BEIRUT: There was no fanfare upon Samantha Sayegh's arrival at Beirut International Airport. When the 22-year-old Lebanese archaeology student left Beirut in early August for the World Karaoke Championships in Finland, she never dreamed of winning. But when she did, a star was born.
Sayegh and a young Austrian man were crowned co-winners in the 2004 Karaoke World Championships.
The event, held in the small town of Heinola, featured 70 contestants from 15 countries including Japan, America, Ireland, Norway and Italy. Sayegh and her male counterpart, Sami Gabriel, were the two Lebanese representatives.
Sayegh began her singing career in a small pub owned by a friend in the Beirut suburb of Sin al-Fil. She also joined a choir and trained her voice for eight years. But that's all the training she had.
She decided to apply for the championships earlier this year, when she saw a commercial on the Lebanese television station New TV.
"Usually, I hate competitions," she said, "especially when I have to compete against friends. I find it hard to stay calm."
Around 80 hopefuls turned up for the Lebanese competition, which took place over several rounds in Beirut beginning in March.
The 16 finalists performed at the Metropolitan Palace Hotel, and when Sayegh won she earned the trip to Heinola.
The Finnish town was small and peaceful, she said, and though the weather was bad she found it a "great place to concentrate."
For three days, the contestants sang their way through to the finals, with 15 men and 15 women being picked for the last round. Surprisingly, none of them were Japanese - a country known for its karaoke passion, and which even coined the term.
"Maybe the Japanese girl didn't choose the songs that suited her voice the best," mused Sayegh, who definitely had a clear idea what she would sing. Among her favorite stars are Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin and Celine Dion; all of them great technicians with well-trained voices.
"They are my idols, not just because of their great voices, but also because of the difficulties they encountered in their personal lives," the young singer admitted.
Sayegh loves to interpret the songs of these stars, and apparently she was doing it extraordinarily well.
"The closer I got to the finals, the less I could believe it," she recalled. The song that catapulted Sayegh to the winner's throne was "Fame," the 1980 hit by Irene Cara from the movie of the same name.
"When I came back to my hotel room and saw the trophy there, I suddenly realized that I had won the competition," the young star said.
At 4am, she sent an SMS to her parents - they thought she was joking, though her friends were not surprised.
"For us, it was a great joy," said Abdo Corbani, a composer and Sayegh's choir director. "She has a lot of courage to go abroad and perform in an international competition. She's got a great talent.
"I'm sure that she'll have a splendid future," he added.
However, the champion is not so sure about any future as a professional singer in Lebanon.
"If you don't sing in Arabic, you don't get much attention here," she said.
Unlike competitors on live TV shows like "Star Academy" or "Super Star," young talents who sing in English get little publicity in the Arab media.
Last year, Sayegh applied to "Star Academy" and made it to the final round of casting. Although she can sing in Arabic, she figured that this wasn't the right thing for her.
Then she got her chance to perform in the karaoke championships. Unlike the Norwegian girl who came fifth in the contest, and who was received by all the major Norwegian TV channels, newspapers and radio stations, nothing similar has happened to Sayegh in Lebanon. The Daily Star was the first media outlet to contact her.
In case she doesn't get anywhere here by performing popular Western songs, she said that she may follow her second passion, which is archaeology, or else she may go abroad.
And even if her newly acquired title doesn't lead to further success at home, she said the contest in Finland was a great experience, despite the bad weather.
"There is a Finnish saying," she said. "Rain only comes to happy people."