She embodies beauty as you look at the glint in her pupils. She personifies humour as you listen to her. Few comediennes and actresses can combine the depth of her intellect and artistry. She’s one of a kind. Her often dark, luxuriant hair shimmers as it unfurls onto her robust shoulders. Her wide smile is welcoming as her vivacious visage is enchanting. She sparkles in that simple but stylish dress and is everything a woman of substance stands for. Meet Helen Paul, arguably Nigeria’s best comedienne. Until her rise -no. Helen Paul has always been rising. But she grabbed the headline as a comic powerhouse in her radio character, Tatafo. Today, she is more: a superstar with a PhD to boot, writes Funke Olaode
Helen Paul, a co-presenter of ‘Jara’ on DSTV African Magic, is a superstar comedienne, media personality, academia and entrepreneur who has been around for over a decade dazzling Nigerians with hilarious jokes. Helen Paul is all-encompassing. She is Nigeria’s first comedian to have a PhD in Theatre Arts from the University of Lagos.
She is a household name, but her first breakthrough came through a radio programme where she acted ‘Tatafo,’ a character with a child’s voice. For her performance, she gradually worms her way into the hearts of many Nigerians who often stay glued to their radio box to have a feel of this multi-talented ‘child’ actor. As the year progresses, Helen Paul unfolds as a female comedian to beat. As a matter of fact, her emergence into the scene was like a breath of fresh air into a setting that has been dominated by men over the years. Within a few weeks, months and even years, Helen has proved herself that what a man can do, a woman can even do it better.
But just like ordinary man and woman who goes out to achieve extraordinary achievements, Helen Paul’s life trajectory has been a long walk to academic and career achievements after many obstacles that pose a threat to her dreams. As a go-getter, she confronted her mountains and today has the last laugh.
Born in Lagos and grew up in Iju-Ishaga and Fadeyi in Lagos, Helen Paul embraced education early because she loves knowledge and would stop at nothing in getting it. After her primary and secondary education, she gained admission to the University of Lagos where she studied creative arts. Not done with academics, she went on to have three masters. First in the same discipline at the University of Lagos where she bagged her first degree. She later acquired two more masters degree first in Business Administration (MBA) and another in Public Administration (MPA), all from the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ogbomosho, Oyo State.
“The truth is that I love knowledge, and would stop at nothing to get it. I belong to the school of thought that believes that we stop acquiring knowledge only when we die. And as much as I can, I try to pass the little knowledge I have to the younger generation. You see, I always advise my fans never to give up on their dreams, no matter the obstacles,” she says.
For Helen Paul, sheer determination, resilience spirit, and hard work have been her source of inspiration when her dream of going to school was almost truncated.
Reminiscing on her past, the comedienne narrates, “Immediately after I finished secondary school, I got admission to study Performing Arts at the University of Ilorin. Of course, you can imagine how elated I was and how proud my mother was about the development. She was so happy that she shared the good news with our neighbours, but there was a problem –she could not afford the admission fees. When I eventually got to Ilorin, registration had closed. With the shame of going back home without admission, not an option; I decided to be lurking around the campus, perhaps until I get another admission.
“Without no accommodation arrangement in place, I was about to pass the night in an open space with my luggage when a junior lecturer of the school, Mr. Felix (now Dr. Felix) walked up to me. He told me where I planned to sleep was dangerous, and I explained my predicament to him, and out of pity, he offered me a space in his apartment. Every morning, I will resume with him to the school and attend his classes. I would even write attendance. I did this for almost one year and even the bonafide students thought I was part of them. Ironically, it was the same Dr. Felix who supervised my PhD project. He was transferred to UNILAG when I was at 200 level.”
For Helen, her way to stardom was filled with coincidences but the thought of becoming great often came from her inner voice.
“As a little child, I have always known that I would become a celebrity in the future,” she explains.
“But honestly, I didn’t know in what capacity. I didn’t know what will bring fame, but I just knew that I would be a star. I always tell my friends then that I would grow up to be a star. Even when I was just a receptionist at Eko Reelmix Studio, I was so confident about becoming a star. It was later that I started as a back-up singer and voice-over artiste before the comedy and acting aspects took over. And I worked relentlessly towards it.
“I often tell people that we are nothing but pencils in the hands of God. He is the master planner, and sometimes, His ways are not our ways. Professionally, the comedy aspect started more like a coincidence. This was when I got admission into the University of Lagos. I actually went for a show, and the MC did not come, so my friends said I can do it because I’m a funny character. I eventually did it and it was awesome, and from there, people started calling me for shows and the money kept coming in. I had to stick to it and of course, met the likes of Ali Baba and Basorge Tariah Jnr. who now enlightened me on the business part of the job.”
What does it take to be a female comedian and the challenges? Does she sometimes feel intimidated?
“In this part of the world where we are, people are very quick to criticize women, but when the menfolk do the same thing, nobody is talking. There are some jokes or songs a female entertainer will do that will spark criticisms, but when the male counterpart does the same thing, it is business as usual,” she answers.
And adds, “But in a developed country like America, male and female entertainers have an equal share, and that is why they have many women doing really well. Our mentality about women in Nigeria needs to change. For instance, a male comedian can pull off his shirt on stage, but when a female entertainer wears something provocative to depict a character, she comes under serious criticism. The society has not made it a level playing ground for men and women generally.
“To answer your last question I honestly don’t see competition from anyone. I only compete with myself; trying to make sure that every new job I do is better than the previous one, so I have never felt intimidated.”
Giving a few tips on how to be a successful entertainer in unfriendly terrain, Helen Paul admits that her staying power is God.
“The number one factor is God,” she emphasizes.
“Once you have His green light, then the next thing is originality, uniqueness –people should know you for what you stand for. Just be yourself and not try to be like someone else. Being natural and spontaneous helps a lot too. Never give up on your dreams. Try as much as possible to constantly be innovative. You must surround yourself with people who can cue into your dreams. I mean people who can motivate and encourage you to go all out and make that dream come true. I’m a very positive person, so I avoid people with negative vibes.
“Above all, it’s God that has the staying power, but you also need to work hard, making sure you’re doing the right things at the right time. Keep pushing because your breakthrough might just be a few steps away from you. Life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you won’t be quite lucky. But come what may, resilience, hard work and a good heart will surely pave ways for you somehow, even in the face of heavy storm and adversity. Righteousness exalts a nation.”
Her love for the arts goes beyond standup comedy. She is an actress, presenter, academia, columnist and entrepreneur. Where does her passion lie in all of this?
“I put passion into everything that comes my way. It is difficult to say my passion lies with a particular one because doing all of them makes me happy. It gives me some sense of fulfilment.”
Having dined with low and mighty in the society, Helen Paul must be laughing all the way to the bank.
Amused, she said, “To the glory of God, I can afford a three square meal.
“To me, your account balance or the posh cars and mansions do not determine how rich you are. How many lives have you touched positively with the little God has given you? I’m not talking about the public giveaways now, but people you have secretly wiped their tears –that’s my definition of riches.”
There is something about Helen Paul: her husband and children have stayed out of the limelight. Is it deliberate? “Not at all,” she responds.
“Those who know my husband will tell you he doesn’t like being in public glare at all. He is more of the quiet and reserved type. For my kids, if any of them wish to follow mummy’s footsteps, so be it. I can’t dictate for them, but support with prayers.”
She is the first comedian to have a PhD in theatre arts. How did the journey into being an academic begin and how did she cope with the rigour considering her busy schedule? She explained.
“It wasn’t on a bed of roses, but resilience really pays,” she admits. “If it wasn’t for resilience, I could have given up after the UNILORIN admission disappointment. It wasn’t easy to cope, but when God is involved in your matter, everything will fall into place. Then how did she feel the day she was announced as a doctor?
“It was a dream come true!”
Just as her academic attainment made the headline back in April, the comedian also came out with an appalling aspect of her private life that nearly truncated that joyous moment with “born out of rape” story while dedicating her degree to her mum. You may wonder what gave her the boldness to come out considering the sensitivity of that aspect of your life.
“Considering the sensitivity aspect of HER private life.
Helen Paul says with pride: “My Mum deserves it because she is really a strong woman. I had been waiting for the right time to talk about it publicly, and there can’t be a better time. Sometimes, the best revenge is success.”
So, what is the next move for her?
“I will unfold the plans as God directs. As for the plan to be a lecturer or visiting professor, I will say it is likely to happen. I love to impact knowledge on younger people, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all,” she simply says.