Lebanon's Reality TV: Like The Kardashians, Only Less Serious

Mar 25, 2015
Originally published on April 2, 2015 2:51 pm

The Abdelaziz sisters live in a world of pretty artifice. Alice, Nadine and Farah answer the door in a flurry of hellos while their fluffball dog Stella barks and tinkles the bells on her tiny collar.

They usually live in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in a family home, but for the purposes of their new reality show, The Sisters, they reside in this apartment where green hillsides spill down from picture windows to the Mediterranean below.

"The view is amazing here," says Nadine, the middle sister. "And you see the weather today is sunny."

The twentysomethings are all tall and thin with big eyes and dark hair. The furniture is in kids-toy colors, the walls are white. A makeup artist is doing Alice's face – glosses and sparkles spread across the dining table. Vases of Skittles adorn the coffee table.

The Abdelazizes are slightly famous here, for modeling and posting pictures of themselves on Instagram. They have hundreds of thousands of followers. The reality show promises to take their fans behind the scenes. They won't say what that means – they do confide viewers will see them "with messy hair."

This morning they are preparing to shoot three scenes. Alice's makeup is finished and she joins us on the couch. "Oh, nice," says Nadine. "My turn!" Alice uses the selfie setting on her phone to scrutinize the effect.

In the background, a television is showing an interview with Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian's mom. "She's an inspiration," says Alice. "You see how the mom is really strong."

Since the sisters announced the show, there have been numerous comparisons with the long-running Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The sisters have much to say about the show – does Kim look better with blonde hair? Which seasons have I seen? What do I think about Bruce's gender reassignment?

But the Kardashian way is not their way, they insist.

"The social media has referred to us as Lebanese Kardashians but we have different personality, different culture," says Nadine.

I put to her that things that made the Kardashians famous might be unpopular in Lebanon – an Arab country that has a liberal streak, but it's not California.

"This is why we always say that we have nothing to do with Kardashians – they have sex tapes, they have boyfriends at the house. We are different, it's Lebanon after all," she says.

But without scandal what will the show be about? Politics? No. "Entertainment is better than politics," says Nadine.

Navigating the cultural mores of Lebanon may be tricky. It's liberal enough here to have one of the Arab world's first reality TV shows – but too traditional for scandals. The sisters want to show Lebanese women are strong

"Lebanese women are beautiful and smart and have goals and achievements," Nadine declares. "She can do anything she wants if she sets her mind to it."

All three have business degrees, and speak four languages. Their mantra is beauty and brains, although beauty is a preoccupation. Farah, the youngest, is wearing red velour pajamas. She shows me her bedroom: there's a picture of herself by her bed.

"I'm addicted to makeup," she says, showing me her collection. And to perfume, she can't go to the mall without buying perfume. She squirts me with her latest purchase.

After I leave, I check Nadine's Instagram. In her latest shot, she's wearing a T-shirt that says, "Tomorrow I'll be famous." Their show airs for the first time that night.

It's an hour long and the subject matter so closely guarded turns out to be that Nadine runs out of gas and has to call her dad. Farah sees a life coach. They go to a supermarket and ride in a shopping cart. They burn a cake, oops.

There's nothing salacious – but as bloggers and the Twittersphere watch, people seem to find the superficiality itself almost offensive.

One Lebanese blogger, Najib Mitri, calls it a "pointless meaningless TV show and an insult to our intelligence."

I call Mitri up and he says young people in Lebanon have been trying to improve women's rights – but the show's portrayal of the sisters as incapable undermines that.

"The way that they portrayed women is really a very negative way," he says.

In the sleek Beirut Souks mall downtown, I meet Sharmine Haider, a university student with glasses and traintrack braces who watched the whole thing

"I thought it was really stupid and it was really obvious that they were acting everything out," she says.

The Sisters hope they represent strong Lebanese women, I say.

"I hope that no one actually believes that that's how we are," retorts Haider. "Because most of us are not like that and I don't think we should be represented by what we wear."

The show continues, for now. The sisters still post on Instagram. In a recent pic, they're in sportswear, slouching in red lipstick. It's captioned: "I don't want feelings, I want new clothes."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to stay in the Middle East but get a view of life that's very different - one that's playing out in a new reality TV show. For anyone who's kept up with the Kardashians, the premise of this show will sound familiar - three rambunctious Lebanese sisters just going about their regular lives as heavily made-up models and fashion bloggers. NPR's Alice Fordham went to see them and to see their little dog, too.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: To meet the Abdelaziz sisters is to step into a world of pretty artifice.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

FORDHAM: Thank you for having me.

NADINE ABDELAZIZ: How are you?

FORDHAM: The three 20-somethings usually live in the Lebanese capital Beirut, but for the purposes of their new reality show, they reside in this mountainside apartment with picture windows...

N. ABDELAZIZ: Yeah, the view is amazing.

FORDHAM: ...And a fluff-ball dog.

(LAUGHTER)

N. ABDELAZIZ: This is Stella.

FORDHAM: Alice, Nadine and Farah Abdelaziz are slightly famous here for modeling and posting pictures of themselves on social media. They have hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram. Their new show, "The Sisters," takes viewers behind the scenes, drawing comparisons with another famous family.

N. ABDELAZIZ: The social media has referred to us as Lebanese Kardashians, but we have different personality - different culture.

FORDHAM: This is Nadine, the middle sister. She's a beauty queen, though all three are tall and thin with big eyes and dark hair.

N. ABDELAZIZ: We were always interested in fashion.

FORDHAM: I put to Nadine that the things that made Kim Kardashian and her sisters famous might be unpopular in Lebanon, an Arab country that's not extremely conservative, but it's not California either.

N. ABDELAZIZ: This is why we always say that we have nothing to do with the Kardashians - like, they have sex tapes, they have their boyfriends at house. We are different - it's Lebanon after all.

FORDHAM: But without scandal, what will the show be about - politics?

N. ABDELAZIZ: Entertainment is better than politics.

FORDHAM: Fair point, Nadine. In a way, the show is a product of Lebanon's contradictions. It's liberal enough here to have one of the Arab world's first reality TV shows, but too traditional for sandals. Nadine won't say what it'll be about, but she says she wants to show Lebanese women are strong.

N. ABDELAZIZ: Lebanese women are beautiful and smart and have goals and achievements, and she can do whatever she wants if she sets her mind to it.

FORDHAM: All three women have business degrees and speak four languages - beauty and brains is their mantra, though beauty is definitely a preoccupation. Farah, the youngest, shows me her bedroom. There's a photograph of herself by the bed.

FARAH ABDELAZIZ: And all my makeup - I'm addicted to makeup so I put all my makeup here.

FORDHAM: After I leave, I check Nadine's Instagram. In her latest shot, she's wearing a T-shirt that says tomorrow I'll be famous. Their show airs for the first time that night. It's an hour long, and it transpires it's about not much. Nadine runs out of gas and has the call her dad. Farah sees a life coach. They go to a supermarket and ride in a shopping cart. They burn a cake - oops.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "THE SISTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Lebanese).

FORDHAM: And although it doesn't have anything salacious, people seem to find the superficiality insulting. One Lebanese blogger, Najib Mitri, calls it a pointless, meaningless TV show and an insult to our intelligence. I call Mitri up, and he says young people in Lebanon have been trying to improve women's rights, but the show's portrayal of the sisters as incapable undermines that.

NAJIB MITRI: And the way that they portrayed women is in a really - a very negative way.

FORDHAM: I head to a mall downtown to see what the audience thought, where I meet Sharmine Haider, a university student with glasses and train-track braces who watched the whole thing.

SHARMINE HAIDER: I thought it was like really, really stupid and it was really obvious that they were acting everything out.

FORDHAM: The sisters hope they represent strong Lebanese women they say, but no one seems to be seeing them as very strong.

HAIDER: I hope no one actually believes that that's how we are 'cause most of us are not like that. And I don't think we should be represented by what we wear.

FORDHAM: The show continues for now. The sisters still post on Instagram. In a recent pic they're in sportswear, slouching in red lipstick. It's captioned, I don't want feelings, I want new clothes. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.