cochav nolad 298.88.
(photo credit: Ido Lavi)
Still two weeks shy of her 23rd birthday, singer Ninet Tayeb has made it - completely and almost overwhelmingly, unlike any other singer or actress in Israeli history.
Not that the runaway first-season winner of TV singing competition Kochav Nolad (A Star Is Born) sees things that way. "I don't think I'm a success," she says with characteristic modesty, an attribute that comes across as genuine despite the singer's record-breaking album sales. "You've got to prove yourself over time before you can say that."
Self-effacement notwithstanding, the facts speak for themselves. Since her Kochav Nolad victory - when she garnered an astonishing 1.4 million votes from Israeli TV fans - Tayeb has maintained a meteoric trajectory that has led her to the very highest echelons of the entertainment business. Her face, and sometimes other parts of her anatomy, are regularly splashed across the front pages of national newspapers, and she is hounded by paparazzi almost everywhere she goes.
More recently, she's had to deal with her first wave of celebrity backlash - in part the result of a high-profile break-up with Ran Danker, her costar on YES soap opera Hashir Shelanu, and her subsequent relationship with actor Yehuda Levy, a union that came about too quickly in some fans' eyes.
"There is a lot of bad stuff around me," Tayeb says. "I really don't care for all the gossip and the tabloid craze. That's not what I'm about at all. I'm just here doing the best I can to get my message across."
That message comes through loud and clear on the Kiryat Gat native's long-awaited debut album, Yechafa (Barefoot), which went on sale September 7 - timed to coincide with this year's Kochav Nolad finale - and smashed previous sales records by going gold in its first 24 hours in stores.
Given the album's instantaneous and seemingly inevitable commercial success, Yechafa's lengthy gestation period seems somewhat surprising. "The CD cooked slowly, just like hamin," Tayeb says in a nod to her Tunisian/Algerian heritage, referring to the traditional North African stew left to simmer overnight in many Israeli households on Shabbat. "I started working on it straight after Kochav Nolad in 2003, alone."
Alone? Surely there must have been a mad rush to get a piece of Tayeb after she took the talent contest by storm. But far from being blinded by the bright lights and prospect of making a quick shekel or two, Tayeb kept a cool head on her young shoulders, choosing to develop an album reflecting her artistic tastes over a relatively lengthy period, even at the risk of losing the interest of her massive new fan base. "Yes, there were some people who wanted to work with me, and I appreciated their offer of help, but what they wanted to do didn't fit in with my ideas," she says.
The type of help Tayeb wanted eventually arrived in the unexpected form of Aviv Geffen, the celebrated rocker and sometime leftwing rebel who had previously disparaged Kochav Nolad and its impact on the domestic music industry. But despite their contrasting musical pedigrees, Tayeb says their artistic relationship clicked into place right away. "When Aviv and I started working together, things began to flow the way I'd hoped," she says. "It has been great to work alongside him. I'm proud of the album. It's a statement."
The dozen tracks on Yechafa take a largely plaintive, heart-on-my-sleeve tone, with just the occasional splash of the impishness one would expect from other artists Tayeb's age. Listening to the album, it's almost as if Tayeb has matured before her time, and Yechafa makes clear that the singer has moved well beyond the innocence that ingratiated her to so many fans of Kochav Nolad. "I put myself on the line on the TV show, but releasing a CD is something else entirely.
You've got to decide [whether] you have the guts to put it out there, to put out something genuine that comes from your very essence. I think that's what every true artist has to do," she says.
In the three years between her reality show triumph and the release of her debut album, the once starry-eyed teenager has moved from her impoverished hometown on Israel's periphery to the gleaming TV studios and impressive new private residences of northern Tel Aviv. Others her age might have been swept away by the tidal wave of popularity, and some fans and pop culture watchers have indeed speculated about Tayeb's drastic image makeover, which has included an entirely new wardrobe and a dramatic drop in weight. (The singer maintains that she put on an excess 12 or 13 kilograms in the army and has simply returned to her natural weight since completing her service.)
One on one, however, Tayeb appears remarkably level-headed about her rapid professional rise, though she admits occasionally finding it all a bit too much. "I often have to pinch myself to make sure it's not all a dream," she says, adding that she's learned some tough lessons so far.
"I've been through quite a bit of tabloid exposure. That has been hard, but I guess it's all part of the game. Lots of people have tried to make a buck off me but I try to learn from everything I do, and everything that happens to me. I can handle that."