BY: Uzodinma Iweala
November 13, 2015 Genevieve Nnaji, the Nigerian actress who some have called the face of Nollywood, premiered her latest movie, The Road to Yesterday, at the close of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF). The event took place at the Genesis Deluxe Cinemas inside The Palms, a shopping mall in the upscale Lekki Neighborhood of Lagos.
It was a gathering of Nigeria’s most influential film and television personalities who mingled with an onslaught of unknown actors, actresses, and filmmakers hoping to break into the increasingly glamorous and lucrative Nollywood, the world’s third largest film industry. I tried to navigate my way through the crowd of people towards the interview stations along the red carpet, but there was almost no room between the women in long dresses and men in crisp suits. If Hollywood is a well-structured machine with actors systematically tiered by A, B, C list categories according to their earning power, popularity, and ultimate cultural significance, then its African cousin Nollywood, is an altogether more chaotic but egalitarian affair where everyone is welcome, but you must hustle or shout for attention in an improvised industry that is remaking and redefining itself as quickly as the country that birthed it. This frenetic creativity combined with the Nigerian love of the hustle made for a boisterous environment in which conversations were shouted over the Naija-pop playing through the overhead loudspeakers. I could feel the room’s vibrational energy. An American friend of mine in town to research Nollywood remarked that this was the most fun she had ever had going to the movies.
Then Genevieve arrived wearing an immaculate white, curve hugging, floor length dress with a daringly revealing scooped back and knee-high front slit framed by graceful frills. For a moment the room paused as bodies parted and Genevieve floated gracefully from the entrance, down the red carpet towards a VIP section. Her producing partner and business manager Chinny Onwugbenu, the film’s screenwriter and director, Ishaya Bako, producer Chi-Chi Nwoko, and co-star Oris Erhuero assembled around her as she took questions from a hungry media that had been starved of Nigeria’s brightest star for the last three years. The Road to Yesterday had only been prescreened for a very limited audience of media executives and industry professionals. It was under the strictest embargo until that night to prevent the piracy that still plagues Nigeria’s creative industries. Even AFRIFF did not get a screener copy until the moment of the premier. The curiosity was intense, the questioning even more so. What was the world to expect from Nollywood’s leading lady?
The unexpected is a familiar realm for a woman who originally thought she would study law in university and then found herself at the forefront of the completely new world of Nigerian film. The first time I met Genevieve was at the Wheatbaker hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos towards the end of 2014. I had received a random call from Chi-Chi Nwoko, a New York based film and television producer who asked if I would be interested speaking to Genevieve about developing a new television show. My previous exposure to Genevieve had only been through newspaper articles, magazine covers, and the pernicious murmurings that follow celebrities – “she’s arrogant and aloof.” I expected to meet an entourage of aides or at least some security. Instead I found Genevieve and Chinny sunk into the wicker chairs on the outdoor patio of the grill room, unconcerned by the fact that the wait staff was freaking out about her presence. Chinny sipped a glass of ice water. Genevieve was lost in her favorite past time, the game Candy Crush, which she plays religiously.
It is hard not to fixate on her obvious beauty, but the most powerful aspect of Genevieve is her ability to read and control the emotional tone of any interaction. It’s a skill that has been mastered by American celebrities and politicians living in a society where public opinion matters, but unsharpened in Nigeria’s more prominent personalities who dominate an environment where worship is expected, not earned. Genevieve’s emotional intelligence stems from what she calls a strong connection to real people in Nigeria. One need only visit her Instagram feed with its over 1.5 million, mostly Nigerian, followers devouring her posts that capture a mix of the mundane, the glamorous, and the aspirational life. Almost all of her posts receive tens of thousands of likes, engagement numbers that would make even the most global of celebrities jealous. I experienced this power personally when I posted a picture of myself jokingly kneeling down before her in a mock proposal at the Nigeria Beasts of No Nation premier. Within minutes I had received hundreds of followers, and many more comments wishing us well.
“I’m one of the masses, and I’m a Nigerian. I’m self employed. [I] continue to run my own businesses here and there…” Genevieve told me during one of our numerous conversations. “I’ve done something with myself – by God’s Grace – because luckily he gave me a gift and I had the wisdom to discover that gift, and I used it to my advantage.” While it is clear that her acting talent has propelled her rise and will help to maintain her influential presence in Nollywood for some time to come, Genevieve’s assent and continued relevance will likely have more to do with her desire to test limits, especially through filmmaking, in a country that has only just recognized the importance of the creative economy.
For all the glamour and fame that presently surrounds her, Ihunanya Genevieve Nnaji, who turned 37 on May 3rd, comes from a relatively ordinary Nigerian, middle class existence. She is the fifth of eight children born to an engineer father from Mbaise, Imo State in the South Eastern Igbo region of Nigeria and a schoolteacher mother who sometimes engaged in petty trading. She grew up in the Surulere neighborhood of Lagos, which has always been a solidly middle class enclave in a city run by the wealthy and dominated by the extremely poor.
“I was a tomboy. I had three brothers right behind me. My sisters were too busy with themselves – you know how elder sisters are. I played football on the street,” Genevieve told me. She also used to engage in fistfights with the boys who lived in her compound. “I got into a fight with a neighbor of mine who was a boy and I beat him up… I was six years old. We were mates and he was fat. He definitely asked for it and he got it,” she said. She told me her home was a traditional Igbo household where her mother acted as the primary disciplinarian. “My dad was the kind of person you didn’t want to speak to you because you would actually feel the disappointment that you are at that time,” she said. “In fact he had a way of – its not even pleading to your conscience – I think it’s a silent threat to your conscience.” At the same time her household was very liberal when it came to her studies and artistic pursuits. As a child Genevieve participated in plays at school and church. “I watched a lot of TV as a child, so I think I was pretty much screen trained. Of course there was no Nigerian cinema then, so everything was on TV,” she said. As a primary school student she excelled in the arts, painting and even producing a comic book series that became very popular in her school. “I would have my classmates bombard me to write the next one while they were reading,” she told me.
Genevieve’s comfortable, even idyllic, childhood changed dramatically when she turned 12 and her father lost his job at the construction equipment supplier Caterpillar because of tribal discrimination. He also lost a subsequent job at the Nnamdi Azikiwe founded African Continental Bank when it collapsed in 1991. Forced to curtail expenditures, her family moved from Surulere to Egbeda, closer the Lagos, Ogun State border. Where once Genevieve and her siblings enjoyed their father’s assigned staff car and driver to take them to and from school, they now found themselves “trekking” to school and spending their afternoons helping their mother sell provisions to make up for lost income while her father searched for work. “She traded, she sold stuff, she got her children to sell stuff for her and we had to. We had no choice. We were living in her house. We cried,” Genevieve said. “She did things you needed to do at that time. Your friends are not doing it. Why should you be the one to be doing it? You’re embarrassed about it, but I’m grateful for that because I think if I wasn’t even given that chance to be humble, I probably wouldn’t appreciate what I have today and understand that it doesn’t make me better than the next person. And [I] just know that everyone is equal and everyone is entitled to love and respect,” Genevieve told me.
At the same time, in what could be interpreted as push to escape the intensity of daily life, Genevieve began to pay more attention to the acting she saw on television. When she turned 16, Nollywood was still in its infancy. The Chris Obi Rapu film Living in Bondage, which is widely credited with bringing real attention to the new entertainment phenomenon, was only a few years old. “But then Nollywood was pretty new and I was watching one of the films back then—I can’t remember the title—and this was me watching another actress, and in my mind I was criticizing how she was performing: ‘No that’s not the reaction she’s supposed to be having to that line.’ I was thinking ‘Oh, I would have done it this way’ or ‘No, I can do this!’ and it’s deep in your gut that you actually know, you actually believe you can. There’s no doubt about it, no questions about it. That was when I realized that I had interest. Did I ever think I would do it as a profession? I don’t think so.”
Her original intention to read Law or English at the University of Lagos, morphed into a major in Creative and Performing Arts. Then she landed a small part in the film Most Wanted.“My role was to interview Regina Askia, a former beauty queen turned actress who was a goddess at that time. That was major. I had to pull it off as a pro and I did it, and the producers asked me if I had done it before and I said no. They were amazed at my confidence—probably I had some training in church or something— but I remember I enjoyed doing it,” Genevieve told me. After this performance, she quickly landed other roles. At the end of her first year in university, stressed by the triple load of acting, coursework and modeling, and frustrated by the continuous strikes plaguing the university system, she made the decision to leave school to pursue acting full time. “My dad didn’t find it funny,” she said. “He wasn’t happy about it, but I kind of reassured him that I would go back, that it wasn’t over. He was mostly concerned about the amount of exposure film was going to bring me, coming from a very conservative, almost prudish home of a Catholic Igbo family.”
Since then, Genevieve has starred in over 80 Nollywood productions for which she has gained domestic and international acclaim, including resounding praise from Oprah Winfrey. The resulting fame and lucrative endorsement deals on products ranging from makeup to watches, a reported multi-million Naira contract to represent Range Rover in Nigeria and a brand ambassadorship for telecommunications giant Etisalat has lead to enormous financial success. She is often listed as one of Nigeria’s wealthiest celebrities and enjoys the fancy cars, the immaculately appointed house in upscale Ikoyi and the trips to exotic locations that are the trappings of celebrity life. She is also thoroughly allergic to any discussion of her earning power or wealth. “Even the kind of car I drive right now cannot give me that kind of joy that my first ride gave me,” Genevieve told me. “I must have a minimum of my first salary in my wallet — two thousand Naira. I can have more, but that’s the minimum. It was my first salary. It’s dear to my heart. That was my welcome fee into the world of entrepreneurship. It’s just there. I love it. I spent more than that to get the two thousand though on transport faire, cause by the time they tell you to go and come back so many times, you’ve spent way more than that, but that was who I was. I worked for it. I have to get paid for it. I’d probably squander every money that is dashed to me, but the one I would sweat for, I don’t play with,” she said. “I don’t talk money because I want people to focus on work,” she told me as we sat on the white leather couches in her living room. Her fluffy white dog, a Brichone-Frise, Lahsa mix named Prince lounged by her feet on the white shag carpet. “Money is not good for creative people. I don’t value myself materially. Take everything,” she said.
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