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Nancy Ajram vs Haifa Wehbe

For the past few years, these two Lebanese singers have battled each other for the showbiz limelight. But how their brand strategies stack up?

They’re both Lebanese, they’re both hugely famous in the region, they both sing and promote famous soda brands, and they keep being compared (which is probably why they allegedly hate one another). But beyond the gloss and the teenage drama, how do Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe really compare?

The girlie show

If Nancy Ajram is basically a singer, Haifa Wehbe is a businesswoman who uses every asset she has to boost her fame. Whereas Ajram started as a singer at the age of 15 after winning a TV competition and has continued under the steady rule of producer/father figure Gigi Lamara, Haifa Wehbe went from former beauty queen to model (posing for over 100 magazine covers) and finally singer and even jewellery designer.

That’s not to say that Ajram doesn’t play the image issue to sustain her celebrity. On the contrary, her career enjoyed a significant boost in 2003 when Lebanese director Nadine – Caramel – Labaky came up with music videos featuring the young singer in an unusual and modern fashion. “Akhasmak Ah” had the corny “love me, love me not” plot, common in most regional videos.

In 2005, Newsweek declared Ajram one of the most powerful artists in the region, after she was crowned best Arab singer by magazine Zahrat al Khalij both in 2003 and 2004. With over four million albums sold in her home country, Ajram is the third best selling female artists in Lebanese music history.

So it may be fair to say that Ajram actually paved the way for Haifa Wehbe, who came to attention later as part of Rotana’s roster, and has been building a name for herself by pushing the limits further into controversial territories.

Bad girl vs girl-next-door

At 28-years-old, Ajram still embodies the fresh, young celebrity, in some kind of girl-next-door way. No wonder that among the many Arab women willing to undergo plastic surgery, looking like Nancy Ajram is the most common request according to a survey conducted by Dove( Nancy herself has gone under the knife, supposedly thrice). She can appear all prepped-up and glamorous on a show, and the next day, turn up casually dressed with little make-up for promoting child-support.

As much as she would try to, Wehbe just cannot do that. Basically, Wehbe – whose age is not even confirmed, ranging from 32 to 38, promotes what’s perceived in a conservative region as sexual suggestiveness, as the buzz around her instant hit “Buss al wawa” (Kiss my little wound) showed.

“I think watching videos of Haifa Wehbe and all these girls who have their boobs hanging out is a kind of mild form of porn for [people in really conservative societies in the Middle East] – this is why they love watching videos,” says Lebanese producer Lena Lahham to BBC News. Indeed, Wehbe – selected as “the most naked and pornographic singer in the Arab world” by Egyptian website Hamasna, is described as provocative, scandalous or sexy rather than talented. In fact, in April this year, Bahrain’s parliament passed a motion, urging the government to ban Wehbe’s show in the country, claiming that it would be too sexually provocative and go against Islamic laws. However, they were unable to stop the singer’s performance.

All this may explain why Wehbe pockets the highest fees – allegedly reaching up to $65,000 a night – for private performances. Moreover, Wehbe is expanding her reach by associating herself to non-Arab artists of global celebrity; in 2006, she was the first Arab singer to give a warm-up show for hip-hop superstar 50 Cent in Beirut.

Fizzy endorsements

The starry arm-wrestling particularly shows in each artist’s history of high-profile ad endorsements, that has some resemblance with the musical chairs game. Luxury jewellery retailer Damas is now using Ajram in replacement of Wehbe who went on representing American cosmetics brand Revlon, Cartier and Chopard.

On the other hand, Ajram has been for the past four years the perfect poster girl for Coca Cola, after promoting competitor Pepsi, which fell under Haifa’s spell a few months later. Pepsi’s deal gave Wehbe’s career a major boost on a global perspective, when she joined French soccer player Thierry Henry in 2006 for a Pepsi World Cup commercial – this also opened the door of the Cannes Film Festival for her. A former Miss Lebanon runner-up will also be part of Pepsi’s marketing event “Sea of stars”, a movie production to be out in theaters by the end of the year.

According to Emirates Business 24/7, Ajram is now worth $16.2 million, against $8.2 million for Wehbe. But in Arabian Business Power 100 for 2007, Wehbe comes in the 53th position, whereas Ajram ranks only 68th.

It all boils down to strategy: companies aiming a the new generation of Arab youth will choose Haifa, a woman whom teenagers will adulate but who will arouse an older and more traditional public’s wrath. Brands looking for celebrities “young, dynamic and cheerful, which matches our message of the brand – happiness, will go for Ajram,” explains Amer Ahmed, public affairs and communication manager for Coca-Cola Middle East. A “good role model for the fans.”

Ahmad Rady, another marketing executive of Coca Cola says, “contrary to other music stars, parents of the teenagers whom we target love Nancy as much as their children do.”

And the verdict…

Waleg, a pop culture and media gossip blog in the region had a poll on who among the two is sexier. The poll result? – 57 percent preferred Wehbe, while Nancy, with 910 votes, got 43 percent. While most of the comments share the opinion that both the stars are “fake,” here’s what some of them had to say.

Lebanese says “When my Aussie friends saw Haifa they thought she oozed sex appeal. She was voted number 49 out of the 99 sexiest women on and 71% of the readers thought she should have been ranked higher. The woman is hot even before her surgery. However even though Nancy has a lovely body, she looks more like the girl next door. Fake or not Haifa has made a successful career out of her looks.”

“Both are fake but Haifa is toooo fake. Nancy is way better!” says Arabian princess.

Yara says, “I’m not basing my opinions on looks, but just on the songs. I’d probably choose Nancy, I love her songs. They are both pretty though.”


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