Nancy Ajram talks about her love of children and music ahead of her Dubai performance on Thursday.
Family comes first, but Nancy Ajram intends to keep singing
Nancy Ajram is talking sushi: she has a craving for it. "I love it," she says. "When I go to London I always visit Nobu, I love that place."
It's just as well, then, that Ajram's next stop is Dubai, home to a signature Nobu Matsuhisa restaurant at Atlantis The Palm.
Whether she'll be able to pay a visit ahead of her concert on Thursday remains to be seen.
"I love playing to all my wonderful fans in the UAE, but it's very difficult in Dubai," she says. "I do not know why, but people go crazy when they see me. When I see people following me or waiting to touch me after my parties and concerts, it can be hard. You lose your privacy, your life."
Nearly two decades on from her debut as a starry-eyed 12-year-old contestant on the variety show Noujoum Al-Moustakbal (Stars of the Future), Ajram is getting used to thousands of fans, if not millions of people on Facebook, following her every move. Indeed, she is the Arabic world's most famous female pop star.
While the West has Christina Aguilera and Rihanna, the Middle East has Ajram. More wholesome than Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, she is a one-woman music and marketing empire: a solo artist by 15, she'd topped the charts by 20, sold 30 million records by the time she was 24 and at 26 she became a Unicef ambassador, the first female to do so for the Middle East and North Africa.
Today, she's issued a personal invite - a rarity for an interviewer - into her mansion in north Beirut. She had thrown a party for friends and family the night before and admits to being tired. Still she has risen early and has been spending time with her two children, Mila and Ella.
When Ajram pads into the living room bare-foot, she is dressed in a plain purple T-shirt and denim shorts. She's not wearing any visible make-up and her hair is straight, lacking the razzamatazz curls her fans have come to expect.
Behind her, a nanny scoops up her two-year-old daughter Mila, quietly hushes her and vanishes from sight. In the nearby kitchen two chefs prepare lunch and a number of maids scuttle through the hallway. In some ways, this extended family is the closest thing that Ajram now has to a normal life. She rarely goes out to local restaurants because of the attention she receives - hence her craving for great Japanese food. In the midst of the domestic scene, it's easy to forget that she is a famous singer.
"My family is first but I love my career and I want to continue," Ajram begins. "I do not want more but I want to stay at the same level that I have reached - I love the success and I always find the time to spend with my family. So why should I stop?"
It is the song Akhasmak Ah, which Arjam first recorded nine years ago, that made her a national phenomenon. It inspired Beirut teenagers to get up and dance, encouraged by the provocative video in which Ajram plays a waitress openly flirting with the customers of a cafe.
Though it caused controversy by poking fun at more traditional Arabic clichés, it struck a chord with millions of Arab youth throughout the Gulf.
So, looking back, does she have any regrets?
"I was too young when I started singing - I was only eight years old," she replies. "Then my first CD was at the age of 16. It was a great experience for me, but it was hard as a teenager - I had too much responsibility, more so than other children."
Becoming a mother has changed her outlook and she admits that her career will now always take second place to her two girls. But would she encourage them to follow in her footsteps in the music business?
"I will encourage them to follow their hearts like I did," she says.
When she speaks about her family, her startlingly blue eyes flicker to life.
Of course, there's still plenty for the singer to achieve. She wants more success, she wants to keep her fans happy, and she wants more children. She gave birth to her second daughter, Ella, in April his year, but says she would like one or two more. nd she wants to make more records. Her latest album, and the follow up to her last record proper, Nancy 7, is a collection of songs for children, something which in her role as Unicef ambassador, she takes very seriously.
"I started listening to many new songs, but I decided to do another CD for children," she says of the sequel to 2007's Shakhbat Shakhabit. "I still have two more to record and hopefully it'll be out soon. I'm the only one who sings for kids - I always thought that it'd be a good idea to work on a CD like this. Children love my songs so it's my way of saying thank you."
That doesn't mean that she's forgotten about her core adult audience though, and she still loves pop music as much as she has always done. She names Abali Habibi by Elissa (from 2009's Tsadaq Bmein) as one of her favourite tracks, as well as songs by her fellow Lebanese star Wael Kfoury and Kareem Wagdy from Egypt. She also idolises Amr Diab and she's even started to listen to American music a lot more.
"It's a good time to be international," she tells me. "I want to work and perform on the global stage but I know it's difficult. I hope that in the future I will have opportunities to perhaps do a couple of duets."
Still, she is not about to make an English album in an attempt at even wider appeal.
The interview winds up: Nancy has a busy day ahead; there is her concert in Dubai to prepare for and she wants to have lunch with her children. Although it's hard to see into the nearby kitchen, I get the feeling that if Ajram had her way, sushi would be on the menu.