Rosemary Nkem Okeke is former Miss Nigeria between 1984/85. She is the first beauty queen Nigeria ever had. After her reign, she ventured into fashion and tourism, which she had passion for. That led her into active politics, as she was appointed Special Adviser /Imo State Liaison Officer, Abuja. Thereafter, she was sent to Lagos as Imo State Liaison Officer where is presently serving. In this interview, she spoke on her life, beauty pageant experience, fashion and how she joined politics.
How was your growing up like?
My dad was one of the senior officers working in the palm plantation research as head of the agronomy division of Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research. NIFOR is one conservative place out of town. But they had everything that they needed, and that was the kind of place that I grew up and I guess that is part of what forms my person then and now. I would say I grew up in a very loving family, though parents were quite strict. As children, we were not allowed to do just anything we wanted. We were not allowed to go to parties and stuffs like that. My father, being a core agriculturist, ensured that once he got back from the farm, we would go with him to the farm. He had a large farm and we helped out with the ones we could do.
That means you did little of farm work even as a child born in urban area?
Yes, I did farming, especially during harvesting. And after harvest, we would help in the piling of the corns. In fact, my siblings and I were always there to do our own bit. That basically, was what formed my childhood.
Are your parents still living in Benin City?
Unfortunately, I lost my father as I was rounding up as Miss Nigeria in 1985 and my mother died in 2015.
How did you join the Miss Nigeria beauty pageant?
I went in for the Miss Nigeria pageant when I was rounding up my youth service in 1983. I did not plan to go for any beauty contest because I am a very shy person. There was a gentleman, Mr Ben Olaiya, who was running a modeling agency that encouraged me. He called me one day and said look, I think you should do this. Actually, it was not for Miss Nigeria; but for Miss Africa, a different pageant. Then, there was an advertisement for Miss Africa and Ben said, ‘ Rosemary why do not you go for it?’ Meanwhile, I was not thinking in that light. But, jokingly, I said okay, why not? I was not doing anything then; but waiting to finish my youth service and continue my education, so I had the time. That was how we started practicing for Miss Africa. But along the line, something happened. We were not hearing anything about it. I do not know what happened to the organizers. In the papers, they were not saying anything anymore. Then we started seeing the advert for Miss Nigeria. Ben then said ‘since they are not ready, why don’t we go for Miss Nigeria?’ and I agreed. I thought it was a joke and I was just having fun. That was how I saw it. He would teach me the catwalk and so on. That was how we registered for Miss Nigeria. Along the line, we got a feedback that I had been nominated for the zonal contest slated to take place in Warri, while I had already returned to Benin. It was at that point I became worried? But, Ben said ‘you are already one of the contestants for this zone; you just have to go.’ So, I said okay, let us do this and see what it would lead to. Then, we went for the zonal contest in Warri and I won. I was shocked. I said is that all? Honestly, I did not understand it. I was just having fun.
What happened after?
When I won the zonal contest, it dawned on me that this was getting serious. I was not going to go for anything national and fail. It was there in the papers and calls from friends and family members. People were getting in touch with my family. It was like ‘oh, you won! This is fantastic! You must go on and win Miss Nigeria.’ Thereafter, I asked Ben, ‘What did you put me into?’ I said to myself this is not about me anymore, I need to win. I need to make an impression. I need to be successful. To be honest, I did not like getting myself in anything that I would not do well. I decided to go all out. I asked, ‘What does it take?’ We were told your outfits and so on. That was the year they introduced the national outfits, promoting Nigerian made fabrics. We were told that we must come for our evening wears in African fabrics. So, it meant going to buy…well, the most popular then was adire. Then the issue of the talent show came up. I said wow, If it is singing, count me out. Dance? I could manage that; but everybody knows how to dance. That was my assumption. So what was it that I needed to do to stand out? I guessed that at that time, it wasn’t very popular for people who were not in the music industry to come out and play musical instruments. That was how we said okay, we had time, let us go into it. I started with the guitar, but along the line, I started having problem with my fingers. It didn’t work out. So, the time was getting short. We immediately decided to go for the piano, and as soon as I started playing that, I was enjoying it. That was how I learnt to play that. But we needed a unique tune. We couldn’t think of anything that would cut across than our national anthem. That was what I eventually presented at that time. As God would have it, everything played out well.
How did your family react to your involvement in the contest?
Honestly, my parents were very happy to have a child that went for something like that and was successful. I had their support. Before I went for the zonal contest, I did not particularly tell my father, but I told my mother. My elder brother who sponsored me at that time, also supported me. After I won the zonal contest, the whole family was behind me to make sure that I succeeded. So, they were quite happy. My siblings too were happy.
What inspired you to go into the Miss Nigeria pageant?
I went into the beauty pageant just like any other girl who wanted to showcase beauty and brain, which was what they were looking for. And, of course we did that. Though, everybody is beautiful, if you think less of yourself, that is how people will look at you. So, beauty and brain was part of that. I went to showcase my God’s given beauty, as well as be a role model that is successful to the younger generation. And, we want to be part of the agenda, the vision and the mission the organizers had in mind . That is what inspired me to be there. I also got involved to be able to get a platform to reach out to showcase what I felt that I had.
How did your reign affect your life then?
Well, of course, it made my life better because to win a national honour is a thing of joy. It only means that you have a platform to showcase yourself and all that you are hoping to be. I always loved to get into the fashion industry and I thought that would be a very good platform to showcase that. As a young girl being celebrated all over, it was a fantastic experience. I was wining and dining with top functionaries in and out of government. We were traveling. So, for a young girl, it was a good experience. I started with going for Miss Nigeria to have fun and ended up winning it. I found that winning it was also fun. And I had a lot of fun promoting the products of the company that sponsored the pageant. The pageant actually opened doors for me. Also, meeting people helped me to understand that it was just a beginning and, it was an opportunity to establish myself to move forward in life.
What were the challenges you faced as a beauty queen?
I would not call anything I faced then as a challenge because I was quite a young girl of 21 years old. That I had a lot of admirers should not be a challenge to me because it is peculiar to beauty queens. As a queen, a lot of people may want to come around to be your friends. That definitely was not a challenge. As a young girl that was single , I did not have much problems. Being someone who was born and bred in a Christian family, I embraced God early in life.
After your reign as Miss Nigeria, what followed?
After my reign as Miss Nigeria, I went into the private sector running my fashion business in particular. Obviously, I had been planning on how to bring out the beauty of people through the fashion industry. So, as soon as I dropped the beauty crown in 1985, I went into the fashion industry, which I had always had passion in.
Could you compare beauty pageantry then with what obtains these days?
I would not say that what was applicable those days and these days are the same. Presently, there is more awareness, a lot of companies and government are getting interested in what is going on in the industry. Now, they have better packages. And, the more the people are playing the game now, the more the exposure, the resources and all kinds of things that come into it. There are much more glitz, glamour and the contestants have a lot of international exposures as well. So, I think the industry is getting better now.
What does fashion mean to you?
Oh, for me, fashion means everything. It means looking good, being clean, it enhances what God naturally gives to you. And through fashion, you can actually project yourself in a very beautiful and positive light. So, fashion means a lot to me. I love beautiful things. Moreover, I am very creative. Creativity is party of my life and that is part of what spurred me to go into Miss Nigeria. I like being able to initiate new things, watch it grow, and germinate, think of something, put it together and see it become a reality and all of that. In fact, I love fashionable things.
What is your best attire and colour?
As a designer and someone who has passion for fashion, I do not have a particular color to be honest. I see the beauty in every color. Some people ascribe black to bad things, like mourning. But I see a lot of beauty in black textiles. It is a color that enhances. I just love colours. I am a person of colours and can work with any colour that comes my way and tries to use to bring out the best in what ever I am working with.
From your experience, can you tell us what it takes to maintain beauty?
To maintain beauty is just a state of mind. One has to make up her mind that you want to look beautiful. Beauty is not all about the value of what you put on. Naturally, everyone is beautiful. It depends on the eyes that are looking. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What I consider beautiful or not beautiful maybe considered otherwise by another person. So, beauty can be interpreted in different ways.
How did you get involved in politics?
Being interested on the nation’s economy, I thought of going into projects that have to do with tourism. So, I decided working on some tourism projects. That is how I found myself in Imo State where I was seeking to partner with the state government in the project that I had at that time in 2013. And, while we were on that, the commissioner, having seen my experience in that field, then called me to come and to be part of the ‘Ada and Opara Imo’ project, which was a programme to promote culture and tourism in the state and of course, empower the youths, bring the knowledge of cultural ways of life and impact it on the younger ones. So, I went there and was with them for over a month working on the project. Within that period, we had reasons to meet with Governor Rochas Okorocha a couple of times and that was when the job of SA/Liaison Officer was offered to me to work for Imo State and I gladly took it because Imo State was doing something fantastic with a new governor who was working in all the sectors. He was turning Imo State into what he wanted it to be.