Funmi Iyanda: The Legend Of A Woman
Funmi Iyanda is the type of woman who walks into a room and all the walls fall down. Within minutes of her appearance, the studio is packed full of the creative team – the makeup artist, stylists and the editor.
They stand in a loose semicircle, some leaning on doorways, eyes enraptured and I envision a typical rustic Yoruba village of old: children surrounding an elder retelling the story of creation.
“It’s good to see so many women here, it makes everything I’ve done, my entire career, worth it.” Her smile has no aesthetic purpose, it does not simper, it does not ask to be liked. She smiles with a purpose.
She is the epitome of the Nigerian movie star standard: light-skinned, slim, tall and fine-boned. But the enigma that Funmi Iyanda is not in any of those features. When she speaks, her voice is low with the grating rasp and wisdom of a woman decades older than herself.
“When my father told me as he walked down our street every morning, he could hear my voice coming from every house.” She points with her finger, visualizing a row of tiny houses before her. “That’s when I knew I was famous.”
As she talks, she raises her eyebrows, a mental shrug, like we should not trust her. Like her eloquence is common place, like she doesn’t speak like a poem or an academic essay. Her intelligence is infuriating, her insouciance is alluring and her eyes have the magical ability to say they do not care how you feel about her but still care about you.
Funmi Iyanda is a human woman, although you wouldn’t know it. She’s a blogger, broadcaster, talk show host, journalist, culture figure and CEO of OYA Media with offices in Lagos and London. Her initial morning show NEW DAWN remains a quintessential Nigerian cultural staple and she’s been honoured with countless awards and recognitions including The Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, and one of Forbes 20 Youngest Power Women. She’s gone on to produce several TV series two of which were nominated at the Monte-Carlo Television festival and Banff World Media festival.
The global acclaims notwithstanding, Funmi didn’t realise she’s a woman until she grew up.
“I didn’t recognise I was a woman early enough in life,” She admits with a girlish giggle, her eyes closed while the makeup artist dusts theme royal blue. “My mother died, my father brought me and my brothers up. Nobody taught me how to be a woman.” She doesn’t sound like she thinks she’s missing out on much. Her next words confirm why. “It’s all conditioning. This is really important for young girls, because when you don’t tell them they can’t do this they won’t know they’re not supposed to do it!”
When asked about feminism she speaks on the topic admitting her “whole life is misogyny”, as being a female talk show host back then was not half as fun as it seemed. “As a journalist, I wanted to do politics and they put me in woman. I refused, what is woman?”
The upsides of her job seemed to be helping people although, sometimes it sounds a lot more like a downside. She admits several interviews made her break down in tears.
“There was one with a little boy with a hole in his heart. At some point we were calling someone on the set and the person started crying and the mother started crying and the father started crying and the boy started crying and I started crying and we were all crying. We raised enough money but sadly, he died.”
Her eyes gleam with the beginning of tears but in true performer fashion she blinks them away and changes the subject.
“I once interviewed people who were scooping petrol out of a gutter. I said you saw the big event that happened last week, you saw people burnt, do you want to die? And they said: Aunty, I never die like this? The desperation, I will never trust anybody in leadership who doesn’t understand human desperation. The basis of Shari’a that they misinterpret is the prophet says first you must create utopia. It’s a way of the prophet saying you are not in a place to judge anybody unless you create a world where they are fully human. We have to be really careful, right now, I see a lot of things that are done as a trend but in Nigeria, we can’t afford that. If you read the everyday stories, the depravity of those stories is mind boggling. That it can occur is because our system is broken. That’s why I use the term ‘tear pant’.”
That elicits more than one chuckle from our team. And like all that was missing was an adoring audience, she brightens up and begins to define the principles of ‘tear pant’.
“‘Tear pant’ is like when even your mother can’t hold you back. Because this is about your life and your future. In no time you will be 50 or 60. You have to tear pant at a certain stage, and until we get to that point, anything will happen and nothing will happen. That’s why what we’re doing now is so important and that’s why I’m challenging women, especially creatives, in this way. The role of a person who can shape the imagination is very important because you can shape how people think about things. Force them to think deeper, ask hard questions, be wise. Because without wisdom you will lose the platform you are using. Don’t let people change your art form, you’re not doing this for them, that’s why when you’re talking to people, in the back of your mind while you’re smiling, think, ‘Forget. Forget.’ Don’t allow yourself to fool yourself, others are always going to do it but you must not fool yourself, that’s my challenge for you, that’s why I came to do this interview.”
She looks into each of our eyes as she speaks and it’s easy to see why Nigeria fell in love with her. Most celebrities without the screen lose their glow. Funmi shines so brightly it’s hard to believe a square screen could ever contain her.
When asked about her legendary interview with Bisi Alimi, her shimmer dims. Funmi, it seems, is a more hurricane than a woman, her moods blow strong and hard.
“When I did that interview I did not know how much punishment I would get. I was more concerned for him than myself. I kept asking are you sure you want to do this? And he said I’m sure. As we were doing the interview on live TV I could hear the panic and I knew at that moment, that we were in trouble. I support gay rights. Sexuality is your business and it is not against our culture.
“In Yorubaland there are the pronouns O and Ẹ, it’s also similar to the idea of binary which is the underlying principle of ifa as well as computer technology. If you understand it on a more subliminal level, it means when you’re born, you’re the O entity and when you begin to advance in life and acquire the knowledge you become the Ẹ. Some think it’s about age but it’s about the fact that you are not a single entity, you are a multitude of things including your sexuality, enterprise, skill and gender. It’s very beautiful when you think about it. We have the capacity to think of people in their complexities. Western culture is beginning to grapple with it and you hear them talk about what pronouns to use when we already did that! So I come from that background of this understanding of personhood and sexuality. Thus, I would never stand in the way of a person because of whom they love or are attracted to.”
As she speaks she grows, more passionate, energising herself with her words.
“I remember a white girl who commented on the video interview with Bisi, she claimed, I wasn’t even supporting him. I’m Nigerian, I knew the interview would be dangerous so I had to be extremely careful about how I worded what I said. Then here comes this young white girl from a country which on the surface of it seem to be in acceptance of LGBT rights and prefers that support worded in certain lingo. She superimposes those expectations on me, in a Nigeria of a time where even after the interview ended, I was punished severely in ways I will not talk about, even now, until I am ready. It’s ridiculous.”
“In a world where a performance of progress has become the fad, there is a militancy about how to be progressive even to people like me who’s lived life, actions and speech speak eloquently about an abiding love for others and agitation for freedom and equity for all human beings.”
Grab a copy of the Guardian Life to read more on the media queen and how he is able to excel in her art.
Tip: It is an inset in the Guardian Newspapers.