One all-powerful Saudi company usually decides who becomes a music star in the Middle East. A blond bombshell named Myriam Klink has other ideas.
As Myriam Klink tells it, sometime in the early aughts the brother of an Arab dictator — himself an intelligence chief — smuggled Klink, a young Serbian-Lebanese model, over the Syrian border in his private car. She had a fashion show in Syria and had failed to renew her Lebanese passport; he effectively ran both countries and they travelled in the same elite circles.
More than ten years later, that same intelligence chief is credited with spearheading the brutal crackdown that eventually devolved into the Syrian civil war, while Klink has parlayed a fading modeling career into Internet celebrity by riding the same social media wave that contributed to the Arab uprisings and is now redrawing the media landscape throughout the Middle East.
Klink is a divisive figure in Lebanon in the way that women who are famous for being famous often are. Having dubbed herself the “Queen of Klinkistan,” her Barbie aesthetic, controversial political stances and eccentric lifestyle have earned her thousands of fans and plenty of detractors.
She drives a gigantic pink Hummer, came close to running for Parliament, and keeps a small zoo of rescue animals, including a donkey named Fairouz, at her ancestral mountain home. She decries Lebanon’s entrenched sectarianism, then posts pictures of herself in a bikini wielding a Kalashnikov and tells Christians to arm themselves against the Islamist threat. She poses as jailbait in pigtails and pink, and knows the best angle for showing off her impressive derrière.
“I’m a very free person, extremely free today, and that’s what shocked in Lebanon and maybe even in the world, how a girl like me dares say things like that,” says Klink one day in July, her long, platinum blond hair pulled up, her breasts impossibly perky under a hot pink mini-dress, her face steeled in an impenetrable smile.
“It shocked them when someone wears swimwear, for example, and she talks politics.”
“[The Internet], personally, it helped me a lot because everyone knows what I think, what I’m doing, and it’s more about reality. It helped me be more famous, but it made me more enemies,” Klink says.
Klink, along with her sidekick and childhood friend Jonny, is sitting in the office of Elias Rahbani, a well-known Lebanese composer who boasts of having written more than 6,000 songs in Arabic, French, Italian and English. Ninety percent of them, he says, are about love. Rahbani can write a love song about anything, he promises. Frenetic electronic beats pulse through the wall, and I wonder if it’s the track for Klink’s upcoming single, which Rahbani is writing and producing.
Rahbani’s partnership with Klink surprised many people familiar with his illustrious family. Klink is not known for her voice. In fact, her Internet celebrity began with a viral video depicting a somewhat painful performance of a song she now insists was a joke.
“I don’t say no to anyone,” Rahbani says diplomatically. “A lot of singers are in the middle.”
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Myriam Klink, who declines to say when she was born, was a model and minor celebrity in Lebanon at the turn of the century, when Syria still occupied the country and celebrity culture was confined to specific magazines and music channels that are bound by many commercial and legal considerations.
“There is freedom of press in Lebanon, but not the Arab world,” says Alawiya Sobh, a respected novelist and longtime editor of the women’s magazine Snob Al Hasnaa. “If you sell magazines, and it can’t be distributed in the Arab world, it won’t last, it will go bankrupt. Religion, sex and politics — those are the taboos.”
Sobh says even printing the word jassad, Arabic for “body,” is enough to get a magazine banned in Saudi Arabia, a disaster for advertising, given that the buying power of the average Saudi is well above others in the region. Restrictions are such that many magazines issue two editions, a conservative copy for the Saudi market and sometimes Egypt as well, and another for the rest of the Arab world.
The absence of media protections in many Arab countries also means that a paparazzi culture never emerged here; celebrities and others among the rich and powerful do not have to worry about uncensored images leaking to the media. Similarly, reality shows never gained ubiquity in the Arab world. American shows like “Rich Kids of Beverly Hills” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” air on satellite channels, but few are produced locally; the drunken antics and hookups that drive most plot lines would be deemed unacceptable in a local context. Those that have aired have been met with protests. The most successful pan-Arab reality show, “Star Academy,” which, it should be noted, requires actual singing talent, caused controversy when it first aired due to the fact that male and female contestants share a living space, albeit one with segregated sleeping quarters. The show sparked protests, was banned in Algeria, and the Kuwaiti parliament considered legislation against it. Several years earlier, a pan-Arab version of “Big Brother” filmed in Bahrain was pulled after just a week of airing following a chaste on-screen kiss on the cheek between a male and female contestant.
Saudi Arabia, in particular, plays a complicated role in the production and consumption of celebrity. Not only does the kingdom represent the biggest market, it is also home to Rotana, the largest Arab entertainment company in the world, controlling some eighty percent of mainstream popular music. The private company is owned by the Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, and many people, including Sobh, the novelist and editor, blame Saudi influence for the decline in the quality of music and the rise of Arabic sugar-pop — uncomplicated tunes and superficial lyrics sung by beautiful people of mediocre talent.
“No doubt, the gulf controls the media,” said Sobh. “With politics, with art, with Rotana. They’ve damaged art. They’ll promote any woman with big lips and big boobs.”
In other words, a certain amount of eye candy is acceptable, but never politics. Rotana music videos air throughout the Gulf, but Sobh said an edition of her magazine was banned from distribution because it contained an article about violence against women.
As Internet penetration spread — slowly, unevenly and with varying degrees of freedom — throughout Arabic-speaking countries, it undermined traditional media, and, by extension, politics, as it has everywhere. When the fire of revolt erupted in Tunisia in late 2010, it was undoubtedly a reaction to decades of oppression and economic stagnation, but the Internet allowed the uncontrolled spread of information and revolutionary ideas in a way that was not previously possible.
Of course, while the Internet allows Palestinians in Gaza to share tear gas tips with protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, it also means a hot blond woman singing about a cat will inevitably go viral.
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Following her modeling career, Klink’s reincarnation as an Internet celebrity effectively began in 2012 with her performance on a Lebanese talk show of her single, “Antar.”
“Antar, my lovely cat / Antar, the luckiest cat / Antar, super strong / for Antar, I sing this song…in my hand you’re soft as silk / all you need is care and milk / don’t worry baby I’m here for you / can’t wait too long till I play with you.”
The video of her performance went viral and elicited lots of laughs, although it was unclear the extent to which Klink was in on it. Some assumed that her “cat” really referred to another kind of pussy, while others pointed out the literary allusion (Antar is the name of the sixth-century slave, warrior and poet who was known for his dark complexion, and whose love for his cousin Abla was immortalized in epic poetry) and suggested she was merely playing dumb. Klink released pictures of “Antar,” a fluffy white kitten, to counter the rumors of sexual innuendo.
Klink, who says the song was always intended as a lighthearted joke, had inadvertently hit on the key to Internet celebrity: trolling, the act of purposefully or knowingly provoking a negative response in order to gain attention. A flame war soon erupted between Klink and a local comedian, Nemr Abou Nassar, drawing even more attention. He wrote on Twitter, “What do I think about Myriam Klink? She’s singing about her pussy. She calls [it] Antar. Poetry. Fucking Poetry.”
Nassar called Klink stupid and later used his radio show to lament the fact that plastic starlets get famous more often than talented local bands. “We have all these whores and prostitutes that are put up on TV and made to [seem] like this is our culture. This is not our culture,” he said.
Klink responded on Facebook, calling Nassar a “gay asshole.”
“I was having fun, but people made it so big that I said, ‘Okay, you’re attacking me? You think it’s so strange? Fine, I’m going to continue,’” Klink recalls. “That’s why I made Klink Revolution.”
The music video for the single Klink Revolution was released online in December 2012, presenting a fantasy version of Lebanon that both capitalizes on its image as a land of big guns and beautiful women, but also speaks to the underlying corruption and sectarianism that is rarely, if ever, touched upon in mainstream pop videos. The lyrics address Lebanon’s poor economy and frequent unrest, which lead many young people to emigrate abroad.
“In Lebanon there is a lot of burning / Burnt tires, ruined roads/ What is happening to the environment and the rights of people / Weapons everywhere / Don’t ruin Lebanon…”
Then, imitating the common string of questions intended to ferret out one’s sectarian affiliation:
“Where are you from? / Who is your father? / Give me your address/Where in Lebanon are you from?”
Soon, Klink had thousands of followers on Facebook, where she vented in casual and sometimes vulgar language her unvarnished opinion on Lebanese culture and politics. Writing in an informal (and borderline illegible) mix of Arabic, English and French, Klink has said that Lebanon would be lucky to have a president like Bashar al-Assad and excoriated Lebanese people for following sectarian leaders “like slaves.” She has come out in favor of women’s and animal rights, says that anyone who doesn’t recognize that his or her mother fucks like a porn star behind closed doors is in denial, that poor men beat their wives while rich ones cheat, and “only the middle class talks about the middle class.”
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere had already either been crushed, militarized or were in the throes of painful and bloody transformations, and politics had invaded even the sheltered world of pop culture. Celebrities from Egypt and Syria had suffered professional setbacks or popular backlash for coming out in favor of the old regimes. Egyptian singer Tamer Hosni’s reputation never recovered from the viral video of the pop star crying after being ejected from Tahrir Square by the same young protesters he sought to convince to abandon their revolution and go home. It was a new world, and the public wanted and expected their favorite stars to take political stands, while the Internet made it more difficult for them to control their images.
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Based on her looks, Klink could easily fit into the Rotana stable of stars, but her outspoken political views clash with the airbrushed neutrality adopted by most celebrities. Luckily for her, the Internet, which arrived late in Lebanon and remained prohibitively slow for years, gave her a platform for airing her opinions, posting salacious selfies and attacking her haters. She is financially independent and invests earnings from media appearances in her career, including hiring Rahbani and producing music videos.
Within a year of “Antar’s” debut, she was picked up for a local political reality show, “Al Zaim” (the leader), which pitted contestants against each other for a chance to run for parliament. Klink dropped out of Al Zaim before she could be voted off. Elections were postponed soon after, in June 2013, after rival parties failed to agree on a new parliamentary electoral law. They will likely be postponed again this fall.
Since “Antar’s” debut, Klink has steadily built a following using the Internet and traditional media to promote herself as an outrageous personality living a highly glamorous life — an Internet reality star. During this year’s World Cup, she posted sexy pictures of herself on Facebook posing in each of the team’s colors, but it was her support for Iran, expressed by wrapping her naked body in the Iranian flag, that got tongues wagging. Once again, Klink was able to hit a sweet spot where sex and politics intersect while simultaneously denying in interviews that her support for the Iranian soccer team was about anything but pure love of the sport.
For young, internationally-oriented, digitally-savvy Lebanese who mock and shun the Rotana aesthetic, Klink’s particular brand of vampiness registers as kitsch; it’s hilarious and extremely shareable. Others find her offensive, a symbol of everything superficial and wrong with Lebanon.
“For me, the Myriam Klink episode is kind of the Paris Hilton moment,” says Nasri Atallah, a writer and partner at Keeward, a company that, among other things, offers online media strategizing. “She’s the first person [in Lebanon] who’s famous for nothing … it’s hate-watching.”
“There is something about celebrity here — people are aspiring to respectability, and that’s something that Myriam Klink isn’t looking for,” adds his partner and Keeward CEO, Cyril Hadji-Thomas.
Both Sobh, the editor of Snob, and Nidal Al Ahmadieh, editor of Jaras, denied that Klink was anything special, and yet her Facebook status updates are often picked up by entertainment websites and sometimes even mainstream news outlets, and she’s become a fixture on certain talk shows.
Klink knows that the combination of sex and politics is potent. She compares the media’s treatment of her to that of Carla Bruni and Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina, the Hungarian-Italian porn star who later went on to become a parliamentarian. Although she never uses the word “feminist,” she identifies a hypocrisy in her critics’ seeming inability to reconcile her hyper-feminine image with her political views.
“A lot of people attack me because they cannot understand this contradiction — the bimbo, the girl, pink, blah blah, and her mind, and I play with that,” she says. “You think if I was short, hairy, fat, ugly, people would give me that attention? Never, even if I had the best brain in the world. It’s a game; that contradiction makes the impact.”
Perhaps most controversial is Klink’s stated support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Earlier this summer she claimed to have gone to Damascus to meet with him.
I met Klink at her mountain house a few days after the meeting at the studio, hoping to convince her to show me some kind of proof of that meeting. She said she couldn’t show me any pictures because there were other people in the frame and they asked not to be exposed to media attention. This was also when she told me the story of how she became friends with Bashar’s brother, Maher, head of the Syrian Army’s feared Fourth Division, who she says helped her cross into Syria for the fashion show, sometime around 2001 or 2002.
“They’re very sweet people, like anyone, you know?” she says of Maher and “his crew.”
“They told me whatever I need they’re there, if I have problems, they’re here, so, you know, I felt kind of protected somehow. That’s why — it’s not that I agree with the war, but when people are close to you and they did good things for you, that’s why you take a position.”
Klink’s opinion that the uprisings across the region have unleashed forces that were better kept in check by dictatorships is not uncommon.
“Between the bad and the worst, the worst is worse than the bad,” she says, Klink-ishly making total sense and none at all.
“Democracy cannot work here,” she adds. “Democracy is an education that starts from childhood, and we don’t have it.”
Most of her opinions, like her affinity for the Assads, are based on personal experience. According to Klink, her mother was an aspiring Serbian model who dreamed of the big life and married a Lebanese politician. Less than a year into their marriage, when she was six months pregnant with Klink’s older half-sister, her husband died in Syria following a meeting with then-President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current leader.
“He died…in a car accident,” Klink says, searching for the word, but giving no indication that she doubts the official version. She declines to give his name, saying, “I don’t have the right.”
“[My mother] was sleeping at night,” Klink continues. “She was pregnant and the family told her that ‘your husband is dead,’ and after a few months they did everything to get rid of her and find her a husband, or she leaves. They found her my dad.”
“Yeah, it’s a strange story,” she admits, laughing.
When she first stared modeling as a young teenager, her father was against it, fearing his daughter would be exploited or exposed to bad influences. To this day, Klink says she doesn’t drink when she goes out because her father drummed it into her head from such a young age that someone would slip her something. He passed away several years ago, and her mother returned to Serbia, leaving Klink more or less alone in the country. She spends a lot of time with her best friend, Jonny, her animals, and, of course, on the Internet.
That Klink is both intuitively and consciously manipulating her audience becomes apparent very quickly in person, putting to rest the debate over self-awareness that seems to surround every female celebrity pursuing a “reality-based” career.
Her hard candy shell has never cracked, but it does soften when she engages on certain topics, such as the Lebanese presidential bid of Samir Geagea, the right-wing politician and former warlord. When Christian infighting boiled over towards the end of the civil war that ravaged the country for fifteen years, the house Klink grew up in was hit by shelling from Geagea’s forces.
“I still hear the bombs in my ears from when I was a child. He took my childhood!” she says with emphasis, her voice closer to its natural register, less of a coo.
“You in America, when something happens to you, you bring psychologists, you bring doctors just because you had a little shock. Imagine a child growing up seeing all his animals dead, his worker dead in front of him, bombs in his garden.”
“They forgot the war,” she says of a Lebanese public still largely beholden to civil war-era leaders and politics. “They forgot the people who died, they forgot everything. How are you going to have a country today if you’re still living in the past, if you don’t care what happened to your family, to your friends, maybe your neighbors in the past? That’s very dangerous.”
Klink’s ambitions today are regional and even global, and she’s hoping her music will expand her following beyond Lebanon. Her success in jumping from local to international celebrity will depend largely on her ability to appeal to a wider audience online.
So far, Klink has been successful because she’s been willing to offer scandal when so few female Arab celebrities do. Talented, wholesome Nancy Ajram uses social media to thank her fans in Tunisia for a wonderful concert; Myriam Klink uses it to brag about peeing in the pool at La Marina, an upscale yacht club north of Beirut. Ajram is a superstar with millions of followers on social media. Klink is lagging behind in terms of numbers, and much of her appeal rests on her perceived accessibility, the fact that Lebanon is a small country and the possibility you might run into her, or you know people who know her. Even her preferred language of communication, a pidgin Lebanese dialect written in Latin letters and popularized by text messaging, is unreadable to many non-Lebanese, raising questions about whether her appeal will extend far beyond the country’s borders.
But just as the Internet helped overthrow the old political regimes, it is also undoing the monolithic nature of culture production that has reigned for so long.
“There is a myth of the Arab consumer, especially when it comes to music and movies, etcetera, because it used to be that way,” says Hadji-Thomas, the Keeward CEO. Under the old system, he explains, Rotana controlled music, the Egyptians dominated cinema, and publishing was concentrated in Beirut. Due to a combination of politics and technology, however, “borders came up again.”
Hadji-Thomas says he ran up against these cultural barriers when his company was commissioned to help promote Lebanese cinema online in the Arab world. “If you’re looking, for example, at how social media works between Egypt and Lebanon, if you publish something, a lot of Egyptians will like it, but no one will interact with what you are doing on a deeper level. What they like is the appearance of it; they like the appearance of Lebanon, the beautiful cars, and the beautiful ladies, and after that there’s nothing, they don’t relate.”
“I think that every artist who wants to be famous in the Arab world, it’s probably easier for them to go west and come back than to go directly from Lebanon to Jordan to Egypt,” he adds.
While the cultural codes and references for communicating with particular audiences are specific, the beautiful, wayward woman the public loves to hate is as old a trope as celebrity itself, and has universal appeal.
“People don’t come for the good guy, they come for the bad guy, because that guy is really funny and they know he will do crazy things,” says Hadji-Thomas. “I think somehow these celebrities, whether they’re American or Myriam Klink now, are doing exactly the same thing.”
The relentless self-promotion appears to be taking its toll. Reflecting on her own craving for attention, Klink recently wrote on Facebook:
“It is very strange i am a very shy person except.when i see.a camera! hey baby u wanna see me naked bring your camera lol! Is this normal? lol all my life i have been posing its my world ! I am tired sick fed up.suicidal bring.cam and.i am.healed.lol! Posing.iz my.drug! i wanna feel.high than bring a.cam !! strange disease!!!!”
Not long after, she deleted most of her Facebook feed, replacing her profile and cover photos with darker, more gothic imagery. Klink said she was taking a break from the media scrutiny her online presence brought. But unable to stay out of the limelight for long, she was soon back online, striking poses and taunting haters.