US comedian, TV show host, author, and radio star Steve Harvey in Abu Dhabi
US comedian, TV show host, author, and radio star Steve Harvey in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: AhmedRamzan/GulfNews

Towering talent and top US comedian Steve Harvey is a multi-hyphenate who has spun gold from hosting TV shows, writing books, and spearheading podcasts. But he’s still not great at getting names right.

The world-famous entertainer, 65, gamely stumbles on how to pronounce this journalist’s name right upon our meeting in Abu Dhabi, but he doesn’t stop trying until he gets it right. Now here’s a man who made a spectacular blunder during the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant, which saw him announce the wrong winner. He notoriously named Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez, who was really the first runner-up, as the winner instead of Miss Philippines Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach. The epic misfire was an embarrassing fiasco from all angles, but Harvey is one of those rare talents who won’t shirk from speaking about that “life-altering” moment in his career.

“I asked God to increase my global brand and he made me the host of Miss Universe in 2015. He had me say the wrong name and in 48 hours, my name was Googled 4 billion times. I became the most Googled person on planet Earth … but I didn’t appreciate the way God did it,” said Harvey with the kind of open laughter that comes right from your belly. But the self-made billionaire, who was born poor and wears his faith on his fashionable sleeve, felt that misstep helped him toughen up as a person and humbled him instantly.

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2015 | Pia Alonzo Wurtzback from the Philippines was Miss Universe winner but for one brief moment, it appeared as if it might be a repeat win for Colombia. Colombia contestant Ariadna Gutierrez Arevalo was already wearing the crown as this year’s Miss Universe winner when host Steve Harvey returned to apologise. Harvey says it was his mistake and that he would take responsibility for not reading the card correctly that named contestant Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach this year’s winner and Colombia the first runner-up. Image Credit: AFP

“They say: ‘all publicity is good publicity', but that’s not true at all. I didn’t need that … It was one of the biggest fiascos ever on TV and guess what … I made money out of it. I made 100 times the money than hosting the Miss Universe … I made more money than a Super Bowl commercial … But seriously, I learned from that moment of adversity,” said Harvey. That blistering moment that’s the nightmare of any show host taught him that every hurdle is a life lesson.

“Behind every bad thing that happens to you, there’s a lesson and a blessing. Just hang in there and it’s going to turn into a blessing,” said Harvey. Barring four armed security guards that constantly monitor his home and his family — because he claims he angered a few Colombian groups who levelled death threats — he’s learned to make peace with that momentous error.

“Ever since 2015 fiasco, I have four armed security guards at my home for 24 hours … But when I am here in the UAE, I don’t even have one security guard ... UAE is the safest, inclusive, diverse, and peaceful place on the whole earth and I have been to many places,” said Harvey.

His affinity and bond with the UAE is legendary. For the last 12 years, this seven-time Daytime Emmy Award winner has been a constant in this region.

“I just fell in love with this region and I began meeting some really important people here and began having meaningful conversations with them,” said Harvey.

And one such significant union came about when he met Oweis Zahran of OWS Capital and founded the celebrity/talent company Melt MidEast. Their company aims to bring celebrities into the UAE as cultural ambassadors. On Friday night at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Harvey and Zahran will host a star-studded gala dinner with more than 30 celebrities. Earlier that afternoon, they will also host a celebrity charity event called Melt Middle East Golf Classic in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island.

“Oweis and I met five years ago and formed a friendship and then a business. He came up with the concept of helping to increase culture and entertainment in this region,” said Harvey. Their aim is to shatter stereotypes around this region through the power of celebrity. The glamorous events — which are also star-studded fund raisers — will have the likes of RnB singer Akon and ‘Black-ish’ star Anthony Anderson shining the spotlight on the UAE and its rich culture.

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Steve Harvey and Oweis Zahran, CEO of OWS Capital, during an interview with Gulf News in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/GulfNews

“There are still people who don’t understand that the GCC has different regions ... I want the world to know that this is a country where women are very safe and well-respected … Celebrities makes the spotlight shine brighter … A celebrity can come over with 30 million virtual followers and his post can go viral … I promise you, there’s no place like the UAE on this earth. There’s so much peace, safety, and inclusion here,” said Harvey. He wants to bust myths surrounding the Middle East with this initiative.

“Sometimes their mind is not open. Listen, because you’re a celebrity, it don’t make you smart. Look at Kanye West,” said Harvey with a knowing look. Controversial rapper West, now known as Ye, recent made a string of anti-Semitic remarks and was globally condemned. He also lost out on a billion-dollar partnership with Adidas and was briefly suspended on social media.

“He’s just crazy. Listen man, you keep saying you are a genius but you keep saying stuff that’s very un-genius like … Celebrities can be great cultural ambassadors for you, but not everyone will make the cut,” said Harvey.

The US TV host also reminds his fans that this country’s diversity and multiculturalism is a class apart.

“I want everyone to come here, check this place out, and judge for yourself. There are some 200 nationalities living here. So if you are a bigot or a racist, you will have a hard time here,” said Harvey. He also points out how safe he feels while he's in this country.

"I am conditioned to turn around to look who's following me, especially at night ... But yesterday as I was walking down from my villa to the restaurant around 11pm, it was pitch black with some lights ... I kept telling myself that I don't need to look back in this city. Then, I  saw an innocent lady behind me with a stroller and I knew that both she and I were safe here," said Harvey.

And the gravy? He has met some incredible people along the way. Bollywood superstar Ranveer Singh is one of his ‘favourite dudes’.

“I just love that man and that guy’s hair! That’s my man. He’s like the coolest. He told me that he can be himself here in Abu Dhabi and I get him,” said Harvey. But life wasn’t always about hobnobbing with Bollywood A-listers and basketball legends in the UAE.

Born to a father who was a coal miner and a mother who was a Sunday school teacher, Harvey’s rags-to-riches story is the stuff of legends. At one point in his 30s, he was homeless and had to sleep in his own car for weeks together.

“I grew up very poor. My father was a coal miner and made $5 (Dh18) a day and we were five kids. We lived in a house my father and his brothers built. I never flushed a toilet till I was six years old. We had no running water and the toilet was across the street, in an outhouse. That’s how I grew up. I was homeless at age 30 and I lived in my car. Now I have cars that can buy me three houses,” said Harvey. But it was his can-do, perennially optimistic attitude, along with a generous helping of faith that helped him weather all those storms in his life.

“I have been figuring it out the whole time. You got to go through the process … I went through stuff so that it could toughen me up. Every experience in my life humbled me and made me appreciate of everything I have today,” said Harvey. He remembers how his father was flabbergasted at the digits on his pay cheque.

“My father worked harder than me, but he made $5 a day. He couldn’t believe what he saw on my pay cheque … He told me that he will have to work five years to get the kind of money I got paid in a day. So I am always grateful and I will never forget that,” said Harvey, who was clad head to toe in a blue ombre Louis Vuitton shirt and pants. Every waking moment, Harvey — who’s almost a one-man army and a formidable force of nature in entertainment with hit game shows like ‘Celebrity Feuds’ — is grateful for the life that he’s living.

“I have a great life. This morning, I wanted to extend my villa for a week and the lady said I have to pay in advance … She asked for a lot of money and I gave it without thinking. And that’s a blessing. My life was not always like that and so I am grateful for my life today.”

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Steve Harvey is blessed with an army of fan in the UAE and globally. Here you see him interacting with his young fans at Sharjah International Book Fair

Did you know?

“When Mr Harvey and I met, it felt like a moment of destiny. Even though we come from different faiths, we formed a partnership and here we are,” said Oweis Zahran of OWS Capital who cofounded the celebrity/talent event company Melt MidEast. Together with Harvey, they are set to host the second edition of Melt Middle East Golf Classic in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island.