Her tattoo-dotted plunging cleavage is ravishing. Like an Egyptian princess, her hour-glass figure sits seductively on a gold-plated couch. With a golden tiara on her head and gold-coloured fitted dress to match, her beauty is awe-inspiring. Her light-complexioned skin glows like incandescent rays and persona invokes and exalts sanity and vanity in one fell swoop – portraying a cherubic guile that taunts eternity. Toyin Lawani, the CEO of Tiannah Empire Place, is majestic. In this interview with Funke Olaode, the frank, famous and forward-looking fashionista talks about sex, scandals and success
Who is Toyin Lawani?
She is a mother and a business mogul with over 30 enterprises under one roof. I was born into a royal family. My grandmother was the Adele-Oba of Ikoyi, Ikole Ekiti. My grandfather, Elijah Babalola, was the Minister of Works in the old western region. My mom who died in 2007 was a super entrepreneur who did almost practically everything that I am doing now. I actually learnt under her tutelage. My late mom sold gold, cars and even had a store in the United States at a time. It is sad that she is no more. She taught me to be a business mogul.
Is it true your father wanted you to study law but you refused?
Yes. I just had to go to school to please my parents. I actually went in for Mass Communication at Unilag. I later got into English and I embraced it. But my heart desires has always been in beauty right from my year one at age 16. I was into skin care, fashion designing, etc. In fact, I had my shop in Unilag and had another one along Akoka road. With time, people got to know what I had to offer and I started getting referrals. As business expanded, I moved to Victoria Island where I had my businesses and had my fashion house somewhere else. But I wasn’t making money because by the time I do my daily running around I will be exhausted. I realized that I needed to put my businesses under one roof to be able to monitor it.
Considering your privileged background what drives you to be your own woman?
What drives me is the passion to show the world that women can be better than men. But some women just sit down at home expect men to do things for them, expect their husbands to feed them. But with my early business exploits, I have shown it is always going to pay off for women to work; because when they work they will be able to support their family when something happens. So a women’s place doesn’t belong in the kitchen. And again, my kids also drive me – when I look at them, their future and what I want for them. I want them to take over this business to the next generation and do it better. I took over this business from my mum and turned it around. Again, the fact that I see my fellow women do great in their endeavours and that I can empower others give me satisfaction. I have a physically challenged person in my beauty salon who I trained.
You have about 30 enterprises under the same roof. What is your winning formula? How is that possible?
Yes, it is doable. Because nobody can do it alone and when you realise you can do it alone then you won’t crash. You have to get professionals, different managers to man different departments who will report to you and you can go back to sleep. I don’t joke with my creativity. I am the creative director behind Elegante by Tiannah. My passion makes it easy for me; because when you have a passion for what you are doing things usually become successful.
Can you be simply referred to a jack of all trades?
When they call me ‘a jack of all trades and master of all’ I smile because I have had people who actually didn’t believe in me when I started. They even made remarks like: ‘What’s her own? Is it everything that she wants to do?’ I just shrugged them off because I know who I am. All my businesses work hand in hand. I am into entertainment, fashion, lifestyle and beauty. For instance, musician needs hairstylist, fashion, skin care. Wedding planner needs an interior décor, catering, etc. When I get a wedding job I will handle everything: security, music, etc. Everything is Tiannah Styling. So when you have businesses that work hand in hand it is easy to manage.
Is it true Tiannah Empire is worth over N300 million?
It is very true! It is not money that I pumped in once so that I don’t scare other young people who might want to toe my line of businesses. I started my business with N150,000 at the age of 16 in 1998. The business has been able to move itself up to this level. So you can start small and look for a mega business that will bring massive money. My work has been able to get me huge money from working with individuals and companies because of my creative ideas and ability to maintain high standards.
When a man succeeds he is praised. But when a woman succeeds she is accused of using ‘bottom power’. How do you think women can change the narrative?
Women like me make people change their minds and work hard. People tell me how I inspire them and how watching Tiannah Empire Reality Show has changed their lives. Most men feel that they are the breadwinners and most of the time when women succeed on their own they still ascribe that success to men – which is not true. Believe me, women sometimes are the one pulling themselves down by making snide remarks that there must be a man pumping money for their fellow women to succeed or achieve this or that. I will say to women out there that want to chase their dreams to forge on regardless of marriage because if a man loves you he will support you and push you to greatness.
What are your fears?
Obviously, fear of failure because if you maintain the standards you have created for yourself you don’t want to fail. Life is a struggle. So we have to work hard every day. You have to maintain your finance and household otherwise one can crash suddenly.
You have had your fair share of scandals. How do you handle them particularly those that are not true?
Most times it is always very painful when you read things about yourself that are not true. And you know you work very hard to inspire others and people choose to give you bad a bad name. Most times I feel like addressing them especially the ones that have to do with my children. Most people don’t put their kids out there. But I put mine out there because they are destined for greatness. They have their own talent for acting, music, etc. And if they grow up and say that is what they want to do I will give them my blessing. Like I said earlier, I respond to those that have to do with my kids. I can only urge people not to believe everything they read on the internet which can either be negative or positive. To answer your question, scandals don’t get to me. And what you say about people does not define them.
But on many occasions the scandals are self-inflicted. Like when you said marriage is not a priority.
Yes. I repeat it marriage is not a priority. Most people feel like those who are single mums like me are cursed or we’re not to be respected. I speak to several families and even have people that I impact their lives. Do you know how many salaries that I pay every month? Some men cannot do that. I pay almost 100 people salary every month. Then you will now tell me that because you are married you’re better than me. You that are in your husband’s house and being fed and at the same time being slapped every day. If you are contributing to that family do you think they will be slapping you every day? We all learn from experience. I have been married before but because I wanted something more for myself I was able to leave the marriage and chase my dreams.
But there was a rumour that the father of your son, Lord Trigg, proposed and marriage was in the offing before it fizzled out.
I have only been married once in my life. I decided to leave the second relationship because it wasn’t working for me. I have shown him (Lord Trigg) severally that we can co-parent without being enemies.
People thought the relationship failed due to the huge age difference between you two. Is that correct?
It is not because of the age difference. Age has never been a problem between us. Can’t you see how sexy I look? Do you think any man would see me and wouldn’t want to die? Oh my God! We were both in love. It wasn’t even a societal pressure. But a personal decision because it wasn’t what I wanted for myself. I have learnt my lesson that when I have anything coming up I am not going to put it in the press.
If Mr. Right shows up, will you consider marriage again?
Why not? So far that Mr. Right is going to help me achieve my dreams, supports me in my late night work etc. You know what? It is even hard for some people to support your dream because they feel you are supposed to be a mum, stay at home breast-feeding (babies). I played my role well as a wife. I cooked for him and took care of my home. I make sure that I do everything but he has to support my passion, if that is what will give me joy. But most men want their wives to stay at home and just be a mum. I have exposed my children to my business and I take them along. My daughter knows everything that I do. I can be so intimidating. I have been with someone who is far richer than me and I have been with someone that I am far richer than.
You set the internet on fire recently with a semi-nude photo you in a bathtub posted online. Why did you go to that extent to advertise a beauty product?
If I didn’t do that how do I convince my customers that the product is working? That wasn’t a nude photograph. Did you not see my hands across my chest with my products in-between? Just small thing and everybody was shouting. You know I schooled abroad where I learnt about beauty. I am very exposed and don’t see it as a big deal. Meanwhile, when Beyoncé does it they will be hailing her – or even Rihanna. People should just go and sit down because they are hypocrites.
You mean you don’t have any regrets?
What regrets? I am making money. You better look out for my next photographs. When people see my skin sparkling come and see the way they rush to get my products. I use strictly Tiannah Beauty Glow products. I don’t joke with my herbal magic polish. My black soap, my scrub –everything is Tiannah’s Glow.
Then you have tattoos in strategic places.
Yes. They are my children’s names and I carry them everywhere I go.
Apart from business, what other things do you do?
I am a philanthropist. I have a non-governmental organisation called, ‘There is ability in disability’. I feel like there are people out there who are voiceless and need people to speak for them. Recently, I went to empower some kids at a remand home in Oregun in Ikeja, Lagos. Tiannah Fashion Academy joins others in training the inmates on fashion so that when they come out they can have something to do so that they don’t go back to street to go and steal. Gladys is my tailor; she physically challenged. She can’t speak and hear. She has made cloths for celebrities such as Wizkid, Davido, etc. She has been working for me for seven years. Her sister too has similar problems and she does amazing hairstyles. I am making impact in my small corner.
Who are your role models?
My role model is my mum, Atinuke Babalola. She is late. She believed if you had passion for something and you put your heart into it you would make it.
What’s your philosophy?
Whatever you do in life be honest – do it with an open heart. Don’t fake your life because you are listening to the society. Stop living your life to impress people. Again, don’t trust people and open your eyes before you choose your friends.