On Israel’s ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ Esti Zakhem is larger than life
Israeli actress believes a woman can be large and beautiful - saying that is one thing - dancing on stage on national television a satin dress and high heels is another.
Any woman who has ever struggled with a weight problem knows; when you are feeling fat, all you want to do is hide in your bedroom.
The very last thing you would want to do as a significantly overweight woman would be to put on a sparkling sequined dress and perform the salsa or the rhumba with a slim and muscular dance partner in front of a live audience on national television.
This is why Israeli actress Esti Zakhem, 47, is my new hero. In Thursday night’s semi-final of the Israeli version of “Dancing With the Stars” (Rokdim im Cochavim) she will once again be taking to the dance floor, as she impressively has been since the debut of the show’s current season in Israel, competing against three much slimmer - and much younger - celebrities for a spot in the grand finale.
Although I do suffer from a general weakness for tacky reality television, I was not huge fan of “Dancing” in previous seasons. I tend to prefer the shows that really push the limits of human endurance like Survivor and The Amazing Race. Prancing around on high heels in tuxedos and gowns, difficult though it may be, never seemed to be enough of a real challenge.
And then I found out that Esti was competing. I’ve met Esti casually in the past, we have friends in common, and I’ve followed her acting career, where she is best known for her roles in the films Leylasede and Afula Express. My kids know her from her supporting role in a teen soap opera called Alifim.
But her passion is the stage: as an actress and a director, she is a key member of the fringe theater scene in Israel. She is something of an icon in the gay community and is active in gay rights advocacy, among other political causes.
The death of her brother, the artist Danny Zakhem, whose illness and death was a devastating experience for her. She attributes much of her weight gain to the pain of his passing - she gained 30 kilograms when he was in the hospital, and since then, hasn’t been able to take it off - she has said that it is as if she is carrying him around with her. In a sideline career she has developed, she performs alternative non-religious wedding ceremonies.
When she announced on Facebook that she was going to appear on “Dancing With the Stars,” my first reaction was surprise that she would do something so mainstream. But the more I thought about it, and the more I watch her on the show, I see what she is doing is actually revolutionary.
True, she has declared in numerous press interviews that she is not ashamed of her weight and believes a woman can be large and beautiful. But saying that is one thing, being willing to step on stage on national television and doing the cha-cha in a satin dress and high heels is another.
While there have been overweight female contestants on the American version of “Dancing,” none of them were like Esti. Those women - Kelly Osborne, Kirstie Alley, Marie Osmond - were Hollywood’s version of overweight, that is, they looked more like normal women one might see in the grocery store rather than size two popsicle sticks. All of them used the show for highly publicized slimdowns.
But Esti goes onstage each week exactly who she is, and gives it her all - as does her impressive and patient (and slender) dance partner/coach, Boris Zaltsman. Being a no-holds-barred confessional reality show, the television audience sees Esti rehearse, sweat and suffer, as well as wrestle behind the scenes with her insecurities about her body. And yet, every week, she struts out under the glittering disco ball, moves and twirls with dexterity, and then faces the criticism judges and the decision of the voters at home.
Whether it is the loyalty of her fans or her skills on the dance floor that have gotten her this far, the fact that Esti has done so well and made it to the end of the season is a wonderful gift for any little girl who gets teased for being fat, or middle-aged woman whose weight stops her from getting up and dancing at weddings.
Whatever happens in the end, and whoever takes home the coveted “Dancing” mirror ball trophy, Esti is already a winner.