Making their marks - the faces of 2015

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There is strength in diversity for the personalities that defined 2015, with success for outsider politicians and policymakers and a wave of achievement for women and minorities in pop culture, ensuring that the status quo rarely went unchallenged, writes Zaineb Al Hassani

Amy Schumer

With her (mostly) on-the-money sketches, the Manhattanite has become the face of female comedy in the past year. Not only have sketches from her hit series Inside Amy Schumer been shared endlessly on social media, she’s made headlines as a prankster photobombing a couple’s engagement photos and Instagramming a trip to her gynaecologist. The fact that she was one of many powerful, rather than simply semi-clad women shot by Annie Leibovitz for the 2016 Pirelli calendar has already made the news.

From poking fun at women shopping for clothes they hope to one day fit into to highlighting her gender’s inability to accept a compliment, Schumer knows what her brand is – and she’s sticking to it.

While there is political satire in her comedy, the time is now right for the comedian to move away from making light of female stereotypes and expand her take on the world. Glimpses of her more effectively subversive side can be seen in older sketches such as one slamming the pomp that can surround American high school football.

This year also saw Schumer join one of American politics’ fiercest debates. During a July screening of her debut film Trainwreck in a Louisiana cinema, two people were shot dead by a gunman, prompting the celebrity to call for more effective restrictions on gun ownership.

Yanis Varoufakis

He came, sometimes clad in a leather jacket and riding a motorbike, he saw his way out for Greece from the quagmire of its economic crisis and he… Well, though Varoufakis may have failed to last long as the country’s finance minister, the self-professed Marxist succeeded in getting people to talk about that most unsexy of academic subjects: economics.

At the start of 2015, things could have been so different when anti-austerity party Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, triumphed in the country’s general election.

With the voters’ cheers still ringing, Syriza tabled a 10 per cent increase in the minimum wage, a Christmas bonus for some pensioners, the scrapping of prescription fees and other measures that only enraged European creditors offering the country a vital bailout.

The victory dance was to be short-lived and in July, after pressure from Greec’es EU partners, Varoufakis consciously uncoupled himself from his political office.

The “will-they, won’t-they” Grexit debate was much enriched by Varoufakis’s colourful language. Among his most memorable quotes in 2015:

“The problem is that once you’re in [the euro], just like the Eagle’s song Hotel California – ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’.”

David Pocock

One of the standout players during this year’s Rugby World Cup, the 27-year-old flanker took some of the credit for Australia reaching the finals. Not a bad comeback for a player who waved goodbye to the previous two seasons on account of as many knee operations. The ACT Brumbies and Wallabies’ star is now on the radar of several French clubs.

And as good as he is on the pitch, the Zimbabwe-born sportsman is becoming equally well-known for his charity work and environmental activism off it; Pocock supports marriage rights for all and was arrested for chaining himself to a super-digger as part of a protest against mining.

“People say that sport and politics shouldn’t mix,” Pocock told a UK newspaper this year, “but I think it is important that sportspeople are interested in stuff outside of sport and talk about it. Rightly or wrongly, kids look up to professional athletes, and if I can get young kids thinking about those sorts of issues that is a positive thing.”

Most recently Pocock also showed he is a supporter of women in sport, tweeting his delight at the Australian Women’s Sevens squad winning at the Dubai 7s.

Given the drubbing that fair play has received this year, Pocock’s willingness to behave like a role model should be given a stadium-sized ovation.

Aziz Ansari

Despite naming his under-the-radar Netflix hit comedy Master of None, Ansari is anything but. A stand-up comic, writer and actor most famous as the insufferable but equally loveable Tom Haverford on the popular TV show Parks and Recreation – it appears Ansari can do no wrong.

And, as if we weren’t already fans, the 32-year-old, who was born in South Carolina to Tamil Muslim parents from India, cast his real mum and dad as his fictional parents in episodes of Master of None. This is one of many bold moves in his latest project to have paid off; the series has earned praise for its diverse cast and storylines that subtly and not-so-subtly tackle race.

But getting people talking about diversity in Hollywood is not enough for Ansari, who has spoken publicly about addressing racial bias, including the kind he dealt with in casting non-white actors for his own show.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” he concluded in a feature he wrote for The New York Times. “But, as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season.”

Priyanka Chopra

And to the naysayers, Ansari has just two words: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Was anyone confused by the robot in The Terminator having an Austrian accent?

“Nope,” he says, “They weren’t. Because, you know what? No one really cares.”

A former Miss World and established Indian actress, Chopra has spent much of the past few months starring in hit ABC programme Quantico, marking the first time a South Asian woman – let alone a high-profile Bollywood star – has led a US show.

In Quantico, the 33-year-old plays FBI recruit Alex Parrish, out to clear her name after she is suspected of planning a devastating attack on New York City. Eleven episodes down, each pulling in millions of viewers, and with eight more to go this first season, we suspect Chopra’s name to continue making plenty of headlines well into next year.

Not that the actress has had much time to dwell on her success: she spent most of the year working on the lavish Hindi historical drama Bajirao Mastani (that makes nearly 50 credits since beginning her screen career in 2002). Off-screen, Chopra has three international songs to her credit, one cut with American rapper The track, In My City, was launched in the US in 2012 during the widely watched season premiere of NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football programme. She is also Unicef Goodwill Ambassador for children’s rights.

Thanks to her 12 million-strong following on Twitter, her influence and reach is great. The Huffington Post named her the most influential Indian woman on Twitter in 2015.

Bill Bragin

A year and some change after becoming the first executive artistic director of the Arts Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi, Bragin has been instrumental in strengthening the capital’s arts scene.

Recent events at the university have included recitals by the Kronos Quartet, an American string quartet; Polygot Theatre, an interactive performance for younger audiences; and Hekayah the Story, a night of spoken word and poetry.

Bragin’s last role was as director of public programming at New York’s Lincoln Center, and this impressive background means he has come to the UAE with a ready-made fanbase.

“I regard Bill as one of the most creative, enlightened, generous and energetic arts presenters on the face of the Earth,” said Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington, ahead of the ensemble’s UAE debut last September.

Certainly, Bragin has lined up a wide range and variety of performers for next year, from Romanian collective Fanfare Ciocarlia to acclaimed Taiwanese dance act Huang Yi and Kuka.

But, as he told The New York Times ahead of his move to the Middle East, it is NYUAD that has helped shape his choices.

“It’s diverse in a way that inspires me.”


The world of fame is fickle, but not so when it applies to Adele, who, after a four-year break between albums, has broken record after record with her latest offering, 25.

When the sepia-toned video for the first single, Hello, was released online at the end of October, it was viewed 27.7 million times in 24 hours – ever-so-slightly overshadowing the previous record holder, from pop supremo Taylor Swift, with its paltry 20.1 million views.

With a flick of her antique flip phone into which she poured her heart out over a lost love, the song and video have already become classics. Not to mention that flip phones have again become sought after.

When the full album followed a month later it became the first in US history to sell more than a million copies two weeks in a row and the fastest million-selling album in UK chart history.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that Adele, though a latecomer to the music scene in 2015, has already bagged herself the biggest selling album of the year.

The 27 year-old mother is also too busy (and too canny) to spend her life looking at an iPhone screen. It’s been noted that the singer-songwriter from London has allowed viral marketing to take the strain out of self- promotion. Thank goodness there’s someone famous out there who doesn’t take selfies.

Justin Trudeau

Almost half a century after father Pierre, for whom the phrase Trudeaumania was coined, became Canada’s 15th prime minister, his chisel-jawed son was sworn in as the country’s 23rd leader.

In a shock landslide victory over incumbent Stephen Harper and his Conservative party, 44-year-old Trudeau, leader of the Liberal party, became the country’s second youngest prime minister.

The former high-school drama teacher, who was never certain that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, proved just the tonic for an electorate tired of “politics as usual” in Canada, as in other situations including Britain’s Labour party and Venezuela.

Perhaps being an outsider and the favourite candidate of a younger, more progressive and diverse Canadian voting bloc has enabled him to bring his fresh ideas to the table, from welcoming thousands more Syrian refugees to the country and controversially legalising marijuana, to a more proactive policy concerning the fight against climate change.

However well he manages to deliver on these, Trudeau has already won plaudits for one change in Canada’s government: he put together the country’s first cabinet with an equal number of men and women.

When asked about this decision, a bemused Trudeau said: “Because it’s 2015.”

Trudeaumania 2.0, we salute you.

Zayn Malik

As Spring sprung the hearts of a million teenage girls broke upon the news that One Direction, the biggest boyband of the moment, was to bid adieu to one of its own. Shortly before the band was to perform a sell-out concert in Dubai and amid considerable speculation, the band announced that Zayn Malik had left the building.

But Malik, born and brought up in West Yorkshire to a British Pakistani father and English mother, almost never became the brooding fifth member of a band that has sold tens of millions of records and become a household name.

Auditioning for the X Factor in 2010, a then 17-year-old and far less polished Malik (it’s amazing what millions in the bank can do for your facial hair) saw his dreams of stardom fail when he was eliminated as a solo artist.

But fate, it turns out, has a thing for catchy pop tunes delivered by pretty young men in matching outfits, and 1D was born.

When the band split, Malik said in a statement: “I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.”

And so it would come as no surprise when within days, news leaked he was working on a solo album. In between Twitter feuds with his former bandmates and dates with top models, Malik has embraced the private life out of the spotlight that he so wanted.

Bertrand Piccard

Earlier this year, just shy of the 16th anniversary of his first groundbreaking trip around the world by balloon, Bertrand Piccard made history once again. On March 9, he watched co-pilot André Borschberg take off from Abu Dhabi in Solar Impulse 2 – a solar-powered plane attempting to be the first to circumnavigate the Earth. It was a project that the Swiss balloonist himself conceived, and the culmination of 12 years’ hard work, not to mention raising €150m (Dh604m) to fund the visionary scheme.

Designed to promote clean technologies, Solar Impulse 2 was meant to complete its journey by August with scheduled stops in Oman, Myanmar, China and Japan. The aircraft is powered by 17,000 solar cells and runs on battery power at night. The technology is not yet very speedy – it took the craft 13 hours to complete its first leg between Abu Dhabi and Muscat. And in July, the plane was grounded in Hawaii after its batteries were damaged during a gruelling 117-hour flight from Japan.

Although the plane will not begin its ninth leg until April, both pilots (only one of whom can man the plane at a time) have already set eight world records over the 20,000 kilometres they have collectively flown. Not bad for a plane with the wingspan of a Boeing 747, weight of a family car and power of a small motorcycle.

Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan

Something remarkable happened in Abu Dhabi last month. Amid all the excitement surrounding Abu Dhabi Art, which normally focuses the public attention firmly on Saadiyat Island, an event took place in a forgotten corner of Mina Zayed that showed just how smart and vibrant Abu Dhabi can be.

Among the dusty warehouses that face the city’s dhow harbour, the opening of the capital’s latest arts and cultural institution, Warehouse421, was an exciting exercise in intelligent patronage.

The new space is sponsored by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. With its repeat sponsorship of the UAE National Pavilion at several Venice Biennales and announcement of Thomas Heatherwick’s commission as the designer of the yet-to-be-built Al Fayah Park, the Foundation has shown that it has the imagination and nerve to foster creativity that is aesthetically and intellectually progressive.

That verve was further underlined by the opening of the new Bjarke Ingels Group-designed Warehouse421 and a display of work by the fellows from the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Emerging Artists Fellowship, a partnership with the world-renowned Rhode Island School of Design.

The foundation’s handling of the three-day street festival that accompanied the opening of Warehouse421 – complete with international musical performers, street art, food and public workshops – was proof not just of the taste it displays in the company it keeps, but of its ability to deliver the kind of cultural shot-in-the-arm that Abu Dhabi welcomes and needs.

* Nick Leech