Writer Kamal Al-Solaylee dishes his first celebrity love.
It started as a serendipitous mistake when I was 12. It grew into an obsession by the time I turned 20. And now, at 47, it’s a sentimental bond that I can’t always defend or explain to my more discerning friends. I’m a writer and university professor who once made a living as a theatre critic, so why do I still turn to Olivia Newton-John when I’m in need of a little comfort? Friends, lovers and music idols have come and gone, but her place in my heart remains uncontested.
She first came into my life in 1976 in Cairo, the metropolis of the Arab world where cultures and sounds collided. Earlier in the decade, my father had relocated all but one of his 11 children there to escape the communist regime in what was then South Yemen, our ancestral homeland. My sister Raja’a was a fan of American actresses, including then newcomer Lindsay Wagner, who went on to gain worldwide fame as Jaime Sommers in The Bionic Woman. I wanted to surprise Raja’a with a poster of Wagner for her 17th birthday, so I went to the Azbakia souk in Cairo, where teens could buy books, magazines and memorabilia of Hollywood and Egyptian stars. I had only seen the blond-haired actress in passing on TV, so I wasn’t entirely sure what she looked like. “Is this Lindsay Wagner?” I asked the salesman, pointing to a poster on the makeshift cardboard wall. I’d already dug my one Egyptian pound out of my pocket, so he wisely agreed with me. For 75 piastres (a lot of money for a boy whose monthly allowance was five Egyptian pounds—about one Canadian dollar), I thought I had found my sister the perfect gift.
Raja’a was touched, but she quickly pointed out that it wasn’t Wagner. “She looks like that singer, Olivia,” she said, adding that she wasn’t sure about her last name. She had no interest in the poster, so I decided to hang it in the room I shared with my two brothers. “She’s so beautiful,” I remember thinking. Her pure, innocent look stood in stark contrast to the seductive poses of Egyptian pop singers, many of whom still looked like Hollywood pinups from the ’50s. There was something quintessentially Western, unreachable and alien about her. I wanted to find out if her voice was as good as she looked. I wrote “Oleevia” on a piece of paper, determined that the next time I was in Columbia Hall—a record shop that had become a colonial outpost during Egypt’s years under British rule—I would find one of her records.
Several weeks later, I was asking a snooty salesman if he knew “Oleevia.” He smirked and suggested I start with a 45 of “Have You Never Been Mellow.” This was my first Western pop single. I had only a basic grasp of English so I didn’t know what “mellow” meant, let alone what the song was about. I played the record on our barely functioning turntable as soon as I got home.
I was transported.
I didn’t know a siren song from a police siren back then, but, with hindsight, that’s the only logical explanation for her immediate and disarming appeal. I stopped spending my allowance money on treats for weeks afterwards to save up enough cash to buy a full album. That first purchase was a bootleg of what, years later, I discovered was a Japanese release called Crystal Lady. It was more or less a compilation of songs from her early studio albums. I played it every day as I got dressed for school and as soon as I got home.
How another pop-culture maven almost stole his heart on the next page...