THE old adage warns to never judge a book by its cover. Ninet Tayeb seems to have it all — beautiful, a national icon in her native Israel and a successful musician and actor whose latest role is in Netflix series When Heroes Fly.
Yet she has been racked with insecurity and anxiety for a long time, so much so that one of her singles, Self Destructive Mind, from her as-yet-untitled sixth album, explores mental health.
A winner of Israel’s inaugural Kokhav Nolad (A Star is Born) series in 2003, the pressure and spotlight on her in the country became too much for Ninet, who decided to move to California two-and-a-half years ago.
“It became too intense,” she told me from her home in Los Angeles. “I am a musician and I don’t want to be in the category of a celebrity.
“It reached a point where I had to be in a quiet place as I wanted to start over, to feel like a nobody.”
One could hardly describe the centre of America’s film and television industry as serene, yet Ninet has sometimes found serenity, at least within herself, in LA.
“It is important to put yourself in a unfamiliar position in order to grow and it has also helped me with my songwriting,” the 35-year-old said.
“Writing music is also therapy for me in a way, I do it to let it all out and realise what is happening in my life.”
She willingly describes herself as primarily a musician and picks her acting roles very carefully.
A case in point is Yaeli Ashkenazi, her character in When Heroes Fly.
The eight-part series, created by Omri Givon and loosely based on Amir Gutfreund’s book, tells of four Israel Defence Forces veterans who served together in the 2006 Lebanon War.
They are reunited for a rescue mission in Colombia in a bid to find Yaeli, who was believed to have been killed in a car accident.
“At the beginning, when I read the script, I was full of fear,” Ninet explained.
“I was afraid I would not be able to tell Yaeli’s story the way it should be, so I told Omri that I loved it, but I couldn’t do it because I am very insecure and I don’t act much.
“With the roles I pick, I need to really feel it in my heart and I felt that immediately with Yaeli, which was why I was so afraid.”
Thankfully, Ninet changed her mind.
“I was Yaeli for one year of my life, literally, and I put my life on hold,” she said. “I remember coming home after being in Colombia and my husband looked at me and said, ‘what’s wrong?’.
“I was white, skinny and a different person, so it took me a while to snap out of it because I had taken Yaeli everywhere I went, which meant it was hard to separate her life and mine.”
When Heroes Fly has had an important social impact, too, with many current and former soldiers in Israel coming forward with their stories of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They have had exposure suddenly, but in a good way,” Ninet continued. “Up until now, many of them were shy to talk about PTSD and men are not like women in that they won’t talk about their feelings.
“I get a lot of messages from soldiers thanking me, but I haven’t done anything, though I am so happy about it because it says a lot about our society.”
Raised in the city of Kiryat Gat, near Beersheba, by a Moroccan-born mother and a father from Tunisia, Ninet knew she wanted to be a musician from a young age.
Reared on the music of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, a teenage Ninet was also a fan of grunge music, in particular Nirvana, as well as Manchester bands Oasis, New Order and The Stone Roses.
Her big break came in 2003 when her friends persuaded her to enter the first series of Kokhav Nolad — and she won.
She became an overnight success in Israel with her debut album, Barefoot, which was written by rock musician Aviv Geffen, going platinum in less than 24 hours.
Ninet’s success also led to her starring in Hashir Shelanu (Our Song), a television series based on her life and which she described as the “best acting school for me”.
Hashir Shelanu led to Ninet co-starring in film The Assassin Next Door, alongside Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, and appearing as Lizi in Israeli TV series Zaguri.
Two more albums, Communicative and Sympathetic Nervous System, followed, and she twice won Israel’s Favourite Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards.
And it was while making her fourth record, All the Animals Knew, that she met and fell in love with producer Joseph E-Shine, whose real name is Yossi Mizrachi. The couple married in 2013 and are parents to four-year-old Emilia.
“He is an amazing musician and he is also the guitar player in my band, which can get intense at times,” Ninet laughed. “I don’t hold back, but he is more calm than me and the reasonable voice in our marriage!”
Paper Parachute, released in 2017, was her last album. Ninet opened for Robbie Williams and Cyndi Lauper when they performed in Israel, with Ninet performing Lauper’s True Colors with her.
She has also worked closely with prog-rock singer Steven Wilson, singing on his albums Hand. Cannot. Erase., 4˝ and To the Bone, as well as performing with him twice at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
“I was just with him again, two weeks ago in Israel,” Ninet added.
“Steven is a great musician and it is like I am a student and learning from a really wise teacher.”
Wilson is one of a number of pro-Israel artists who pay no heed to the hate-filled BDS movement.
And, while the BDS’s tactics outrage Ninet, she prefers to take a more philosophical approach.
She explained: “I am going to be polite and hold back, and call them ‘rude’. I have a lot of bad feelings inside of me about them, but I don’t want to be like them so I try to be open-hearted and rational.
“I would love to have a conversation with those people and explain to them that music has nothing to do with politics.
“I don’t want to go mad at the artists who cancel shows in Israel because they have no idea about Israel.
“The people in Israel just want to be happy, like everyone else does.
“I want to be the light and tell them that Israel is an amazing place with amazing people and a culture which is very special.
“I am sending the BDS people my love and invite them to Israel where I can be their tour guide!”
Ninet and her husband are also raising their daughter to be an Israeli and teaching her both English and Hebrew, because “they are her origins”.
Despite a busy schedule, Ninet does not work on Shabbat, although she said she does not consider herself to be a religious person.
She added: “I believe in God and the reason I keep Shabbat is just to say thank you to God for everything he is doing for me.
“It is not coming from a place that I have to do it, or out of fear, it is pure gratitude and it is the least I can do in order to give back.”
As she is so famous in Israel, Ninet describes “a look” she receives while walking down the street in her home country, but has “learned to be at peace with it, depending on my mental mode at the time”.
Ninet added: “I accept that this is my life and I don’t mind people asking me for photographs and selfies, as long as it is done in a polite way.”
You get the feeling, though, that Ninet is more than happy in LA, where she intends to keep making music.
“If I can win a Grammy that would be cool, but there is no rush,” she laughed.
“I hope my music touches people’s hearts and that I can speak to them through my music.”
She also has another film on the horizon, in the shape of Tell Me Why I Don’t Like Mondays, a fictional account based on the first mass shooting in California in 1979.
Ninet, who will begin filming the role of Jenny in the summer, said: “I took the role because I think it is an important story to tell. I am also still getting to know my character.”
* ninetayeb.com and subscribe to her YouTube channel at tinyurl.com/TayebJT
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