She hit the silver screen as Bisi in the UNFPA-sponsored family television series called ‘I Need to Know.’ With plaited hair and secondary school uniform, she successfully played the role of a teenager for four years. Wasn’t that enough credential for her to stroll effortlessly into the centre stage in Nollywood?

That was what she thought but that was not what happened. She ran into many brick walls. Many doors were slammed in her face. She wept in toilets and inside ‘danfo’ on her way home after unsuccessful auditions. She decided to cut her losses and go into Yoruba movies. On her sixth production, she hit jackpot. We presents to you, Jenifa, the girl who brought Funke Akindele fame and fortune.

I sat in bukas in Ilorin, Ibadan and Osogbo to learn how to play the Jenifa character
The story of Jenifa is that of a village girl who wanted to be a big girl. She wanted to be a force to reckon with by force. She wanted to be noticed and she was noticed at the end of the day but on the negative side. She was infected with HIV and that’s why I want to do the return of Jenifa. There are unresolved conflicts that will be explored in the sequel, The return of Jenifa. For instance, what happened to the lady that arranged the girls for parties The sequel will reveal what happened to her and there are many other characters in there that we need to know what happened to them.

Then, I want to go deeper into the HIV theme, parental negligence, cultism. I want to explore the social vices on our campuses and that’s why we are having the return of Jenifa. I was moved to do Jenifa because I wanted to do something near real. I’d never seen anything like that before and of course I’m a very wild thinker. Oh and there is nothing in my background that helped me play Jenifa character as convincingly as I did. I’m just very funny naturally, at least that’s what people say. I say things that linger in people’s memory. What I did was to go and understudy how a local girl will pronounce ‘big girl’. I had to travel down to Ibadan, Oshogbo, Ilorin, sit in bukas and listen to all those local girls talk. I studied the way they painted their faces, their attitudes and their brand of self-confidence. Some of the slangs are Sulia kan, Ayetoro kan, then bigs girl, mo don jazzy e. The movie has really changed my life. It’s a big shoe that I really have to fit into. While I was coming here I was still thinking about how to do something better.

I only own the copyright. I’m not the executive producer. I have a marketer, Olasco Films. He paid me off. Jenifa has brought me fame and fortune but I believe that ‘the return of Jenifa will bring me more. It took me six months to write the script, one month to shoot and then the editing and all other post-production stuff. In all it took a year. The location was Lagos State Polytechnic, Ikorodu.

I read Law to please my father
Funke Akindele is an actress, a movie producer who’s been producing before Jennifa but Jennifa gave her the break. The first movie I produced was Ojo ketala. I had six before Jenifa. I went to Grace Nursery and Primary School, Gbagada, Lagos State Model College. I have an OND in Mass Communication from Ogun State Polytechnic ,now Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, I attended the University of Lagos where I studied Law but I’m not practicing.

I went into movie production because that is my first love. Right from when I was small I’d loved acting but I studied Law because my father wanted me to be a lawyer. I wanted to study Theatre Arts but he insisted I must study Law first and that I could act after I was through with Law.

I love criminal law and you could see that in my movies like Agbefo, Etanu, Taiwo Taiwo. It was after Taiwo Taiwo was released that the rumour about Oga Bello son and I started.

I was frustrated when I didn’t get movie roles after playing lead character in ‘I Need to Know’ for four years.
My mother has been there for me. She’s been very supportive. Back then she would drive me down to auditions. I started with ‘I Need to Know,’ a T.V series sponsored by UNNPA. I was in ‘I Need to Know’ for four years when I was in Unilag. It was about sex education, HIV/AIDS. I played a secondary school teenager and I had to learn how to talk like a teenager for me to fit into that character because i was not a teenager when I was playing that role. After ‘I Need to Know’, I thought I’d get movie roles easily because I was a lead character in ‘I Need to Know’ but it wasn’t forthcoming. I attended auditions. I acted in one or two English movies, ‘Egg of Life’, ‘Prison of Passion’ but it wasn’t forthcoming and I got frustrated. I moved into the Yoruba movies. I kept on attending auditions and they didn’t give me role and I didn’t know why. I believe it wasn’t my time then.

English movie makers have a lot to learn from their Yoruba counterparts.
The Yoruba movie industry people are very wonderful people. They gave me the break, the big opportunity. They were very good to me. I went into the Odunfa caucus where you have Yinka Quadri, Ogogo (Taiwo Hassan), Abbey Lanre is the director then and they accepted me. I started with one scene, two scenes, three scenes, sub-lead and then major roles. I believe we have better stories in the Yoruba movies. I’m not rubbishing English movies but I’ve watched some of them and after the first disc I just move on to something else. They have a lot to learn from us. Non-Yorubas can watch our movies because we subtitle in English. The only thing I think Yoruba movies should be doing is to shoot better movies. The English movies pay better but we are like a family where you can say when you do your movie, I’ll help you. We help each other but now we’ve improved. You can pay an artist as much as N500 000- N600 000 now. The market is becoming very big. I don’t really know who who the highest paid artistes are but I know that I pay my artist very well. I don’t know about others. Look at Jenifa, Olasco is always smiling to the bank. Each time I call him he’s always excited to pick my call. He made a lot of money from the film.

My saddest day was the day I was searched for drugs at the airport.
The worst thing that has been said about me was that Funke Akindele was caught carrying drugs at the airport. It was reported in a soft-sell magazine. Someone called me to tell me and I couldn’t believe it. I just broke down and wept. I felt so bad I had to start calling some friends in the media to write that I’m in Nigeria. It was the saddest moment of my life. I had to let people know it was a lie. I was even advised to feature on a show “Today on STV” but I declined. It was a big rumour. One woman abroad was just calling. Soggy was crying on phone when she called one of my friends and my friend connected her to me. When I told her I was at home, she shouted Halleluyah.

This is the first time I’ll be saying it. I was going to London around June last year with Virgin Atlantic and after I’d passed the immigrations, a guy just stopped me and said hello. He asked where I was going to and I told him London. He asked me what I was going to do and I asked what business that was to him. I told him I was going on holiday. He said he wanted to check to see if I had drugs on me. I queried his right to search me and he now brought out his ID. It was my first time and I felt bad. I was sad. They wrote down my name and asked me to go in and step on the scanning machine. I wasn’t smiling and I dropped my bag very close to me so that they would not drop something inside it. After the search the lady started mentioning all my movies and apologised, saying they had searched other top Nigerian artistes. I had to write my name as negative. I walked away and I saw Nigerians being chained, young, handsome guys caught with drugs. Though they were doing their duty, I still felt very bad.

The first time I went to London in October, 2007 they brought dogs to search us while the whites are passing freely and I said to myself, ‘see what we have brought on ourselves with yahoo yahoo, internet dating, drugs and the rest’. One of my friends, a big boy, was travelling to America and he was about bringing out his passport at the immigrations he now brought out Jenifa’s jacket. The American guy said oh bigs boy and I just said God thank you under my breath. They know me and I want them to know me more. Let me fly this flag positively, let them appreciate Nigeria through me and the movies I produce. I’m going to do something about that too to re-brand Nigeria. I’ll let people laugh and learn. Let us write scripts about these vices. Let me use the issue of yahoo yahoo guys. Let’s highlight things that Nigerians are doing that they would appreciate outside here, shoot it with international flavour that can cut across. By the time you show it in Hollywood they will appreciate it. You don’t shoot movies with one stupid camera and you believe they will watch it there. Do it and let them see Nigeria and the positive side.

The happiest day of my life
When my marketer called me that he really made a lot of money from my first movie Ojo Ketala, that was my happiest day in the movie industry.

Nollywood can produce its own Slumdog Millionaire
The technical aspect of our movies needs to be improved on. We are still far behind. As I watched Slumdog Millionaire, I kept on saying to myself I can do this. We can get professionals. What we need is funds. I watched D’Banj’s musical ‘Suddenly’ and it was shot with the Red Dot. The making was shot with the P2 and now in Nigeria we still are shouting I’m going to shoot my next movie with P2. If D’Banj brought P2 and Red Dot to shoot the musical, why can’t I do something like Slumdog Millionaire? Let’s do something with a good theme. Slumdog Millionaire was able to break into Hollywood because of that theme. We don’t yet have very strong themes and we are way behind technically.

As a producer it depends on how deep you can think even as a writer. When I was writing Jenifa I just wanted to cut across the teenagers, undergraduate, the females and all that and at the end of the day a lot of people appreciated Jenifa. It depends on how deep you can think as a writer and as a producer it depends on how deep you can treat a good script. We are trying, I’m still young in the industry and with the little time I’ve spent I think we are growing. Way back we didn’t shoot movies as good as this we didn’t have something as good as ‘Amazing Grace’, we are growing.

My dream is to make a great impact in the movie industry. All I have is given to me by God. I didn’t go to school to study it. When I write, my inspiration comes from God. So what I want to do in this industry is to make it grow, let the outside world appreciate our movies. I want the likes of Will Smith to watch my movie and say waoh, Nigeria is great because they watch Indian movies and they don’t speak English in Indian movies. They just subtitle. Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars. I want my own movies to get to that stage. I believe Jenifa is good enough to win an Oscar if it had been produced with international standard, if we have such equipment that was used to shoot Slumdog Millionaire.

My two big projects, Dasofunjo and My Choice will feature Genevieve and other big stars
I want to shoot two dance movies. I don’t have the money yet. One is in Yoruba, the other is English, Dasofunjo and My Choice. I want our parents to encourage their children to discover their talents. Everybody cannot be a doctor or a lawyer. It’s about the dancer that belongs to a family of lawyers and then one of the children said daddy I want to be a dancer; daddy I want to study theatre arts and the daddy said No you must study law and if you do not meet the cut off I’ll disown you. She did not meet the cut off. Daddy issues another ultimatum: if you don’t pass the diploma in Law I’ll disown you.

She did not pass and he did disown her. She had to move into the ghetto, joined the dance team and at the end of the day she became so popular and her father accepted her. If we want to shoot that movie we have to rehearse for like three months. I want our stars to dance. I don’t want it to be the professionals, I want to see the likes of Genevieve , myself and other stars do break dancing, traditional bata. The lead would be a professional dancer. that’s Ka dofee but I want the stars on set to be good. We’ll be rehearsing for three months and for me to bring Genevieve out of her home for three months, you know how much I’ll be paying her. I’ve not told her she’s going to see this for the first time.

Doris Simeon broke the news of my AMAA award to me on phone
It was Doris Simeon that was calling me and giving me blow-by-blow account of the event, who what and which film was nominated for what category until they called my name and then my mum called too. I just said thank God. Everybody is saying I’m big; she won Future Awards, Dynamix, City People but I’m not seeing it. I believe God is the one who has made it all possible.

Without God there is no me
I am very close to my God. He means everything to me. Without God there is no me. All my life I’ve been born again (laughs), I attend Mountain of Fire and Miracles. I don’t allow myself to be distracted when I go to church. I just greet everybody but when it’s time to pray I face my God. My church is very serious when it’s time to pray. Maybe after the service people walk up to me but while praying, there’s nothing like that and they do not frown at any of the roles I play.
I look back and the journey was so rough. Back then when I was looking for the right opportunity, trying to be known. When I went into acting I didn’t go into acting because of money or fame. I had the talent, I just wanted to display, exhibit, and the urge to do it was in me. The journey was rough. I’ll say things like at least give me a role even if it’s just one scene, it was rough.

Taibal boutique gave shoes worth N1m
I was at Taibal yesterday and the boutique gave me shoes worth a million. I tried the shoes on, beautiful shoes, I was given this bag too there, I just said God I thank you. Everybody is appreciating me it is you they are appreciating. it is you they are praising because you gave them to me.

I was sad ‘Apaadi didn’t win any award at AMAA
The Nigerian movie industry is lagging behind. From the little I watched of ‘From a Whisper’ from Kenya, it is technically sound, the picture is tight. I submitted Apaadi, I tried in Apaadi technically but I saw films that are way ahead of Apaadi .But I think next year we should be better. iI we want to produce any movie now, we really have to get the professionals. When you are given money, we should not think of what we want to gain. Finish the job first, do something very good so that when people see it they will come for more and you’ll make more money out of it. For AMAA I felt bad about it. Apaadi did not win any award and I felt bad, with all the my special effect I felt this is it and we were going to win many awards but when I got there I met my seniors. We have to really match that standard.

I trekked long distances for audition, wept inside toilets and buses and I almost gave up.
The journey has been long and tortuous but my mum, a gynaecologist has been very supportive. After God it’s my mum. She was there for me and she’s still there for me. When I felt like stopping she’d say no you have it in you, keep going. Frustration almost made me stop. I remember one day at about 6.30am I was going to Tobe Restaurant at Surulere (Lagos) where they had the auditions then and I misplaced my wallet. I had to trek from Ojuelegba to Kilo bus stop. When I finally got there, I put down my name and I was called me for the audition. I stood up and read my lines, acted, scaled through the first and second stages. At the last stage they said ‘sorry o your name is not there’.

I remember had not taken lunch that day. I had no money to go back home and I trekked a long distance. I got home tired and my mum kept on encouraging and assuring me that I would eventually make it. I remember another experience after ‘I Need to Know’. My director was an American who knew so much about production and we were well paid because ‘I Need to Know’ was aired on almost every station and DSTV. All I learnt on that set helped become a good producer because my producer educated us on many things. After ‘I Need to Know’ I felt I should get all the major roles but it didn’t happen that way and I had to cross into the Yoruba movies. I remember Fathia Balogun called me that a producer wanted new faces and that I should come over. I went, got auditioned and I was told to go on location. The day I was going to shoot, my box was so big. I packed lots of costumes thinking I was going to play a lead role and I went on set and appeared in just two scenes. I was so sad. They gave me three thousand naira. I went into the toilet and I cried. I remember Tayo Odueke (Sikiratu Sindodo) coming to meet me and saying ‘Funke stop crying, one day we will make it.’ I carried my box into the bus (public transport) and I was just crying in the bus, but I knew I will make it some day. When I look back today, I say God I thank you. For me to be there today I give God the glory.

I look like my father
My father is a wonderful man, Reverend G.O Akindele of the Methodists Church. He was the Vice Principal of the school I attended, Lagos State Model College. He’s retired now. He’s very wonderful, very liberal, easy going. My mum was always beating us then because she believes in beating but my father always talked to us. I’ll lie to my mum when she asked if I did something because I knew she would beat me but my dad would say Funke please tell me did you do it and I’d say yes I did it and he’d believe me and warn me not to do it again and I would not want to do it again because of my father. The day my father appreciated what I’m doing was the day I went to his school and the students refused to go back into class. He said, ‘so this is what you do. No wonder, you are a star o.’ He also called me to congratulate me for AMAA. I look like my father.

Success is when Funke Akindele wins an Oscar
To be successful in life, you really have to be focused, determined. Some say Funke Akindele is there and she’s successful now but no this is just the beginning. We have to start doing something good now. For success to keep coming we have to work hard. People say I’m already a success story but I’m yet to get there. When international stars acknowledge Funke Akindele, when I win an Oscar, when my movie is being appreciated outside these shores, that is when I will accept that I’m successful.
A producer once told me to come and meet him in a hotel and I told him to go home and sleep with his mother.

To be successful as an actress, you have to be focused, dedicated, patient. When you come there don’t be intimidated, don’t compromise. I don’t waste time. When I’m on set to work I’m there to work. People tell me I’m too disciplined, what’s your problem? Are you the only good girl? They tell me that. I remember I have been indirectly harassed by a producer who once told me he’d give me a script and let me play the lead role but I must come and meet him at one hotel. I looked at him and told him he was mad. I said, ‘you want to sleep with me abi, do you have a mother? Go home and meet her and sleep with her.’ That was what I said because I was so angry. He didn’t come out straight but I’m sure that was what he meant. As an actress, do not compromise, don’t be dejected when you are rejected. Your time will come.
People say to get to the top in Nollywood, one must kiss ass to get to the top but I did not kiss any ass but I beged for roles though, like saying please remember me in your next movie o.

I joined the Odunfa Caucus through Fathia Balogun
In the Yoruba movie industry you have to belong to a caucus. There are different caucuses like AKO (Awada Kerikeri Organisation) led by Oga Bello, Jide Kosoko, Odunfa caucus led by Yinka Quadri . There is also the caucus of Muka Ray, Ray Eyiwunmi, Lasun Ray. We have lots of them. It depends on the one you want to join but they are all the same. They all produce Yoruba movies and act in Yoruba movies. I joined Odunfa through Fathia Balogun and Iyabo Ojo. They belong to Odunfa caucus too. I met Fathia Balogun on set the production I was given three thousand naira I met Iyabo Ojo there too. That was how I got into the caucus.
In the Yoruba movie industry you get registered, get a form. You will be interviewed so they’ll get to know whether you can act or you just want to be laying about and if you are not good at all you’ll need rehearsals. If you pass you go for production and you get registered under the Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners, ANTP.

My next big role will be to play the role of an old woman.
So far, Jenifa is the most difficult role I’ve ever played. I had to learn how to speak like that but the character I want to play next is that of an old woman. I don’t want to play an old woman like any other person will do. I want to spend like six months each with three different old women and I give it to Garbazini, he’s a good make-up artist. I watched the movie where he made Mike Ezuruonye into an old man. The make-up was tight and Mike acted it very well. So I will get Garbazini to do the make-up. For me to do that, I want to learn how to talk like an old woman. I don’t want to mess myself up on set. I’ll spend six months each with the three old women, two educated and one illiterate. The way to interpret a role is by reading your script, understanding the character.

My favourite actors and actresses
I respect Bimbo Akintola especially when she’s acting emotional scenes. She’s a deep actress. She is one actress that makes me shiver. I give it to Bukky Wright, Sola Shobowale (I prefer Aunty Sola when she’s wild), Liz Benson, Joke Silva, Olu Jacobs, Kate Henshaw, Mercy Johnson, Nonso Diobi, Micheal Ezuruonye, Chioma Chukwuka.

Very soon, there will be Jenifa wigs, bigz boy shirts…
No I’m not doing anything on Funke Akindele for now but we are doing some thing on Jenifa. We are branding Jenifa, we are coming out with Jenifa wigs, weavon, accessories and we are coming out with bigs boy chain, bigs boys shirts, clothing lines. There will be Jenifa face caps, handbags, purses. We are building a brand around Jenifa.

On my first day in higher institution, I screamed ‘free-at-last’
I felt like someone that has just been released from the prison because at home you have to be inside the house. The lesson teacher would come and meet you in the house. She was a disciplinarian. All she did then was to tell us ‘remember the daughter or the son of whom you are, don’t live a fake life, be prayerful, be focused’ and she made sure we went to the best schools. She’d rather sell her jewellery or the last thing she had on her than allow her child go to a public school. I’m happy I have been able to buy her a car.
When she dropped us in our hostel then in her 504 and drove off I just screamed free at last and my elder sister was just crying that she would miss her mummy. Me I would dress up and go out, take money from my pocket money to buy jeans to look good. I felt free, happy at last.

I intend to marry and still remain in the industry
I’m not afraid of marriage. I intend to make it work by being myself, being submissive. I don’t believe because I’m a star on the screen I should be a star at home. I would keep my home away from the public and be a good mother. I want to be happily married and stay in the industry.

Olasco and I
I respect my marketer because he’s been there for me. If I tell Olasco I need N20m to produce this movie he will give it to me because he believes Funke Akindele can do it, she has it in her but for others if that’s is it then its wrong but for me. I respect the marketers because they are giving us money to produce movies, they are good, when they see a good story, a good producer, they will drop their money. They sell and pay off the producer and I respect them for that. Then as per the car for my mum, my marketer knows one or two motor dealers, I told him I wanted to get my mum a car and he has to give me some money to add to the one I have with me because my money is with him. He still has two or three of my movies that are not yet released. So we called the car dealers and I told them I will drop my own share of the money in their account and Olasco will balance. That was what happened with the issue of the car.
I don’t see marketers as God. If we see other people to give us funds they might be the one running after us.

Femi Adebayo is just a colleague
It is not true that Olasco has stopped using Femi in his movies. It’s a lie, I finished Ijaola three months ago, Femi played the lead role there and Olasco is marketing Ijaola. I have not even met Femi’s wife. I don’t know her, I’ve not met her, we’ve not spoken before. She has not called my phone. Femi and I only have a working relationship. Our relationship is all about j.o.b. Femi is just a friend and colleague.
Girls, get educated, stay away from drugs and ‘aristo’
My advice to the young ladies out there “you can use what you have to get what you want” by discovering your talent, the special thing God has given to you and make good use of it to be celebrated. Don’t sleep around, don’t believe in aristo, be focused, get educated and come out in flying colours, stay away from drugs, stay away from sex and if you must do it protect yourself.
I want to thank my fans for appreciating me. Without God and my fans there wouldn’t have been Funke Akindele and there won’t be anybody to celebrate Jenifa.

By Mike Awoyinfa (MD), Dimgba Igwe (DMD), Steve Nwosu, Funke Egbemode and Samuel Olatunji.