In 1979, Helen Prest-Ajayi was crowned Miss Nigeria after a keen contest. At the time, Miss Nigeria was the only beauty pageant in the country. But till date, Helen’s reign remains one of the most glamourous in the history of pageantry in Nigeria.
In this chat, the former beauty queen talks about her reign, turning 60, and what transpired the day she met the late heavy weight champion, Mohammed Ali. Enjoy it.
Normally, when you read about beauty queens, it is either they talk of Nollywood, music or running an NGO. You are a lawyer but tell us about your academic laurels.
(Laughter) People tend to think that beauty queens have no brains whatsoever. I like academia. I like reading, writing and research work. I am at my best when I am researching. I like watching documentaries and reading all types of books. I studied law at University of Ife (now OAU) and law is quite academic and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I like work that is mentally challenging, work that allows me to use my brain, to think and analyse in order to find solutions to problems. I tend to veer into things like that because they require details. I used to build websites.
Yes, way back… that was in 2002.
You mean from law you moved into building websites?
Tell us about that side of you
In the early ‘90s, I realised Information Technology was the future and I like being where the future is. At that point, we were just learning about computers, so I made a special effort to become computer literate. It was the mid-90s and it was a big struggle with MS Dos. We had to learn how to type to use it. I was still practicing law but I realized that for one to be relevant, one needed a presence online. I saw a gap in the market for that so I started to build websites. At around the same time I built a lifestyle portal called, My Lifestyle Solutions. I found out that parents who had children overseas found it difficult to stay in touch with them, because it was very expensive and the children abroad did not want to spend their money. Back then, we did not have GSM but we were able to get people to pay for their calls by purchasing a code online, which they used to call their loved ones by subscribing to our portal, but the arrival of GSM killed it (laughter).
You turned 60 last September but you don’t look it. What is the secret to your youthful look?
(Laughter) I connect with people, all types of people, young and old. I engage with life, new technology and new ideas; I am creative. Your brain has to be functioning to keep yourself useful. Whatever happens in your brain reflects on your face.
But don’t you have a beauty routine you follow religiously?
Those are surface things. You have to perfect your inner being for it to manifest on the surface. For instance, what you eat is very important.
Could you shed light on that?
First of all, you should eat natural food, fresh natural food. Avoid processed food, by that I mean fast foods, deep fried foods and cut out sugar because it is a killer. The more you stay with natural food, vegetables and fruits, the more you glow on the outside. Of course, exercise and drinking plenty of water is a must. If you really can’t do exercise, just don’t eat (laughter). That’s the only way out.
At what point did you discover you wanted to be a beauty queen?
I was around eight or nine years old and one day, I was watching Miss World on television with my brother. Then I said ‘one day, I am going to be a queen’. He broke out in guffaws, rolling all over the floor, and he was like ‘you?’ And that was it. We never talked about it again. I actually forgot about it when 11 years later it happened. It was prophetic, I would say. I believe that in life, we get what we ask for. If you want something, be bold enough to ask for it, put it out there and the universe will give it to you.
41 years after you became a queen, how did your years as queen impact you?
It was a whirlwind! I was 19. I was given a Peugeot 504 car and receiving a salary of N6,000. Then it cost N300 to travel to the UK. I got a lot of gifts, traveled round the country and met a lot of important people. I met ex-President Shehu Shagari, Alaafin of Oyo and Mohammed Ali.
Mohammed Ali? What did he tell you?
He wrote me a note and I still have it till today. On it, he says, ‘from one champ to another’. That really felt amazing! I have no regrets at all about my reign. Everybody was very kind and nice to me. I met so many great people and travelled throughout the country, meeting people from all walks of life. It was a fantastic experience and a great education. I thought after my one-year reign it would be all over. Little did I know it would follow me throughout my life.
Our society was very conservative then. So, how did your parents take it that their daughter wanted to be a beauty queen?
It wasn’t as if I deliberately decided to contest. It just happened! My parents did not know. I was in Ibadan with my friend, Arese Carrington nee Ukpoma, who was a medical student in Ibadan then. She married the former American ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington. She was my very good friend. It was during the summer holidays. She saw the poster and said I should go for it and I went and won the Ibadan zone. There wasn’t social media like there is now. You could be doing something in Kwara (State) and your parents would not have an idea. Arese later became Miss Revlon. It was only when I won the national (competition) in Lagos and only when it was in the papers that my parents got to know about it.
Wow! How did they react?
They were very upset but I learnt one thing, when you are a winner, you are easily forgiven. Just don’t lose because if you lose, you are in trouble and because I won, it suddenly became a very good thing. I was feted and applauded wherever I went and they basked in all the glory.
What was the first advice they gave you when they finally came to terms with your new status?
I was already 19 and an adult. At that age, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so they had to go with the flow. They were like ‘well it has happened. Just don’t disgrace the family name’.
Could you share the high points of your reign?
Meeting Mohammed Ali. It was lovely and that wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t Miss Nigeria.
How did you handle the glitz and glamour?
I really didn’t take it that seriously. Being a queen wasn’t the ultimate thing in life. I understood it for what it was, a glamorous fun thing to do. I saw it as a steppingstone for me to achieve what I wanted in life.
You went on to study law but 15 years later you stopped active practice, why?
It’s because I wanted to do other things. Practice was very rigorous and the way it was done in Nigeria, what with the myriad of adjournments and unsavory elements, it’s mentally challenging and most unfulfilling. It was not about the money for me. There are so many things you can do to make money but if it is not fulfilling, it makes no sense. That for me is the major criteria for the things that I do. That is what I find fulfilling. When I can create something out of nothing or take an idea and move it forward, I am at my peak. I like to create, motivate or bring ideas to the world.
Talking about creating, motivating and bringing fresh ideas to the world, what is on the front burner for Helen Prest-Ajayi now?
I have just written a book titled, The Complete English Grammar Guide. I wrote it because we have a high percentage of illiteracy in Nigeria today. It is alarming and we see the evidence everyday. We have graduates, students and civil servants who have difficulty communicating in formal English. They are unable to complete a sentence in English without inserting vernacular, and unable to write their CVs and answer interview questions successfully, and you wonder how they made it through the system. Of course, we have a lot of exam malpractices. All these are the signs of a desperate cry from people who really can’t understand English properly, so they have to cheat and we are here wringing our hands and condemning them. But when you realise that your livelihood is wholly dependent on that certificate, you become desperate and will do anything. The issue is not that people are doing this but why are they doing this? What is the central cause? So, you can see there is a fundamental problem and that is what my book attempts to address. The book will be on sale in February 2020.
We have many beauty pageants all over and the image parents have of beauty pageants is one of fraud and exploitation. Could you compare your day to today?
Nigeria has changed. Everything you see is a reflection of the decline of Nigeria. And it is not just here, it is all sectors, we are in decline…
How many kids do you have and is any of them taking after you?
I have three daughters and they all take after me in one way or the other. Firstly, they are all very beautiful (laughter). They are intelligent; two have graduated, one in law and the other in urban planning; the youngest is studying for an MBA at Imperial College, London. They are kind, caring, polite, proactive and socially conscious.
How did you meet your husband, was it love at first sight and how did he pop the question?
(Laughter) That is a long story… All I can say is, it was love at first sight on his part. He said he first saw me on the cover of Prime People, my first wedding photograph, and he said he thought to himself ‘wow that’s the girl you should have married’ (laughter). Little did he know that some 10 years down the road, after a fortuitous meeting, he did! Whenever he annoys me, I remind him and ask him to repeat the story (Laughter).
What would you say was the best decision you ever took?
The best decision I ever took was to have my three children.
Are you fulfilled?
Could you compare your days as a beauty queen to what obtains now?
Can you compare your life in Nigeria, even 20 years ago, with what it is now? So, you can imagine 41 years ago?
What is your advice for girls who want to take after you?
I would advise girls not to try and take after anybody, but endeavour to be the best version of themselves. I would also like to encourage those who are having difficulties finding their feet or knowing what they want to do. For some people, it takes a very long time. Life can be complicated and modern life is so fast and our country is so unstable economically and policy wise, that it is very difficult to really settle and find yourself, as you often have to dance to a different tune you set out with in order to just survive. My best advice is whatever you put your hand to do, do it to the best of your ability. Everything you do eventually becomes part of your skill set and ends up being part of who you eventually become.