Ikemen #35: Zaher Saleh

October 31, 2017 5:00 PM

IKEMEN (ē´k´mɛn): Japanese Slang

"REALLY, REALLY, RIDICULOUSLY GOOD LOOKING PEOPLE"

Name: Zaher Saleh

Occupation: Partner and Creative Director at Zirkova Vodka, TV Producer, and Singer

 

The Italians have a word--sprezzatura--which refers to an elegant way of making it through life without any demonstrative effort. It doesn’t mean you’re not ambitious or don’t work hard, it’s just that you do your thing without ever coming across as thirsty. Singer, tv producer, creative director Zaher Saleh is the embodiment of sprezzatura.

Lithe and handsome, Zaher was born in Saida, a historic fishing town on the Lebanese coast of the Mediterranean. Each summer, his parents would bring him and his three brothers to middletown, USA to visit his cousins and uncles in Canfield, Ohio. “I loved growing up in the Middle East, but every summer, I couldn’t wait to go to Ohio and do things like going to Target or Walmart. It felt so exciting, so American.”   

Zaher was kind of an introverted teenager. He dreamed of being a famous singer and having fans all over the world, and would rock out in his bedroom to David Bowie, Michael Jackson and George Michael, singing their songs into his mirror, but never in front of family or friends. While studying advertising at Youngstown State University in Ohio, he happened to see a television ad looking for singers for season 5 of Star Academy, an American Idol-type show popular in the Middle East. On a whim, he sent in an audition tape, and so began his mythical journey. 

Within weeks, he was whisked off to Beirut to sing for the Star Academy’s producers and cement his casting in the show. His warm, earnest voice made him an immediate fan favorite, and he rose to the top-five before he was cast off the island. But that didn’t matter because by then, he was already famous. He returned to the States, recorded some pop songs, and produced and starred in a reality program for the Showtime Network in Dubai called “Yalla NY” about Middle Easterners who were working as creative professionals in New York. He had two hit tv shows under his belt, and he was only 26. 

“I started to question what was next for me,” recalls Zaher. “I started to look inward and ask ‘how am I being true to myself?’ “ It was around that time that he reconnected with a friend, Derek Anderson, the director/producer/writer known for his work on “Terminator Salvation” and “In God We Trust.” Derek and Zaher soon began talks with a nascent, award-winning vodka brand called “Zirkova” which was produced in Canada using traditional Ukrainan techniques. Zaher was brought on as a partner and creative director. “ ‘Zirkova’ means ‘inner light,’ and that’s what I was experiencing as I was becoming more conscious and learning about myself, finding my place in the world. My parents are Palestinian refugees, I am Lebanese, Palestinian, American. I want to bring people together.” 

Derek and Zaher wanted the vodka brand to have a distinct public service mission attached to it, so they dedicated ten percent of Zirkova’s proceeds to nonprofit alliances. They also launched “We Are One+Together,” a collection of short films highlighting “the triumph of the human spirit over prejudice, oppression and separation, created to inspire people to celebrate themselves and one another.”  

In honor of pride month, Zaher wanted to produce a short film dedicated to gay men from Syria who were seeking asylum overseas due to the civil war in their homeland. He cast the actors, and met with some directors in Los Angeles, but couldn’t seem to find the right fit. And then something dawned on him. “I wanted to deliver a message of acceptance and love, but I had to start with myself. This was my film, my story.” 

Zaher’s film, The War Within is about a gay Muslim man struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his faith and his family’s traditional values. It was released in June in concert with Visionaire World and Grindr. Thus far, the film has generated 120 million “user impressions” for Zirkova. It gave Zaher the courage to be true to himself, and he hopes it inspired others to “remove the filters that are placed on us by society’s expectations” so they can find their own true voice. 

Zaher’s voice will emerge in 2018 on his first full-length English language album which will be called “The War Within.” In the meantime, Zirkova has projects in the works with The Standard Hotel and with Steven Klein for Art Basel. Zaher hopes that whether you like to drink your vodka straight up, mix it in a cocktail or even if you don’t drink at all, that the message of accepting yourself and celebrating others is something that continues to resonate, from the fishing villages of Lebanon to the strip malls of Canfield, and every point between and beyond. 

 

 

WRITTEN BY KAREN FRAGALA-SMITH

EDITOR HOLLIS DE LANEY

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHIAKI KATO

 

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