In Conversation: Funmi Iyanda
Strong, resilient, passionate, driven, empathetic and childlike are some of the words used to describe Funmilola Aduke Mary Iyanda, a woman who exudes a fierce sense of independence. Her television show, Talk With Funmi airs in 51 African countries. In her own words, Funmi Iyanda on life, career, Nigeria and her show, Talk With Funmi.
Belinda: What was your upbringing like?
Funmi: Vibrant, traumatic, challenging and character forming.
Belinda: How would you describe your personality?
Funmi: People say I am strong, resilient, driven, passionate, empathetic, funny and childlike. I tend to agree.
Belinda: In your interview with NET, you talked about being able to go to Primark and the top end of the range, how important is it for you to stay grounded considering the position many would say you occupy within the Nigerian media industry?
Funmi: Very important, I never believe my own hype nor imbibe my apparent fame. I am still surprised when people point, gush and come up to me simply because I remain in my mind and person, simply Funmi. I suppose I have been doing this so long that my idea of normal may not be every body else’s, but I do consciously try never to remove myself from the true realities of my country and our communities.
Belinda: What keeps you grounded in life?
Funmi: My friends, my family. My inner id and my funny bone and my core group of friends are amazing, brave and high achieving women in regular jobs who stretch themselves in extraordinary ways. They are strong, fearless, independent and funny women who are tireless cheer leaders but will laugh you all the way out of town if you got ahead of yourself. I am also too self-aware and in tune with the ridiculous to become a joke in my own comedy skit.
Belinda: I understand you do not work for money. Hence, what motivates you?
Funmi: I do like to be paid and paid well for what I do but money is never the primary consideration for anything I do. Money, while it’s important, is so pedestrian and in a country like Nigeria easily achievable by the most banal and uninspired. I find it contemptuous in its stark meaningless present state. I felt and acted the same way when I had no money, when I had no food, I still found work that made the most sense to me. I work to find creative expression, to solve problems, to find fulfillment and to create new realities by painting a preferred higher vision.
Belinda: What are your fears? (Trivial but I can’t help myself.)
Funmi: That Nigeria will self destruct, dying “wrongfully,” loosing the rude pertness of my arse and loosing my independence and sense of self in trying to fit into my environment.
Belinda: In the same interview with NET, you talked about working on your confidence because you were skinny and people were abusive towards you, verbally and emotionally. How did you overcome their hang-ups and get on with your life?
Funmi: I just woke up one day at age 22 to an awareness of the fact that I was funny and bright and that the whole of me was more important than my individual bits.
Belinda: What is your advice to other young people out there, especially women, who are still be trapped in that box of trying to find themselves? How do they get to the point when they are confident in who they are like you are today?
Funmi: They should stop reading the bloody fashion magazines and read real books, go out, travel, meet people of different cultures and background, volunteer in non-traditional female settings. Learn to laugh with themselves and at themselves and never fall in love with anyone except he or she thinks they are the bees knees just the way they are.
Belinda: I understand you go out without make-up, is that a sign you are comfortable being who you are no matter where you are seen or are you so darn confident, you are not afraid to show your vulnerable side?
Funmi: I don’t consider my authentic self vulnerable. I find undue acquisition and artifice a more poignant portrayal of vulnerability. I stopped caring long ago about what others thought about my looks or lack of it. I really feel no need to be considered beautiful or otherwise. I know I am beautiful because I am strong, healthy and funny. It also helps that my friends and family love me warts and all.
Belinda: How did you get into the media and how many years have you worked in the industry?
Funmi: An apparent accident but then the universe prepares you for your path. I have been working in the media for 15 years.
Belinda: Where did the inspiration and boldness for that move come from?
Funmi: It wasn’t an inspiration; it was a compulsion to follow in my own true path.
Belinda: Did you have a message you wanted to explore on your platform and have you been able to do that?
Funmi: I have only ever wanted to be true to the people, stories and situations I feature. I am uncomfortable with the more cynical albeit successful way of milking the story for eyeballs. I also do not seek to put myself forward unduly, I have no need for fame, and it’s a by-product of my job.
Belinda: Did you front any other shows before New Dawn or was it your first gig as a talk show host?
Funmi: I worked as a reporter for 3 years, a producer for 4 years and as a producer and presenter, and reporter on two national shows before New Dawn. I have also worked as a freelance journalist and columnist for newspapers and magazines.
Belinda: Why the decision to quit New Dawn?
Funmi: I like to think of it as moving from dawn to day, it was time to move into the brightness of a new day. In that way, Talk with Funmi is the evolution of New Dawn. New Dawn was a child of circumstance and had brilliantly served her purpose. It was born in the new millennium and at the dawn of Nigeria’s 3rd republic as a daily talk show, which reflected the mood, themes, and challenges of that decade. Towards the end of the decade, I realised the dynamics and sensibilities of Nigeria had changed and l wanted to capture that change. I also wanted to stretch myself creatively, challenge myself mentally and test my understanding of Nigeria today.
Belinda: It is well established that you were not afraid to tackle issues; many may walk away from, why were you passionate about dealing with those challenging areas of daily life on national TV?
Funmi: Because they were the elephants in the room and elephants should be in their natural habitats not in rooms.
Belinda: What do you consider to be the role of the ‘woman’ today within Nigerian media platform?
Funmi: I have never seen myself as a woman first but as a person called Funmi. That should be the role of the woman in all fields of endeavors; that of self-actualisation and contribution to one’s society first and above all as a human being. The Nigerian media demonises Nigerian women in an appalling way, with a lot of the perpetuators being women and this is true in many other areas of life.
Belinda: When I was at home, the only talk show host I remember vividly was the late ‘Mee Mofe Damijo,’ how far do you think we have come from that generation of talk show host and women fronting major shows to where we are now, with people recognising the industry has more potential than they were willing to explore?
Funmi: I am not a fan of talk shows. The most successful talk show host in the world is Oprah and she is successful is not because it is a talk show but because it is Oprah. I think boxing women into the talk show format is counter productive. I was censored into that format but refused to do a formulaic sound bite style even in that circumstance. That is why I am happy with the flowing story lead style of TALK WITH FUNMI. Talk shows are fine of themselves if they are not pointless but they can be fronted by men as by women as long as the host has the character to engage the audience.
Belinda: What’s the inspiration behind Talk With Funmi?
Funmi: Boredom and Adversity. I was bored with sitting in a shiny studio cross legged in fancy clothes. If one is not careful, the entire essence of one’s career and work could be boiled down to the surface and ephemeral especially in very materialistic and transactional noughties. I feared that and frankly I was tired of celebrities, politicians and fame seekers trying to pitch. Granted, I always seemed to inspire honesty and openness in my guests, but the censorship on the national platform often made me feel caged. I found ordinary people the most endearingly honest perhaps because they had little to loose, a lot having been taken from them already. It was also becoming more and more of a nightmare to produce out of the studio belonging to networks for various reasons. So, I turned the desire to talk to all social categories of people outside a studio setting, a need to understand Nigeria today and the hunger for something more creatively unique into Talk With Funmi.
Belinda: What has the journey of putting this new show together been like for you?
Funmi: The journey…I would need a book to tell it, but then a lot of insight into the how is provided on our website. I sometimes compare it to a first childbirth. Nothing prepares you for the actual experience, often times you just want to quit but every time you see the amazing feat you have achieved, your heart expands in love and you keep going. It is a painfully fulfilling journey. It started with raising the sort of money I needed to take the show on the road around Nigeria, a very painful, ongoing process. Then after three failed and somewhat bizarre attempts at collaboration, I found the perfect director and co-producer Chris Dada who after 15 years as an award winning commercial director in the UK wanted to come home and do a few creatively challenging projects. Fortunately he liked what I had done with New Dawn and we designed the still evolving Talk With Funmi format to be an unobtrusive, non-sound bitey journey into Nigeria, her people, her issues and her stories. It has been a hell of a ride as filming the actual series with a 30-man crew from state to state is no walk in the park. Editing and postproduction is a strange transatlantic dance between Nigeria, London and Cape Town with all the attendant drama. We sometimes joke that perhaps we should simply turn the cameras behind the scenes to get the real story. Selling such a creatively unusual project has also been a challenge but there is a lot of interest in the bits that people have seen in Nigeria and outside. Its tough but I love it, life is never dull.
Belinda: How does it differ to your previous show?
Funmi: It is an evolution of New Dawn so it retains the transformational intent, the cheekiness and the lack of sound bites. However it takes a quantum leap in production values as we have shot it almost like a film on HD. Chris Dada is a genius in the way he contained the often-chaotic filming environment and directs poetry out of each edition. It is shot and produced to international broadcast standards, and so varied in content, it can be re-cut for different audiences with subtitles as we are doing and eventually translate into a one hour feature length movie. As it is, our 47 minute cinema screenings received brilliant reviews; I’ll never forget the transfixed look on the face of the policeman who was in the hall as security who simply got lost in the material on screen.
Belinda: There are different versions of what the show is about on the web, what’s Talk With Funmi, about?
Funmi: The online portal takes the conversations to the web. We will use some of our stories, pictures, experiences and videos to encourage a robust interaction amongst our online community. The desire it to take it beyond just a TV experience to larger discourse, events and engagements around the issues that matter to Nigerians driven by Nigerians. So yes we’ll have videos, pictures, production blogs, video logs, podcasts and director’s cuts online as well as user-generated content in tandem with the general themes and values of TWF.
Belinda: What should people expect to see with each episode?
Funmi: Each edition is almost a stand alone project with themes as varied as human trafficking, 9ja hip hop music, Nollywood, Zimbabwean farmers in Nigeria okada riders, living in makoko, ajegunle and so on. There is also the deliberate positioning of celebrities in unusual but natural setting that encourages them to be more relaxed and in tune with who they really are and feel. We usually choose celebrities who are that way by the body of their work not necessarily the column inches filed. These include Governor Fashola in Lagos, who today is Nigeria’s most outstanding public administrator. There’s Charlie Boy in a hardly seen soul revealing manner, Wande Coal, 9ice, Kate Henshaw and so on. Series 2 will even be more fascinating as we are signing on the most unusual celebrities and public administrators to go with us to the most unexpected places and reveal their truths and have the truth become manifest to them to. The viewer at home or online then gets the sensation of being privy to something unnervingly real, dignified and intimate.
Belinda: What has the response to your new baby been like since you went on air in Feb 2010?
Funmi: Overwhelmingly good. I am humbled by the emotions expressed by a diverse group of Nigerians and the curiously from other parts of Africa. Also there are the unintended consequences of government responding to some of the needs indirectly portrayed and moving to make the needed changes.
Belinda: In order to get TWF going, you started your own production company, no ordinary feat, was the process hard and considering the current economic climate in Nigeria. How did you convince people to invest if that’s the route you took?
Funmi: I have always produced my own shows using my own production company. I sit on the board of 3 companies and Ignite is the company that subsumed the old company, which used to produce NEW DWAN. That said this is a very expensive ground breaking production. So, the funding took two years and it is still a challenge to achieve equilibrium especially in an economy that is reflective of our near comatose political reality. I am a marathon runner though and the production is great. Material success is a matter of time.
Belinda: Correct me if I am wrong but this is shown in other African countries, have you had any feedback?
Funmi: It is shown in 51 African countries and they love it especially the hunter’s edition, he is a celebrity now. We do a lot of subtitling so non Nigerians don’t need to struggle too much with the accents especially with pidgin and other Nigerian languages which are all used.
Belinda: Are you now motivated to take it further?
Funmi: I am always seeking perfection. We have other exciting plans for TWF and other fabulous projects in pre production.
Belinda: Since you have been to different places with this show, from the rich to the poor, has it changed the lens with which you view Nigeria or has it reinforced previous beliefs about Nigeria that you held strongly?
Funmi: I have never allowed myself to be blinded to the huge socio economic divides of Nigeria. This is a powerful reminder and a great way to bring that reality in a non-self flagellating way to a large audience of people so we see what need to be done and what actually works for us now.
Belinda: What do you want to achieve with this show in the long term?
Funmi: My desire is to produce a show that tells our stories and showcases our country with honesty, creative artistry, intelligence and our inimitable resilience and humour. It is not a whitewash or propaganda but a beautifully shot and produced journey into Nigeria and her issues and stories as she is today. We let the people and the stories tell themselves so the viewer can make her and his value judgment and translation.
Belinda: Let’s talk about life your a little bit, it is well documented that you lost your mother at a young age, what effect did that have on you growing up?
Funmi: It was character shaping.
Belinda: Has that in turn had any impact on the way you relate to your daughter?
Funmi: Perhaps because of it I have a sense of urgency with impacting as much confidence and affirmation as I can in her from birth. Perhaps I am aware that difficulties shape us so I try not to spoil her and perhaps I am more in tune with our inherent gifts so I am happy to be the assistant in her own journey of self discovery and actualization.
Belinda: You also do charity work, why did you start Change A Life Project and What do you want to achieve with it in the next 5/10 years?
Funmi: I am a believer in societies that work where no one is left behind. I like to intervene to help people especially children in situations of extreme need and trauma to regain a meaningful life. I have done it for eight years, the organisation is Change A Life and we currently have 98 children on our scholarship/health and mentorship scheme. We also work with young rape and cancer survivors.
Belinda: What are some of the most challenging situations you have found yourself in and how did you get out of them?
Funmi: Everyday is a challenge, life is hard but life is good, I embrace that.
Belinda: Do you have any regrets in life?
Belinda: What’s your motto in life?
Funmi: And now the end is near.
And so l face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I travelled each and every highway
And more, much more than this l did it my way.
Belinda: You were not the happening girl but how does it feel to be the happening lady?
Funmi: Didn’t give a damn, don’t give a damn, just doing my job.
Images by Mousa, supplied by Ignite Media
Image 1 – Funmi Iyanda
Imge 2 – Funmi Iyanda with her an interviewee
Image 3 – Funmi Iyanda dancing Galala in Ajegunle
Image 4 – Funmi Iyanda in Iga Fulani
A feature about Funmi Iyanda titled A Mind of Her Own was published by the New African Woman Edition 5. Go get your copy or check it out online.
Funmi Iyanda was interviewed in January and May 2010