Previous Cover Star Nadine Nassib Njeim On Motherhood, Equality And Defining Beauty Standards

BY Louise Nichol / Mar 22 2019 / 21:08 PM

“When I hear the word ‘Mommy’, I think it’s the best word I ever heard”

Previous Cover Star Nadine Nassib Njeim On Motherhood, Equality And Defining Beauty Standards

With the thumbs of 5.1 million Instagram followers hovering to like her every flawless photo, Lebanese actress Nadine Nassib Njeim epitomises the über-feminine aesthetic of an Arab megastar. But when she’s off the grid – both in the social media and real world sense – Nadine, or NNN as her digital alter-ego would have it, is far more girl-next-door than super-charged glamazon. Her children – Heaven, five, and Giovanni, three – are in no doubt which iteration of their mother they prefer. “They always want to see me in comfortable, casual attire,” Nadine says, “When I put on a cocktail dress or red lipstick, they ask me to remove it and tell me, ‘Don’t you want to put on your pyjamas and sit with us?’”

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine Njeim wears: Trench coat (as before), Dhs23,500, Céline. Rings, from top: Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs9,200; Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs4,600. Bracelets, from top: Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs19,300; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with mother of pearl, Dhs37,800; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with carnelian, Dhs40,000; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs32,200, all Bvlgari.
Giovanni wears: Shirt (as before), Dhs198, Chic by Laranjinha at Childrensalon

For the May issue of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Nadine’s children joined her on set for a celebration of the maternal instincts that govern her soul. “I grew up in a family of five children,” she explains between shots at a beach house in the Lebanese seaside town of Amchit. “We grew up as one heart and lived, unfortunately, in difficult circumstances, which brought us together,” she says of being born into the maelstrom of the Lebanese civil war. “The tenderness instilled in the family gave me the ambition to create a family of my own. I have loved children since I was young. Even today when I see a child I am submerged by emotions,” Nadine smiles, adding, “I have a special relationship with my children.”

This mother-child bond is apparent throughout the day as Heaven and Giovanni bounce between playful and tender while orbiting the woman at the centre of their magical universe. In turn, Nadine cannot hide her adoration of her kids. “When I hear the word ‘Mommy’, I think it’s the best word I ever heard,” she smiles.

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine, Heaven and Giovanni wear outfits as before. Nadine wears: Serpenti Viper ring in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs13,400, Bvlgari. Heaven wears: Serpenti Viper bracelet in pink gold, Dhs19,300, Bvlgari

Nadine’s relationship with her Tunisian mother set the precedent for the closeness she feels to her children. “I slept alongside my mother until the age of 18,” she reveals, explaining that it was only when she had to move out of home to take part in Miss Lebanon in 2004 (which she went on to win), that she was separated from her family for the first time. “The night before my departure was the last time I slept next to my mother,” Nadine recalls, “Then life took me. It stole me.”

Winning the coveted Miss Lebanon crown was to change Nadine’s life trajectory for good. Since the age of 12 she had harboured dreams of entering the pageant, while in parallel planning to study medicine and become a doctor. However, Nadine’s medical ambitions gave way to the seductive lure of fame. “I felt the thirst to keep going, to stay in the spotlight. I did not want to go back home and quit this light,” she admits. “One should set goals for life but she needs to keep her eyes open to distinguish the opportunities offered to her,” Nadine counsels of her career-180, “And never say never or ‘I cannot’. If she loves what life offers to her, she will surely excel.” In place of medicine, Nadine opted to study for a degree in business, a discipline more closely aligned to the opportunities that the Miss Lebanon title opened up for her, while maintaining her commitment to the principle of education. “The more knowledge you have, the less vanity you suffer from,” Nadine says. “Education is culture to me, it is not only to get a certificate. Education develops and influences personality. Reading is necessary for self-education. It is of huge importance to work on nurturing our brain and inner self with culture.” She is philosophical about the unexpected route her life has taken, musing, “I think fate played its part and God wrote for me to follow this path. And I decided to continue on it.”

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine wears: Serpenti necklace in pink gold with mounted setting pave, Dhs131,000, Bvlgari. Blazer, Dhs5,120, Chalayan.

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine wears: Blazer, Dhs5,120; trousers, Dhs2,290, both Chalayan. Rings (on right) Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs4,600 and Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs9,200, both Bvlgari. Ring (on left), Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs13,400. Bracelets (on left), Serpenti Viper in pink gold with mother of pearl, Dhs37,800; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with carnelian, Dhs40,000; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs32,200, all Bvlgari

Over recent years, Nadine has become embedded in the fabric of Ramadan tradition in the Middle East, appearing in the popular nightly television shows that bring families together for post-iftar viewing, such as Al Hayba, Nos Youm, Samra and Cello. Her  – initially reluctant – move into acting into 2010 was prompted by her friend, the Lebanese writer Choukri Anis Fakhoury. This month, Nadine plays the role of Ameera, a lawyer, alongside actor Abed Fahd in Tarik, based on the novel Al Sharida by the late Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. Currently in the midst of a gruelling filming schedule to complete the 30 episodes (which will begin airing on May 17 on MTV Lebanon, MBC Drama, OSN, Ru2ya in Jordan and others across the region), Nadine is leaving Bazaar’s set to go straight into a night shoot and confesses that she won’t be watching herself as the drama unfolds in households across the region. “To be honest, we are planning on going on a very long vacation. If I find the time, I will watch my series on YouTube,” she smiles.

The competition surrounding Ramadan television series is fierce, and Nadine seems to be relieved to be away from the furore engulfing the most important viewing time of the year in the Arab world.

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine wears: Trench coat (as before), Dhs23,500, Céline. Rings from top: Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs9,200; Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs4,600, both Bvlgari. Bracelets, from top: Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs19,300; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with mother of pearl, Dhs37,800; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with carnelian, Dhs40,000; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs32,200, all Bvlgar

Her ambition weighs heavily on her as she muses the omnipresent risk of failure that increasing success brings with it. “The difficulty lies in the durability, the continuity,” she says of her career as an actor. “At first, success is possible, and perhaps the second time. But the problem with success is that there is a challenge every time.” She credits the political turmoil in Lebanon of her childhood with fuelling her drive to succeed. “Our country has suffered from war for a very long time and we have lived in situations that cannot be described. The effects of the war on us continue,” she explains, adding that she was determined not to let her family’s challenging financial situation deter her from achieving her goals. “I was not affected to the point of giving up my dreams. On the contrary, I decided to make this hard situation favourable for me.

I changed every weakness I had into strength; every tear, sadness, every difficult experience into good ones. To watch my parents taking full responsibility of us, despite all the horror that was going around us, made me what I am today. It strengthened me. It was like a hand pushing me out of the water.”

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine wears: Shirt, Dhs3,685, Chloé at Matches Fashion. Skirt, Dhs11,500; blazer, Dhs11,500, both Céline. Rings from top: Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs4,600, and Serpenti Viper pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs9,200, both Bvlgari. Serpenti Viper bracelets in pink gold with carnelian, Dhs40,000, and pink gold with mother of pearl, Dhs37,800, both Bvlgari. Giovanni wears: Shirt (as part of set), Dh346, Sarah Louise England; shorts, Dhs1,250, Gucci, both at Childrensalon

For her own children, Nadine is more circumspect in her ambition. “I want them to rejoice in what they do, to be confident in their own choices, successful by their diplomas, in a profession that they will choose,” she says of her hopes for Heaven and Giovanni, “And I pray to Allah to remove people of bad faith from their path.”

As political, social and religious conflict continues to swirl around the region, Nadine – whose upbringing with a Muslim mother and Christian father exposed her to a spectrum of beliefs – says of the challenges facing Arab mothers today, “They should know that religion is about love for God and that there is always one God for everybody. Be good to yourself and to others. Love yourself and others.

Be honest. Learn how to be a good person in society.” Since childhood, tolerance and understanding have been woven into her being. “I am saddened when I read posts attacking other religions,” she says, “I am lucky that I have been raised to accept others and to be introduced to both Christian and Islamic religions and respect them both.”

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine wears: Coat, Dhs11,050, Givenchy. Serpenti watch, Dhs66,000; Serpenti Viper ring in pink gold, Dhs4,600 and Serpenti Viper ring in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs9,200, all Bvlgari. Heaven wears: Coat, Dhs627, Lili Gaufrette at Childrensalon

As she speaks, she twists a ring on her finger, a piece from Bvlgari’s Save the Children collection, which generates funds for the plight of vulnerable children across the world, including Syrian refugees in nearby Jordan. “This is heart breaking,” she says of the refugee crisis, which has also seen the influx of over one million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, including many children whose families have been torn apart. “The children are the most affected in these situations. Poverty can be fought, but the loss of parents is devastating for children and nothing can compensate; even if they’re offered food, water and clothing. I feel that what they mostly need is moral support and to be surrounded by people dedicating their time to them, loving them and giving them tenderness.”

While Nadine may have eventually opted against a career in medicine, she names Mother Theresa as a role model, saying, “She is a symbol of unconditional love for people. She was there for everyone with no differentiation to race or culture.” She also admires strong female leaders, citing former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as someone who was, “really very powerful and did a lot for her country.” While the Iron Lady’s legacy may be politically divisive, Nadine is anticipating the day when a Lebanese woman can step up to similar positions of power. This month sees the country’s general election take place. Traditionally, women have played a minority role in Lebanon’s political arena, holding just four seats in the country’s 128-strong parliament.

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine wears: Trench coat as before. Left hand: Serpenti Viper ring in pink gold with pave diamonds, Dhs13,400. Right hand: Serpenti Viper ring in pink gold, Dhs4,600, and Serpenti Viper ring in pink gold with pave diamonds, Dhs9,200, all Bvlgari

For the May vote, 111 female candidates registered out of a total of 976 (at the last elections in 2009, only 15 women ran). “The number of female candidates for parliamentary elections has increased significantly in this session,” Nadine says, anticipating the positive changes that more women in power will bring, “I tell you that when a woman is elected this will be the beginning of a longer story.”

Nadine is undoubtedly pro-female, yet comments in the past regarding her traditionalist views on gender equality have caused controversy. “I defend equity not equality,” Nadine offers, “I see women being way more important than demanding gender equality. Women bear great pains and give birth. Men can’t compete with that. Equity is about everyone getting his exact needs, regardless of everybody else. The blind claim of equality is unhealthy. Women should aspire to equity,” she says.

Her views are pragmatic and unapologetic in their directness. “The Arab woman, even if she works, does not participate equally to the household finance. It’s the man’s responsibility,” Nadine claims, while asserting that despite economic imbalance, women must be treated with fairness and integrity in all walks of life. “Equity is required at all levels; in politics, in law,” she insists, adding, “Take honour crimes as an example; women are badly condemned, but men receive a reduced sentence. This is the difference between equality and equity.”

She goes on to praise the reforms that are taking place in Saudi Arabia under the country’s new leadership. “What is happening in Saudi Arabia lately is the biggest proof that equity must be achieved,” Nadine says. “His Highness Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has allowed women to drive. This is an achievement in this context. Women can now work, this is another achievement of equity. Nothing should prevent women from learning, working and leading.”

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine wears: Coat, Dhs4,690, Max Mara. Dress, Dh10,860, Alberta Ferretti. Boots, Dhs5,590, Christian Louboutin. Belt, stylist’s own. Left hand: Serpenti watch, Dhs66,000. Right hand, bracelets from top: Serpenti Viper in pink gold with carnelian, Dhs40,000; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with mother of pearl, Dhs37,800; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with carnelian, Dhs40,000; Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs19,300; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs32,200, all Bvlgari

The tensions surrounding the economics of gender equality are at the heart of Tariq. For her role as an erudite lawyer from a disadvantaged background who forms an alliance with a wealthy, yet uneducated man, Nadine opted to cut her trademark beauty-pageant locks into a sharp bob, complementing the Bvlgari Serpenti watch-wearing, power-dressing wardrobe of her character. “I did not dare to cut my hair that short. But I felt that the psychological state of the character I am playing had a need to cut her hair.”

At the heart of Nadine is a paradox between her beauty queen beginnings and her philosophical leanings. Outwardly, her own make-up is certainly precise, contoured, considered; yet she struggles with the uniformity of beauty standards that some may say she herself embodies, as millions strive to imitate her looks. “Raising women’s awareness about beauty and how to maintain themselves is important,” Nadine says, “But beauty pressures are everywhere today. It has entered every house and leaked into the minds of women. It has become addictive. Beauty is becoming standardised in a way in which women want to look like the stars. I understand this, but values and the inner self no longer have real worth, as the focus is on outer beauty,” she explains. “Every girl is aspiring to become a blogger and to publish their images every minute.”

For as long as possible, Nadine is determined to shield Heaven from the minefield of social media. “Honestly, it’s really exhausting and stressful to protect yourself and your kids from social media. There is the cyber-bullying, the online harassment. It is really abusive. With Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, I feel worried about my children,” she confesses. True to her word, on set the children are engrossed in playing ball games and tag. “It is prohibited for them to play with any technology device; no iPhones, no iPads. I am bringing back the old traditions; books and toys,” Nadine asserts. “Girls of this generation are under too much pressure,” she sighs as she watches Heaven skip round the room with carefree abandon. “I believe that some imperfections are a source of beauty and define the personality of the person. Pressures may come, especially through social media and ads that make us want to be beautiful, but these images are Photoshopped to look as they do,” she says. “I think every woman is beautiful. In the end, the eye skips external beauty if inner beauty does not show. This is confirmation that beauty is about personality, behaviour, way of being; all that is invisible.”

At 33-years-old, Nadine says she has made her peace with the ageing process. “Even though I am an advocate of taking care of our bodies, the fact is that the process of ageing, despite all our efforts to prevent it, will eventually reach us. Beauty, as I define it, is what each one of us invests in her inner self. What we are doing now accompanies us forever.” She is quick to debunk assumptions that her life is preoccupied with the pursuit of physical perfection, and delights in the retro Tarboush chocolate-covered marshmallow sweets that someone brings onto set.

“I do not have a routine,” she says of working out, “I do not put myself under pressure. Sometimes I let myself go but when I notice that I have gained a kilogram or two, I pay attention to the way I eat. I live my life simply, contrary to what some think,” she adds wryly. It’s still up for debate as to whether Heaven and Giovanni will be granted a sibling. “Ouf,” she says without conviction. “I, personally, do not want more children. My husband wants a third child,” she laughs as the man in question, civil engineer Hady Asmar, valiantly keeps the kids distracted.

While her attitude to ageing remains unchanged by motherhood, Nadine does concede that she has tempered her fashion style in line with her maternal role. “I gave up some pieces, the ones that are very short and very open,” she admits of her pre-kids bombshell wardrobe. She is fiercely patriotic in her fashion choices. “I love Zuhair Murad and Elie Saab and am proud of their worldwide reputation and work,” she says, also citing Lebanese designers Nicolas Jebran and Rami Kadi as homegrown favourites. “On an international level, I love Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Chanel. They’re so waw,” she enthuses in her Lebanese dialect. Harnessing the waw or va-va-voom that is so intrinsic to the region’s fashion tastes is crucial to designers who want to win the hearts of a Middle Eastern customer base. “I think that the designers that most understand Arab girls are Dolce & Gabbana,” Nadine says, noting the shared spirit of Italian exuberance and Arabian allure.

Nadine Nassib Njeim

Nadine Njeim wears: Trench coat, Dhs23,500, Céline. Boots, Dhs6,650, Givenchy. Rings, from left: Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs9,200; Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs4,600. Bracelets, from left: Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs19,300; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with mother of pearl, Dhs37,800; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with carnelian, Dhs40,000; Serpenti Viper in pink gold with diamond pave, Dhs32,200, all Bvlgari.
Heaven (left) wears: Dress, Dhs4,750, Stella McCartney at Level Kids. Serpenti Viper in pink gold, Dhs4,600, Bvlgari.
Giovanni (right) wears: Shirt, Dhs198, Chic by Laranjinha; shorts, Dhs515, Alviero Martini, both at Childrensalon

Yet strip back the make-up and the red carpet gowns, and the Nadine who frets about her daughter’s exposure to social media is a very different being to the one who basks in the adoration generated by a life curated into neat Instagram squares. She has, she says, just two close friends, and her vulnerability is apparent when she admits, “It’s hard to have people close to you,” citing loss of privacy as the biggest downside to fame. Like a lioness, she is fiercely protective of her family and constantly on guard for anyone who tries to prey on them. “The one who knows your secrets can do you harm,” she warns, “Trust is very expensive to be given to cheap persons. I try to protect them from being hurt.” But while her intimate social circle might be tightly guarded, her wider girl squad is a masterclass in female empowerment. “I have surrounded myself with clever women, who are self-confident, who know exactly what they want and work to achieve their goals,” Nadine says. May we all know women like that, and raise them too. 

Prices approximate. Photographer: Benoît Peverelli. Styling: Gemma Deeks. Art direction: Anna Savelieva. Make-up: Melanie Meyer at MMG Artists. Hair: Ivan at Velvet Management. Producer: Rana Haddad at Yellow Core Productions. Editorial producer: Laura Prior. Styling assistant: Zainab Al Baya. Location: With thanks to Amchit Residence