He launched his walk into fame six years ago in the Big Brother Nigeria show, and since then, has maintained a steady acting career.
With his role in the MNET soap, Tinsel, Gideon Okeke strikes many as an actor to watch out for. In this interview, he shares with us how he copes with the challenges of being a popular actor, and how the educational system in the country has negatively affected him.
A lot of people seem to have difficulty differentiating Gideon from the character Philips Ade Williams. So let’s start by clarifying that. How would you describe Gideon Okeke?
A critical body of work in progress.
And what are the similarities with Phillips? I am a guy of many parts, trying to find my forte and my strength. I have just basically tried to challenge myself on all frontiers; in acting, music, in compering gigs and now I am looking at producing gigs. It’s a year for me to test myself. I have worked on people’s platforms for a while and gained some repute, it’s now time for me to start producing my own gigs and put myself in the life that I want. As regards the character I play on Tinsel, I find it a compliment if people say that I play the character well enough to confuse people into thinking ‘he is probably like the guy.’ On the other hand, I also agree that Gideon hasn’t been seen in several other parts. I’m trying to increase my body of work in the sense of film, TV and Theatre, which is why I’m looking at producing films, and putting myself in the box that I want to put myself. I played the character for five years, which has helped me to gather my customers, so now is the time for me to branch out and challenge myself.
How easy was it playing a character like Phillip? I wouldn’t say it was easy, because to start with, I think I got the job from my audition, they just told me we’ll see you again and they called me that night to say ‘are you ready for the job?’ but in playing the character itself, even my employers weren’t sure, they were very sceptical because I was fresh out of Big Brother. They had their own scepticism about investing in a huge show and giving me the responsibility of a lead role. I admire the character Phillip. As regards his drive, his dress sense, we have those in common. He is spontaneous and I am the most spontaneous person you know. I feed from him and he feeds from me, the things I admire in him I take, I wear the toga on Gideon and the things that I don’t really quite admire on Gideon, I lend them to Phillip to help the character and give it something. Don’t forget Phillip Ade Williams is a living, walking character in the city of Lagos or anywhere in the world. There are people that actually are like him.
What was growing up like for you, especially in a place like Ajegunle? Lonely. My father did the best he could to keep me away from the vagaries of the hood. I grew up in the hood, I’m street smart, but I didn’t really indulge per se, and I wouldn’t say I was sheltered, but my father made sure that I didn’t just mix up with anybody. I would read my books, newspapers, watch TV shows, and he never spoke to me in any other language but English, which was an unusual thing in Ajegunle. People admired that, my neighbours especially, because my father insisted nobody speaks any other language to me but English, so I only spoke English and Igbo. Igbo to my mum, English to my dad and everyone else, except pidgin to my friends. I knew what was going on, I was a street man to that level, but I didn’t mix up with the crop of people from there and I think that has given me a good balance in life to understand what the worst is and to aspire to be amongst the best.
And then you got admitted into Nnamdi Azikiwe University to study bio- chemistry but in your final year, you opted out to… (Laughs) you know my story
So, why did you make that decision?
I wouldn’t say it was sense of foresight because right now I think, you know those times when you think back and go like ah, omo thank God oh. I imagine if I had not done Big Brother, where would I have been, probably still living in my father’s house in Ajegunle. I cannot disenfranchise from Big brother being my break, I cannot but give credit to what Big Brother did for me. Everybody has a break, everybody has an opening into something, Big Brother was mine. Now when I look at it, I’ll be like if I hadn’t done that, I’d probably have come up with my degree and be chasing work on the streets of Lagos.
And now what is happening to your certificate?
No disrespect to the effort my father put into it, going broke and hungry to make sure that I got an education but I’m a product of poor guidance counselling, like many Nigerian youths are. Victims of poor, inadequate guidance counselling, I went to school because JAMB gave me 183 and I looked through the courses which I could study with 183 and saw Bio-Chemistry was the closest to Medicine or Pharmacy and those are the respectable professional courses. I was in the wrong class all the time. Mercy Johnson is a living witness. We were class mates in Nigerian Navy Secondary School, Port Harcourt. I should’ve been in the art class from the beginning, that’s why I say I am a victim of poor guidance counselling. I do not believe in 6-3-3-4 of the Nigerian Educational System.
And why is that? Because there are specific programs that you can get yourself involved with and start a career from age 18. In New York, a Chinese man gave me some advice; he said at every point in your life make sure you are at par with your best of your contemporaries in any field you find yourself. If you are an 18 year old fashion designer, be at par with the 18-year-old in China, Dubai or Mexico; follow your mates as they go because trends change time changes. That has helped my life. Now, everybody who is hot, I check their age, what they are doing, and I try to push so when you call the first three artists if I no dey there na problem, but you know they might have not called me yet, I might not have gotten that tag yet, but if I don’t have the first starting 11 shots, put me on the bench, I might be your super sub.
Let’s go down memory lane. It’s been six years since the Big Brother Nigeria show. What are some of the best memories of the house? I’ve left that behind, I have moved on. I am more driven by where my mates are now. Katung is a film maker now, I’m so proud of that. Ebuka is probably chasing politics, the way it’s looking, and he’s a kid I respect so much. I love the way his mind works, I respect him and Katung so much. And to dispel the rumor, not everybody who went into the Big Brother house has to be on TV; the rest of them went to look for day jobs. Some in the banks, some into private businesses. We have all grown and come into our own, so I’m more driven by where we are now.
Are there things you wish you had done differently?
My late dad said ‘Son I am very proud of you. You have yourself proud, you have made the family proud but I have one personal beef with you.’ He said that to me in my hotel room and he was like, ‘why chase one girl, when you can face the money, get the money and get all the girls?’ He was joking but serious and we laughed about it and he just tapped me on the back and I was like maybe that was what I should have done differently, but no disrespect to the lady I was involved with, she is an amazing person…everything has gone right. I didn’t plan it, I am a testimony to what you ask for is what you get because I am here because I asked for it. I prayed, I fasted, I gave. I asked to be here,so this is not a mistake at all.
And what is the situation of things between you and the lady?
We’re cool. We talk and all, but everybody is busy chasing their lives.
But then in the house, were you nurturing any ambition with her or it was just a normal play?
It was not normal. Nobody understands what Big Brother does to you when you aren’t there. I can’t start going over it, I like to leave all those memories behind, but nobody will understand, I repeat nobody and I hope that people who have been in Big Brother will probably read this and reckon with what I am saying. Nobody will understand what goes on in Big Brother, it is beyond just a personality contest. They mess with your mind a lot, if you want to have an experience of BBN, go into a Nigerian prison cell. Is it that bad? The difference is like you are under house arrest and given all the perks, but they are messing with your mind, you’re talking to someone you don’t know. You don’t know how big the show is on the outside, you don’t know how big your impact or influence is outside until you come out, but you come out and you still don’t know what’s going on; nobody will understand until you have been there really.
Do you wish you won?
The cross of the winner. Everybody turns on you, everybody expects something from you. I thank God that I didn’t win. No disrespect to Katung, Uti and the likes of them, they have made good for themselves, but extra hard you have to work, because now you are not doing it for yourself, but to feed the perception of people because they know you have won. They work for the people’s perception, the good thing is I didn’t win, so I wasn’t working to impress anybody, I am working to impress Gideon first and it’s been beautiful.
Let’s talk about Tinsel. How did the journey start?
One night, I went to the club with my friends; the day before, we’d all gotten the text message for an audition. I got back home, I was squatting with my friend, Chinedu in Surulere, at that time and next morning I was like ‘o boy I wan go that audition o.’ We were all drunk from the club, and he was like ‘dey go jo I no dey go’ and I went and came back and I was like ‘I don get am o’ and he was shocked. He also talks about the story, he says it all the time like you know when something is cut out for you, the stars align. If I hadn’t gone who knows what would have happened?
Prior to the audition, had you ever tried acting? Which is why I say it’s not a mistake where I find myself, I have been acting since I was six in primary school. My headmistress loved me so much, apparently for my acting skills. I have been acting since I was in secondary school; I directed all the stage plays and other people as well, as a kid. My English teacher put a lot of trust in me, and would buy books and give me. I was [also] the head of debating and drama society, she used to give me books to read and ask me to direct it for the next play, so I’d read and gather my mates, do something and then present it to her and she used to take credit for it. I did it from my JS1 till SS3. When I went into university, I [used to] finish from my class, run to Nonso Diobi’s class in theatre arts, and help them pack the drums, but Nonso never knew me then. Now I tell him, dude, we went to the same school and I was always in your class, he is like wow! It was no mistake at all, I only got professional training 2 years ago.
You’ve been on Tinsel for 5 years. What’s next for you? Well, your body never warns you when it wants to grow. When you are sleeping that’s when it grows. That’s my answer for that, when the time comes, I will do the right thing but until then, we will keep doing the best that we can night after night to put in a good show. Enough respect to MNET and MULTI CHOICE for creating a platform like this for us to do what we know how to do, this is the best place in Nigeria where actors can come and play, about 30 actors and 80 crew members. Respect for MNET, nobody can take that way from them, they have come to empower Nigerians, so just pray that our industry is more structured so things can go right, our industry is not structured so we you know just get by.
There was a controversial post on twitter, dissing the writers. Was there you were trying to achieve with that?
Nothing. I wasn’t trying to get at anyone, just so the world knows I had to go and make an apology to the writers and producers of the show.
How do you cope with attention from female fans considering the fact that you are a bachelor? Well, I am in a serious relationship at the moment, and I am loving it.
Is she in the movie industry as well? Never.
Why not? I am not saying that they are not worth it; they are, but I don’t want to be a visiting dad or a visiting lover or a visiting dad. I want to be at home on a Tuesday so if my wife can’t make it to pick the kids from school, I’d go pick them up. It’s something to say ‘daddy has to come to pick me up,’ that’s who I want to be to my kids, [and] if I dated an entertainer who probably would also have to be on the road, what time will we have for the kids. I want someone who will bring me down to earth, who is my resource person. I want to be grounded on the traditional, old school essence of marriage. I don’t want to be a visiting dad, that’s why I will never do a nine-to-five job. I don’t see myself there. I want to be at home on Mondays, get my wife dressed, take my kids, come back home and chill, go to work on Tuesday, come back home on Wednesday. Have a day off and spend time with my family, I don’t think that could work for me if I dated an entertainer. What if she was as famous as me, or her job is as demanding as mine is? We wouldn’t have time for ourselves. I love to love, I’m clingy, very clingy. I love time in a relationship, I don’t want to be on the phone with you, its crap.
So what does she do? No, let’s not talk about her now
Away from that then, share with us some personal bits. What is your favourite meal? Swallows. When I travel I eat everything, but once I am home, swallows, don’t understand anything. Once you put a menu in my front, I go blind. All I want is swallow.
What is your favourite hangout spot? My favourite spot has to do with the right people. It’s more about the people I’m with than the place. It can be anywhere, once I am with the right people.
How do you relax when not at work? I’m a karaoke buff. Thank God my girlfriend now understand that I am a karaoke man, I hang out with friends at the beach. My dogs, I walk them daily, even people in my estate know me now because I walk them daily.
What does style mean to you? Freedom. Whatever takes away my freedom has probably killed me, which is why I buy boli on the road and not care what people say.
You still do that? I don’t care. People expect this and that, forgetting that I am someone’s child, someone’s lover, someone’s cousin and someone’s friend. You call me the star, you conferred stardom on me. I am working as an actor, same way you are working as a Bank manager or okada rider, you are trying to make ends meet, put food on the table, I am doing the same too. I grew up in AJ, so why should I be different? I don’t have a reason to be proud, arrogant, and I don’t have to be anything you say, which is why I do things that I feel like doing. Once it makes me happy, As regards fashion, as far as I look good in it. My girlfriend yabs me sometimes that I have a wack sense of style, and I’m like, that’s why I have you to help me out because she is very fashionable.
Finally, what advice can you give youngsters? Find that thing you love, get education in it and do it like nothing else counts. I don’t believe in 6-3-3-4, it slows people down. It’s too long. 16 years. If you get a 16 year old in Nigeria that has completed that program without strike, without lack of money and put him at par with the 16 year olds in Asia, the guys making your iPhones and laptops, they’re miles away from the 16 year old Nigerian. Why do we have GED, TOEFL, SAT I want to see my kids in fashion or art school. There are specific courses for every discipline, so when you complete your high school education, I’m sending the child to do that thing they love. In fact I will know that thing and invest in that child, he/she will go and learn anywhere in the world, because if I had started earlier I would be bigger than this, but I thank God for where I am. I’m comfortable with my space and still looking ahead. I won’t slow my child down with Nigeria’s educational system, it has failed. You graduate from university today and I put you with a graduate from Asia who is your age met, they gap you, we learn theory here, they learn the practical aspect.