By Christy Anyanwu
YEMI FAWAZ? Remember her? She is an icon of modeling in Nigeria and West Africa. She pioneered professional modeling in Nigeria and took the job to the next level before she packed her bag and baggage and left for the United States with her 11 year old daughter. Back after nineteen years to give back to society, the ever beautiful Fawaz told Sunday Sun about her new goals, why she left the country, life in the US,her ordination as deaconess and lots more.
Where have you been?
I have been in New York since March1997. Which of course is 19 years ago?
That was a long time. Have you been coming home?
No, this is my first time home in 19 years. I left because of the stress in the country. I’m a pioneer of professional modeling in Nigeria and despite all I did in fashion and modeling, things became a little bit difficult. I had no choice but to just pack my things and leave, since government wasn’t getting involved to help anybody. At that period, if there was a very concrete decree to regulate modeling , life could have been better for models and people in the fashion industry including myself , we could have weathered the storm. But when you are kind of an honest person that lives on your sweat and there is nothing like bottom power, it’s difficult to survive in the country. So, I wasn’t ready for that and just had to leave. I didn’t want to suffer and I went in search of a better life.
What were you doing in New York?
Hitherto, I’ve been living in New York, before I finally decided to stay-put there back in 1997. I tried to go into the fashion industry and my first job was with a fashion company, a very big fashion company. From there, I incorporated my own kind of business which , of course, was very difficult, especially in the areas I focused on promoting African fashion. It was extremely difficult. People weren’t really interested. People around New York said they loved ankara, adire and all that, but I wanted to go beyond these. They’re not our real traditional outfit. I wanted to go into the real iro and buba, George and kente. Yes, they existed there, but not the way we wanted it and it was very difficult. Even Africans you think will patronize these things are the people you see most of the time wearing English or American fabrics and designs.
After 19 years in New York, why are you back in Nigeria?
I love my country, no matter what is happening. Even though my heart bleeds because of traffic jams despite the good legacies of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and his predecessor Babatunde Fashola, fuel scarcity also saddens my heart. People have been suffering for years, though we enjoyed a little bit after independence. It’s sad. I came back thinking I could contribute my own little quota, especially to the lives of our budding youths.
You still look so beautiful, what’s the secret?
Thank you so much. God is wonderful. I guess it’s the Lord that is renewing my youth, there is no secret. The secret is just God. Anybody who sees me will not know that I suffered from enlarged heart for years but here I am still looking good . I give God the glory.
How is your daughter?
Yes, Oluwatobi. Tobi will be 30-years-old in a couple of days. She was supposed to come with me but she’s studying for her master’s degree and she works. She loves this country, she wants to come back, and you need to see the way she talks about Nigeria to people over there, though she left when she was only 11 years old. Part of my reason for leaving Nigeria was because of her. Since she’s an American citizen, I don’t want to deprive her of all the good things she’s supposed to achieve back in the United States. She’s doing very well. Maybe in the future she will come back to Nigeria to contribute her own experience to help our people.
I thought as a modeling icon, you are back here to re-establish your modeling school. Not so?
When I became a Christian, when the Lord found me in 1991 and I became born again, my modeling business went down a little bit but at the end of the day, the Lord directed me on what I could do about it. The Lord told me to avoid cigarette adverts. I don’t encourage my models to advertise products that are not good for people’s health or lives like alcohol or nudity. When I was directed in that spirit and I listened, my business was booming. I’m a Christian, I put everything before God. In America, modeling is tough. When people tell you Africans are doing well in modeling, acting, music, yes it’s true but you have to go through some certain things for you to be able to get there but for me as a Christian, I can’t do all those. For instance, Oluchi wasn’t given the best deals like Iman or Naomi Campbell.
What happened to your modeling school?
When I decided to leave Nigeria, I decided I wasn’t going to look back because Nigeria disappointed me. Unless you knew what I went through, how I fought for girls in this country, how I fought with my own money to bring out girls from Escape. I was shocked that after some prominent people saw my proposal, a programme I was supposed to organize in this country before I left , someone hijacked it. Bringing girls out of prostitution was my project. It was my proposal they saw in Abuja that they hijacked. Dayo Babatunde, Frank Oshodi and other top models in this country were ready to go to Abuja and demonstrate that this is the time models are recognized in Nigeria and that prostitution is not going to stop it. When this issue of that project happened, thinking that would help me to bring back the modeling industry higher to the level I wanted it, I was frustrated. I couldn’t be fighting since 1978 till 1997 for the modeling industry in this country and for people not to appreciate me. A lady wanted to buy my modeling agency from me, but after a couple of months, I was afraid, I didn’t want my name to be involved. The condition was for me to sell the business to her and allow her to use my name but I was afraid because after selling I didn’t know what she might do with it. Some people will say they run a modeling agency but it might become an “escort agency” for renting girls out. I didn’t want my name to be involved.
Tell us about your Not for Profit Organization?
As a Christian, you let God direct you. Banner of Love International Outreach Inc is my project. If anybody told me I wouldn’t start doing charity work in Lagos, I would say it’s not true, but Benin happened to be the first place. Somebody told me about some orphanage in Benin and how children in this modern world were still sleeping on the ground there. I had to send somebody to Benin from New York because at that time I had things I was doing. The person went to Benin and saw the place and reported back to me. I was very unhappy and I decided we would do a little thing for them. My NGO had not started getting corporate or individual sponsorship. I decided to see the place myself to know what they needed and do the little we could. Also, we are meeting Nigerian Red Cross here. When I was in primary school and high school here, I had been involved with the Red Cross, Girls Guide, Boys Scout etc. I knew Red Cross helped abandoned babies and my vision was to help them. We are here to see what we need to do for our people, what we need to tell the government back in New York if they will like to be of assistance and evidence to show them as to be able to help our people.
Your hair is really nice, what’s the secret?
It needs to be cut right now; it’s getting out of shape. It’s my natural hair. It’s not wig. I’ve never worn wig in my life. The reason I don’t perm my hair anymore is because I’m tired of relaxers. I now want my hair as natural as God made it. All I do is wash and use a very good cream. When I wash my hair, it becomes very kinky and to comb it is a problem but I use very good product and I rub it in, then it’s easy for me to manage.
What’s your take about modeling in Nigeria now?
I have already asked questions to know how much models make. They said they don’t make more than a million except the celebrities. Somebody told me that they wanted me to do a promotion for them in Nigeria. Me coming home after many years? I asked for N15 million and they screamed 15 million? I said convert it to dollars and it’s peanuts. I thought by now, models in Nigeria should be earning N10 million . I was managing two of the old actresses when I was here. Maybe if I had been here, I could’ve been managing a lot of actresses and be making between N15million-N20 million. But the problem is that Nigerians in show business are not honest. They will even tell you “Sister, Yemi, if they are paying me N5 million I will take it”. You want to take those peanuts? They would say yes and they will go on their own. Look at the models at that time, look at all the fight I was doing and I was even blacklisted by the advertising industry. I went through a lot but people didn’t know. The advertising industry in Nigeria blacklisted me for “encouraging models not to do their jobs, because we were asking for too much money”. These girls were doing the job secretly though aside Dayo Babatunde and the very educated models I have that are graduates from abroad, who are lawyers by profession but had flair for modeling.
You are hosting the World African Fashion Day Parade in New York in September. What is it all about?
We want the westerners to wear African clothes. When we talk about African clothes we are not talking about adire or ankara. We want them to wear real iro and buba to Oscar Awards and other big events. This is the reason we started African Fashion Day Parade which we incorporated into the Banner of Love International, so that we can use the World Fashion Parade to raise funds for the Banner of Love International Outreach. Our first fashion parade was held last year and we were all dressed in glamorous outfits and we specially chose Fashion Avenue in New York, because that’s the fashion district in New York. Nigerians who want to come on holidays to New York at that time should attend the parade but they have to dress-to-kill like they are going for a wedding. It’s solely African outfits.
The men should wear three piece agbada and the women, aso oke, George, kente or lace and they should come and represent Nigeria and Africa at Manhattan which is popularly known as 7th Avenue. The best dressed woman is going to be awarded $1,000 while the best dressed man gets $500 dollars but we are still negotiating with Ford Motor Inc if they can give us a car. If the person is not residing in America, Ford will ship the car to where they live in Africa but it has to be an African that has to win the prize not a foreigner.
Which other sponsors are you approaching?
We tried to source for sponsors last year but it was a bit difficult. Even Africans don’t get involved; even the embassies don’t get involved. That’s the biggest disappointment. Even Nigerian Embassy will disappoint you the most, because they want to pocket the money,rather than using the money to help or support their own people. When we hosted the 1st Africa Fashion Day Parade, Nigeria was the one that carried the flag for Africans in America and our Ambassador, our Consul General or their representative didn’t attend. It’s sad, what we Nigerians go through in America. I wanted to have an audience with our president but I guess the protocol didn’t permit me. If a Nigerian is in trouble or needs help in New York or in any other state, Nigerian Embassy rarely intervenes regardless of whether the person is an offender or not.
You are a deaconess. Who ordained you?
I’m a deaconess by the Grace of God. Pastor J. F Ajulo of Bible Believers Church Ministry, Akobi Crescent in Surulere, my pastor, ordained me. I became a member in 1991 and Christ met me 1992. Ever since, my life has never been the same. I was ordained in 2006 and I was surprised. The spirit of God had been upon my life not after I became a deaconess but being a deaconess I have to show better example. The Lord has been good. Everywhere I go, I talk about the Lord, I talk about my faith. I’m not ashamed of the gospel anywhere I go. For me, being a deaconess is not just a title, it’s the work of God.
You still remain Yemi Fawaz, you didn’t marry a white man.Why not?
There was a rumour that I was married to a white billionaire, but I won’t marry out of Christ. If I don’t meet a born again Christian, I don’t think I will marry. Don’t forget that age doesn’t really count before God, before God there is no age. The bible says a thousand years before God is like a year. That means God doesn’t work with age. Sarah had a baby at 70+ and at that time Sarah had reached menopause but God gave her a baby. There is nothing God cannot do if God really says I’m going to be married. If I’m going to be married, the man must be a free-hearted man like me, who loves people, who is ready to use his money to help people. I give God all the glory that I have never been married and I have never been divorced. But now, I’m married to Jesus. If the man comes, if he’s a good-hearted man, he must be rich too. At age 61 I can’t marry a poor man and I’m not a gold digger. I’ll tell him sweetheart, can I have $5,000 and then he starts to ruffle through his pockets saying “No, I can afford that money”. A man can’t live off me. For me to marry a man and he’s living off me? No way. I’m not one of those women. The man will marry me. Not me to marry the man. But women of today they marry the man. That’s why women are not respected any longer. I won’t marry a man. The man will marry me, you will marry me with your money and with your love.
Before I had my baby, maybe Tobi wouldn’t have come. If God converted me the way He converted me now, I would not have had a baby out of wedlock. But at that time, I was in the world, I didn’t know the difference. I was an unbeliever, I was a convenient Christian in Africa where we have 2, 3 or 4, boyfriends at a time. If I was a Christian then, it couldn’t have happened.
How did you cope as a single parent?
When I had Tobi, I thanked the Lord. I had money, it wasn’t easy for me to get pregnant. I got pregnant at the age of 30. I had already planned what was going to happen for me and the baby , that I was going to be there for my baby. I didn’t have a nanny, I took care of my baby by myself and I didn’t work for two years.
I dedicated two years to take care of my baby. I came to realize then that babies are gifts. It doesn’t matter how you get them. God helped me and I took care of her, she’s had the best life, I had the best life.