DORIS SIMEON: ON NOLLYWOOD & MARRIAGE

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Making a comparison between Yoruba and the so-called Nigerian movies in English is something she does not like to be drawn into. In this encounter with Nseobong Okon-Ekong, Doris Simeon barely hid her resentment for her pretentious colleagues who carry a chip on their shoulders; looking down on actors in indigenous language movies

Not having met her previously, she couldn’t recognise me, but I knew her. That is one of the good things about having a familiar face.

We had been talking on the phone to agree on this appointment at a hotel in Ikeja; where I had a function that was going to stretch from mid-morning into early afternoon. In between my grind for the day, she interrupted my business to ask for a postponement, with a plea that her team thought it best to have our meeting at another opportune time. I replied that I was fine with it. A little while after, she called back insisting she would meet with me to register her apology in person. This civil gesture immediately registered her as a courteous and thoughtful person.

Asking her to meet me at a time I was likely to be a bit distracted was tricky. I believed I would be done with my function when she arrived. Sure enough, the event that brought me to that hotel was over when she arrived; but not quite. There were a few things to tidy up. So, we went for some drinks to buy time. We had the company of another colleague, Funsho Arogundade. I listened to her reason for pushing the interview into the future. Then I addressed her concern.

My response re-assured her and we agreed to go ahead with the original plan. “Do you mind spending another three or four hours with me?” I asked. “No, I’m not doing anything today,” she responded.
I had to get her understanding because my original meeting group had just moved to a restaurant in the neighbourhood and requested we join them for lunch. It was only after waiters had cleared the table and my company departed that Nollywood personality, Doris Omokereri Simeon, whose fame is growing in leaps and bounds, and I settled down to our own business.

I thought it wise to open the discourse with a permissive positioning. So, I made some sort of small talk about her original homestead, Okpella, one of three kingdoms that make up Etsako East Local Government Area of Edo State. It is situated along Benin-Abuja Road. The town has attracted increasing attention in recent times for being the location of a Dangote Cement factory.

My earlier positioning was deliberate. I wanted to probe her connection to her roots. It was a setting that would allow me ask, for instance, her given Okpella name. Without hesitation, she replied, “It is Omokereri, meaning, ‘a child is the gift of life.’”

“Why don’t you play up that name?” “It is deep,” I commented.
She leaned forward because I motioned to her to raise her voice a few more notches so the recording device which lay on the table in front of her could capture her voice. “The thing is, a lot of people don’t really know how to pronounce the name. Some of them make fun of the name. I don’t like that. It is a name that I am very proud of. I have taken a part of it to form my Instagram and Twitter identity, @doriskere.

Building on my earlier established laissez-faire stance, I piloted her towards making a remark on the challenges of a non-Yoruba working in the Yoruba movie industry.

She said matter-of-factly, “I don’t think there is any challenge. I see the Yoruba community accepting us. In fact, they have made us (from Edo) a major part of their larger Yoruba empire. They don’t see us as outcasts. Rather, they celebrate a lot of us more than their own people.”

It didn’t matter to her that she could be perceived as naïve or lacking imaginativeness to make that kind of open concession. To her, it was public knowledge that the likes of Mercy Aigbe, Toyin Aimakhu, Fathia Balogun, Mercy Egose and “my sister from my home town,” Queen Blessing Ebigese, are not Yoruba but are doing very well in Yoruba films.
Doris’ career path, so far, has been interesting for someone who did not start in the Yoruba film genre. Her work as an actor actually started on the set of the sit-com, Papa Ajasco. She only featured in three episodes, but it provided the much needed bragging rights to put her foot firmly in the doorway of Nollywood. This was in the year 2000.

Incidentally, Papa Ajasco also provided the springboard that shot her into Yoruba movies. She gave the account that changed the story of her life. “It was on the set of Papa Ajasco that I got my first Yoruba script from my Oga, late Yomi Ogunmola. From that particular location, I went to a Yoruba movie set. On getting there, some artistes were like, ‘is she Yoruba’? I said, ‘oh well’; you can say that we are Yoruba under the Oduduwa umbrella. From there, I started getting jobs in Yoruba films.”

Making a comparison between Yoruba and the so-called Nigerian movies in English is something she does not like to be drawn into; after all, she can comfortably handle a given role in either genre. She barely hid her resentment for her pretentious colleagues who carry a chip on their shoulders; looking down on actors in indigenous language movies.
“I love the indigenous language movies more,” she said. “I wish I could speak more Nigerian languages apart from Yoruba; even my Edo language is not as fluent as my Yoruba. We lived in northern Nigeria for a brief period, but I was too young and the time too short for me to speak Hausa.”

Her people in Okpella are proud to have her as their ambassador in Yorubaland, but now they are beginning to demand that she returns home to repeat the magic with which she captivated the Yorubas.

That is going to be some feat for someone whose knowledge of Okpella customs is scant, but she is willing to try. Having lost her father, who was going to be the bridge on which she would travel back to her roots, nine years ago, she is still trying to find a reliable pedestal to build on in Okpella. She yearns to contribute to the nascent movie movement in Okpella language. So strong is her desire that she thought of changing her course of study at the National Open University, where she is in her second year of studying English language, to History; in order to learn more about kingdoms and the sagacious personalities that make them. This aspiration was simply to fulfil one quest-to enrich the storyline in her productions.

I was still trying to make her relax; be free from every caution of chatting with a journalist. So far, I had made little success. What could be the ice-breaker? She wore a black T-shirt with the inscription, ‘Saved by True Religion’ in shimmering letters. I made a note to return to her spirituality, but now, I was fascinated by her neat make-up. I wanted to know if she painted her face by herself. I asked in the most playful manner.

Doris reacted rather surprised, looking back as if unsure the question was directed at her. “Yes, I did.”
“How long did it take?” I asked again.
She was laughing now. “Twenty minutes because I was in a rush to catch up with you, but if I was going on a date or on the red carpet, I take my precious time-up to two hours to make-up.”

“You don’t say! Two hours!?”
“I’m not joking. That is why we say these make-up artistes no go kill person with the way they transform people. I make the bridge of my nose appear longer and make it look as if I have a high cheek bone by creating contours.” As much as she loves to use cosmetics, she would never consider surgery to enhance her natural physical attributes.
To be sure, Doris is pretty and attractive, which is one of the genetic factors she got from her late mother. But an appealing persona is not all that she has. Many producers and directors have identified the huge talent in her which they keep exploiting, again and again.

From her first feature film, ‘Three Million Naira’ which was directed by her benefactor, Yomi Ogunmola, to other movies like ‘Iseju Marun’ and ‘Oloju Ede’, Doris has worked with different directors like Mr. Latin, Jide Kosoko, Saheed Balogun and Kinglsey Omoefe.

As it is often the case, Doris was on demand for roles that portrayed in a certain manner. It was becoming too stereotype and very predictable. And it did not help matters at all that following a stellar performance in ‘Oloju Ede’, she became known widely by that nickname.

To acquire some form of formal training in the creative arts, she studied Production Management at PEFTI. In 2006, she gained professional independence by producing her first movie, ‘Oni Temi’ which was directed by her ex-husband, Daniel Ademinokan. ‘Omo Iya Kan’ and ‘Asiri’ were to follow in quick succession. As an independent producer, she has produced eight movies to date. However, she has a pack of new works that she is itching to bring to the public this year.

Her failed marriage being a sore point, I made an effort to get around it without raking messy mud. I had raised a benign point during our preliminary chat, before the interview proper began. I asked her to Google herself and she did. The major content that her name was linked to on the internet are the trashy details of the end of her marriage. Although, we had an understanding to side-step issues around her former husband, I could not help asking if she would allow him direct her work.

“No.”
I pursued a more elaborate response. “What if you think he is the most likely person to bring out the best in the cast?”
“That most definitely won’t happen. There are so many directors. The competition is high now. Everybody is always at their peak.” She was laughing.

So, I turned the question around. “What if he approaches you for work?”
Keeping a straight face (now, I didn’t know if she was serious or not), her response was part in pidgin English. She said, “Na money matter now. If he invites me to work with him, I will. The bargain has to be good. No bad feelings. It is business. But I won’t invite him to work with me.”

If all her calculations fall into place, 2017 holds a load of good promises for Doris and her fans. She has four movies that are ready to go to the cinema. “I am working on the premiere for the two that are in English. The other two are in Yoruba and they are with the marketer who sponsored it. He will decide what to do with them. I have finished my work. The movies are titled, ‘Aseju’ and ‘Lori Ere’.

One of the movies is titled, ‘True Betrayal’. The other goes by the title, ‘Alone in the Dark’, which she co-wrote with Biola Adebayo. She thinks ‘True Betrayal’ is the most expensive work she has produced yet. She shares writing credit with Titi Orire. Also on the cards for 2017 is the return of her television talk show in Yoruba, Faaji Extra.
As the chat got more intense, she revealed that she tried some modelling between 1998 and 1999. Even at 37 years, Doris is still very beguiling. She has always attracted loads of male admirers since her teenage when (she walked most times) from the Ojota neighbourhood where she was born to school at Maryland. The attraction became stronger when she entered into acting. But she has learnt to make light of male compliment; even if it is on the job. “I know I am talented and the evidence is that people call me for jobs. It is not by a producer saying I should come sleep with him. Men make sexual advances at me, but it is not by force. It is normal for men to lust after women; whether you are in the movie industry or not. Any attractive woman will have a lot of male admirers. If you know you have this talent and God has said it is your time, you don’t need to jump into bed with everyone who asks you. Nobody can take your talent and self-confidence, people will definitely contact you for jobs. Sometimes, my sisters are in salon because people don’t know them, they will hear gossip about me. These things get back to me through many sources. I am supposed to be dating some influential politicians.” She held up her hands in denial. “See me, my brother if I was going out with those people, I for don be bigger babe for town.”

“I see it as normal when men make overtures at me. If you are a woman and men are not chasing after you, then you need to go for spiritual cleansing; something must be wrong somewhere. It is a normal thing that would happen to a normal girl who walks on the street, whether you are an actor or not; men will approach and woo you; it is left to you to say, ‘yes or no.’”

I guess she knew I would ask the question. “Have you found love again?”
“Yes.” I thought I caught a twinkle in her eyes. I wasn’t sure and her next statement did not help either. “Should we expect a marriage?”

She shrugged her shoulder; non-committal.
“Marriage is over-rated’” she said. “Let me just say for now that I am in love with a man. I do not know what will happen next. There are so many ‘arrangee’ marriages in Nigeria now. At my age, I have to understand what I am getting into, otherwise people will say I am stupid. Marriage? Not so fast.”

Maybe it is all coming back to her now; in slow-motion. She had stammered and hesitated while recalling the pain her mother endured. “She was a quiet person. She endured a lot of pain. She was industrious. She would try her hands on any legitimate business. She hated to sit at home and not do anything.” She skirted around what might have brought so much pain to her mother. The fact was that her father had children from two other women.

She recalled her mother’s efforts in trying to take care of her children. Even in that vulnerable position, she left Doris with some life lessons. She told us, “No matter what happened between her husband and another woman, we should still love our siblings and our step-siblings and not hate and not feel that this one was trying to maltreat us because they had money and we don’t have money. That was what I meant by she endured a lot of pain.”

It is understandable then that she would consider the loss of her parents within one year as the worst thing to happen to her. “My mother went first.” Always conscious of her mother’s admonition that they should remain closely knit, she is supporting her brother who is a member of a group of singers known as the Smooth Boys. “They have been singing for some years now. I am still trying to push them. They sang the theme song in the two films. They are Nigeria’s Boys 2 Men. Sometimes they sing acapella to bring out the harmony in their voices.”

With her followers on social media closing in on one million, Doris is humbled by the responsibility of such a huge fan base. She is particularly worried that the internet has exposed teenagers and young adults to information and knowledge they may not need. “You don’t want to know what some of these people who should be focused on their education at that age worry about. Mostly, they are concerned about what is trending; particularly fashion and such vain things. They want to look like the celebrities they see on social media. I am really afraid for them.”