Monalisa Chinda appears trim and currently sports a slimmer look. As she makes her way into a restaurant at Victoria Island, Lagos where this interview takes place, her shades sit perfectly on her face, hinting at the fact that she is a bit reserved. Though the restaurant is sparsely filled, some people still recognize her as she hurriedly makes her way to me. With the spotlight constantly on celebrities, some are unlucky and quickly move from being media sweethearts to tabloid target. In an emotional voice, the actress shares the downside of being famous.
"I am pained that [the] opposite sex refuse to separate the character one plays from the real self and it really weighs me down," she said. "It is quite disturbing when you are trying to have a decent conversation with a guy and he thinks you are ‘that bitch' he sees in a movie and so probably wants to treat you as such.
"I want Nigerians to know that what we portray on television is different from who we really are away from the cameras. As actors, we are taught to remove that thing which makes you, you and wear that character."
Called to act
Acting was not the original job choice for this light-skinned actress; but her plans changed when she landed her first role in ‘Pregnant Virgin' in 1996.
"Actually, when I started out, acting was not on my mind. I just read it as a course and I did not think I will be where I am today. When I started, I thought I was going to go into the corporate world or run my own business. But when I started acting, I realised that this [acting] is what I was called to be. I have really been successful, I must say. Before my first movie, I was in a soap opera on NTA Aba."
After the movie, the actress played Adaora in Zik Zulu Okafor's soap opera ‘Heaven's Gate' and gradually warmed up for the fame which lay ahead. However, no sooner had she began to enjoy stardom than she left the scene.
"As I sit here to talk to you, I do not know why I left the country when everything was here for me. London is the first port of call for all of us who want to go and experience greener pastures. You soon find out that it could be challenging. I thought I could run a course in cosmetology which I tried and I did finish."
Thankfully, her three-year sojourn was cut short when she was required to come back to shoot some more scenes in ‘Heaven's Gate' shortly after she landed a role in Emem Isong's ‘Girls in the Hood'.
With the likes of Uche Jumbo, Ini Edo, Desmond Elliot and Stephanie Okereke all venturing into movie production as well as directing, the theatre arts graduate is not to be left out of the trend. With two movies and a soap opera in the works, the soft-spoken actress is excited about her current projects and defends her decision.
"You are getting older, so you have to diversify. You cannot keep doing the sassy girl role, so after a while you leave the scene and let the young ones come in and that is what I am trying to do," she said.
The actress currently has two films ready to be shown to the public. She explains the plots: "The first movie is ‘It takes Two', which I co-produced with Emem Isong and is directed by Desmond Elliot. The biggest one I have got so far is ‘Catwalk'. ‘Catwalk' is a series and is not yet out. If you have seen ‘Ugly Betty' and a little of ‘Devil wears Prada', you may understand the concept better. It is all about a magazine company and what goes on in there. Africa has never seen anything like this before, but we will release the movie after the premiere. I also starred in both projects."
Chinda is also quick to point out that movie producers rarely give actresses deep roles, choosing instead to cast them as long-suffering women and, other times, negatively. All these, according to her, are a fallout of the Nigerian system.
"Because we Nigerians are all perceptive in nature, all the gossip you read in the papers are not true. You sit in a place and so many lies are concocted about you. The fact that people are reading this bothers me, even when you know you make a conscious effort to stay out of trouble.
"Yes, I know that a lot of our celebrities could have some shortcomings. But it takes a level of maturity to be a celebrity and still keep your head. As an actress, you represent womanhood; so it is best to stay out of trouble. Yeah, you can make mistakes but don't let them happen over and over again."
Successful and in control, Chinda, who is also a Globacom ambassador, says the endorsement was a huge leap, career-wise, but adds that she still fantasizes about her dream role.
"I would like to play a horse rider, a woman who rides horses; more like a cow girl. I am not really adventurous, but when it comes to portraying a role I can do whatever you want me to do and maybe a little bit of action like carrying a gun," she says with a laugh.
In the midst of the personal drama which played out two years ago when news of her separation from ex-husband, Victor Olusegun Dejo-Richards and his numerous press interviews surfaced, the actress focused on her career and kept mum while fans waited with bated breath for the actress to speak out.
"I know who I am and if you don't know who you are, a lot of people are going to trample on you. I won't lie to you that it did not get to me, because at some point I was very low. I know that as a celebrity when people say things about you, it will fade away at some point. So you just stay calm and don't say a word. When it was time for me to talk, I said something."
The mother of one has some tips for aspiring artists. "When you come into the industry, you are known for a lot of things, so you have to keep your head low. Some people let the fame get into their head; but you can only get to to the highest of heights with humility and then everything you ask for will come to you easily. You need to also stay focused and pray to be at the right place at the right time."
With veteran actress Taiwo Ajai- Lycett and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka as major inspirations, she said the first thing that draws her to a script and subsequently a role is dialogue and the language before anything else.
"If the language is not what it is supposed to be, I just toss it away," she said.
She has spent 15 years in Nollywood but she believes there is still more to do. "Nollywood does not have a long way to go. We, the practitioners, have to rehabilitate ourselves; sit down and bring Nollywood to where it should be. I won't speak further before people will say, ‘What have you contributed?'"
Describing herself as a diehard romantic, Chinda wraps the discussion up by disclosing that she is not living a life of loneliness.
"Don't know about marriage, but romance may be in the cards," she said.