There’s a name that you should know. A face that you should recognise. But you’ll be forgiven for being unaware of either. They belong to Sofia Boutella, a 35-year-old Algerian artiste. An accomplished dancer, she’s worked with Michael Jackson and Rihanna, toured with Madonna, and appeared in Nike Women’s advertising campaigns; as an actor she’s landed parts in Kingsman: The Secret Service and Star Trek Beyond. In one way or another she has been performing since she was five, yet it is this month’s blockbuster, The Mummy, that will prove her most significant entrée. Top-billed against co-star Tom Cruise, Sofia claims the title role as Ahmanet, an ancient Egyptian princess whose ambitions of ruling are put aside in favour of a male heir. Hers is a dark and compelling performance. Her name is here to stay. Her face you won’t forget.
Rich olive skin, a razor-edged fringe that exaggerates sharp cheekbones, deep brown eyes framed by thick brows, and a mellifluous French accent... Sofia is an editorial dream – a beautiful blank canvas on which to play out fashion’s greatest fantasies. She wore Chanel haute couture to present at the Academy Awards in February and, reprising the moment for the cover shoot with Harper’s Bazaar Arabia in Los Angeles last month, she created a masterpiece of movement, a feminine fluidity that brought together her dancer’s dexterity with the theatricals of her artistry. Poetry in motion. There’s a delicacy to the imagery, but strength and power too. Sofia is all of these things and more. But to understand her present, one must scratch a little at her past.
Sofia Boutella wears dress in champagne satin embellished with embroidered braids, Chanel Haute Couture S/S17. Rings, her own.
Photography: Jan Welters
Born in 1982 in the Bab El Oued district of Algiers, Sofia (whose surname Boutella translates as ‘the men of the mountain’) recalls a childhood filled with beautiful memories. “We were always in nature. In our family home we had a big, dishevelled garden, with deer, dogs, chickens and cats. There was a rundown old carriage that we would pretend had horses attached to it. I grew up in a very beautiful way, in a family that always encouraged me, and my calling to be artistic. We were raised to be open-minded, creative, to use our imaginations.” Raised by two artists – her father is a jazz musician, her mother an architect – she feels “blessed to be born into a family that allowed me to express myself, to be myself and let out all sorts of colours that were living in my imagination and in my heart.”
The civil war came in the early 1990s and in 1992 Sofia’s family left Algeria for Paris, a move she credits for furnishing her with an early ease of adaptability, alongside a visceral connection to her roots. “Algeria is a country that is dear to me, because it’s where I’m from, where my family is from, it’s my home. That will never leave me. I feel very worldly. But leaving a place like that when you’re so young doesn’t come without missing a sense of identity and belonging to one place. I think I’ve been blessed with the ability to travel, because I’m fearless to go anywhere, but I miss a sense of home, which was originally Algeria. But I feel Algerian, I’m proud to be Algerian and I carry that with me wherever I go.”
She attributes much to her roots. “I feel like my whole being consists of a potpourri of all sorts of things. The way my parents raised me, bits and pieces I’ve learned in Algeria, Paris and all over the world. But from Algeria I take my courage, my gratefulness, my thankfulness and my strength; definitely my strength.”
Dress in silver quilted satin embellished with jewelled buttons and embroidered plastron and hem; belt in metallic silver leather; faux pearl ankle bracelet (worn as anklet); pumps in iridescent silver leather, all Chanel Haute Couture S/S17
Photography: Jan Welters
Moving from Algiers to Paris was hard for a 10-year-old, relating to new cultures and social constructs. “It was such a leap in terms of culture and culture shock. It wasn’t the same,” she recalls. “The Arabic people in Paris were not like the Arabic people from Algeria.” But friends came, bringing with them new upbringings and environments to explore. “I had friends from Algeria, France, Morocco, Senegal, Mali... I mixed with everyone.” And Paris offered something else, more mystical, more tangible: Coca Cola. “I don’t think I ever really saw the gravity of the situation, of moving to Paris, I just thought I was exploring something else, a place where we could have bananas, candy and... Coca Cola! I know that’s silly but I was a kid, and we didn’t have it in Algeria.”
Religion didn’t play a big role in her childhood, and her parents weren’t particularly strict but they did place value on manners. “Being polite was very important, having manners and respecting other people.” A sense of freedom allowed Sofia to explore, and in turn for Paris to introduce her to a more prolific and vibrant dance scene, different to the more classical disciplines of previous years. It was here that she fell in love with breakdancing. “It came about for me because I was sort of rebelling against all the rules,” she remembers. “I was a teenager and I’d done ballet and gymnastics and everything was so strict and disciplined that I wanted a sense of freedom. I wanted to be left alone to dance freely, to dance the way that I felt and the way that I wanted. So I went and explored and came across some breakdancers and freestylers one day and it just spoke to me. There are no rules to it.”
Sofia’s dancing has a power to it. A strength. But it’s intuitive, she says, not planned. “I’m extremely sensitive and I’m driven by what I feel in my heart,” which is what makes her performances so mesmerising: freeing herself from a gilded cage on Madonna’s Confessions Tour, as lead dancer on Michael Jackson’s Hollywood Tonight single, to a commanding performance in Nike Women’s ‘Keep Up’ campaign... She commits. She makes her art matter.
Photography: Jan Welters at Art-Dept, Fashion Directior: Katie Trotter, Producer: Daniele Ricci at Ricci Productions & Creative, Fashion Assistant: Lindsay Jernigan, Make-Up: Jo Baker at Forward, Make-up Assistant: Atlas Ferrera at Forward, Hair: John D at Forward, Manicure: Anny Tau, Digital Operator: Carl Duquette, Digital Operating Assistants: Chris Swainston and Tim Black, Props: Anthony Asaro and Kendyll Leiger at Art-Dept, Props Assistant: Nicholas Buckalew at Art-Dept
Read the full article in the June issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia - out now