Mohamed Ramadan credits his single-mindedness for his transformation from child in the poor suburbs of Cairo to one of the most famous actors and singers in Egypt, the hub of the Arab film and music industry.
His first potential shot at fame and fortune came at the age of 12, when his working-class father, Ramadan Hegazi, took him for a trial at one of Egypt’s top football clubs.
Although he was accepted, he could not let go of his dream of becoming an actor – inspired at the age of 6 by the late Egyptian actors Ahmed Zaki and Mahmoud Abdel Aziz – and he left the club after a year.
In an exclusive interview with The National, Ramadan, 33, describes how he chased the dream – always waiting for a shot, any small role to prove his mettle – until he was finally able to make a claim to the No 1 spot in his chosen field, based on conventional box office smashes as well as the online metrics of success in the era of YouTube.
“From the very start, I had a goal and remained focused on achieving it. It’s like when you drive a car, you read a sign on the road saying ‘don’t get distracted while driving’,” he says.
“I never lose sight of my dream, goal and my career.”
Ramadan says he was lucky to attend a school that paid attention to extracurricular activities such as drama. It was at Al Sadia Secondary School in Cairo that he discovered he was a good actor, winning the most-talented student award for three consecutive years.
His first lead role was in his high school’s production of The Emperor Jones by American playwright Eugene O'Neill, about a resourceful, self-assured black American railway porter who escapes to an island in the West Indies after killing a man. In two years, Jones makes himself “emperor” of the place.
Paradoxically, Ramadan considers being rejected by the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art, Egypt’s foremost acting school, in 2004, as a milestone in his career.
“I didn’t give up, he says. "I remember this great saying that a stupid person is the one who tries to open a door many times with the same wrong key or tries to break in by any means. I found another key, or another way to recognise my talent, through great Egyptian actors and directors who believed in my untapped potential."
His professional acting career began the following year with an uncredited role in a play starring the late comedian Saeed Saleh.
In 2006, he made his television debut in the series Cinderella, the life story of Soad Hosny, one of the Arab world’s most popular actresses, who died five years earlier. Not only did he play the role of his childhood hero Ahmed Zaki, a close friend of Hosny, but the series also featured the superstar Mona Zaki.
Ramadan vividly remembers the day he got his first taste of affluence, in 2005, when he got paid the princely sum of 25 Egyptian pounds ($4 at the time) for a role in a play called Aeeden Leih.
“I can’t forget the happiness I felt when I got paid for a whole week that time,” he says. “I bought fruit for my mother – the first thing I bought with my own money.”
His most recent payday, for the TV series Moussa, which premiered in May, was reportedly in the region of $3 million. He refuses to confirm the figure or to reveal his net worth.
Not my real life
In film, Ramadan has been pulling fans of the action and thriller genres into cinemas for the past nine years, with movies such as Abdu Mouta (2012) and Akher Deek Fe Masr (2017).
The late Egyptian actor and Golden Globe winner Omar Sharif, best known for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, described Ramadan in a TV interview in 2007 as a gifted actor whose talent “surpasses myself” and predicted he would be a top star in the years to come.
Whether training like a boxer, adopting the accent of the Saidi dialect from upper Egypt, or delving into the history of the 19th-century Ottoman Empire to play one of the gendarmerie, he says he always aims for authenticity in his roles, but never loses himself in his characters.
There is no point in suffering mentally for the sake of a role, says Ramadan, who is a father of three.
“I’m totally against assimilating into the character. Once the director says ‘stop’ I forget all about this or that character and become myself again. Just normal with my wife, my children and my friends. I don’t like this kind of assimilation when the character haunts you inside and outside the [shooting] location.”
Many of his portrayals are of young men who have been wronged and are seeking revenge. Asked where he picked up his acrobatic knife-fighting style, he flashes his dimples and says: “I never beat anyone in my life. This is not my real life.”
Ramadan is also known for his love of the underground techno-influenced dance music known as mahraganat, which is Arabic for “festivals”, and has proved to be hugely popular in Egypt over the past decade.
He has performed songs in this genre for some of his films and shrugs off criticism that the lyrics are shallow and provocative as they feature explicit flirting and sometimes mention drugs.
“Mahragnat made me as a singer. I don’t provoke my fans and I’m positive that my fans like what I do and get the message. It might provoke others who are not big fans of me, but I don’t care. I only care about those who support and admire me,” he says.
Ramadan entered the music scene in 2018 with smash hits and videos.
His YouTube subscriber base has grown from two million to 13 million, with more than four billion total views, making it the most-followed artist’s channel in the Mena region, with some songs getting more views than hits by Justin Bieber and Drake.
Ya Habibi, performed with French rapper Maitre Gims, has been viewed more than 104 million times since its release 10 months ago, and Ramadan has two new songs on the way.
“I have just finished filming my latest videos in Dubai with [Moroccan stars] RedOne and Nouamane Belaiachi. They will be big.
“When your audience loves and believes you, there’s no limit to how far the fame can go,” he says, with a grin.
A high-rolling, Lamborghini-obsessed celebrity, Ramadan is a regular visitor to Dubai, especially after being granted a 10-year golden visa last year.
He makes no pretence of being a simple man and says he has no time for theatrics: he is simply himself.
“I am not a miser. I am not that kind of person who hates spending. I like to do what I want, to buy things I like. This is a personality trait in me and I don’t like to deceive my audience like some actors do, giving a false impression that I’m a simple man. I am frank with them that I love these things and tell them about the rough days and heydays in my life. I’m transparent,” Ramadan says.
He is candid about his fascination with big cats, posting videos of himself spending time with tigers and lions on Instagram.
“I have an obsession with everything signifying or symbolising power. Lions, tigers, crocodiles. I love and respect anything that’s powerful and dignified. I love strong characters,” he says.
“I love how a lion, for example, instils confidence in me. I love its character. You know, animals have characters like us. I love its prestige, power and energy.”
But some of his actions have drawn controversy and sometimes lawsuits, and have left a considerable number of his countrymen scratching their heads.
In one of his Instagram videos he appeared to be throwing thousands of dollars into a swimming pool, an act he dismissed later as part of an advertisement and insisted that the money was not real.
Ramadan admits that some of his actions and words have been counterproductive.
“Any human being would love to go back in time and act or behave differently to avoid mistakes,” he says. “We make mistakes as we age and learn from them. For example, sometimes I remember myself doing silly stuff a few years ago – in 2014 and 2015 – and ask myself: did I really do that?
“So, through the years we become more self-aware of our points of strength and weakness. We change to become a better version of ourselves. That’s life.”
But some of the lawsuits, he argues, are just silly.
“Someone sued me for the traffic jams I cause when I walk on the street and said I should notify the appropriate authorities before leaving my house,” he says, laughing loudly.
Living up to his reputation for unbounded ambition, Ramadan says his next career goal is winning an Oscar.
“I want to see an Arab, African, Egyptian actor as number one in the world, and I want to be this man.”