But no, she insisted that we go ahead and invited me into her beautiful flat for our chat. And with each word she spoke, the wiser I grew. I think that’s the story of Mo Abudu’s life- unstoppable. Nothing holds her back. Not illness, not the fear of delving into uncharted territory.
I attended the London premiere of her latest big project, the movie she has just executive produced: Fifty, where I shot these photos between her hotel room and the venue. I just sat there in the room as I watched her and the beautiful cast get their hair and make up done; while she chose between a custom-made dress and the eventual winner, a last-minute Dolce & Gabbana purchase. She's fabulous. She has been described as the most successful woman in Africa and with her new movie Fifty, which I have now seen, she is doing exactly what she set out to do from the beginning and putting Nollywood on the world map. The quality is unlike any other Nollywood production I have seen so far and they definitely 'go there' with the issues covered in the storyline.
How did it all begin?
For the longest time, even when I was an HR practicioner, it was buried deep in my consciousness that I would like to do something more. Not that I didn’t enjoy HR- I still am an HR person. I’m the major shareholder at Vic Lawrence and I still attend meetings. I just don’t run it on a day to day basis anymore. I was born in England and also studied there and I found that I was always making apologies for who I was. As a continent of people, we don't seem to have much confidence in ourselves. We always want outside validation before we approve of ourselves. I always wondered why this was until it occured to me that the media has a huge role to play in this.
When we see Americans, they are very proud of who they are. And a lot of what we see and a lot of what makes America what it is, is as a result of the media and entertainment industry. Each time a president is sworn in, it’s viewed worldwide and if it’s not Beyoncé signing at inauguration, it’s another massive star. You can see how much they have grown to see entertainment as part of society. That’s why everyone knows America and why everyone wants to live the American dream.
I have auditions with Nigerians actors and someone is reading a script in an American accent but they’ve never even been to America! I’m like ‘why are you talking like that?” It was obvious to me that I needed to change the narrative. Nobody can tell us who we are. And I needed to take responsibility for that narrative how I knew how. I always tell brands that this is not just a social journey. It is actually a commercial journey because no matter what brands we create in Africa; if the continent itself is seen as a continent of despair and disease; no matter what your big bank or fashion label is creating, it’s going to be tarred with the same nasty reputation. So what I am doing actually seeks to help all the different brands look better.
When I took Fifty The Movie to the censorship board today, they were like ‘Wow! is this really Lagos?’ Ofcourse, it’s Lagos! And we chose to focus on the bits of Lagos that work. All the international media outlets focus on the bits that don’t work because that’s the story for them. But what is our story? From being asked the most ridiculous questions growing up in England, to my kids coming home and being asked the same questions, to even the way you’re still sometimes treated when you travel. All of this was reason enough for me to embark on this journey to give us confidence in who we are. It’s all about changing the narrative for me and it’s been buried deep in me forever. Having a 9 to 5 HR job, I was very scared of making that transition. I thought ‘what would people think?’. But then I just woke up one day and thought ‘what the hell? I don’t care what anyone thinks. This is my life and it’s my decision'. It wasn’t the first time that I would have done something that people thought was really odd. I worked 9 to 5 in Oil and Gas for nearly ten years and one day I just said I’d had enough and I was resigning and everyone thought I was crazy then. So it’s okay. I think people are used to me being a little crazy.
What Is the moment so far that has made you say ‘Wow! look how far I’ve come. Look at all I’ve created'.
It’s a group effort. I look at Ebony Life and I’m like ‘Wow!’. We started from ground zero. You look at most TV networks in the world today and they’re probably 20 to 100 years old. They are working and improving on what they met. For Ebony Life, we had nothing, we had no blueprint. It was a blank canvas and we were starting from scratch. All we had was an idea and we needed to figure out how to make it a reality. For 2 or 3 years, we were trying to figure out where we were going to be based. We had to have meetings with DSTV and convince them to give us a license. All of that took 3, 4, 5 years. They’ve seen channels come and go and they don’t like giving viewers something and then it disappears- it’s not good for their PR.
It's been an interesting journey- I could probably write a book on how not to create a TV channel. But it’s not about what I’ve created. It’s about what the team has created. At the end of the day, I had the idea but there is no way that this would ever have been one person’s journey. We’ve created over forty programs in the last 3 years- from Moments with Mo, to EL Now, To The Spot, To Wardrobe Diaries. I can’t do all of that- I don’t have the technical capacity to do all of that. But, I know what looks right and wrong so we analyse things together and meet halfway.
What would you say to a 21 year old Mo Abudu?
I would tell her to be less impulsive and be patient. Sometimes, less aggressive. But aggressive has it’s pros and cons. I would probably say not to be as hard on people. I can be very hard on my staff but I think ‘would we be where we are if I wasn’t?’. I think it’s buried in their subconscious that if they give me rubbish, I’m just going to throw it out. But I would say take things a little bit more in my stride- I tend to just keep going 24-7 because I've never seen my work as a job. I would say have more balance, have more time for family and other things.
Has being a woman in such a misogynstic society affected your work in any way?
I think with being a woman, we need to use what we have to our benefit. Women have certain qualities that men will never have- we have the ability to do several things at the same time. God has blessed us with such an intuitive mind and a lot of the time, what gets us through is that gut feeling. I’m not saying don’t do the research or don’t do the business plan. There’s just something within us as women that carries us a little bit farther. I would never want to have come into this world as a man. I'm happy being a woman.
What limits a lot of women in our society is fear. Fear of what ‘they’ will say and fear of failure. If you fail, so what?! You get up and you do it again. I’m never really afraid of failing because what’s the worst thing that could happen? If you fail, fine! Move on to the next thing. I have done projects that didn’t work out. People only talk about the ones that were successful. That’s not to say that I haven’t done things that didn’t work- I’ve done several that were an absolute disaster. But I thank God that those that are relatively successful are still there and those stories can still be told. Vic Lawrence is still a going concern and they’re doing really well, Protea Hotel Oakwood Park is still there, I’ve got my family, and children. I look at those things and thank God for them, and I learn from the things that have gone wrong. I think the most important thing is not to make the same mistake twice. Why should you?
You’ve interviewed so many amazing people on your TV show such as Hillary Clinton. Who has been your favourite interviewee and who would you still like to interview that you haven’t?
Oh my goodness, I’ve interviewed so many great people that I just thank God for the opportunities. The very first interview that I ever did was with professor Wole Soyinka. You wouldn’t believe that we had so many technical issues on that episode that we couldn’t even air it. I then had to track him down a second time and he granted the second interview. He was coming from Eko Hotel and then, we were at City Hall. Because he was running late, he actually hopped on an okada to be able to make it. I couldn’t believe it. I just felt like ‘for me?’. I will forever be grateful to him for opening up the way for me and giving me that opportunity and privilege of saying that I have interviewed him.
I’ve done the ex-president of Nigeria General Olusegun Obasanjo, IBB twice, the former CBN governor Lamido Sanusi, ex president of Ghana John Kufuor, former state president of South Africa F.W. de Clerk, DVF, Ngozi Okonji Iweala, ex president of Nigerian Jonathan Goodluck, current president Buhari twice, Nuhu Ribadu, president of Rwanda Paul Kagame, Rio Ferdinand the footballer, ex governor of Lagos state Fashola.
So many incredible people! Each person shares something unique with you and leaves a unique lasting impression. Hillary Clinton was absolutely amazing. For the longest time, I thought they were going to cancel on us because I just couldn't believe it, but they didn’t! It’s just great to be able to hear their point of view. Especially when you're able to get them to share something that they haven't shared before. I’ve also done a lot of 'ordinary' people who have extraordinary stories. Just people who share a piece of their life with me. And sometimes the stories can be really sad. But, each one is special. It's impossible to pick a favourite.
The person I still want to interview is president Obama. I wasn’t able to do Nelson Mandela as I started when he was quite elderly. I tried many times but he wasn’t really granting interviews anymore.
When will you feel like you’ve arrived? You’ve been recognised by Forbes as the most successful woman in Africa but from what you've said, you still don’t feel like you’ve made it?
No way! I’m happy with what we have achieved but I don’t feel like I’ve made it.
[Tweet "Your goals have to be greater than you. If you feel like you’ve made it, what is left for you? "]
We’ve just done our first feature film and it’s amazing. But there’s so much more that we can do. There’s so much more to do with Ebony Life and we need to cross over so that we’re recognised internationally. Not yet! I haven't arrived!
How does it feel to be described as Africa’s most successful woman and 'the Nigerian Oprah Winfrey'? Do you like that comparison?
Yes, I really admire Oprah and what she has done but I keep saying to anyone that cares to ask that our journeys are so different. What makes me tick and what makes her tick are so different. She has her baggage and I have mine. My baggage is Africa and how we change the narrative. People make the comparison because we both have talk shows and networks. I certainly don’t have her net worth (yet). I admire her greatly so I have no qualms with the comparison. It was CNN that coined the term ‘Africa’s Oprah’ and I think what the West often do is that they always need a reference point to justify why we exist. There always has to be something in the West that they are comparing us to. But we need to stand on our own. Mo is Mo, Oprah is Oprah. But I have no qualms at all- she’s achieved phenomenally. She's a great strong Black woman-amazing.
What’s your favourite place in the world and what do you do when you’re not working?
I’ve got many because I find that I want to be in different places for different reasons. I love being at home in Lagos- there’s nothing like it. I love being in Calabar because it just is one of the most peaceful and loving places that I’ve ever been to. The people are so welcoming. I love Ondo which is where I come from and I have memories of time spent growing up in Ondo with my grandparents. Everytime I go back it feels like nothing has changed and time has stood still which actually feels good. I was born in London and I hate the weather but I love it. I love Paris and New York and I absolutely love Spain. There’s a particular place I go to in Spain every year to just detox.
What are the principles that you’ve always stuck to? What has really worked for you?
One thing that I’ve found really works for me is persistence. Being persistent is really really important. It doesn’t matter if someone says no. So what? I’ve gone back to people that have said no to me countless times before. And sometimes, those no’s become yes. Because maybe it wasn’t the right time or it wasn’t the right opportunity, they didn’t have the right frame of mind, they didn’t appreciate what you had to offer at that time, but later they will. Persistency is key.
But over and above all of that is what I call the G factor. And that for me is the God factor. You can’t force anyone to believe but I look at my life and know that it’s only by His grace. I see where I was coming from and compare that to where I am now, and I just know it wouldn't have been possible without God. I always ask God to send me a sign if he doesn’t want something to happen, and I see the signs. I'm happy that God delayed Ebony Life by a few years because it would have failed otherwise.
What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear is failure but I’m also not afraid of it. I’m not afraid to fail but I’m afraid of ultimate failure.
My greatest fear is failing but I’m also not afraid of it. I’m not afraid to fail but I’m afraid of ultimate failure Click To Tweet
What would you like to do before you die?
I hope I live till 100! I want to see my children married. I want lots of grandchildren. I’d like to do more film and do more for my country. I really believe that women need to be out there doing more for Nigeria. I think we have so many talented women and we just aren’t out there doing enough. I’d love to do more to empower women, more to empower the youth. To make Ebony Life greater. And just really play a role in the world recognising Nigeria and Africa for who we are and the great things we do.
Dolce & Gabbana dress
Fifty will premiere in Lagos, Nigeria on December 13th. You can buy tickets for the black tie red carpet event at Eko hotel. It will be in cinemas in Nigeria from December 18th and on Netflix shortly after. Stay in the know via their website and twitter.
This is a movie that you definitely want to watch. If you're from Lagos, I hope that seeing our city portrayed so beautifully makes you as proud as it did me.
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