• My Journey from Body Enhancement to Life Transformation

“I will never forget that moment. I cried for over an hour because I felt I had failed that woman. I felt we could have probably saved her life if we had come a few weeks earlier.” A couple of years back it would have been impossible to find her where flies arrogantly fly in the face of the destitute and tease the injured as they flit around their wounds. A lot has changed about her: from being the ‘material’ girl at the age of 27 – changing how people look and feel using plastic surgery –, she has become the humanitarian queen that yearns for the comfort of the poor, not the rich. Avant-garde and with flawless skin that shimmers in shadow; with a rich resume reflecting resplendent successes, Modupe Ozolua is not just for the glitz, the light, camera and action. Imbued with foresight and ingenuity, she has become the metaphorical bridge built between the divide of the rich and the restless poor. Her name may remain the signpost of the one who pioneered plastic surgery in Nigeria but Ozolua has taken a leap of faith and is healing the wounds of many, writes VANESSA OBIOHA

First, she aspired to be a flight attendant. Like a fleeting fancy, she thought of another aspiration. To the then bright-eyed youngster being a medical doctor was an inevitable path she must pass by all means. Well, even though she never became a medical practitioner, she has excelled as a pioneer of a medical field in Nigeria – plastic surgery – as she set up a body enhancement centre in 2001 under the company, Body Enhancement. She was just 27 when she took the bold step to encourage Nigerians to indulge in face-lift and other beauty-enhancing procedures. The country was taken by surprise but Modupe Ozolua has since moved on. But what made her to venture into a path not hitherto trodden?

“Growing up in Nigeria, I saw many family members and friends’ mothers travelling to Europe to indulge in luxury spas and health farms. I knew Nigerian women and men would appreciate the opportunity to improve their physical appearance in the comfort of their own country with family and aides around to take care of them. Knowing those facts, I made some inquiries and got extremely positive feedback and thus proceeded to establish Body Enhancement Ltd in Nigeria,” she recalled.

She hit the jackpot instantly and her fame rose like a meteor – there was no stopping her. Her passion and care for her clients were unparalleled as she made it a duty to be in the theatre during surgical procedures for the clients.

”I made sure the surgeon did what the client wanted. I would always ask the nurses and anaesthesiologists’ opinion on the results of the procedure before I gave approval for the procedure to end. If I didn’t feel we did what they client wanted, I wouldn’t allow the surgeon to stop working. Although it was very demanding, standing in the operating room for hours overseeing this, I had to do that to look after the client’s interest,” she stated with pride.

Even though – to date – most of those clients still consult her for surgeries, by 2003, Ozolua had shifted her focus to reconstructive surgery where she treated people with severe burns or similar lacerations that muddled their beauty. Ozolua, however, found herself an easy target for bad press. On more than one occasion, she was a victim of blackmail. She recalled an ugly incident where a Nigerian tabloid published defamatory stories about her every week because she refused to be ‘friends’ with the publisher. She even went as far as suing a magazine when the attacks became insufferable.

“All the various smear campaigns against me in a bid to blackmail me made me realise my business had put me in an ocean (fame) that required me to swim with bloodthirsty ‘sharks’. Things had to change. That’s why I shut them out as far back as 2005 and barely spoke to the press since then,” she said.

At the time Ozolua was enjoying what she knew how to do best, a new vista began to open before her. In the course of championing body enhancement surgeries, she often encountered indigent people that needed reconstructive surgery. One of them was a couple who sought her services after the wife suffered severe burns and lacerations from a fire accident. Unfortunately, they couldn’t afford to pay for the surgery.

Ozolua found herself making plans to launch a foundation that will provide financial assistance to the disadvantaged in need of her services, leading to the founding of a foundation – the Body Enhancement Annual Reconstructive Surgery (BEARS). When the foundation kicked off – within its first few months – it provided free corrective surgery to children born with birth defects within. The organisation is now known as ‘Empower 54’ following some changes in goals and objectives.
“Initially, it was called BEARS (Body Enhancement Annual Reconstructive Surgery) Foundation because it was the charity arm of my cosmetic surgery business, Body Enhancement Ltd. It was changed much later because our humanitarian activities had extended beyond reconstructive surgery and they were holding more than once annually. In addition, our foreign partners were confused by the acronym, BEARS, because they thought it was an animal conservative organisation saving the animal, bear!

“It was then shortened to Body Enhancement Foundation but my foreign board of directors advised we completely make it independent of Body Enhancement Ltd as it wasn’t a foundation solely funded by the company. At that point, after deliberation, we finally decided on Empower 54. As our organisation conducts humanitarian activities in various African countries, the 54 represents the number of African countries on the continent, thus, translating to ‘Empower Africa’.”

Globally recognised, the organisation provides humanitarian assistance such as medical missions, hunger eradication, educational, women/girl empowerment and refugee programs to underprivileged Africans. It has as its patron the South African icon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and recently got the backing of the Ooni of Ife, Enitan Ogunwusi, in one of its poverty eradication programmes.
Through Empower 54, Ozolua’s altruistic nature became even more apparent. It shows a part of her that is in stark contrast to the lifestyle attached to her persona in the past. One of her notable achievements was her involvement in bringing relief to survivors of Boko Haram’s insurgency at the internally displaced persons’ camps collaborating with the Borno State Government to evacuate – to Maiduguri for urgent CMAM treatment – over 1,500 extremely malnourished children rescued from the extremist group’s captivity.
Nothing prepared Ozolua for what she was about to encounter during her visit at the IDP camps. There she saw loss of hope, independence and once ‘free spirits’ caged in a devastating environment.

“It breaks my heart to see anyone suffering. The thoughts and emotions that go through me when I’m at an IDP camp might not necessarily be same others have because I see things beyond the obvious. What I saw was the loss of hope, loss of loved ones that are displaced when fleeing and they don’t know if their children, husbands or wives are dead or alive. I see loss of independence, loss of living in dignity, loss of basic fundamental human rights to choose what’s best for them. I see previously ‘free spirits’ now caged in a necessary system that’s helping them.

“But they have no say in what’s best for them. Some IDPs aren’t even allowed to leave their camps due to security reasons, thus they are prisoners within the walls of hope that shelter them. When I look at situations relating to IDPs or underprivileged people, I see and feel their pains, it drains me emotionally, physically, spiritually and psychologically; but at the same time, they inspire me to carefully review my organisation’s definition of ‘help’ because it is critical to interact with those we want to help for us to prioritise their needs – and not just act on assumptions and perceptions,” she explained.

Often, Ozolua is painfully reminded that she is no superhuman and can only assist within her capacity. In such helpless situations, she feels devastated – sometimes too weak to carry on. On one occasion in 2016 while she and her were preparing for a medical mission in Kwara State and went for pre-mission investigations. The programme was heavily advertised in the media and drew a lot of crowd.
“Many people came and among them was a woman with breast cancer. I was interested in her case and promised we would contact her for surgery when we returned for the medical mission. Such a huge programme required a lot of planning and we experienced a few months’ delay. When we got there, I asked my personal assistant to call the woman with the breast cancer to inform her we had returned and I wanted to schedule her for a surgery. When my PA called, the woman’s daughter answered the phone. After she was told the purpose of the call, the girl started screaming and crying that her mother died a few weeks before we arrived.

“I will never forget that moment. I cried for over an hour because I felt I had failed that woman. I felt we could have probably saved her life if we had come a few weeks earlier. It took over 20 people to calm me down and convince me it wasn’t my fault. They reminded me we came the earliest we could and I had to get it together because I’m the ‘magnet’ that holds the team together. After they reminded me that hundreds of men, women and children were outside waiting for me to flag off the ceremony for them to be treated – my emotional breakdown would let them down – I got up and did the needful,” she narrated.

Another incident that traumatised her was when she met a child with imperforated anus in Kano State. Watching the child walk around with a catheter Ozolua said reminded her of God’s countless mercies in her life. One thing was certain, however, through gripping tales of suffering and pain she has witnessed, Ozolua realises that success is more than material achievements – she is convinced success is a way of helping as many people as one can.

From the being the ‘material’ girl to becoming the humanitarian woman, she is determined not to allow her past glory overshadow her current selfless endeavour. “Why should it bother me to be duly credited as the non-medical personnel who pioneered a highly specialised aspect of medicine in West Africa? Or be duly credited for putting Nigeria on the global map as a location of plastic surgery at the age of 27 years old? It’s an honour, not an insult,” she said without remorse.