Four years is an unbelievably short time to post such amazing results: Huge in-your-face banners and lead roles in feature films and rom-com. That is the make-believe stardom. In real life, Erica Ngozi Nlewedim admits that she is on her way. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

Her cheerfulness is infectious. She is not acting it. You can feel that unaffected decency and transparency. She has only been with me for less than 10 minutes and already I can tell she laughs a lot. Her childlike innocence immediately wins me over. She is sociable and does not need persuading to loosen up. That is good for me. It is a sign that we are going to have a great conversation. Her hair is combed out straight, falling on the back of her neck like a pile of fine black wool.

This is not the girl in the photos that were earlier sent to me. I express my reservations about the difference in her look. The beautiful girl sitting beside me is unlike the person in the photos; not that she is any less pretty. The makeup and her hair account for the variance. She is used to this kind of comment and tries to help me understand her appearance. “I went to the spa recently. I was supposed to stay off makeup for some time, but I didn’t. That is why my face is reacting.” There a few bumps on her face that are highlighted by her light complexion. Her explanation shows that she is trusting and unsuspicious.

The pimples do not in any way subtract from her beauty. By any standard, she is very attractive; nice-looking in that kind-of-pure way. She is wearing a black lacy blouse on blue jeans. Her high heels give her an eight-inch advantage over her actual height of 5’7”. The blouse confers on her a playful sexual attraction. When we walk downstairs from where I was working, I note that she throws her legs in that almost robotic and apparently arrogant gait that is associated with models. My attempt to link that pace to sessions on the runway brings the fighter in her to the fore. Still laughing, but instilling a stiff clarity, she says, “I am a commercial model. I am not a runway model.”

Erica Ngozi Nlewedim is making quite some impression in Nollywood and she does not come tip-toeing. In her third year as a student of Business Administration at the Covenant University, the opportunity she always wanted comes. She is ready for the opening, partly because she searches for it and partly because nature prepares her for it. One can conclude that the break is hers since she is the one who nurtures the idea of becoming a model and searches the internet for the top modeling and advertising agencies in Nigeria, following which she is asked to send in photographs of herself. On the other hand, Nature also plays a part for gifting her with a gorgeous appearance.

Her first modeling job is for a furniture company. It fetches her N50000, but her agent takes the customary 30 per cent. She is so proud of herself for earning an income at 17 years. She is in her third year in the university. Her friends in school usually get that kind of money from their parents. The excitement from that first triumph still lives with her. Her next work is a television commercial in which she is not flattered at all. “I don’t think I even appeared for up to two seconds in that commercial.”

Maybe it is good for her to make a fleeting appearance, after all. The authorities at Covenant University do not tolerate such exuberance that is known to cause unruly behaviour in other institutions of higher learning. Participating in modeling may not be an outright misdemeanor by the school policy, but no one is sure what the ground rules are. So, students like Erica are discreet about any activity that might beam the searchlight of the school’s disciplinary committee on them, for fear of expulsion. Certainly, there are social events on campus during which students’ model on the runway, but Erica is now a proper model who is being assigned contractual engagement. Word about her elevated status spread fast in school, even if it is in muffled tones. Her photos are on the website of Jumia and other popular brands. Her face is gaining more recognition in school, attracting more people to say ‘hi’ to her.

Her biggest break yet happens as soon as she leaves university. “Immediately I graduated, I got my big break. My agent sent me for a casting and he asks, ‘hope your hair is full and long’ and I said, ‘yes’. I went for the casting and they liked our hair. They said my natural hair was very nice so they picked me for the Natures Gentle Touch hair advert. They checked if I could memorise the script and I did it well. We were down to two girls – another beautiful girl and I. What gave me the edge was that my hair was fuller. They picked me and I did the commercial. The next year, in 2014, I had to do a photo-shoot and all of a sudden, I saw my pictures all over billboards.”

She emphasizes the exhilaration that welcomes her announcement on huge commercial banners. She precedes the description with that signature laughter that stirs the soul of her companion. “First time I saw myself on a billboard, I was in a bus. I was so tired and I saw my face. I was like ‘wow!’ I am not supposed to be entering bus now, that kind of a thing. It was funny to me.”

For the Arochukwu, Abia State-born model and actress, her face, more than her name is what people remember. “I have not gotten name recognition yet. People say your face looks familiar. ‘Are you the girl in the skit on African Magic where a girl slaps a guy over and over?’ People know me more from that. They say, ‘you are the girl from Royal Castle’. People send me a lot of messages on Instagram and emails from all over the world. The billboard used to bring the face recognition, but my face is being recognised on television and movies as well. I am in a taxi, next thing, the taxi guy is like, ‘is that you?’ You have to add more money.”

Contesting as Miss Kogi in the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria, MBGN, in 2014 is another landmark that defines her career. She did not win the overall crown in the beauty contest, but her sectional trophy as Miss Photogenic was enough to unlock many doors. “I was most busy in 2015 because I had done the MBGN the previous year, so a lot fell on my plate. I kept getting more jobs. I did stuff for the Jumia Fashion line, Stanbic-IBTC for their Valentine’s Day shoot. I did another job for Etisalat, Airtel and Diamond Bank. The exposure MBGN gave me brought all these recognition. I got my first acting job in a TV series called ‘Secrets and Scandals’. It was produced and directed by Elvis Chuks. After that I did ‘Royal Castle’. I also did the movie called ‘Poka Messiah’ directed by Ernest Obi. I went to Enugu for that. In 2016, I did the movie called ‘Once Upon a Night’. This year, I have been doing my modeling. I did adverts for Hollandia and Peak Milk.”

While her teeming fans are increasing by the day, one person who watches from the sideline, perhaps with subdued admiration is her mother. As an only child, Erica is all she has. Her concern for Erica’s welfare is therefore within reasonable logic. Sometimes, her expectation drives the daughter up the wall. Erica admits they have had a few head-butts. “We are two different persons. My mother is prim and proper, while I am more carefree. I am under pressure to be successful. As far as she is concerned, acting or modeling is not the way to go. She thinks I should get a nine-to-five job. She is always harping on the fact that all my mates have good paying jobs and that if I was working somewhere in the past four years, I would have been promoted, at least, once. I am sure if she had other children she would probably focus on them and not just me. All her hopes and dreams for her children is just on me. If there is any disappointment, there is no other child to take the disappointment away.”

Her mother may be struggling to deal with her perceived rebellion , but Erica has her priorities ordered on her own terms. She is willing to make a few adjustments, here and there, to accommodate her mother. However, there are certain areas she cannot compromise, no matter the odds. “I need to be successful so that my mother will have a successful child. I need to be successful for myself, as well, don’t get me wrong, but it is added pressure when you are constantly reminded of certain things. Now, I have to work with her on her procurement business just to calm her down. I am not doing it because I enjoy it. I am doing it so that she will be satisfied that I have a source of income apart from acting. Last year, I had a nine-to-five job at Page Omni Technology Limited, an IT company. I wasn’t as busy as the previous years. I wasn’t able to do acting and the modeling like I wanted to. I had too much free time and I didn’t just want to stay idle most of the time. With modeling and acting, it is only good when you know that you have some money saved and that you are getting money from somewhere else. I love acting but right now I cannot say it is my only source of income. It is not easy for people who are just starting to rely on acting as their only source of income. It is only when the job starts coming regularly that you can sit back and rely on acting only.”

She continues to talk about the moral weight her mother brings to bear on her. “There is pressure from her to get married. She has been telling me to get married since I graduated from school. Before now, it was ‘let me not see you talking to any boy until you have your certificate when you have your certificate you can do what you want’. Immediately I got my certificate, it changed to ‘when you are done with your NYSC you should be engaged’. What? I was like,’ is that how people get engaged?’ People just don’t get married to please other people. I want to get married when I find somebody that I can be with for the rest of my life. It is not just about someone making me happy. I can be happy now, what if I am not happy with the person later? People change, I have seen people change. I want to be sure. I want to be ready. I want to be emotionally ready before I get married. I need to achieve the things I want in my life. I want to be somebody. I don’t just want to be known as my husband’s wife. I want to be known for my own achievements.”

The love of being her own boss is one of the reasons she studied Business Administration. She wants to be a very successful business woman and a respected actress. “I studied Business Administration because I always wanted to own my business. I wanted to know what it feels like to manage a business and not work for anyone. I never saw myself working for anyone, but now I know that if you want to succeed you have to learn some things. In school, I was very young. I was in a hurry to do what I wanted to do, so; I got the information I wanted and shut out the rest.”

Erica finds a creative and beneficial way to deploy her free time. To shore up her knowledge and understanding of her professional interests, she is always online watching tutorial videos on how to do different things. “I check for cosmetology videos; how to take care of the skin. I will like to have a skin care business. I take tutorials on online acting. I ask fellow actors for tips. I send them clips of myself. I tell them to watch me and give me constructive criticism. I always want to improve and keep growing better. This industry is very competitive. I want to be the best. I don’t want to be famous for fame sake. I want to be respected.” Sometime in the future, she hopes to return to a formal school for a Masters degree in Public Relations and Advertising.

She thinks her comprehension of these discipline will stand her in good stead to achieve her overall goals. “What is drawing me to that area of study is that whatever one is doing, be it acting or production of any goods or service; every brand, every company needs PR because production is not complete until it reaches its target market. And how will it reach the target if there is no advertising? Even if it reaches the target, how will they keep coming back? What will make them loyal to you? It is PR. PR is more believable than marketing. Every brand needs PR.”

At the core of her belief is a strong conviction that is driving her steady rise. The markers are there for everyone to see: In your face presence on billboards all over the country and lead roles on popular rom-coms and feature films in about four years. One can say she has had a good run! She says, “I want people to believe that they have seen the next Nigerian sweet heart in acting and modeling. I am a very good actress; even if I say so myself. Other people have seen me at work and they believe this also. I have done auditions and I came out tops.”

One thing Erica has going for her is that self-propelling self-love that motivates from within. “Apart from being a good actress, I think I have a great personality; a loveable personality. I have marketable face; the face of a model. It all adds up. I have the face of a model plus the talent of an actress plus a nice personality, so what is not to love about me? It is mostly about the personality. I have what it takes to keep people interested in me.” In a few hours of being together, she is able to sell herself to me. If you are reading this article, Erica has got you!

Now, I understand the laughter is her PR tool. When she is meeting her agent; discussing with a movie director, she exudes so much charm that she makes hustling for commercials and movie roles look easy.

The undemanding route would have been to become a video vixen, but Erica would have none of it, except it is scripted to her order. “I have never been in a musical video and I don’t want to be in a musical video. If I will ever be in musical video, it will be with an artiste that I really love, may be, Wande Coal and I am going to act in the video. The video must have a story line. Not all these videos where girls are just dancing. I don’t want that at all. I just don’t think it is classy to dance in videos. I can never see myself as a video vixen.”

My interaction with her starts at Eko Hotel. We go on to the residence of the American Consul General in Ikoyi-Lagos for that country’s independence cocktail. The proper sit-down interview takes place at Bogobiri Hotel in Ikoyi, later that evening. A two-man band is playing all genre of music and the vocalist who also doubles on the keyboard encourages us who were listening to request a song or grab the microphone to sing. I toake his challenge and sing The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’. My effort is applauded, perhaps, out of courtesy. After me, I prod Erica to sing. She tells me earlier that she loves House and Techno music. But when she has the microphone, she chose to render a complex Beyonce song, not any of the popular ones. I didn’t even know the song. Owing to the intricacy of the tune, the excellence and projection of her voice can be appreciated. This is one thing she did not tell me. I discovered it myself. Erica can sing!

Our conversation covers everything. I will betray her confidence if I disclose all. Much of the information is for my ears only. However, it is safe to share her response when I ask the most daring thing she is willing to do as a model or an actress. She says, “I can’t think of anything that I cannot do; that is, anything sensible. I don’t think there is anything I consider too daring. I can take off my clothes; if it is for a story line that is impactful. Maybe a story about rape, a story that teaches something. I will not pose nude or shoot a sex scene just for the effect. That is pornography. That does not add any value to the movie or impact on the lives of people. I can strip nude for something that is impactful; something that makes a lot of sense and something that is educating.”