Princess Charming: Dolapo Oni
Small but perfectly formed is all I can think of as I meet Dolapo Oni for our interview in London. In person, she is way more dazzling than photographs can do justice. She is fully made up for the final show of Wakaa the Musical in London which is due to kick off in a little over an hour. As she catches the light in all the right places, it’s hard not to admire her naturally contoured face – all big doe eyes, high cheekbones and a button nose – much like a Manga character. Then again, with not a dust of make up on the first day of rehearsals, she dazzled just as bright when I first introduced myself and asked for an interview.
If there is a perfect ten, Dolapo has to be it; petite, pretty and personable. Not to mention, she has got talent to boot – not just on stage but as a TV presenter, MC and a credible actor too. There is almost a certain energy that comes right from the soul that lights up the young woman from within making her shine on and off stage. No wonder her rise to fame within months of returning to Nigeria has been a swift one.
“Do you want the long version or the short story?” she asks, with a feigned heavy sigh as I ask her about her journey into the world of entertainment. She fell in love with the world of theatre aged just 11 when she watched her first musical, Aspects of Love by Andrew Lloyd Weber at the Oxford Playhouse, while she was a student at Headington Girls Independent School. “I decided there and then that’s what I wanted to do. And of course I have Nigerian parents and they had other ideas,” Dolapo says.
“Growing up I always said I wanted to be a doctor as it sounded amazing, but of course as time went on I realised I didn’t want to do that. We had a career fare at school when I was doing my GCSEs,” she reminisces, “My mum was over in the UK for the weekend and asked me if talked to the medics for a career in medicine, and I said, ‘Mummy, the queue was really long but I did go to the drama queue!’ and she literally just went ballistic.”
Hence, as any dutiful Nigerian offspring, she had to wait until after university to pursue her passion. “I sort of suppressed it a little bit because my parents had spent so much money sending me abroad to go to boarding school and I didn’t want to disappoint them,” she adds. She put dreams of acting on the backburner, completed her A levels and a degree in chemistry from University of Bristol, and then decided “I wanted to do something for myself.” With that came applications to various drama schools and a place to study for an MA at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) in Wandsworth, London.
Dolapo went on to play key roles in numerous plays, including William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Walking Waterfall by Nii Ayikwei Parkes; In Time by Bola Agbaje; Iya-Ile (The First Wife) and God is a DJ by Oladipo Agboluaje. For her part in the latter, she received the prestigious Dorothy L Sayers Drama Award. The actress made her TV debut in the UK with the BBC mini-series Vexed.
Then, one day, six years ago, she upped and returned to Nigeria. When I remind her she is full circle back on home turf representing her homeland with Wakaa, her excitement is palpable as she squeals, “I know, how lucky am I?”
“When I first decided to move back to Nigeria and I wanted to act, everyone thought I was a bit crazy,” she continues, “‘You’ve been working in London, why do you want to move back?’ they always asked. I couldn’t really explain it. I just seemed to have this pull that I wanted to go back, I wanted to give more over in my country. And the fact that I am back in London showcasing a Nigerian musical is amazing. And it just shows you how small the world actually is at the moment; I knew it was only a matter of time that work in Nigeria would bring me back to London.”
Back in Nigeria, it didn’t take long for the young talent to make a name for herself as she started her African television career as the anchor on the MNET show, 53 Extra (formerly Studio 53 Extra) on Africa Magic, before joining Ebony Life TV as Abudu’s co-host and the cast of the South African TV series Jacob’s Cross. She has since graduated to her own show, The Marcy Project, currently on season 2 on Africa Magic. She also has called a YouTube show coming up, So You Wanna Get Married? – a talk show on love and relationships.
TV presenter, show MC, actress, media personality – there is no doubt, she is multi-talented, but how does she juggle it all?
“I don’t really sit down and think about it till someone asks me the question,” Dolapo says, “There are times when I am quite overwhelmed, then there are times where I do have a lot of time to just sit down and relax. Anyone who works in entertainment will tell you, you have great months, you have slow months, so for me that’s the balance. If every single month was crazy I wouldn’t really be able to cope. I cherish my downtimes then I can spend more time with my husband,” before she confides, giggling, “When I am really really busy he remembers the down time when I was there and at his beck and call… That’s how I juggle it!”
Off the stage, she is Princess Dolapo Sijuwade, having married her real life prince, Adegbite Sijuwade, the son of the late Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade in a lavish wedding ceremony in October 2015 following their traditional wedding in Lagos last August.
“He supports me by just being a great sounding board, if ever I am thinking of ideas for a show” Dolapo muses, “He loves entertainment as well so he is a great person to give just a different kind of perspective, especially as someone who is not in the entertainment industry as well, who is technically the consumer, the person you are trying to get across to so it is great to have his point of view.”
Still in her twenties, Dolapo seems to have aced life, ticking most boxes – a dazzling career? Tick. A dream union? Tick. A genuinely cheerful outlook on life? Tick. How does she manage to keep a level head in an industry when so many young people find fame and lose their head?
“First of all, I have to thank you for saying that,” Dolapo says, ever so humble, “You are right, some people do really get cocky but I think it’s a personality thing. Money and fame show people’s true colours, in my opinion. That means they were like that, they just didn’t have the tools to show it. For me it’s my upbringing, it doesn’t matter if I am a billionaire tomorrow or if I am the next Beyoncé; if I am acting like an idiot, my sister and my brothers and my parents would tell me to shut up and I am the youngest so I have been told to shut up for most of my life. Maybe because I started doing this later on or I started to get recognised later on in my career, I was more mature. I don’t take anything for granted; I am just happy I am doing what I like. I am not doing it to become famous; I am doing it because I enjoy it. If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, it’s going to show.”
It is clear that Dolapo is in show business for all the right reasons and reverent in her praise of others that have come before her generation to make entertainment, and theatre in particular, a viable career option. “They have set the way for everyone else,” she says, “They’ve been doing this for longer than the five years the boom seems to have happened, who have that belief that it doesn’t matter if it is going to take five years or 10 or 20, they’ve just been there, ploughing on knowing that it was going to get there. Luckily people like me have come along and auditioned and have been able to get the part.”
I ask her what advice she has for her successors now that entertainment has become a viable career option. “I would say be patient,” she responds in a heartbeat, “The misconception is that because you’ve come from abroad, you are going to walk in with your accent and everyone’s just going to bow down. A lot of the time it actually works against you; some people assume you think you are better than them so they give you a hard time.”
“Work really really hard, people like people that work hard,” she continues, “And take each day as it comes; you are going to have bad days and you’re going to have good days but if you’re really passionate about what you are doing you will hang in there. Be the best you that you can be. Don’t try to be like someone else; so you may see a friend that moved back after you and they’re doing better but that could be their season. Reasons, seasons, lifetimes – you don’t know.”
As we wrap up the interview and I find myself at the receiving end of an unexpected and big hug from this pint-sized woman, I can’t help but think, with her versatile talent, dazzling good looks, down-to-earth attitude and infectious energy, here indeed is Princess Charming – a woman for all seasons.”
Dream lead in a movie?
Idris Idris Idris… My husband’s going to kill me. Yeah. Cause he is a great actor of course.
Dream role ever?
Cersei – the king’s mother. She is so bad, she is good. Honestly! I am in awe. She is major, love it! I would love to play a role like that.
Best advice you’ve had?
To be patient.
Best thing about Lagos?
It’s energy – it is so electric. Lagos puts a fire up your backside because everybody is so quick; nobody’s waiting for you to do anything so you just have to get things done yourself. Electric!
Worst thing about Lagos?
Traffic. It’s horrific!