every scene I have made in the cinema.”
Despite her personal hardships, the superstar espouses positive thinking and mindfulness. Her ability to swat away bad vibes is admirable, especially in a job that comes with public scrutiny. “When you want to forget the bad or to dismiss someone from your life, just leave them to God,” she says calmly.
“Never take revenge into your own hands.” Yousra’s unflappable confidence comes to the fore throughout the cover shoot. She is completely comfortable in her own skin – and that skin is glowing and dewy, her smile infectious, her style that of a 1950s screen siren. She is the epitome of elegance and won’t bow down to pressures from the film industry. “I simply don’t care about aging,” she says with Oprah-style conviction, which makes everyone immediately want to jump in the air with applause. If she was on Instagram, she’d be the ultimate self-love guru. But for now, she’ll be taking over screens this coming Ramadan in the series Dahab Eira (Fake Gold). “I achieved in my 40 years of work whatever I wanted to achieve and whatever I wanted to dream of,” she says. “I love my age and I love my looks. I’m proud of who I am and how I look, and how I present things – Hamdoullilah.”
Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography Hassan Hajjaj
Style Katie Trotter & Lisa Jarvis
Creative producer Laura Prior
Art accomplice Ebon Heath
Second assistant Tariq Hajjaj
Local producer Marie Courtin
Hair Sadek Lardjane
Makeup Jo Frost
Photography assistants Hasnae El Quarga and Meriem Yin
Style assistant Alexandria Lefevre
Runner Yazid Bezaz, Abdelali Boukrimi, Mohammed Ajib
Studio Riad Yima, Marrakech
With special thanks to Four Seasons Resort Marrakech