The Israeli Actress Who Got Everyone Talking About Body Image

The Israeli series 'Very Important Person' transformed costar Alma Dishi into a woman of some importance.

Ohad Romano

This article is about an Israeli TV series, but don’t stop reading just yet. Remember, Israel is a major supplier of formats, ideas and series for the English-speaking viewer: “In Treatment” and “Homeland” were reinvented in American incarnations; “Tyrant” and “The Affair” were cocreated and developed by Israelis; and, just last week, the BBC announced plans to produce “The A Word” – based on “Yellow Peppers,” the series about an Israeli family with an autistic child, which I wrote about some months back.

The title of the series, “Ish Hashuv Meod,” created by Shirli Mushoyef for HOT (it ran on HOT 3, and now is on HOT VOD), was translated by the producers into English as “Very Important Person.” But given the gendered nature of Hebrew, it could also have been called “A Very Important Man.”

The “man” of the title is an Israeli TV actor-entertainer named Yehuda Levi. The series’ premise sees this huge celebrity grappling with his own reputation: he made his name as a sort of matinee idol/heartthrob (i.e., babe magnet) based on his very good looks, but feels he is not being taken seriously enough as an actor.

He is haunted by paparazzi, written about in gossip columns, and, having split with his long-term girlfriend (a musician-actor celebrity in her own right; she jilted him), his every move is followed by the media. Also, he is rumored to suffer from eating disorders and bouts of depression, and partake in medications and drugs. In other words, the male equivalent of a “damsel in distress,” seeking to find himself. In his own mind he feels he deserves better, but hasn’t got the faintest idea what “better” means or entails.

The cherry on the series’ PR cake was/is the fact that the part of Yehuda Levi was (there is no news yet of it being renewed, so we don’t know about “is”) played by a very popular Israeli celebrity-actor named Yehuda Levi, whose own life and career are very much like that of his purportedly fictional alter ego on the small screen.

Versions vary as to how much of this blend of art and life was intentional to begin with, whether the name of the protagonist was changed once the real-life Levi signed on, and whether the fictional plot was subsequently changed to fit his real-life details. But that does not really matter, because what we see is what we get. Art, if one can treat TV series as Art – and the jury has been out on that for a very long time – is imitating life, right up to the dot on the i, just as Aristotle prescribed.

But once the series hit our screens and we got over the gossipy element of “Is it life or fiction?” and “Is he aware how much of his own, not his character’s, soul he bares for us (he does bare a lot of his fine body, which he shares with the character)?” it soon transpired that, as much as it is about the “ish,” the man, it was also about the woman.

In the first episode of the series, Yehuda encounters a waitress named Rona (Alma Dishi) in the café he frequents. He accuses her of alerting a paparazzo about his arrival (she did not; she is a divorcée, working on her MA thesis in Eng. Lit., and does not care much for him and his ilk) and gets her fired. Than he feels bad about it, runs after her to apologize, and the chase ends in her bed.

The rest of the series is about East (male ego of the actor, gripped by insecurity) meeting West (a sensible, down-to-earth, self-centered and balanced young woman), and the possibility of them forging a present and future together.

If in the case of Yehuda Levi we knew too much about the actor, making it difficult to truly assess his performance as Yehuda Levi; with Rona it was pretty much the other way around. This was the first major screen role for Dishi, fresh out of acting school. However, she performed like a seasoned pro, being a partner a star has to contend with and – truth be told – stealing the show with grace. And the character of Rona has a lot to contend with: Not being a “babe” or conforming to the image of a female TV star – tall, blond, slim, curvaceous, but not too much. In contrast, Rona is dark (skin, eyes, hair), very slightly overweight, not your regular beauty, and more of a character – but, one has to admit, all woman (proof of which is bared on screen).

There is a lot of talk about Rona’s appearance in the series, in the context of her not being right for Yehuda: Not a celebrity; referred to as “fat” and “ugly” by other characters (she is definitely neither fat nor ugly); and coming from a world that does not match his. And, as it happened, that also became the fate of Dishi, the young and not-even-yet-upcoming actress.

On the one hand, she became a celebrity overnight. She was signed up to model for the Triumph lingerie line, showing her scantily clad body and eliciting a huge social network debate about women’s body images. On the other hand, the words “fat” and “ugly” were now being used about Dishi herself.

Soon enough, she will have to fight her way back from the pedestal of being a celebrity role model for “real-life women” (as opposed to the “babe” shape imposed by our world of false images, perpetuated by the entertainment and beauty industries) to her own life and career as an actress who deserves merit for her work, not her beauty and body. A “Very Important Person” had become “A Woman of Some Importance.”

Indeed, Oscar Wilde knew something about beauty, the self and love (of oneself and some particular others). He wrote, in “The Decay of Living,” “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.”