Risking It All: Helly Luv, Kurdistan’s Pop Star and Mardan Actress
“Right now, the Kurdish freedom fighters — the peshmerga — are protecting the whole world.” Middle Eastern politics start to sound different when explained by pop sensation Helly Luv. Nicknamed the “Lion Girl” in her native Kurdistan, Luv is known for her outspoken politics, fierce dance moves, daring fashion sense, and love of animals —especially her jungle cat co-star in the music video for her incendiary independence anthem, “Risk It All.” Released in March, the song turned Luv into a voice for Kurdish freedom; by June, it had been viewed by millions and Luv was performing at Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday celebration.
Years of dance lessons and hard work preceded Luv’s overnight “discovery.” Born Helan Abdullah, she was raised in Lahti, Finland by Kurdish parents, including a former peshmerga mother. As the first Kurdish actress to attend the Toronto International Film Festival — which she did this year with Mardan, the debut feature directed by Batin Ghobadi — Luv put her politics front and center by wearing a peshmerga uniform to the TIFF red carpet premiere despite receiving death threats from militant Islamists. While music-minded fans count down to the release of her upcoming album and collaboration with hit producer The-Dream, cinephiles look forward to a documentary on Luv, helmed by filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi (brother of Mardan‘s director and an experienced director in his own right). In this conversation, Luv opens up about acting for the first time, the real price of freedom, and the seedy state of her first L.A. apartment.
Filmmaker: What brought you to performing, both as an actress in Mardan and in the pop world?
Luv: I was born in 1988 in Iran, during Saddam’s regime and the Persian Gulf War. Just after I was born, my parents and I escaped to a refugee camp in Ankara, Turkey. But hundreds of thousands of Kurds were escaping from Saddam and there was not enough space in the camps. We were homeless, trying to find shelter anywhere we could. My mom tells me now that I was very sick during that time. There was no medicine, there was not enough food. There was cold and there was rain, and we were just out in the cold and rain without shelter. Many countries were accepting refugees and after nine months, we finally got to Finland. At the time, I was a baby; Finland is where I grew up. Later, my sister was born in Finland. She was born in a nice hospital, she got toys and clothes — she got lucky! (laughs)
Growing up in Finland, I was always very into theater and acting; it was everything I wanted to do and I loved it. When I turned 18, I packed my bags and went to Los Angeles with this crazy dream of becoming a star! (laughs) I had nobody there; it was just me and my suitcase. I don’t know what I was thinking. Everything about my apartment was supposed to be perfect — at least according to Craigslist. It was in Wilshire, it was supposed to be clean and nice, with a jacuzzi.
Filmmaker: But there was no jacuzzi as advertised?
Luv: There was definitely not a jacuzzi — when you turned on the water, grey stuff came out of the faucet! Oh, it smelled like dead bodies and it was full of roaches. If you sat on the couch you heard them scurry around to make room for you.
During this time, I was walking around to record labels with the demo CD I had made in Finland. My English was really bad; I was a mess. I would walk in there and they would shoo me out: “You can’t come here without an appointment or anything.” I didn’t know! I was just so passionately in love with this idea of becoming somebody that I tried to find producers, agencies — anybody! — who could see my talent. LA is not an easy place. I met the wrong people; I had to learn who to trust the very hard way. You have to know good people or you’ll get eaten by the wolves.
Filmmaker: Did you take a job?
Luv: No, I didn’t. I did get a lot of offers to work at strip clubs. (laughs) My landlord kept raising the rent; he would say, “You owe $200 more.” I’d say, “What do you mean? I’ve paid my rent for the whole month.” But I didn’t know where else to go, so I paid him. He would bring hookers to my apartment. They’d be in the living room while I was in my bedroom trying to cover my ears and my eyes and just… get away from that moment. I couldn’t tell my parents what was going on, because they would immediately fly me back home to Finland. I just thought, “I have to suck this up and figure it out.”
I had so little money that I had to buy those one-dollar crackers for breakfast, lunch and dinner just to fill myself up. I remember the Mexican lady who had a mini-market downstairs from my apartment. Little did she know that I was just eating them all the time to survive. Every day as she restocked the shelves, she must have thought, “Wow, this girl really loves those crackers!”
With two weeks left before my visa expired, I still had no talent agency, no producers, nobody. I got a message on Myspace.com from Los Da Mystro, a Grammy-winning producer, but I didn’t believe nobody anymore. I had lost my trust in everyone. He said, “Can you please sing to me on the phone?” So I sang Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” into the phone. The next thing he said was, “Helly, pack your bags. I’m flying you to New York tomorrow.” I left the next day. Finally I got signed! I got to work with the most amazing songwriter, The-Dream, who has worked with Beyoncé and Rihanna.
From then on, I worked on my music and becoming an artist. I was very young, my English was bad, my singing was here and there, I hadn’t found my style. I always knew I wanted to sing, but something was missing. The style was missing, something was missing in myself. I kept going back and forth from the States to Finland, trying to figure it all out. They called me a rough diamond. When I got this movie role, I went to Kurdistan and there, finally, I realized what was missing: my culture.
I brought the tablas and all the other instruments from the Middle East to my song. I work with songwriters and producers who help me to write the song. I describe the idea and what I want to speak about. I took all the rhythms and instruments and the whole concept from my culture, and I created my song “Risk It All.” To me, “Risk It All” means two things: risking everything for my dreams, and risking everything for my country. It’s a celebration, a freedom song for Kurds. Since we’ve been in this world, we’ve never had freedom. While the song can mean different things to different people, for Kurds it’s an independence song.
“Risk It All” became huge in the Middle East, especially in the region where I’m from. We released it on YouTube in March 2014 and in under 24 hours, it was already in the news and everywhere: “She has started a revolution!” Right away the Islamic groups stood up and said, “We need to find this girl.” They were all over my social media; they started sending me death threats. I had to go into government hiding for two weeks… wow!
Filmmaker: Did you consider recording “Risk It All” in languages other than English when you realized how popular it was in the Middle East?
Luv: Right now it’s only in English and that’s the version to which people have responded, but I’ve been thinking of doing a Kurdish version. It just became so huge! I never, never thought it would blow up like it did. When I was making the video I thought, “This will cause love and hate, it might cause a little trouble for me.” But how much attention it got — not only in the Middle East but internationally! Right away NBC flew in to spend two weeks documenting my life; I was written about by the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and that’s not even mentioning the smaller media outlets from other countries like Brazil, India and places I’d never ever heard of! (laughs) Incredible.
Filmmaker: Was Finnish culture also influential for you?
Luv: Sure. In Finland, starting in kindergarten, you have to sing all these folk songs. I do have some favorites: there’s a singer called Kirka who passed away, he was really my favorite. His songs were amazing. My mom introduced me to so many different types of music. She was so important in my musical development. She would play me Persian music because she grew up with that, Kurdish music, American music. Both my parents are from Kurdistan, though she grew up in Iran, which was very close-minded. She had to wear hijab and abaya. She told me that she used to smuggle Michael Jackson cassettes in her bra! They would go to a small room, close all the curtains, and and put in the cassette. “This is American music!” At that time in Iran, it was against the law. But it wasn’t only playing music; my mom would dance! She would be cooking and she had this long hair, always. I admired her so much. (whispers) “I want to be like that!”
Before I went to the United States, I was actually known as a dancer in Finland. I had a Nike Woman contract for five years. I did European Championship dancing, I taught dance to everyone from kids to adults, I performed everything from ballet to hip hop, there’s nothing I didn’t do in dance! I would practice for 17 hours — this was in Finland, in dance school. It was my life. I lived nearby and right after school, I would have my shoes ready and go straight there. That was how I got the money to go to Los Angeles in the first place: I was teaching dance, and I was also a waitress at my father’s restaurant.
Filmmaker: What was your favorite thing to eat there?
Luv: Although there was a mix of different foods — pizza and stuff— he used to make this great Middle Eastern dessert, oh wow! It’s kind of like sweet yogurt. I don’t know the word for it in English… though the last time I asked for it, he said he’d forgotten how to make it!
Filmmaker: Growing up, your dream was to sing, to dance, to perform. Were you less invested in the process of writing your own songs?
Luv: Yes. Dancing and singing were what I loved. I also took piano lessons though I got kind of bored of that. I wanted to dance! My father said, “Either or.” I said, “Okay, I’ll go dance.”
Filmmaker: What aspect of the video was controversial, the sentiment? The outfits? The guns? The fire? The lion?
Luv: It was a little of everything! I created the concept for the video; I also co-directed and co-edited it with Golden Screen Film and Media, a Kurdish production company. The whole process took three months because Kurdistan is not an easy place to make a movie or a music video. It lacks people working in art. A lot of the time Turkish or Lebanese people come to work there. In this video, everything is very detailed. I didn’t want to piss people off too much but I did some things so that it would attract attention, so I went about 50/50 with each of those. I spoke about things that are generally not spoken about, I wear different clothes, and the very fact that a woman is not allowed to speak up and stand up for what she believes in. I was very loud, my dress was short, I was dancing, there was a real lion…
Filmmaker: Where did you get the lion?
Luv: From the zoo in Kurdistan. I later fixed the zoo. It had been rated the second worst zoo in the world by GlobalPost, so we moved all the animals to a new place. But that’s what caused attention: I was not afraid of speaking up and showing, saying what I wanted. Also, wearing the famous Kurdish peshmerga freedom fighter outfit was a big deal. I say “Put your guns up in the air!” A lot of people say, “Why did you have guns?” They can’t understand what the video and the song are about. Especially Westerners don’t understand. The reason I wore the peshmerga outfit is that our women, the peshmerga, are fighting ISIS right now. My mother, before she married my father, was a peshmerga, a freedom fighter.
Right now, as we speak, ISIS is trying to destroy everything in this world. Peshmerga forces are protecting not only Kurds but all of us, the whole world. That’s why we had help from US airstrikes, as well as help from Italy and France. They helped us because they understand that it’s an international threat. Right now, the Kurdish people are protecting the whole world.
Filmmaker: How often did you go back to Kurdistan?
Luv: I had been back a few times growing up. We had spent some summers there, a few months at a time. Growing up, we spoke Finnish and Kurdish; at home, it was mostly Kurdish. But once I turned 18, I was so focused on LA and making it professionally that I didn’t pay attention to my roots. Mardan really brought me back. It made me realize what was missing in myself, in my music. I even realized that something was missing in Kurdistan that I could bring out. The world hasn’t heard about Kurdistan. I can help speak for Kurdistan and Kurds. I can help.
Filmmaker: Right now, you’re wearing a wonderful wide-brimmed bight fuschia hat and your hands are covered with rings. How did your style evolve?
Luv: My style mixes Western elements with things that are very Middle Eastern, like the rings. Every time I travel, I like to get something from the place. From here, I got some native Indian feather bracelets. My sister is very different from me, she’s more into fashion than performing. She’s the shy one, I’m the crazy one. When I travel, she says, “Please bring me stuff!” “Okay, okay!” (laughs) My style is like my music. It’s mainstream Western pop inspired by the Middle East, including tablas and belly dance. That’s who I am: born there, but raised all my life in Western countries. I put them both together.
Finland is probably one of the safest places in the world. I appreciate that so much! I am free to walk everywhere without hiding or anything like that. In the Middle East, I have to always have security around me and I can hardly go anywhere alone. If I do want to go somewhere, I wear hijab. It’s actually a good costume because I just blend right in with everyone else and no one knows who I am! It’s really, really good for that.
Filmmaker: It must be interesting to go from invisible to highly visible that way.
Luv: That’s true. I’ll never forget the night the “Risk It All” video was released. It was March 3, 2014. My whole life changed in one night! That morning, I was able to just go to a bazaar, to shops and restaurants, buy fruit and spices, no big deal. Since that day: never again. I couldn’t go to a shopping mall or a restaurant, nothing. Everywhere I went, I had to hide. It was really hard. After the death threats, when I had to spend two weeks alone in a hotel room hiding — closed curtains, no sunlight — I became depressed. I don’t even remember if I showered. The way that people misunderstood my message was really upsetting; it hurt me a lot.
I’m representing freedom in Kurdistan. But they took everything the wrong way. They didn’t understand and they said, “She’s making fun of Islam; she came here to spread Illuminati and Masonic ideas!” They started making devil-worship videos and pictures of me! I had so many haters on social media, it got really bad. That was still kind of unreal for me because honestly, when people say they’re out to kill you, it’s hard to believe it. It doesn’t sound real. But then I received a call from my mother in Finland —and she’s a very strong person, she never cries, so it was unbelievable that she was crying, but she was. She said, “You have to hide.” She had received a call from our family in Kurdistan — they live in a village and they don’t support what I am doing. Fifty men gathered together and said, “We are going to find Helly. We’ll pay anyone who brings her here. Then we’re going to stone her to death with our own hands.”
That is when it really hit me that I was in danger. For two weeks, the media was trying to find me. Everyone wanted the first interview with me and the first pictures; they offered me all this money. Before that, no one knew who I was. Suddenly everyone wanted to be first.
But once I received that call from my mother, I said, “No more.” I went to the biggest live TV news channel in Kurdistan and said, “I’m going to speak to people, tell them who I am and why I did this video. I’m going to tell them my message.”
So I did it. The interviewer criticized me and gave me a really hard time, but I said everything, I told them who I was. They actually also interviewed me here in Toronto, a couple days ago! After that things started to calm down a little. People started to understand who I am and what my message is.
Filmmaker: How did you come to meet Batin Ghobadi?
Luv: One day I got an email from Batin Ghobadi asking me to come to Kurdistan to audition for Mardan. I said to myself, “Okay; now I’m an actress… what do I do?” (laughs) Batin is a perfectionist as a director. He considered 600 girls for the role, which is unbelievable! So I went straight from a Los Angeles studio to a small Kurdish village two hours away from the capital city. It had no electricity, no warm water. It was chaos, to be honest. An actress had already been case in the lead role of Leila and she was there. But when I came, I did my audition and… I kinda got the role. When I arrived, I said, “Guys, listen, I’ve never done acting but I can try.” I had to become an actress like this (snaps fingers).
Filmmaker: What was the process you went through in working with Batin Ghobadi on Mardan and creating the role of Leila?
Luv: When you’re an artist, you have to be perfect and beautiful all the time. So the role of Leila was an incredible change. All of a sudden, I had to become Leila, a woman in her mid-30s, from a village in Kurdistan — and I’m a mother! I had to find who I was as Leila. Batin told me, “No English. No Western music. No internet. No Facebook. No make-up. No nothing.” He even cut my long nails! (Laughter) He separated me from my life and even during meals on the set, he made me sit and eat alone. I spent four months in the village. I had to really focus and find Leila. I’m very open, I like to talk. If some starts to snap their fingers, I automatically start dancing! (begins dancing in her seat) I had to become shy, quiet.
He didn’t tell me anything other than just what I needed to know for a given scene; I wasn’t allowed to see the whole script or understand the larger plot of the movie. The major twist about the relationship between my character and Mardan I didn’t know until I got to Toronto and watched the film for the first time! I said, “What the hell happened!” (laughs) He’s a brilliant director, and he’s very detail-oriented. For example, we’d be sitting on set, staring at the monitor. Finally he’d say, “Make that a red bucket.” They would bring a red bucket and he’d stare at the monitor for another ten minutes before he say, “No, take the bucket away.” Twenty minutes just for that one bucket! Batin would sometimes say, “Come, sit down over here.” He’d be eating me nuts from his pocket, and he’d give some to me, and together we’d stare at the monitor. I finally understood, “Ah, so this is cinema! This is how it works.”
At first, I was scared of the role of Leila. My character is so different from me! At first, Batin said that I looked too young, too European, too exotic. They had to glue extra hair on my eyebrows, and add dark circles and wrinkles around my eyes to make me look older. Being a mother, as Leila is, was also foreign to me. It was very odd to be playing with this boy and trying to think, “This is my son.” The only thing I could compare it to is… well, I have a Yorkshire dog at home? (laughs)
But in the end, I fell in love with Leila. Initially I felt we had nothing in common — she seemed ugly, messy, and old — but over time, I realized that we share a lot. What an incredible experience! I would so love to try other roles where I can challenge myself like I did here.
Filmmaker: Although this the debut film for Batin Ghobadi, many people know the work of his filmmaker brother, Bahman Ghobahi. Were you familiar with films, like No One Knows About Persian Cats?
Luv: I love that movie. Bahman and Batin are both incredible directors, though very different from each other. When the video came out and I started getting death threats and had to go into hiding, right away Bahman took his cameras and said, “We’re going to do a documentary.” So right now, we’re in the middle of it; he’s shooting my life. That will hopefully come out in six months!
But they work very, very differently from each other. Batin is more about details. He thinks a lot, he needs to be quiet, you need to focus. Bahman is all over the place! He is energetic on the set, he gets ideas on the spot. I say, “Where is the script?” “There is no script.” He’s so full of life and ideas. It’s inspiring to be with him because he has so much confidence in you! He looks at me and says, “You’re going to be a filmmaker. You’re going to make a movie and I’m going to help you.” He believes in you so much. It touches you.
Filmmaker: As an artist who is very involved with the production of her music videos, are you more like one of them than the other when it comes to realizing your cinematic vision?
Luv: At first, I was more like Bahman: energetic, full of ideas, full out spontaneous. But then I saw how Batin works: he’s a genius. His work needs that focus. I have learned a lot from them both. As I create my next music video, I’m more focused on details than before.
Filmmaker: Will your next music video have another lion?
Luv: It will have a different animal. Not a lion this time; something else.
Filmmaker: A Yorkshire dog?
Luv: No! (laughs) I can’t tell. You’ll see.