Emirati pop diva Ahlam returned to television screens last Tuesday. This time, however, she was judging a different kind of talent quest – if you can call it that.
Named after her stage moniker, The Queen, the reality show broadcast on Dubai TV had the 47-year-old challenging participants, who hail from across the region, to win the grand prize: to be Ahlam's "best friend".
The viewers didn’t buy it. It took Dubai TV less than 48 hours to pull the plug on the show after suffering viewer complaints and outrage on social media. “Based on our viewers’ desires and taking into account audience demand, Dubai TV announces that it will stop broadcasting #The_Queen,” the channel tweeted.
The Halloumi Kingdom
So why all the fuss? The programme's premise is simple – it's an amalgamation of Big Brother and Paris Hilton's My New BFF. Participants are "Halloumis" – a term coined for Ahlam's super fans – and they have to battle it out to become her assistant.
Ahlam presides over the Halloumi Kingdom, where she sits on an embellished throne, wearing ornate robes and challenging subjects to prove their love and dedication.
In the first and only episode (22 were planned), 25 participants from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Oman, Chad and Nigeria were whittled down to 12. Each received a gold ring embossed with Ahlam’s regal profile.
Then came the interrogation stage, where contestants had to face leading questions such as: do you love Ahlam? How well do you know Ahlam’s songs? Do you love Ahlam enough to compose a poem on the spot for her? Do you like what Ahlam wears? Do you think she chooses her clothes well? Millions love her in the Arab world, how is your love for her different? What would you do for her? Would you do anything Ahlam asks you? Even cut your hair? As well as becoming her confidante, the winning Halloumi gets to keep the golden ring, which is described as the “key to opening doors in Ahlam’s court”.
The only episode
No amount of glitzy production could mask such a disappointing show. The participants are segregated by gender in two villas on The Palm in Dubai, while a third villa functions as a communal space. Their mode of transportation is a limousine, and are frequently seen flying on private jets to neighbouring cities.
Undercurrents of racism are apparent throughout the episode. Participants claimed to be “terrified” of Ahlam’s bodyguard, the “big, black man Yoga, who is really frightening”. It is Yoga’s job to blindfold participants and send them on to be interrogated by Ahlam’s assistant, while The Queen herself is in the room, unbeknown to the participants. Ahlam often presents comical facial expressions, and gestures approval when participants flatter her. If the participant fails in their task or their expressions of love are deemed false, Ahlam unleashes a barrage of sharp words before banishing them from her court. Suffice to say, it is a relief that viewers won’t be subject to such a display of sycophancy and ritual humiliation anymore.
It's no secret that Ahlam considers herself the queen of her profession. Her latest album Abtahadak (I Want To Challenge You), which was released last year, features an album cover inspired by UK monarch Elizabeth II. Ahlam also refers to herself as a queen regularly during interviews and across social media.
As a judge on popular TV programme Arab Idol, she is responsible for most of the show's talking points: there was that episode where she wore diamond-encrusted gowns, ordered Kentucky Fried Chicken, and engaged in verbal duels with fellow judge, Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama (who eventually left the programme to seek "new challenges"). By the time The Queen hit TV screens last week, it was merely an extension of Ahlam's royal brand.
Despite being dogged by controversy, Ahlam’s career has remained unaffected.
In an interview with news channel Al Arabiya, soon after The Queen was broadcast, she responded to questions about her exaggerated arrogance on the show with, "Of course I'm arrogant".
Any doubts that the show’s cancellation would knock her off her perch were soon cast aside when she took to social media to defend the project.
"I heard many times on my programme The Queen that I'm arrogant," Ahlam tweeted. "You really wronged me, until now you have seen nothing yet. Wait for me next week and the upcoming weeks and see the arrogance."
But as The Queen proved, there is only so much viewers can take. That said, the setback is not likely to dent her career, because if there is one quality Ahlam is known for, it is resilience. The Queen will return.