“I feel very blessed that I met my soul mate. Who just happens to be Idris Elba,” Sabrina Dhowre Elba announced over grilled cheese sandwiches and golden french fries at Shoreditch House, the achingly hip private club in East London.
Dhowre Elba’s story reads like the plot of a Hollywood rom-com: An A-list Hollywood actor rolls into a small town to shoot his new film. One night, at a local bar, his eyes lock with those of a girl sitting in the corner. She is exquisite. The prettiest girl in the room. The type who is the prettiest girl in any room. And there it is. Her life changes overnight, from part-time bar shifts and night classes to private jets and nickel-sized diamonds.
And that is precisely what happened. Effortlessly handsome Idris Elba and Dhowre Elba met at a scant jazz bar in Vancouver, British Columbia, when Elba was filming The Mountain Between Us alongside Kate Winslet, back in 2017. “Love at first sight” is the only way Elba has known how to describe it. In truth, it’s hard to imagine not noticing Dhowre Elba: Tall, leggy, and with a high-wattage smile that dominates any space, she is utterly captivating. Her warmth is genuine, and her tenderness catches you off guard.
Born in Montreal before moving to Vancouver at the age of 12, Dhowre Elba was one of five kids. The household was hectic but brimming with love. “I was the second oldest and was very much the mother figure,” she says. These days, the press often references Dhowre Elba’s title as a former pageant winner, giving the illusion that she grew up in curlers, tossing glittering batons, like a character in Miss Congeniality. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“In my third year of university, I was approached at a mall by a woman who thought I should enter a pageant,” Dhowre Elba explains. “I needed volunteer hours anyway for the program I was doing, and I thought it would be a good way to get into doing some philanthropic work, so I ended up doing it. I really didn’t think I would win, and I did. And it has stuck with me.”
Looking ahead to a new decade, the couple had a banner year starting in late 2018. “So much happened,” Dhowre Elba says. “[Idris was named People’s] Sexiest Man Alive; we got married. I had to pinch myself. Is this life really happening right now?!” And add to that being the first-ever African couple on the cover of British Vogue, after the magazine captured their Marrakech nuptials—a symbolic meeting in the middle, as her family is originally from East Africa, and Elba’s is from West Africa.
The chemistry between Elba and Dhowre Elba is undeniable. They’re both very open. What you see is what you get. “Someone told me one time, ‘If you always tell the truth, you never have to lie,’” Idris Elba says. “It really, really stuck with me. I don’t like bullshitting people. I take what I am doing with my life in entertainment with a pinch of salt.”
It was a notable year for Elba professionally, too. He directed his first feature, Yardie—it was at a cast and crew screening for the film that Elba proposed to Dhowre Elba—he hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time, and he both wrote and executive produced a zany Netflix comedy series, Turn Up Charlie, about a DJ who gets a job as a nanny. But it hasn’t all come easily.
“Culturally, English people prefer you to stay in your lane,” Elba says. But what all of the above confirms is how Elba is anything but linear when it comes to his career. In fact, the couple has a lot more to contribute. “We are working on a lifestyle brand together, out of the fanfare of people being really interested in how we got together,” Elba says. “I famously said I would never get married again. Because of that, people are like, ‘Whoa, who is the girl who convinced him? And what’s going on? And why?’ And what we’ve discovered is that there are really happy couples and couples who are really going through it all over the world, and there is really no forum for them.”
Beyond the multiple film and TV projects and the potential foray into the Goopisphere, Elba was also recently awarded Sierra Leonean citizenship, and the couple visited the country for the first time. “It was beautiful,” Dhowre Elba muses. “The most welcoming country ever. They really, really adore Idris.” It was also on this trip that Dhowre Elba solidified her philanthropic aims, choosing charitable causes that touch on subjects of substance. Dhowre plans to lend her considerable fame and reach—she now has 283,000 followers on Instagram—to Hands Off Our Girls, an initiative founded by Fatima Bio, the first lady of Sierra Leone, that addresses issues of child marriage and gender violence affecting young girls and women.
“They are the first African country to declare rape as a national emergency,” Dhowre Elba says. “I am really passionate about helping women in general. My mum was a domestic abuse victim. I want to tackle those causes.” Dhowre Elba’s passion for helping women is palpable, and she’s become increasingly calibrated to the value of being a figure in the media with whom young African girls can connect. “I don’t want to sit in fear of saying the wrong thing,” Dhowre Elba says with conviction. “If I say the wrong thing, I am sure there are lots of people on Twitter who will tell me, and I’ll learn and grow if I think what I said was wrong.”
The conversation turns to another high-profile black woman—perhaps the most famous in the world as this issue goes to press—Meghan Markle. Elba and Dhowre Elba are friends with the couple: They attended the Sussexes’ wedding, and Elba DJed into the wee hours, a request that came directly from Prince Harry himself. “They are friends of ours, and I can just imagine what a difficult time this is for them right now,” says Elba, his voice lowering to convey the seriousness of his words. “It’s a very difficult, stressful time. We can only relate to what they are going through because it is as if you are in a goldfish bowl sometimes, and you can just imagine what it must be like. It must be very tough. I just hope they’re all right.”
Dhowre Elba chimes in on this charged topic too: “There are a lot of people saying that it isn’t about race, but it is really hard to look at a situation like theirs and say that it’s not about race. And I feel broken to have to think that. One minute you’re loved, and one minute you’re not.”
And they should know. It is precisely this type of fickle public that Elba and Dhowre Elba faced when the media and fans first caught news of their relationship. “Sabrina has jumped into this circus, like, spinning plates,” Elba says. “And I’m very proud of her. I have a big female following, and they didn’t really warm to my wife at first, but I think what happened is that everyone can tell that my wife makes me really happy. The happiest I’ve ever been.”
Read this article in the Spring 2020 issue of DuJour.