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26 Jul

INTRODUCING SCHICK’S SUMMER DIGITAL COVER, FEATURING TV’S MAN OF THE DECADE, EBUKA OBI-UCHENDU

15 years ago, when Ebuka first walked into the Big Brother Nigeria house, his first thought was, “What the hell am I doing here?” We’re halfway through lunch, where he’s chosen an impeccable looking avocado and prawn salad, and I’m scoffing down something far less low-carb, without much remorse. We’ve arrived at a comfortable place in our conversation, real and raw where it needs to be, yet lively enough to keep things light. Interviewing a renowned interviewer takes a certain kind of proficiency because they know the answers you’re looking for (and they’re going to give them to you), but authenticity is the goal here. It’s not a Q&A session, it’s a re-introduction to the world.

A solid decade and a half after making that life-changing entrance, he’s one of the continent’s biggest names in entertainment. That absolutely comes at a price – years of pure grit, being unafraid to experiment, and strategically taking opportunities as they present themselves.

If you know anything about Big Brother, you know that the minute you walk out of these doors, success isn’t guaranteed – by any stretch. Even in the age of the social media influencer and easier transitions into the art, entertainment and culture spaces, it’s still relatively new territory and can be tricky to navigate without proper guidance (more so, if it’s 2006 and the world has no concept of who an ‘influencer’ could possibly be). The now-award winning television presenter not only lived through that time, navigating through the maze of uncertainty and discovery, but actually made a career of his then new-found fame. Seeing how he went into it (he unabashedly admits) purely for the prize money, which he planned to use to purchase a ticket out of town, it’s a pretty incredible story – one I’m rather eager to hear.

“I wasn’t really excited by the Law practice at the time. I wanted to study for a Masters abroad, then I saw an ad for this show with a $100,000 prize and that was all I needed. I really had no plans to go into the media or entertainment industry; I just wanted to win the money and disappear!” But fate had different plans. A desire to leave the country in pursuit of better opportunities was overtaken by screaming fans and a keen awareness that he had the eye of the nation on him. For the first time, Ebuka had an actual audience acutely interested in his every move.

“When I got evicted and saw the crowd outside screaming my name, I was like, wait, you mean this show is popular? I almost ran back into the House to re-strategise! It was a very eye-opening experience for me, but I was now also thrown into this world I knew nothing about; fame. I had to figure out how to make a life out of it.” Thankfully, as the audience got to see, he had developed a flair for hosting, through the various tasks the Housemates were assigned, over his eight-week stay. That ‘little hobby’ was going to become the basis of the then 23-year-old’s career.

When I press for details, the talk show host reveals he knew his place was in the media, but way before the big brands would come calling and crawling, he knew, as with most of us, he had to start from the bottom and work his way up. His first gig in the industry was a game show, Friend or Foe, which aired on terrestrial TV channel, NTA, but with an eye on prize, he was ready to take on opportunities others might look down on. “Thankfully, there were a few people willing to take a chance on me and they should get a lot of the credit too because many others didn’t think I was worth betting on.”

In 2017, more than a few of those in the latter group would be in for a surprise, when the student became the master. “I think every TV host in Nigeria, if not the continent, always has an eye on hosting Big Brother. As humans, we continuously aspire to reach the top, so from the day I started hosting my first TV show in 2006, I started picturing it. I also figured it would make for a great story, seeing a former housemate host the show, but I didn’t sit around feeling entitled to it. I got on with my work, believing the opportunity would come one day. So, when it came, I was fully prepared for it.”

Hard work is no stranger to the Nigerian Broadcasters Merit Award winner. He famously passed the nationwide Common Entrance Examinations while still in Primary 4, miles ahead of his peers. He was immediately put in the ‘whiz kid’ box and expected to go on to do great things – which, typically in Nigerian society, especially at that time, meant studying to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer. But, before I go any further, the Rubbin’ Minds host stops me in my tracks, stating there was no undue pressure from family to be anything but who he wanted to be. Considering the fact that his parents had traditional jobs, like most did, working in Banking and Nursing, I’m admittedly slightly taken aback.

“The amazing thing is that [my parents] never ever told me what to study, nor did they ever try to stop me from pursuing a career in media. Were they skeptical about it? Of course. For a while, my dad would send me vacancies at traditional jobs to apply to, even when he knew I was doing okay on TV. It was more subtle than blatant. But I think they’ve come around now and I’m always grateful for how non-interfering they were.”

Family – then and now – is something you can tell Ebuka holds dear. He lights up speaking about his early years spent in Benin, where he was born – a simpler time in the 80s, where days consisted of hours and hours of playtime, the deep red earth the city is known for beneath him, reading, attending Catholic church, getting up to no good, enjoying the carefreeness of childhood.

“I was the last child for a very long time and my siblings are much older than I am, so for a while, I was the only kid at home. My older brother and sister were away in boarding school and I was mostly home alone with the folks, which meant that I got all the attention. The downside to getting all the attention though, is that you also get all the discipline and tough love,” he says, cheekily, yet with a twinge of gratitude. “But, it was still mostly happy times.”

For the Obi-Uchendus, beyond bringing up educated, well-rounded and well-mannered children, it was of the highest importance to raise individuals who were infinitely proud of where they come from. That’s a school of thought that’s almost near extinction in Nigeria today, where an unhealthy amount of value can be placed on patterning our lives after those of foreigners, in every way imaginable. You only need to scroll through the 32-year-old’s last five tweets to know he has no interest in this desperate pursuit of globalisation at the cost of discounting one’s cultural identity.

“My parents were very deliberate with that. My siblings and I, for one, don’t have English names. Also, only Igbo was spoken at home because my parents believed that we would learn English at school anyway. I’m super grateful for that deep-rooted connection we got.” It made all the difference to the confident, self-assured man he became, someone who unequivocally believes that, as a people, we need to be more deliberate about preserving the essence of who we are. “No form of globalisation has made Asian powerhouses lose their culture today, so we have no excuse here. You only lose what you don’t value.”

On the topic of values, we ease into an exchange about the ones he holds dearest, passed down to him by his parents or picked up along the way. “Self-worth is everything. My father is the epitome of carrying his head high and walking like he owns the world, whether he’s going through a tough time or not.” Ebuka goes on to admit that this attitude sometimes gets confused with arrogance, but he knows better than to be ashamed to own his truth. “[It] can be misread by people, but I’ve learned to carry it without any apologies. Confidence is such a powerful tool.”

Being misjudged and misunderstood often comes with the territory, when you have a collective social media following of just under 5 million. For those in the limelight, a seemingly harmless 10-character post could easily land you in the middle of a Twitter storm you never bargained for. I call this: The unwanted power of fame. “I always say that Twitter is my favourite social media app because of how instant and interactive it is. But honestly, it’s not the most comfortable space to share honest opinions anymore. It used to be, some years ago, but nuance is usually lost in discourse there these days. Not being for something shouldn’t mean you’re against the other, but on Twitter, that’s the interpretation.”

“I can say, “I love rice” without it meaning, “I hate beans”; on Twitter though, that would be the conclusion.” After a slight pause, he attempts to take at least a little part of that statement back, much to my relief. “I still love it on there though; not sure any other media app compares still,” which is a conclusion I am thoroughly satisfied with. No arguments necessary.

When it comes to dealing with negativity in the online space, between hosting the biggest show in Africa and being a notable fashion enthusiast, there’s a lot of commentary that surrounds his choices. My little un-famous mind can’t quite grasp how he constantly has to deal with unwanted opinions coming from all directions. Frankly, it would drive me mad but he’s thankfully developed a coping mechanism, which largely involves tuning all the way out. The exception to this, though, is scrutiny about his fashion sense and style; that, he’s actually okay with, as long as it’s not what defines him.

“I don’t mind it. I also don’t mind being known for being stylish; doesn’t harm me in any way. I just don’t want to be known only for that. I have a whole career with too many parts to simply be seen as ‘the fashion guy’ on Instagram. As long as people appreciate it, but also recognise it as one of my many parts, I’m good. Just don’t make it what I’m all about.”

 

Image is everything in this business. The truth is, if millions of people are going to be watching you, attractiveness is key, and the lawyer-cum-journalist is all too aware of the realities of the path he chose. I can’t quite match his perceived shy, reserved nature with this personality who wants to make a clear, bold statement with his appearance, but he’s far from a monolith. When I ask about his level of involvement in the styling process for his TV appearances, without missing a beat, he tells me, “I’m completely in charge of all of it. I don’t have a stylist. Never really had one. I basically have ideas of what I want, have a conversation with the designers I like and we make it work. I’m not always comfortable with letting someone else be in charge of my image, so I’m glad that I’m able to handle that. That’s how I work.”

Fashion isn’t some new interest he’s taken up to keep up with appearances; he’s always been a keen observer, simply watching and appreciating from the sidelines, taking notes, waiting for showtime. Now, with a blossoming career, “and the funds to match my taste,” he teases, with a burst of contagious laughter, he’s ready to fully express this side of himself. “The first thing I think of when I’m dressing up is comfort. If I’m not comfortable, I’m not wearing it. Any outfit that gives me that is all I want. I’m not trying to out-dress anyone or make a statement. Yes, I like to take risks sometimes, but if it’s comfortable, looks good and makes me feel confident, that’s all I need.”

Now in a more relaxed place, both with each other and this conversation, I lightly poke around the subject of marriage, until I’m certain it’s an area I’m allowed to approach. We could easily keep it light, and talk about the highlights of his five-year marriage, or go deep and get into the details most people would want to know, but somewhere in the middle is where we end up – which I can tell is just the right place for him.

Ebuka is extremely private about his family life; protectively so. He tells me, in all honesty, he’d actually rather not speak about them, on or offline, not because he’s not proud to be a husband and father, but because they didn’t choose to live life out in the open, he did. But it’s tough, right? In the age of regularly posting the best parts of your life, it can be difficult not to show the world what matters most to you – which, in his case, is his wife, Cynthia Obi-Uchendu and two young daughters.

“If I could, I’d never talk about them or even put out images of them anywhere, but I can’t help it because I also love to celebrate them and show off how blessed I am with such an amazing wife. So, I have to balance it out and do it on my terms. But to answer your question, no it’s never a comfortable topic for me.” What he will go on to tell me, however, is how he and Cynthia – who’s an experienced human resources manager and now, Founder and CEO of a fashion label – got acquainted, and it all goes back to his favourite social media app. “I met her on Twitter. We followed each other, DM’d a few times and then kept it moving.” There’s no chance I’m going to let him stop there. Who doesn’t love a good ‘how they met’ story?

“The connection wasn’t instant, but over time I think I realised that, beyond how much of a happy person she is, our values aligned so strongly that an attraction started to form. It also helps that she has the biggest smile in the world and laughed a lot at things I said and vice versa. From the day we started talking seriously, I knew literally 2 months later that I wanted to marry her.”

Inquisitive about his thoughts on what makes their marriage work, I probe on and he gracefully obliges. “We talk about any and everything. Nothing is off-limits and that honestly helps. Knowing that, at the end of the day, you’re excited to go back home and tell your partner how your day went and hear theirs… it’s the ultimate connection for us – talking. It helps that we both like gist!” Beyond this, the father-of-two tells me he’s had to learn to give more. A natural introvert, he has the tendency to be closed off with emotions but, for him, understanding that “sharing isn’t burdening your partner, but is instead helping the issue be better resolved” has been the ultimate game-changer. “We’re evolving into a true partnership and I’m hoping it can only continue. Still a long way to go.”

If we stayed married to other people without any interference from the outside world, life would be just dandy. On a micro-scale, you’re dealing with opinions from family, friends and colleagues, but when two public figures decide to tie the knot, it’s an entirely different affair. Unfortunately, whether or not they wanted it, Ebuka and Cynthia’s relationship opened them up to a significant amount of attention – especially online – and I want to know how they handle it all.

“It’s very tough on different levels. For me, I get very riled up when she is attacked or talked about; I’m very defensive and protective of her. For her, while she’s also defensive of me, I think it’s more the fact that she was suddenly thrust into this life without knowing what to expect, so it took her a while to come to terms with it. She still fully hasn’t, but it’s a lot easier now.” So, the official mantra in their household is to ignore online commentary, because what you don’t see won’t bother you.

First came love, then marriage, and two beautiful little girls followed suit. Father’s Day is around the corner and maybe that has us both in our feelings, for entirely different reasons – mine, thinking about the good men in my life and his, thinking about how his own life has changed so much since his fatherhood journey began. Like most new parents, you think you know what to expect – dirty diapers, a bit of inconvenience and some tiredness – but you quickly find out that nothing in the whole world could have prepared you for the enormity of being responsible for another human being’s life. Every single day.

“I’ve always been ‘the favourite uncle’ to my nephews and nieces. I showed up at the right time and always said the right things. They all loved me! So, I thought fatherhood would be easy. How wrong was I. Just knowing that this human’s life is really in your hands, completely changes the game. It’s not enough to show up as an uncle and go home when you’re tired. Fatherhood is a full-time job I completely signed up for.”

Going from a man to a husband, and then a dad, it helped Ebuka gain a whole new perspective on life. “I became a lot more driven and focused; I realised I wasn’t just living for me anymore. It also helped that I was there when both my kids were born, and watching the entire process was easily the most humbling experience of my life. I started calling women superheroes after that.” Having a good relationship with his own father has also had its benefits. He’s learnt the importance of being present, making your home a refuge, mutual respect and instilling self-worth in your children from an early age.

Having taken the time to appreciate his personal growth, we delve into talks of the new season of Big Brother. For the sixth time, a select number of hopeful Nigerians, from all over the country, will battle it out to win a grand total of a whopping ₦90,000,000. Year on year, it keeps sucking audiences in, possibly because there’s just something so magnetic about watching someone else live out their life. The show’s five-time host agrees.

“There’s something for everybody on that show. It’s almost impossible to watch a season of Big Brother Naija and not see someone you can kind of relate with, no matter your class or status. So, the more you identify with someone, the more you want to root for them. The truth is, most human beings are voyeurs; we love to watch and talk about people, whether we admit it or not. So when it’s in your face, you can’t help but look. It’s such a beautiful human experiment.”

Based on the success he’s amassed on this ‘beautiful experiment’ of a show, he’s often prodded and poked with requests and questions about how to build a flourishing career in the media. Although glamourous, the industry doesn’t always offer the highest paying work, so when it comes to monetising your skill, Ebuka suggests identifying which part of the media you most have a flair for and being open to experimenting, just like he was. “Once you find what you’re really good at, it’s a lot easier to make money from it.”

Something he feels the industry is still thoroughly lacking in, however, is opportunities for ownership. “I think it’s sad that a lot of creatives are still not able to negotiate properly when it comes to owning their work. It is a tough climate here and when money talks, it’s hard to stand your ground and hold on to what you’ve created or built.” Though that may be changing now, growth is slow and a lot still needs to be done, but he’s hopeful. Nonetheless, there is some change to be appreciative of, including the respect the industry now has, as well as a lot more appreciation for what they do as ‘real work’, thanks to the input of creatives like himself.

“I’m still humbled when I get messages saying I’m an inspiration. It’s interesting because I never set out to inspire anyone. I just wanted to be good at what I do and grow as a person, on my terms. So, it always leaves me surprised and motivated whenever I hear that. Definitely an achievement I didn’t expect.”

In the last year-and-a-half or so, our lives have changed so much, and we can’t leave off this discussion without touching on how Ebuka has grown most as a person within this time. A better appreciation of good health? A clearer perspective on life? “I think mostly spiritually, not to be confused with religion. I asked myself a lot of personal questions in this time and I’ve become more in touch with myself as a person. [The pandemic has] definitely been a trying time, but I’m hopeful I’ll be coming out of it a better person.” He’s also had his fair share of hard life lessons over this period, which he tells me has brought him to a place where he refuses to hold on to unhealthy situations and taught him to let go of things that no longer serve him. That’s life advice worth soaking in right there.

At the end of the day, as with billions of us, he’s simply on a journey of self-actualisation and fulfilment. As we get ready to part ways, reach for our bags and double-check we’ve got our precious smartphones, he says, “happiness is all that matters to me, really.”

Photography Courtesy:

Photographer: Emmanuel Oyeleke | Make-Up: Chiazor Onyebadi | Styling: Tosin Ogundadegbe

Have thoughts on our exclusive cover story? Email info@iamschick.com!

Titi Adesanya
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