There is a popular saying on the streets of Beirut that translates as "anyone who opens their mouth, thinks they are a singer". It's a wry observation on the plethora of aspiring Arab artists and television talent shows based in the Lebanese capital.
So, when the producers of the 2014 season of the popular talent and reality show Star Academy were tasked with finding "someone different" to cast in the show, it was a tall order.
They did their job by finding Lea Makhoul, a French-Lebanese singer who had recently moved to Beirut to focus on her music career. Twenty-one-years-old at the time, Makhoul was garnering an industry buzz for her soulful take on French pop standards and western covers.
With no Arabic songs in her repertoire due to a lack of proficiency in the language, it was thought she could generate some welcome curiosity from Star Academy's dedicated audience.
That’s if they could convince Makhoul to sing up.
“I said no, of course. I told them that I don’t sing in Arabic and they told me not to worry and [that] it’s quite the opposite, they were looking for someone who sings in English and French,” says Makhoul.
“I remember being quite torn about it. I never wanted to do such a show as I wanted to achieve through purely through my own work. But then I realised it was such a big opportunity and I would be on stage every week in front of millions of people. I couldn’t deny that.”
As it turned out, it was a career-making decision. Makhoul’s sensuous vocals and all-round charm and elegance captured the audience’s imagination and she finished second behind Egyptian crooner Mahmoud Mohey.
When The National recently spoke to Palestinian singer Laith Abu Joda, who was a quarter-finalist of that season, he described how the programme was a gruelling experience, with shoots regularly stretching up to 15 hours.
But Makhoul says the live show’s intense atmosphere was the ideal environment in which she could thrive.
“That part I enjoyed,” she says.
"I am the kind of person that once I have a focus then I give it everything I have. That was the case with Star Academy; every week you had to give a new performance so there was always something to work hard for."
Garnering an instant pan-Arab fan-base Makhoul began to carve herself out as a western-oriented pop singer, releasing her 2015 summer radio hit Give Me Sunlight and following it up with a headline slot in Beirut's NRJ Music Tour alongside Redfoo and Sam Martin.
Her career took a more decisive turn this year having signed up with Universal Music Mena and the April release of all All I Know. A beautifully understated piano ballad, the track is fast becoming the go-to for wedding celebrations.
For her latest single, Makhoul went back to a club sound. Released last week, Paradise is a tropical dance tune that can either be turned up loud in a party or provide a gentle background in a cafe. "The whole song came together from the idea that I wanted to create a summer song," says Makhoul.
“The song is fun and catchy and it talks about love and staying positive throughout the challenging times in life. It’s about providing a positive message.”
Makhoul knows about the power of such encouragement – it was what sparked the idea of a music career as a 10-year-old.
Growing up in suburban Paris, Makhoul clearly remembers the evening when her brother – five years her senior – barged into her bedroom on account of her constant singing. His reaction was more incredulous than irritation.
“He asked, ‘Is that you singing?’ and I said ‘Yes’,” Makhoul recalls.
“He then said, ‘No, that’s not you’ and I said, ‘Yes that is my voice’. He then stood there and said, ‘If you work on your voice you can be something big’. Because I really trust my brother and he means everything to me, I said, ‘Why not?’.”
Two years later, Makhoul performed her first public gig in Paris and hasn’t looked back since. As for her future plans, she says her next single will find her breaking new ground.
“Because I don’t speak Arabic very well, my accent is really funny when I sing in Arabic. But in the new song it will have me singing some Arabic words, which I think the fans will find special.”
Paradise by Lea Makhoul is out now through Universal Music Mena