Nadine Njeim loves deep house. Like, loves loves. It’s a rabbit hole explored by SoundCloud vets, swerving from Guy Mantzur to Afro Warriors to Santiago Garcia. Njeim is into it.
But in the heart of Beirut, as the sun dances off the Med while her GQ cover shoot plays out, it quickly becomes clear that, to Njeim, dancing isn’t just dancing – no, hers are life-affirming moves.
To the star of the most towering Ramadan TV series of 2019, Khamse W Nos, dancing is what makes her “feel alive”, a kind of available-anywhere antidote that can be a counter to life’s darker moments.
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When it comes to dark moments, you could be forgiven for thinking that the 35-year-old actress has been spared the worst of them. On the face of it, Njeim is living every child’s dream: A successful television career, millions of followers on social media and a smash hit TV series on her hands. Who could ask for more, right?
“I never wanted to be an actress,” Njeim says, firmly.
Okay, so make that almost every child’s dream, then.
It won’t be the last time the 35-year-old lays down the law today. There are no “umms” or “aahs”, no hesitations as she confidently reels off one answer after another. Njeim is, in every possible way, a natural: a rare breed of star whose persona and true self are in total alignment, in an age where both news and smiles are often as fake as they are real.
“It was never in my plans or my dreams at all,” she says. “I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a plastic surgeon.”
Well, hey, that dream happened, too… kind of. Khamse W Nos sees Njeim play a doctor.
A primetime Ramadan spot is the Arabic televisual equivalent of the World Cup final meets the Super Bowl: a nightly post-iftar timeslot that’s been dominated by Njeim of late, from Al Hayba to Nos Youm to Samra. Expectations for Khamse W Nos, which airs on Lebanese channel MTV and co-stars the Syrian actor Kosai Khauli, were achingly high before it launched. Now that the dust has settled, you could comfortably say they’ve been blown out of the water.
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“I knew the worth of this show before it was even released,” says Njeim. “But after I saw the positive reception, critically and in terms of numbers, it confirmed to me that this work succeeded because it was close to the heart of the viewers. It focused on society’s problems, on romance, on family issues. It took on a lot of issues, and of course it was a beautiful story.”
Traditionally, some the most successful Ramadan shows have tended to be historical dramas or set in the early decades of the 20th century. Khamse W Nos is very much a modern story, one that is comfortable with the uncomfortable, tackling Lebanese politics, corruption and women’s issues.
Filmed over four months, it took its toll on the cast, both mentally and physically, but occasionally – just occasionally – that effort is worth it.
“As an experience it took a lot of work, it was exhausting,” Njeim says. “The production wasn’t easy. The breakdown of the scenes, in terms of locations and other factors, was very difficult. But we enjoyed working on it because we knew how good the results were going to be.”
Let’s get up to speed, then. Njeim’s character, Bayan Najm Al Deen, is a doctor whose staunch beliefs and desire to stand up for righteous causes see her dragged from the medical world and into politics – a murky transition if ever there was one. There’s an involvement in the Lebanese parliament and, ultimately, major conflict with her husband – a powerful businessman and political figure, played by Khauli. Things get complicated when romantic feelings develop between Bayan and her bodyguard Jad, played by Motasem Al Nahar.
Happily, Njeim’s isn’t an archaic female role of television past, not one whose motivations and values or character arc are dictated by the men who play alongside her – whether her character is saving lives, pushing women’s health rights or campaigning for a resolution to the (real-life) garbage-collection crises in Lebanon. This may be television, but the issues are real.
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“The topics we tackle exist in our country,” she says. “Regretfully, topics like the garbage crises, pollution, corruption in medication, politics, how things get done under the table… Sadly, this is the reality, we can’t lie to people.
“For that, the character of Bayan was introduced in a way, as a role model,” she adds. “We all wish for people who will put the needs of the people first, who put the hopes of the nation first. For that, we wanted to portray what we dream of…well, maybe not a dream, but more of what we really want to achieve one day. Hopefully there was balance, because imagine if it was only showing the problems? You’d feel devastated by the end. We showed the problems, but we also showed romance and hope.”
The daughter of a Lebanese father and a Tunisian mother, Njeim had a first glimpse of fame when she became Miss Lebanon in 2004, at the age of 20. A year later she represented the country at the Miss Universe competition in Thailand.
Earrings, price on request, Maat. Dress, $4545, Valentino. Heels, price on request, Dolce & Gabbana
Her ambitions, however, extended beyond a simple or lucrative circuit of pageantry shows. At the time, she was still a university student, with career in acting the furthest thing from her mind. After initially pursuing a degree in medicine, she eventually changed majors. And it was around that time that acting roles started to roll in.
“I had changed my mind, and decided to study business management,” she explains. “It was during my last year in university, I got several calls offering roles. It was out of question for me at the time. But after a lot of encouragement, I thought, okay, why not, let me give it a try, but it really wasn’t something I’d thought about before.”
But power, and how you handle it is a complicated thing. From having your face splashed across magazines to drawing millions of eyeballs to televisions across the region, how you offer influence can be telling. It’s a question Njeim is adept at side-stepping, but it’s an issue she feels strongly about.
“People should follow their dreams, yes, but more importantly do something that they like,” she says. “I didn’t know that I’d like acting, I wanted to be a doctor. That’s why it’s believable that I play one in the show, because learning and using the medical terms was second nature to me, and because I loved it. It wasn’t hard for me.”
Another crucial element of handling fame and direction? Have a strong support system in place. Njeim credits her mother, in particular, for encouraging her to take the acting plunge.
“I got the biggest support from my mother to be honest,” she says. Njeim slept alongside her mother until she was 18.
“She told me, ‘Why would you say no without trying? At least go audition.’ And that’s what happened. I found the environment very supportive from the fans and media. After that I started to succeed more and more, until I got to this point.”
From cadence of her voice to her unwavering eye content, Njeim makes it clear that playing strong female characters is something that she simply isn’t willing to compromise on. Njeim’s fire might be quiet, it might be unassuming, but it’s unmistakable.
“When we first met to go over the [Khamse W Nos] script, I asked if I could continue doing what I have been promoting in recent years: women’s empowerment,” Njeim says. “Today, women in the Arab World are responsible for some great achievements, it’s important to shed a light on this.
“And it’s even better that the viewers, the teenagers, are exposed to these examples. The Arab woman is in need of hope, of motivation. I’m not interested in portraying weak or broken women. There is no need, such drama has been all around us for too long. On the contrary, we should highlight the positive strides that already exist. And if they don’t exist, let’s create them.”
Njeim’s popularity has skyrocketed in the weeks since Khamse W Nos first aired. The success has only swelled her huge army of followers who see her as a strong, modern Arab woman challenging societal stereotypes.
“I was very happy with the feedback,” she says. “Over 60 percent of my followers are women between 8-35, and this age is very critical. They look for idols, for good examples. I was happy to get messages saying, ‘Thank you for supporting women, for motivating women, for highlighting the best qualities of women, and giving the best possible impressions of women. We need this, this is very important.’”
With such popularity – her Instagram account is pushing 8 million followers – comes responsibility. Yes, public figures are closer than ever to their followers, something that the actress can appreciate. But as anyone with passing knowledge of the medium knows, there is a vicious flip side to the coin.
“Honestly, it’s [Instagram] a very important platform, to talk to fans and to communicate,” she says. “Unfortunately a lot of people don’t use it social media as they should. You want to tell them that not everything is meant to be shared, and not everything shared should be believed.”
Ah yes, the plague of fake news.
“This is the problem now, that we follow the news blindly, without really knowing the truth,” Njeim says. “So we end up spreading gossip and destroying each other’s reputations at a time when social media should be a place where we can communicate in a positive way. Sadly it’s in the hands of everyone, everyone has a smartphone. Anyone, whatever the background and their intentions, can spew their words and just move on.”
Being constantly in the public eye, it is no surprise she has strong views on the direction that certain aspects of the media are heading in. But she’s got little time for negativity at the moment. There are far more important things in life swiping-down to refresh comments from internet trolls.
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Njeim married Hady Asmar, an engineer, in 2012 and has two children; five-year-old daughter Heaven, and Giovanni, three. Not that she’s using that as an excuse to not bring fire to all parts of her life.
“An actress is no different to any other woman that works,” says Njeim. “Many women, around the world, work every day to support their families, with very limited vacations. The advantage that I have is that I maybe film for four months a year and then the rest is my own time,” she says.
“The rest of the time I’m with my family, so I’m lucky because I can control my time, my vacation, make my own decisions. Like every working mother, it’s always challenging to juggle work and family, but she can do it. God created women like that, we can multitask. If you look at your mother or sister you will see that they can do it naturally, we are like that.”
Njeim is rarely not in the public eye, however hard she tries. An audience in the millions will do that to you. Still, this might be one legitimate case of: celebrities! They’re just like us!
“I just need to be in a relaxed environment, and be with my true friends,” she adds. “I have a small circle of friends, I believe in quality more than quantity. I respect everyone, and I like to maintain contact with lots of people and fans, but the number of true friends is very limited. I like to travel, I like dancing and music, to have a nice dinner. I like going to the park with the kids, or the beach. I don’t need anything too specific, I create my own happiness.”
As GQ’s time with Njeim comes to a close, there’s one more shot to take. The sun has lost its bite, dipping lower toward the Med.
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Njeim is standing barefoot on hard rocks on a small beach. She rallies. She grins. “You know, I might break my hips posing for you on these rocks – but, let’s make this perfect.”
And, true to form, Njeim achieves perfection.
Somewhere, buried in her phone, is another flight number – another calendar appointment for another engagement. This series may be wrapping, but a megastar is only a megastar as long as they continue to chase a horizon of projects.
“I always have surprises and plans,” she says. “Hopefully in 2020, I’ll be launching my own business, my own beauty brand. It’s a new experience for me, and hopefully I will succeed.”
If her career so far is any indication, she can sleep easy. Dreams have a way of coming true for Nadine Njeim.
Photography Prod Antzoulis
Styling Keanoush Zargham and Jony Matta
Hair stylist Victor Keyrouz
Makeup artist Dani Kamel
Producer Amira Elraghy
Photography assistant Lilia Laurel
Location Beit El Bahr