Genevieve Nnaji

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Genevieve Nnaji is undoubtedly the most misunderstood actress in today's emerging movie industry in Nigeria. But by all yardsticks, she's also the most prominent right now. In this interview by editor, Sola Osofisan, you will meet the Genevieve Nnaji you have never read about – in her own words. In the most extensive interview she has ever been put through to date, she talks about the pains of stardom.

Nnaji (pix: George Nweke)

Whether we accept it or not, we have never seen a star like Genevieve Nnaji in Nigeria. She is the first of a new cadre of personalities Nigeria is producing, glamorous faces, icons every youngster aspires to be like. Nnaji has probably inspired more people to consider a career in acting than all the other popular Nigerian actors put together. She came across as very confident, even to the point of being impatient, but one can also argue that it is youthful exuberance. At 24, she's barely just become a woman and now has this huge responsibility thrust upon her, to be the vanguard of a new class of celebrities created solely by a larger than life screen presence.

She will not talk about her daughter, aside of accepting that she has one. She believes she is protecting the girl from unnecessary media attention and speculation. Probably the sensible thing to do, considering the danger children of popular people can be exposed to in the world today.

She is a tough one to interview because she gives short answers and you have to keep on probing to get more out of her, but she got across as a friendly and warm individual. Her ideas are still in the formative stages, but she knows her own mind and is not afraid to voice it. She says it as it is, not one to pull punches. After reading this interview, you will either love her more or dislike her even more. She obviously wants the world to take her on her own terms.

Sola Osofisan: You're a very very very popular young lady. Do you know that?

Genevieve Nnaji: I am beginning to realize that.

S.O.: Let's talk about your fame. Sometimes, we ask for something, and then when we get it, we're not sure we want it anymore. Did you ask for this fame? And now that you have it, do you still want it?

G.N.: I didn't want the popularity. That wasn't what I set out for. I set out to act because it's something I enjoy doing. But the fame came with it. It's there, the benefits are there, but that's not what I set out for and that's not what I'm doing here. I'm not here for the fame. I really do love my work.

S.O.: But now that you have the fame, do you still want it, considering you don't have your privacy anymore?

G.N.: I try. I try. I try to have a bit of privacy for myself. I try.

S.O.: Does it ever get difficult, tiring, having to smile and say hello and greet everybody you meet on the street?

G.N.: No. No. Because people come up to me with different approaches and one way or the other, you just laugh at their excitement, the different expressions. But I don't fake it when I smile. It comes naturally. If you make me smile, I smile. If I don't find you funny, I don't.

S.O.: Your website, I've been there a few times. Where did the idea come from to build a website?

G.N.: I was called by my manager, Media Business Company, Helen Prest-Ajayi – that's what she does. She builds websites. She told me about the importance. With the speed of my popularity, I needed some form of communication, some form of medium to be able to reach out to my fans. It was a good idea. It's like a portfolio for me. The idea came from her.

S.O.: Do you stop by your website? How many times a week do you stop by your website?

G.N.: It's hard because I am extremely busy, but I try at least once a week to be there and personally, since I get so many mails, I read and try to see if there's anyone different. They all have the same thing to say really, that they appreciate me and all. So I try my best to go through the ones I can and then send a general reply. I do.

S.O.: When I did an article on you a few weeks ago, there were just 3000 entries in the guestbook. This morning, it is over 10,000 entries. How do you respond to all these people?

G.N.: Yes. What I'm doing is I'm planning to make the best use of it, since I have so many people on my site. I'm trying to make it more interesting, more like a TV show on the Internet. I'm going to be running games on my show. I'm going to be asking questions to find out how well they know me. There's going to be gifts. There's going to be prizes. The one thing I know they all want is to meet me.

As time goes on, I intend to run a charity program which I will involve as many people as I can. I also intend to update it because it has been running as a test for the past five months since I opened it. I just wanted to know if people would react to it properly, if they would embrace it, because it's quite expensive running a website. So, I'm satisfied now that people like the idea and I'm encouraged. Now, I intend to update my fans on my activities, especially my work. Even outside my work. Let them know about everything I do, functions I attend, awards I receive and stuff like that.

It's going to be hard because I can't do all that and be on location shooting at the same time, attending different functions and all that. What I try to do is get pictures and do a write up on different places and different events. That's what I intend to do. Just fill them in on my lifestyle.

Nnaji (pix: George Nweke)

S.O.: So all these will happen in the next few months?

G.N. Oh yes. I'm still running around getting pictures. Last thing I did was my trip to Sierra Leone. I made a little write up, few pictures of me and my fans over there… It's hard. I have to get my own personal photographer to really go around with me just to get the pictures. It's hard that I'm doing this all by myself though.

S.O.: It's becoming very expensive being a star, isn't it?

G.N.: Yes. Yes, that's what most people don't know. They think you're getting all the money, but we're actually spending all the money to be where we are at the same time.

S.O.: Having to get a personal photographer…And you're going to need someone to be helping update the site fairly often and all that…

G.N.: Yes. I'm already paying somebody to do that.

S.O.: You have a personal assistant?

G.N.: Em, yes, I am taking up my friend. I have someone.

S.O.: Do you miss your privacy at all?

G.N.: Yes. Of course I have to, because sometimes you just want to be normal. You just want to something, do what every other person is doing around you, especially when you're in a gathering, you're in a party and you just want to let loose. You just want to boogie the way every other person is doing, but you can't do it. You just have to act like the star, all eyes on me kind of person. So, it's hard. But I'm trying not to deviate from my true self anyway.

S.O.: Talking about your true self, what kind of person are you really?

G.N.: Everybody asks me that and I say the same thing.

S.O.: Well, you told everybody. You didn't tell me.

G.N.: I'm very reserved. Quite principled. I have my own view of life. I'm simple. I believe I was well trained. I'm resourceful. I can be nice to those who are nice to me. Generally, I'm a very normal girl, just like the next-door neighbor. Nothing different.

S.O.: Talking about your upbringing, do you still live with your parents?

G.N.: Sort of. Yes, my family is very much around. And even though I have a place of my own, I still stay with my brothers and sisters. The family house is in Lagos as well and I'm always there.

S.O.: I know you grew up in Lagos. You were born in Lagos too?

G.N.: Yes. Well, kind of. I was born in my mom's village and came into Lagos when I was like a month old or something.

S.O.: Is there any difference between the Genevieve we see in public and the one that is at home right now?

G.N.: Yes, definitely.

S.O.: What's the difference?

G.N.: I am myself when I'm at home.

S.O.: Oh, you're not yourself when you're in public? (GENERAL LAUGHTER)

G.N.: I'm very playful. I'm a very playful person. I can be funny, naughty. I can be a clown, according to my friends. But I can't be all that in front of people because people won't understand. They're like “you know, she doesn't do comedy”. I believe I'm a different person at home.

S.O.: Tell me one naughty thing you have done.

G.N.: I don't know… Can't remember.

S.O.: Hopefully, we will see you do comedy.

G.N.: (LAUGHING) Ah, very soon. Sooner than you think.

S.O.: What experiences have you had with your (GSM) phone?

G.N.: Hm, more than enough. (LAUGHING). My friends experience them with me as well. A lot of people pick up my phone pretending to be me. Trust me, a lot. It's a good thing. It's a good thing people want to reach me and talk to me, different kinds of people from all walks of life, educated, non-educated, the housewives, the men, the professionals and all of them. It's a good thing so I get to meet a whole lot of people on the phone.

S.O.: Your phone number is a very precious item on the Internet.

G.N.: Please tell me which number it is. I don't know.

S.O.: How many times have you had to change your phone number?

G.N.: Eh, let's see… six.

S.O.: In the last one year?

G.N.: In the last one year, three times.

S.O.: I was talking to Fred Amata a few days ago and he was telling me how much you guys enjoyed Sierra Leone. What was it like for you?

G.N.: Oh, it was unbelievable. The awareness, you know, it was something else…how much these people appreciate what we do. I was pleased. I was so flattered. I cried. I felt so moved. And it was touching because it was almost like the whole of Sierra Leone…In fact. I believe (I may have) the whole of Sierra Leone as my fans. Very warm people. I particularly like the language.

S.O.: Was that the first time you met the president of a country?

G.N.: You could say yes. Yes, first time.

S.O.: What was the experience like? Some of us have never met presidents you know…

G.N.: (LAUGHING). Don't worry, they're normal human beings like us. I'm sure I know what he's going through. I'm beginning to experience it.

S.O.: Would you say you're more popular outside Nigeria than you are in Nigeria?

G.N.: I know I made a statement in Sierra Leone when I was getting carried away with all the attention that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown… I don't think that is totally true because it's the same thing in Nigeria, trust me. The same thing. For crying out loud, you know how many states we have in Nigeria alone. And the kind of attention I get in Lagos where I live… In V.I. (Victoria Island) I know I'm always around everyday… And my friends are like “don't they get tired of you? They see you every day, come on”. I haven't been to all the states in Nigeria, but I know most of my fans in Nigeria are from either the North or the Middle Belt (you know what I mean), so I don't think so. I think it's the same thing.

So they're (the Sierra Leonians) like the same with every other African outside Nigeria, every other Nigerian outside Africa, you know… They haven't seen me. That's why they're still very excited.

S.O.: What is the secret of your good looks? What do you do to keep yourself looking the way you are?

G.N.: I'm a simple person. I like looking simple, and yet classy, trendy. That's me. For my looks, nothing. I don't do anything special. The products I use for my face… Clinique is what I use. My designers, different people. I don't have a particular person, no. I buy my clothes and match them myself and I come out looking the way I am. It's my own doing. So let's just say I'm a very creative person when it comes to fashion.

S.O.: I also read on your website that you like singing. In what way do you like singing? In the bathroom or…?

G.N.: Very interesting, I sing in public.

S.O.: Oh yeah? What kind of songs do you sing?

G.N.: I like R'n'B.

S.O.: Is there a CD in the future somewhere?

G.N.: Anything can happen. They're all talents given to me by God. I intend to explore each and all of them as long as I have life.

S.O.: When people talk about you on my website, and other places, they get rather emotional. Some people love you to death and some totally dislike you. Are you aware of this kind of feeling all over the place?

G.N.: Of course.

S.O.: Is there something you're doing to make them feel like that?

G.N.: I had a girl walk up to me sometime and she's like “I don't like you because my boyfriend likes you”. I think she used the words “loves you”. And “he never pays attention to me when he's watching your movie. I think I hate you for that. No offence, but that's it. Don't worry, you're good at what you do”. And she just walked off. That was very brave of her, really.

So, the thing is that if people don't like me, they don't like me for different reasons. For example, I don't think I like Beyonce. I don't, actually. I don't have a good reason for not liking her. I don't like her because she's so talented. I don't like her because she thinks she's all that, but she is all that. You know what I mean? She thinks she's really cute and sexy and all that, so she's so full of herself and I don't like her. But I have no right to hate her because of that. You know what I mean? Sometimes, its just beef. It's just what we call bad belle, you know? So people have different ways of expressing themselves. Trust me, if I met Beyonce now, I'm sure I would love her person. You understand? It's just like they say when you see a very ripe mango and you're jumping up to catch one and you can't reach it, you're like “I beg make e go, e no even sweet”. You know that kind of thing? It's a loser's way of thinking. Its just frustration. Maybe some people have genuine reasons for not liking me, I don't know. Maybe I met them sometime in my life somewhere, I don't know.

S.O.: Some are totally unhappy that you don't reply their emails. Can you say something to those people?

G.N.: (LAUGHTER) Well, I'm trying. I always go to the office of my managing company to reply these emails. I go there and I sit down and they show me because I'm still not very good with the computer. But because I really want to be able to reply these people myself, I intend to get a laptop. And even if I'm too busy, I intend to get somebody to handle my mail. I will read all of them and I'll be the one to write what I want as a reply, okay? I intend to do this. Of course I love my fans. That's just the truth. I always say I wouldn't be where I am without them, but they have to realize that it's just me against the world. I can't reply 10, 000 mails. That's what they have to understand.

Now, I intend to have the ballot thing – just like a draw – on my site where if you have good luck, then you get paid. I get to talk to you live. I'll be the one to call you and speak to you. Or I get to meet you and have dinner with you. So all these are things I plan on doing. So the thing is that at least that will give them hope that maybe one day someday they will be picked. What I always ask is if I sit down by myself to take all your calls, sit down by the computer to reply all your emails, when will I get to do the movies that you like to watch?

S.O.: I'm sure a lot of people will appreciate that answer.

G.N.: Just let them know that I am making arrangements…

S.O.: Okay. This question is for the benefit of all the single men out there. Is there a guy somewhere?

G.N.: (LAUGHING). I'm meant to have to I don't yield to temptation. Yes, I have.

S.O.: Is it serious?

G.N.: Oh well, you know how it is. We have this boyfriend/girlfriend thing. I'm not engaged. I'm not married. I don't know what the future has for me. I live it to God.

Nnaji (pix: George Nweke)

S.O.: In essence, all those men who are proposing out there, they still have hope?

G.N.: (LAUGHING). It would have been nice, but many of them are proposing for the wrong reasons.

S.O.: Hey, they've seen you in the movies. They've fallen in love.

G.N.: Exactly… For the wrong reason. They're in love with a character in the movies they watch and that's not a very good thing.

S.O.: What is your biggest dream right now?

G.N.: To have this situation under control, you know? I want to further somewhere. I want to progress in this business, with acting, as well as my education. I want to go a step higher. I need some greater challenges.

S.O.: I was reading on your website where you said you plan to go back to school. When do you see that happening?

G.N.: Not in Nigeria.

S.O.: Okay.

G.N.: Not in Nigeria. And it has to be somewhere I'm going to benefit from, so, most likely… anywhere. It's up to me to decide. But of course I pray it will be in the States.

S.O.: Are you looking into the possibility of international productions? I know you have been working in Ghana and Sierra Leone and all that, but I'm talking about America, the UK and stuff now.

G.N.: Yes, sure. If the opportunity comes, I will definitely seize it.

S.O.: But you don't have any intention of relocating, do you?

G.N.: I love my country. I will only go if I have something taking me there. I wouldn't want to relocate, then go there to look for a job. It just has to come first.

S.O.: Are you saying that I don't love Nigeria?

G.N.: No no, I'm sure there's something keeping you there. That's what I mean.

S.O.: I was just teasing you. Going back to your parents briefly, how do they feel about your career?

G.N.: (SIGHING). They've adjusted. They had their reservations in the beginning, but what can you do? They love me, and if they love me (it) means they love whatever I love. They've realized that's what I love doing. They've realized it makes me happy and they've been able to accept that, so right now, they're only able to guide me, make sure I don't go astray, make sure I don't get carried away. They still have their daughter, so they're not losing anything. They're gaining a lot.

S.O.: How do you get the scripts that you do? What do you look for before deciding whether to do a script or not?

G.N.: I love creativity in stories. I like the story, I like the character (that's) challenging, something different from what I've done, something different from the last thing I did. Aside from the story, I also like a very good sound screenplay. I like very fast, very swift dialogues. It's what I like. Mature writing, mature dialogue as well. The story has to make a whole lot of sense to me first. Especially now. I'm really very choosy now. I reject more than I accept. If a character is strong enough, if it makes a difference in the story, cos some characters are very dormant. Take them out and you don't even realize something was taken out of the script. My character has to be very strong, has to have a role to play in the movie.

People I act with matter to me as well. Of course I can't carry every character on my own. I'm not acting by myself. It's not stage. And so I need someone else. My colleague has to be able to carry me along. A good actor brings out the good actor in you.

What else? Those are the major factors. I like to know who is directing me…

S.O.: Who is your favorite director so far?

G.N.: I wouldn't want to mention (a name). Trust me, people are very sensitive.

S.O.: Which director are you looking forward to working with?

G.N.: I think Amaka Igwe. Tade Ogidan, that's another person I'd like to work with.

S.O.: One other important thing. You have done a lot of movies with Ramsey Nouah. Has it ever occurred to you that people are actually tired of seeing you with Ramsey?

G.N.: Has it ever occurred to people that I'm probably tired of acting with him? And he is probably tired of acting with me?

S.O.: I know that's not within the actor's control. It's more of a director and producer's choice.

G.N.: Yes. It's the producer's control. The producer knows whom he wants in his movie. The director can argue that with the producer, but when their minds are made up, they go out and get the artistes they want. Although we have the right to disagree to act with a particular person and drop the script. So if they see us in a movie together, that means we're comfortable with acting with each other.

S.O.: In the past, many people didn't want to go into acting in Nigeria simply because of the way the society perceived actors and things like that. I know that has changed a little–

G.N.: A whole lot. Trust me, a whole lot.

S.O.: When you went into acting, didn't this bother you?

G.N.: When I went into acting, even relatives of mine… They said I was wasting my time. They looked at actors and actresses as people with no good intentions for themselves, lazy people, maybe they didn't have anything better to do with their time. They looked at it as a non-professional job. Why don't you go and read law? Why don't you go and read engineering? Nobody took acting seriously.

Well, we did it. We were happy doing what we were doing and it turned out to be something else. Over the years… Maybe it's the way actresses or actors before us carried themselves outside work that gave the wrong impression, this bad image of actors and actresses lingering on. Even if you're not that and the press happens to promote the bad thing instead of the good, what people read, even if they don't know you, is what they tend to believe. And that had a whole lot of damage to do on our image. It dented a whole lot of things we took years to build. So the lingering image we tried to build with our work, hoping our people will see our work, they don't see that. They don't criticize our movies. They don't say oh she was so bad in this; she acted badly in this film, why did she wear that dress? That's criticizing our work and that's good. But not oh she has this; she's been married five times, and why is she this… It was always a negative story after another and that was not helping us. And then they say the media is our friend. That, I'm telling you, is what gave the people the wrong impression they had about actors and actresses – the media. Because when we started out, we were respected people. They respected actors and actresses and they were excited every time. Even broadcasters.

Things have changed now, I must really confess.

People try to image how the press paints us. They just have that total image; it just sticks there in their head. And they don't see beyond what they read. So that's the fact. But when I came up, I'm speaking for myself now, and Liz Benson and aunty Joke Silva and so many others, when we came up, we were… They tried that with me, trust me. The press gave me a tough time. For the fact that I never ever replied, for the fact that I never confronted them, I just felt do your job, I'll do mine, okay? And I just carried on. And maybe at they time, they thought they could make and unmake me, for some reason I don't know… I knew my God was on my side. I knew God had a purpose for me because if He wasn't in support of what I was doing, from day one, my father would never have let me. My father is very strict. I was surprised he actually gave me the liberty to do what I had to…it was like a test.

So, it has changed and now people are really taking us serious, especially now that people are beginning to say, “If you're being called a star, why don't you look like a star? Why don't you act like a star? Why don't you take up the challenge, it's a challenge?”

For me, I don't regret anything I've done. And so far, the media has also helped cos I think they've realized writing good things can also sell, not just scandals. Now, everybody wants to act. I get a whole lot of that. It's kind of funny because I believe people love it for the wrong reasons. They love the fame. They love the attention. But you can't get all of that except you love the acting.

S.O.: It's difficult to please the world when you're a very popular person, isn't it?

G.N.: Yes. So I've just gone ahead to do what I feel is right. And I have very good friends who criticize what I do and they tell me when I'm doing the right thing and when I'm not. I trust my friends, so once I know I've pleased these nutcases around me, these hard cracks around me, I know I've pleased the world. And I'm a big critic myself, so once I like something, and once I feel this thing would actually make me sit down and watch a movie, if it will interest me, then I'm ready to do it. I know I can't please the whole world. That's why the whole world doesn't 100% love me. But I try. I try.

S.O.: Your closest friends, did you have them before you became so popular?

G.N.: Yes. Yes.

S.O.: So at least you know they don't have any ulterior motive or something like that…

G.N.: No. No. And all my friends are very successful.

S.O.: In a few of the postings on your web site, people post urging you to get close to God. Are you close to God, as they advice?

G.N.: I am a Christian and I am a catholic.

S.O.: So they should stop saying get close to God. You are close to God.

G.N.: That's because these are people who still see movies as an evil act. If it bothers them so much, they should stop watching it. How do they know that I need God if they don't watch? You know what I mean? Everybody's close to God. God is the only reason we're all successful now. They should look into their own hearts and embrace their own God and ask their own God to bless the way God has blessed others. That's the prayer they need.

S.O.: My last question Genevieve. We all pay a price for everything we have. The problem with being popular, being famous, is that people write all kinds of things about you. Now, are there rumors out there, stories, impressions, things that people are saying about you that you would like to correct? Here's your chance to tell us your side of the story.

G.N.: The only place they can hit me is I should go and get education, okay? Now, what they don't realize is that I have education. I actually have a very good education. I was in school before I decided to take acting seriously, and they go on like make hay while the sun shines. And I'm like, that's exactly what I am doing. This is the sun shining. I'm making the hay. There's a time for everything. Some people's education will come before their work. Some people's work before their education. For me, my education and my work will come together, okay? And that's the way the Lord wants it. So many actors and actresses who left education to come into the movie industry, they didn't succeed so they went back to education. By the grace of God, that's not how it's been for me. Now, it's actually getting better because of the kind of popularity I have. It's really hard for me to say I'm sitting down here in Lagos or Nigeria to go to school. I probably will pass and not read. You know what I mean? I would definitely be lured by some producers. I could be bribed to come out of school. They've done it before. They've succeeded and there's no doubt they will succeed again. They have a way of really pulling you out and convincing you to leave whatever it is you're doing and do their movie for them.

Now, it has only opened up doors. It has only opened up my mind and made me more determined to leave the country, do my education abroad. And that will also open up windows and doors for me to further my career abroad in both acting and musicals. You understand? I want them to stop worrying. Trust me, I get enough of worrying from my father. They should stop worrying about my education and just trust me, okay? I know I will in due time and I'm already making plans.

That and… Okay, they say that I'm dating Ramsey (Nouah), I'm dating (name lost in telephone static)… These are all married people. They're all married men. It's all professional. They should forget what they read. So, we're all being professional here. For me, that is it.

Basically, that's it. And again, they say I'm a snob. I'm not a snob. But you do have some people who approach you with an attitude because they're trying not to sound too excited. They try to burst your bubble and ask you if you are who they know you are. You know? I'm like…it will show. I am a nice person. I'm a warm person. I'm friendly. Be honest and I will be honest with you. I hate pretenders. I'm open-minded. I like sincerity. That's me.

Sola Osofisan: Genevieve Nnaji, it has been a pleasure having this conversation with you.