x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A new star is born

Lara Scandar, the Middle East's hottest talent-show find, talks about fame and her own good fortune.

Laura Iskander has been musical since she was a toddler, exposed to music by her encouraging parents.
Laura Iskander has been musical since she was a toddler, exposed to music by her encouraging parents.

You don't have to win a reality show to earn yourself a record deal. Runners-up can do just as well clawing their way into the music charts. Look at Susan Boyle, JLS or Adam Lambert. None of them won their shows, and yet their musical efforts float out across the airwaves. Lara Scandar, 19, is a name you may be able to soon bracket alongside them. The Egyptian teenager was a finalist in the last season of the pan-Arab television show Star Academy, similar in format to the British Fame Academy, where contestants all live together, perform in a weekly prime-time show, via which their numbers are slowly picked off by voting viewers.

Scandar came fifth in the last season. But eight months on, she has just launched her first single in her home city of Cairo and has arrived in Dubai for a UAE launch before jetting on to Beirut for more of the same. All of this, and yet she still faces another three years of study at the American University of Cairo. "I'm so sorry I'm late. I was in class," she says breathlessly down the telephone during a break in her university timetable. It couldn't matter a bit, but she is genuinely apologetic. There's no trace of a budding diva.

Mission Is You is the title of her first single, written by a European production house and produced by Jean-Marie Bianchi, most well-known for his work with the Arabic artists Majida El Roumy, Elissa, Nawal Al Zoghbi and Haifa. " I usually write my own songs, but because of how much I loved it I just really didn't care that it wasn't by me. It's really fun," she says. It was Bianchi's name that attracted another big shot to the billing: Ray Kay. He is a Norwegian film director, famous for having directed Lady Gaga's Poker Face video. His CV also includes names such as Beyoncé, Ciara, the Backstreet Boys and Jadakiss. "When I was told I had the chance of shooting my first video with him I just went crazy," says Scandar. "He sent us a storyboard and I liked it straight away because it was very simple."

The story took her to Los Angeles last October, where she pretended to be stalking a male actor for two days on the city's streets. "I'm no longer your prey, I'm the predator," Scandar sings, while dancing on the pavements. She has been musical since she was a toddler, exposed to music by her encouraging parents. Her first trip to a studio was aged three, at Universal Studios in California when her father whisked her into a mini-Disney studio and coaxed her through their own rendition of Aladdin's A Whole New World. "He sang Aladdin, I sang Jasmine," she laughs.

"But I love to dance too," she says when asked about the intense choreography in her video. "I started ballet when I was three or four and I'm learning to belly dance. It's Egyptian so it's inside of me, but it hasn't come out yet." Arab flourishes in her music, she explains, are important to her, despite the fact she sings mostly in English. "I am in the Middle East; I am Egyptian, but I want to appeal to both crowds," she says. An album, currently in progress, may feature "a few" Arabic tracks that she is working on.

It was only when Star Academy allowed contestants to sing in English that Scandar applied to the show, two years ago when she was 17."My parents agreed because I had just graduated from high school," she says, adding that she had always been a huge follower of the competition. "It was a good feeling being one of the show's biggest fans and then sleeping in the same bed and sitting on the same couch that I saw on TV. Overwhelming."

The show and her newly launched solo career mean she is increasingly recognised at home. A Facebook page lists over 12,500 fans and is growing by hundreds every day. She even gets mobbed in Cairo. "My mum owns a shop in a mall, and if I go and help her out there I literally cannot move out of the store." She loves it, she says quickly, even though it's tiring. "At the end of the day, these are the people who voted for me, who helped me and made this happen so I honestly don't mind."

There is an endearing, grounded quality to Scandar. She is "determined" to finish university. Egypt, she swears, will always be home. Breaking out in America or Europe is a possibility, but she says that she is in no hurry. "I'm the type of person who is very attached to her roots and her home. No matter where I go, I will come back," she says adamantly. "This is where I started and this is where I'm from."

Lara Scandar will appear in Dubai's Mall of the Emirates in Virgin Megastore at 4.30pm today.