Expect clashes and fireworks as Arab Idol returns

Arab Idol is back with a second season - and Nancy Ajram as a judge.

The judges for the 2013 Arab Idol: Hassan El Shafel, left, Ahlam, Nancy Ajram and Ragheb Alama. Courtesy MBC
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The return

After the immediate success of the debut season, Arab Idol is back on our screens with some new faces. The Lebanese superstar Nancy Ajram joins the judging panel alongside her fellow Lebanese crooner Ragheb Alama, the Egyptian producer and composer Hassan El Shafei and the indomitable Emirati songstress Ahlam. The shake-up continues on the hosting front with the Egyptian actor and singer Ahmad Fahmy tapped to co-host the programme with the Lebanese model Annabella Hilal.

A reluctant star

Ajram's inclusion should draw a new legion of viewers curious to see how the normally demure singer handles the cut-and-thrust banter of the judging panel. At the Dubai press conference launching the season, Ajram was a quiet presence throughout, limiting her responses to a few choice sentences. "At first I was a little nervous on joining such a platform," she said, "but after watching how the show developed last year I really felt comfortable with it and I am so happy to join."

Ajram's addition also poses some risks to her carefully cultivated brand. For someone whose girl-next-door image is essential to her stardom, one wonders how Ajram will voice her displeasure to some of the contestants, or how she will handle herself if her opinionated co-judge Ahlam gives her a piece of her mind.

They really are friends

It seems the time off hasn't defused the crackling tension between Ragheb Alama and Ahlam. A few minutes into the press conference and the duo resumed friendly hostilities, freely admitting their differing personalities.

"Please let me speak," Alama chided the singer before the onlooking press. "The thing with Ahlam is she likes to argue. Even if it's with herself." Not skipping a beat, Ahlam dryly replied: "And this is why I am Ahlam."

Ahlam went on to clarify that their relationship is based on the best interests of the candidates. "Yes we have differing opinions but when we argue it is because we care about the people on stage," she said. "We want what is best for them. This is why there is also a big respect between both of us as well."

A better crop

Hassan El Shafei is excited about the new pool of talent entering the second season. Where the debut season revealed some raw talent, El Shafei explains the new episodes will showcase more well-rounded performers.

"As the viewers probably know from the first season, I am not someone who sugarcoats," El Shafei said. "The truth is, I don't know how to. But one of the biggest things I was impressed with so far is the kind of contestants that we are getting. Being a pop star today is not just about having a good voice. It is also about being smart, understanding yourself and having a vision of where you want to go as an artist. I have been seeing more of that this year and this is really a great development."

The hosts

Ahmad Fahmy and Annabella Hilal will take a more hands-on role this season. Hilal aims to provide a source of support to nervous contestants. "It is important to be a friend for them, because this is a big moment for many of them," she says. As well as being an on-screen heart-throb, Fahmy is also a trained violinist and the frontman of the pop band Wama. He looks forward to sharing his knowledge with the contestants. "I think because of my experience I will know what they are going through," he says. "This way I think I can contribute more to my role rather than just being a host."

The format

The only change to this season's format is that the judges did not attend all the auditions held in major Arab cities. Instead, production teams were sent to ensure those with some quality (and probably those who are hilariously off-key or have inspirational background stories) would make it to the early rounds. After the opening episodes focusing on the auditions, contestants are whittled down to groups of 20 and eventually 10 by public SMS votes. The final 10 each undergo a weekly live performance in front of the judges and television audience, resulting in the performer with the least public votes being booted off. This will continue until the live finale, where the final two will battle it out for major prizes. Last year's winner, Carmen Suleiman from Egypt, walked away with a record deal with MBC's Platinum records and a new Chevrolet Corvette.

Arab Idol is broadcast tomorrow on MBC 1 and MBC Masr at 10pm. For more information, go to www.mbc.net

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