"I challenge any man to come and say he has slept with me for money," this 38-year-old said to a newspaper interviewer a few years ago. A grandiose declaration for sure, ("I believe my own bull you see," she once said), but one that reflects the core of Funmi's identity: a fierce self-independence.
Whilst Funmilola Aduke Iyanda was yet a child, the TV presenter/producer's mother went out of the house one day, and she has not been found since. Unfortunately, her father battled alcoholism for some years, leaving the young Funmi to care for her younger siblings. The fifth child in a family of 11 would eventually sell clothes and odds and end at the University of Ibadan to see herself and her younger brother through the school.
"Funmi likes to say she went through her own hardships as a growing child," her friend, the playwright Wole Oguntokun, says. "Success detaches people from their origins usually, but she managed to fight that failing. That lack of desensitisation placed her in a place, very few television people could reach."
Of course, Funmi is more than just a TV personality. If she is brilliant on-air, she is an even more spectacular writer - insightful and unfailingly witty (one of her pieces for her column, Jisting, in the defunct Tempo magazine was titled ‘Dear God, I need a man'). She also co-wrote the first of Newton Jibunoh's desert memoirs.
Amongst other things, she is a sports diarist, stemming from her experiences as official chaperon for the likes of Charity Okpara and Chioma Ajunwa, pre-competition facilitator (painting her face in the national colours) for France '98, and covering international sporting events like the 1998 World Cup, the 1999 female World Cup, and the Athens and Sidney Olympics.
A star is born
But it was New Dawn that gave her flight. The show started humbly in the NTA Channel 10 studios in Tejuosho Yaba, Lagos, knocked together from the remains of a store. "Part of my love hate relationship with NTA 10," she reveals, "is a deep loyalty to the station for trusting a red haired, hot headed, quick tempered 29-year-old to independently produce their flagship show; they gave me my voice."
It began in 2000. It wasn't the first time she was doing television - having hosted and produced a number of talk, sports and entertainment shows, most while working with the man who would father her daughter, football legend Segun Odegbami - but Funmi was finally being heard.
The enunciation was far from sleek, her dresses pushed the envelope and she was given to spontaneity that TV viewers had to get used to. But she was a quick hit - and soon shows like the NTA's AM Express tried to repeat that magic. Her viewers also saw her tranform from an awkward, earnest female to a celebrated, achieving woman - with more than 50 awards in tow.
In April 2008 however, after eight years, during which her show had been upgraded to the NTA Network Service, she woke up one morning - and stopped New Dawn.
Ace comedian Ali Baba, who is a friend, says: "When she stopped her show, I just thought, that's Nigeria for you. The people who care about education don't get school licence, the real bankers couldn't raise 25billion, the good footballers don't make national teams..."
Many pointed to new TV phenomenon, Mo Abudu, whose show, Moments with Mo, seemed to have taken Funmi's place, dealing with the same issues, and talking with the same (and even bigger) personalities - only this time with a proper set, professional sound and styling, above-par camera work, superb editing, and the ultimate cross-continental platform - Mnet.
But Funmi points to her own battles, blaming "the whole of New Dawn's experience with NTA, the frankly fraudulent advert agencies and clueless media owners."
For many months after, no one knew what would become of Funmi. Then, on the 5th of January this year, she announced on her blog: "I'm back. No noise, no fanfare, just a quiet statement of fact: I am back."
Weeks after, she launched the Change a Life Foundation, crystallising her partnership of over half a decade with the Lagos State government to put about 30 children of single mothers through school, at a moving event in Lagos. But that was just the beginning.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said at a much-praised TED talk this year: "My friend, Funmi Iyanda, is a fearless woman... who is determined to tell the stories we forget." Which is exactly what Funmi did upon setting up a new company called Ignite Media. She travelled around five states in Nigeria for four weeks in a ten-hour daily schedule that saw her "swinging from abject despair to desperate hopefulness."
The result of those journeys is her new show unveiled to the public in October: Talk with Funmi.
Gbolahan Faleye, who began to present the arts segment on New Dawn when he was 17, and who describes her affectionately as "quite mad really" says: "I, like everyone else, was greatly saddened by the show's demise. However, I was hopeful that the closure would eventually lead to the birth of something more beautiful. Funmi's return to television vindicates this hope!"
In this new show, shot on high definition video, Funmi speaks with Nigerians from all spheres of life. She visited the Oba of Benin's palace, got footage flying over Lagos and spent a whole day with two governors, just as she joined Charly Boy and other motocyclists in full gear, went hunting at the Ita Olorun Village and danced the ‘swo' in Ajegunle. It premieres across the continent in January 2010.
"I had a month ago sat on a canoe in one of the poorest places, paddled slowly by the hauntingly intense Dami through the dankest, blackest waters I had ever seen or smelt, watching human faeces in various stages of decomposition flow by. The toilet was an exact replica of the slum dog millionaire sh*t scene without the beautiful colouring and diffusion of rough edges of that film," she says of one of the episodes.
"The power of my experiences is less about my person but about the stories, the people, the events that effortlessly weave through it," she says, in one of those touching moments of reflection that her blog readers are blessed to share. "Life does tend to happen to me, and perhaps I will one day sit down and write my story." It is sure to be one helluva story.
Funmi Iyanda's ‘Talk with Funmi' premieres in January 2010 on DSTV's Africa Magic & Magic World (Primetime), NTA/AIT and other selected stations around Nigeria, with an international cut scheduled for a major UK network.