Fame comes at a price, says finalist of Arabs’ Got Talent Shamma Hamdan

Last year, Shamma was an internet sensation. But as well as the praise, she also garnered a lot of criticism from some Emiratis who turned to social media to attack her.

'Arabs got Talent' finalist Shamma Hamdan performs at the Du Festival, Media City Amphitheatre, Dubai. Duncan Chard / The National
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Shamma Hamdan has a different persona each time she hits the stage. One time she dazzled her fans as a blonde in a pair of swanky glittery trousers and top, another time she came with copper streaks in her hair wearing diamonds and a ball-like gown, and a third time she was in a traditional Emirati dress with wavy jet black hair.

Constantly changing her style and image, the young Emirati star, who shot to fame following her debut on the Arabs’ Got Talent reality show last May, where she came second in the final, is no longer that simple tomboyish singer in hippie clothes and no make-up.

“Since the show, my life has completely changed,” says Shamma. “It is overwhelming at times.”

A lot has changed for Shamma since The National spent a couple of hours with her at her home for her first exclusive in-depth interview after the competition. When Shamma became a household name, she was dressed in her signature look of a blazer, neck scarf, loose-fitting slacks and loafers. This look is a world away from the starlet that now steps on to the stage to thousands of screaming fans.

Another of the obvious changes is Shamma now has an agent, her cousin.

“My agent is always there somewhere near helping me out,” she said in an interview, conducted via email because she no longer has time to sit with the media.

One of the only ways to see what she is up to is through Twitter (@Shamma_Hamdan), which she updates herself. She has made a point of tweeting several times throughout the year to warn her followers that this is her only “official Twitter account”, and to disregard other “fake ones” pretending to be her.

“There is only one Shamma Hamdan, and that is me,” she said in the first interview.

A year after her win, people are still talking about how Shamma has matured into a greater singer and now looks more like a woman than a teenager. But her journey to fame has been a bumpy one.

Last year, Shamma was an internet sensation. But as well as the praise, she also garnered a lot of criticism from some Emiratis who turned to social media to attack her decision to appear uncovered and “boyish” with her wavy short hair and almost masculine choice of clothes. At the time, Shamma responded to her critics by saying the “very relaxed guitar look” was inspired by her father, who first taught her to play the instrument.

Today, you can see photographs of Shamma in every kind of fashion and with every kind of hairstyle.
"I like to try out different styles and look to give the audience a different performance and entertain them," she says. "The most important thing is to be confident and true to yourself, and not worry too much with what people say and don't say."

But sometimes fans get a peek into the more laid-back life of Shamma when she tweets photographs of herself in T-shirts and baseball caps.

“Every occasion has its own wardrobe. I don’t know why people make such a big deal of my appearance,” she says.

When she’s not at home or college, Shamma is almost always working. And when she’s not inside a recording studio, fans can see or hear her on local television or radio, or attend one of her live performances in the UAE or across the Arabian Gulf.

Her name was one of the most searched-for names on the internet last year in Saudi Arabia and UAE, according to a report by Google, which divided the subjects based on countries and topic. In Saudi Arabia, the top three names were Felix Baumgartner, Shamma Hamdan and Balkis Ahmad Fatthi, and in the UAE it was Whitney Houston, Shamma Hamdan and Kate Middleton.

The Emirati singer has to balance her time between family, friends, university, rehearsals, live performances, recording singles and her humanitarian efforts as a childhood ambassador at the Foundation of Prince Jamal Al Nuaimi (FPJN International) – a position she took in the summer – where she raises awareness and funds for needy children in Iraq and Palestine.

“I have had to prioritise my life since I have so many responsibilities and demands on me now. I put my family first, then my studies and then my career as a singer and my commitments to the public,” she says.

For the girl who has yet to turn 19, Shamma has come a long way. In less than a year since her first audition on Arabs’ Got Talent, she has performed at the du World Music Festival as the opening act on the same stage as the Emirati pop king, Hussein Al Jassimi, and Egyptian superstar, Amr Diab. She had released more than six singles, including one about orphans and one dedicated to Sheikha Maryam bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on her birthday, as well as patriotic songs for the UAE. Her voice will soon be heard in a new television drama series, as well as a song to the Arab world in a non-Gulf form of Arabic.

“My favourite songs are sad ones, as they are full of emotions,” she says.

Shamma’s Twitter activities have earned her more than 600,000 followers. But with the popularity comes intense scrutiny.

Recently, a photo she posted of herself with a cotton bandage over her left eye was retweeted hundreds of times.

“I have had this recurrent health problem that shows up regularly after a performance where my left eyelid becomes infected. I have had four surgeries so far and it still comes back,” she says.

A typical day in Shamma’s life starts early in the morning with fajr prayers before she attends her classes at Zayed University.

The remainder of her day is spent with friends or family either at home or the cinema, or at her favourite spot, the beach. She also likes to go to the mall, and it is common to see photos of her on Twitter posted by fans who spotted her out and about.

“When I am not practising my music on my guitar, you will see me holding a book. I love books, serious non-fiction ones,” she says.

In the future, Shamma hopes to become an ambassador.

“Nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself and you have your family’s support. If you believe you have it in you, go after it, and don’t look back or worry about the obstacles.”

But fame comes at a price.

“I am very grateful for the support of my family who have stood by me and advised me along the way. The only issue I have is that sometimes the responsibilities are too much and leave me exhausted.”

Shamma’s mother, Munira, feels that her daughter is shouldering responsibilities way beyond her years and is she worried about her.

“To me, she is still a child. But she has to please everyone, and there is lot of pressure on her,” she says.

She is very proud of her daughter and has seen a great transformation and maturity of her daughter into an artist in “her own right.”

“She is very courageous. She does get nervous before each performance, but each performance gives her that extra boost of confidence,” says Munira. “I am in awe each time I see her go on stage and interact with thousands of people from different walks of life as if they are all her friends.”

It is a common sight to see people stop Shamma whenever she is in public to ask for her autograph or to be photographed with her.

Ultimately, whatever the future holds for Shamma, she says in the end, it is all about the fans.

“One time after a performance in Riyadh, I headed to the airport exhausted just to end up being with a big crowd of fans there who wanted to take photos with me. I declined as I was exhausted, so they took my guitar and started taking memento photos with it. That made me laugh and forget my exhaustion,” she says. “I am so grateful to my amazing fans. I love them.”