SHE WAS described as ‘Nollywood’s Julia Roberts’ by Oprah in 2009, yet Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji has doubled Roberts’ film count – with a total of 80 credits to her name – in a career that has spanned almost two decades.
Making her television debut at the tender age of eight, Nnaji has gone on to become one of Nigeria’s hottest and most successful faces.
From 2003’s Blood Sister, alongside fellow Nollywood star Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, to the more recent blockbuster Half of a Yellow Sun, opposite London-born Hollywood actor Thandie Newton and 12 Years a Slave’s leading man, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nnaji has revelled in a cross-section of scripts in the ever-competitive industry.
Much like Nollywood, which is now the second biggest film industry in the world, Nnaji has worked incredibly hard to get to the top, a feat she says she owes to the West African market, which launched her onto the world’s stage.
“We’ve been churning out films for years now and we’ve managed to break into the homes of millions of people around the world,” she says. “There are a lot of success stories that have come out of [the Nollywood film industry].”
And Nnaji is definitely one of them.
The 35-year-old actress, the fourth of eight children, was born in Mbaise, Imo State, Nigeria, into a strict middle class Catholic family. Her father is a retired banker and her mother a schoolteacher.
Though the actress completed all her studies, she shunned ‘conventional’ professions like her parents and opted instead for career in the arts.
However, she is quick to point out that her 19-year-old daughter Chimebuka, who is the same age Nnaji was when she found fame, won’t do the same.
“I think we have enough entertainers in our family quite frankly,” she laughs.
On her journey in film, the softly-spoken star said: “[When I did my first television appearance] I was eight, we were pretty much just playing around.
“I was a child model and there was an opportunity for any child actors to come in and perform and the best way they could do that was to go into an agency and that’s how I got involved at an early age. I went back to school, so it wasn’t like a continuous process. Coming back into it, I was 19 and it was something that I wanted to do by that time. I didn’t know it would take me this far though, but I’m grateful, I can’t complain. So far, so good.”
In 2005, Nnaji won the Best Actress in a Leading Role at the inaugural Africa Movie Academy Awards and earns an estimated N2.5m (£9,375.33) –N3.5 m (£13,125.42) per Nollywood movie.
It’s quite apt to note here that the West African movie machine employs over a million people, churns out approximately 2,500 movies a year, most of which go direct to television and DVD across the continent and further abroad.
She said of her success in a recent interview: “For a long time I kept thinking, OK, this is just temporary, definitely I’m going to go back to school and read law, English or something.”
But after film number 15, it’s probably safe to say the actress had found her calling.
And having conquered many milestones in film, the award-winning star has moved into fashion, recently launching her new line, St Genevieve, described as “the epitome of elegance, created for women with sophistication at its core,” in her Nigerian hometown.
“[St Genevieve] is me basically trying to ease myself slowly and softly into the market. By recreating my personal style into my fashion label, I am creating this collection that brings to life strong and sexy pieces for every woman to look good. I’m definitely going to do a men’s line in the future and go crazy with the styles,” she says.
But in the first instance, Nnaji has drawn on her own “conservative” style for inspiration. She has also joined forces with Jumia, Africa’s leading online shopping destination, which enables her to sell her designs all over the continent.
“They’re the biggest retail store we have in Africa, so having them as partner is amazing, I couldn’t ask for more.
Our partnership gives us the opportunity to reach other countries in Africa so it’s a good platform to distribute.”
Her ultimate aim, however, is to see her designs, which is themed around pieces from chic to casual, worn all over the world, especially in the UK.
“We have Nigerians and Africans all over the world, there are thousands of them in the UK. It would be a great thing to be able to see my line stocked in retail stores around in the UK.
“We’re working on that as we speak. We’ll try and target major stores to ensure we reach everyone who identifies with me and my style.”
Even without fashion, Nnaji’s influence around the world is undeniable.
With over 1.4 million fans on social media, her transition from film to fashion looks set to be as seamless as her most coveted dress from her line, but something that may not be so smooth is her acceptance of the word “role model”.
“I don’t put pressure on myself by considering myself a role model. I don’t think that’s what I set out to be when I wanted to act, but along the way, I guess that’s what I have become. For me, I feel whatever I am doing; I will always be true to myself.”
What she is more that willing to accept is the effect her success has on fellow dark-skinned women, coming from a country that is thought to have the world’s highest percentage of women using skin-lightening agents.
She says: “People need to definitely erase the mindset that any other colour is better than your colour. I think it’s a complex. I am dark-skinned, I know who I am inside, forget the skin. I think darker-skinned women should really focus on the inner beauty and not allow somebody else’s complex or insecurities to overshadow their confidence.”
Culled From Voice