BEIRUT: The debate is raging on Facebook, Twitter and out on the streets: Haifa Wehbe versus Maya Diab – who is Lebanon’s top sex symbol. Even Diab herself posted a request on her Facebook page, asking her fans to weigh in on the unofficial runoff and vote for her. Though Diab did not specify on what basis the votes should be cast – singing talent, charm, fame – Facebook fans and followers are supporting either her or Wehbe on a more superficial basis: sex appeal.
For many, the question of who is sexier may seem somewhat tired, and only confirms the long battle both Diab and Wehbe have waged among the Lebanese to be labeled the nation’s sex symbol.
With her dynamic character, skimpy dresses and sex appeal, Diab splashed on the scene when she joined the 4 Cats – a Lebanese pop band composed of four female singers – in 2002.
This was the same year that Wehbe – already well-known for her modeling career – released her first album “Houwa al-Zaman.”
Wehbe initially emerged as a model in the mid-1990s before making the transition to singing. At the time, hundreds of young, sexy Lebanese women were exploring modeling careers but Wehbe made a name for herself with her signature long, black hair and hazel, sultry eyes.
Despite her modeling success, very few people could recognize Wehbe when she first appeared in a video clip with the famous singer George Wassouf in 1996. But her star status took off and, today, it’s hard to imagine a Wehbe cameo going unnoticed.
While not the only road to success as a pop icon, an often favorable equation for stardom has been for an aspiring female singer to first have a flourishing modeling career.
The trend of models turning to singing can be viewed as a rite of passage or even as a more lucrative job transition. Also, standards for pop stardom have decreased with the advent of digital voice aids.
As a result, the options for Lebanese models to increase their exposure are twofold: either become a candidate for “Miss Lebanon” – a once-a-year opportunity – or turn to singing – where numerous singers can rise to fame.
While Wehbe successfully navigated the traditional model-to-popstar path, Diab represents a possible break from this phenomenon.
It is true that Diab modeled before she became a pop star but she never earned fame as a model, rather, she first became well-known as a singer and then worked to carefully craft her image in a gradual and systematic way (rather than walking straight from the catwalk onto the stage).
In Diab’s development there is a resemblance to how Marilyn Monroe cleverly turned her “dumb blonde” label into comic effect, earning awards and accolades as her performances matured. She became the stature of an American cultural icon, as well as an undisputed sex symbol.
With public image such an important issue for celebrities – some of them even hire advisers whose sole task is to preserve and groom their image – the payoff among fans is notable. Many base their opinion in the Diab versus Wehbe debate on image alone.
As Hasan, an employee at an insurance company, says when asked on the street for his take – crafting your image too much can backfire. He prefers Wehbe simply on her looks.
“I find Haifa sexier. Maya is a fake person; the choice of her dress is weird and I feel like she’s imitating Lady Gaga,” he says.
While Haifa’s public image seems to rely simply on her beauty, Maya’s image is built on her multifaceted media talents as well as looks. “I adore Maya Diab. Not only does she have a charming look, but she also has a spirit of dynamism which can make her a successful singer and TV presenter,” says Jad Salim, a software developer.
As soon as Diab left the 4 Cats, she acted in a local series titled “Ad-Duniya Hek,” which aired during Ramadan in 2010.
In 2011, she became even more visible, presenting the controversial program “Hek Menghanni” on MTV, which was a huge hit for the channel. This summer, she sang a duo with Rami Ayash.
Yet whether based on a great image, talent or simply, “natural” beauty, the fans remain split.
“I love Haifa. She is the Lebanese diva,” says Ruba Suleiman, 22, “She did not change a lot over the past few years; she maintained similar appearance from the date she emerged as a singer until present.”
Soltan, 26, disagrees, favoring Diab as the new “it” girl: “Maya Diab is booming now. Haifa tried to market her sexiness through her songs while Maya has natural and charismatic character.”
For now, Lebanon may have to settle for the two pop stars sharing the title of national sex symbol.