Lola Maja-Okojevoh: On Being Nigeria’s Special Effects Queen

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The glint in her eyes accentuated by her pointed nose indicates a single-minded direction: to move TV and film productions in Nigeria to a higher level. Having many odds to beat, Lola Maja-Okojevoh did not give up. Relentlessly, she pursued her vision with undiluted passion. Lively and somewhat carefree, the acclaimed beauty expert, educator, and cosmetic brand consultant is a bundle of talent. Vanessa Obioha’s recent encounter with the creative entrepreneur sheds light on Lola’s ingenuity and staying power and her fascination with special effects on film and TV productions

When Lola Maja-Okojevoh was in her 30s, she broke up engagement and earned the wrath of people who filled her head with thoughts of depression. Some told the bubbly young woman that she made a silly mistake and would probably end up alone. She paid no attention, rather she followed her heart and ended up marrying a best friend. The beauty therapist, educator, make-up artist, the cosmetic brand consultant is today happily married with two children.

The marriage turned out not be the only hurdle Lola faced in that period of her life. Having spent most of her life in London, returning to Nigeria to practise her profession proved more daunting than she imagined. First, her area of concentration, special effects (SFX) for film and TV was not fully embraced. It was foreign to the make-up artists who dominated the scene at the moment. Not a few advised her to stick to bridal and beauty make-up, but the fine artist in her did not settle for less.

The artist wanted to explore more avenues, particularly in the film industry. So when the opportunity to do special effects for renowned filmmaker Kunle Afolayan’s 2009 movie, ‘Figurine’, she jumped on the offer. The way she transformed the characters and the visual effects she brought to the story fetched her accolades such that when Afolayan needed a make-up artist for his award-winning 2014 historical movie, ‘October 1’, she was his preferred choice. The movie earned her an Africa Magic Viewers Choice Award for ‘Best Make-up’ in 2015. She has also been tipped for the filmmaker’s upcoming movie project next year.

Lola later worked on other film and TV projects such as the MTV Staying Alive Foundation lifestyle drama ‘Shuga’, and music videos of artistes like Tiwa Savage and Wizkid. A decade after she worked on ‘Figurine’, Lola is on everyone’s lips. She is one of the most revered make-up and beauty professionals in the industry. On Eva channel on DStv and GOtv, her face often graced the screen during commercials where she offers a beauty and make-up tutorial to viewers across the continent. But more important for the creative entrepreneur, SFX is gaining traction in the Nigerian film and TV industry.

“’Figurine’ is a decade now. That was the first SFX movie I did in Nigeria. That’s when a lot of people started knowing about SFX make-up for movies. It is crazy for me to realize that it was ten years ago we did the ‘Figurine’. Time just went by so crazy and quickly,” she said.

“It gives me joy to be part of that. I remember back then people asked why I chose the makeup on TV because they thought I would make more money on bridal make-up. I used to do that a lot before I came to Nigeria and even when I started operating here, I was still doing brides. But for me, even if I didn’t make much (money) doing movies, the fact that 10 years later, someone can still comment on my work in ‘Figurine’ is exceptional. Nobody is going to come back and say to you that that bride you did 10 years ago was good.

“Sometimes I look back at my portfolio, 27 years ago of make-up and I looked back at some of the work I did, I appreciate it because that was what was trending back then. But when you look back at films, it’s a legacy, it’s something people will always appreciate. It’s 10 years and a lot of things have changed but at least I’m still proud of the work I did then,” she said.

Her Maryland-Lagos office contains a fitness hall, a beauty salon and a shop where her products such as ‘Sacred Lashes’, take up ample space. It is the first Nigerian-owned eyelash company and was launched in 2006.
Her customized eyelashes are still in high demand but what is in higher demand is her SFX products such that she opened a store in 2016 to cater for filmmakers across the West African region. She prides herself as the only retailer in the field to date. Her clients are mainly in Nigeria but Ghana is picking up. She plans to open a store in Ghana before the year runs out. There are also requests from Togo and Cameroon.

The surging interest in SFX products for film and TV is delightful news to Lola who further honed her skills in Pinewood Studios in the UK. It was a good indication that Nollywood is beginning to understand the importance of SFX. Thus, at the recently held Beauty West Africa Fair, she joined veteran actress, Joke Silva, to discuss Film and TV make-up.

As much as the industry is waking up to the aesthetic value of SFX on sight and sound productions, Lola believes that a lot of work still needs to be done. For instance, she pointed out the need for filmmakers and directors to create a special budget for make-up.

“People are often not willing to pay for remarkable make-up brands because it’s film. They believe that cheaper make-up can do the work so why spend money on big brands for make-up. That kind of mindset has to change because it is not cheap make-up that are used internationally for films. Everything has to change because if you are spending so much money on buying the latest camera, why not spend on special effects as well.”

She continued: “Some people also think of blood when they hear special effects. It’s more than that. Special effects can be used to make someone look younger. If you watch the ‘Gemini Man’ that featured Will Smith, you will see how special effects were put to use. They imposed Smith’s face on a younger actor to make him appear younger. Some may argue that computer graphics were deployed by the filmmakers to achieve that aim, it doesn’t, however, erase the fact that some special effects such as face casting and modelling to prep the base on the younger actor to make him look like Will Smith was also used.”

What is emphatically important to Lola is that beauty and make-up artists discover the teeming business opportunities available in the field.

“People still wonder if there is any business in special effects. Yes, there is, just that there weren’t many opportunities back then because they didn’t have the products to compete with the western film industries. But now that we have the knowledge and the products, there’s absolutely nothing stopping anyone from raising the levels of our films to be as advanced as what we have in Hollywood. What we need is directors and producers to pay the budget because SFX is not cheap. It is not like the usual makeup.”

In the 27 years of her career, Lola has seen many transformations in the beauty industry which currently is worth $500 billion according to reports. None, however, excites her as seeing her trainees becoming masters in their art. She used to own a training school but closed it when she left the country. Her reason stemmed from a discipline to do things properly.

“I don’t want to leave something running and I’m not here on the ground to see what is happening. I have trained beauty therapists that have gone on to open their own salons. It’s so important to me to ensure that things are done properly, so I only do training when I’m around. I’m very protective of my name because it’s my brand.”
However, the recent boom in the industry also signalled a threat. For Lola, it was important that the beauty industry is properly structured.

“What we see in the industry today is diversification. People are diversifying. I think we have to look at the actual structure of the beauty industry to protect consumers and provide guidance for people that are coming into the business. Who is actually helping them, showing them the way? Who are the gatekeepers?” she queried.

“My issue with the saturation in the industry is that some will come for training and two weeks later, they have opened up their own business place. They will also train people. That is wrong. It’s not about knowing about something, it’s the experience. That’s the problem. A lot of people don’t wait to get experience before they start teaching others. If someone was trained by a master makeup artist unless the trainee gets the kind of experience the master has, all he or she is doing is passing up lecture notes to someone else, and the talent is getting watered down.

“People need to have more patience and focus on building themselves as a brand and building their own experience first. Because it’s not about knowing how to do it but how to save something when something goes wrong. You can only know how to rectify situations that have gone bad through experience and not books.”
She further emphasized the need for beauty experts to discourage colourism.

“It is one of the main things I tackle. It is the responsibility of the makeup professionals to educate their clients on the dangers of colourism. I’m very selective. Maybe that’s why I don’t have many clients because I’m a beauty therapist, I come from the skin aspect. There are outstanding professionals who will always make their clients their colour because your work is to make a more beautiful version of your clients not to change their skin colour,” she pointed out.

“I’m not changing you. I’m enhancing you. So if you are in the hands of a good makeup artist, your own colour is your own beauty. That is the most beautiful thing about you. In situations where the customers are not confident in their colour and are persuading you to change it, you do owe a responsibility to the customer to tell them this is your colour.

“I have turned down people before because they wanted me to alter their skin colour. If I work with such clients, at the end of the day it will backfire at me because they might end up altering the make-up and no one will realize that. What people will say is that the make-up was done by me. So it’s better to walk away from the job.”
At 41, Lola glows. In a black top and pants that accentuated her flawless light skin, a complexion she inherited from her mother who is a mixed race. Her father is Yoruba. Lola is neither fluent in Yoruba or Itsekiri, her mother’s native tongue. Her husband is Urhobo. She doesn’t speak the language.

But somehow, she managed to pronounce shea butter in Yoruba – ori – very well. Her inability to speak the language fluently upsets her sometimes because her staff often teased her about it. Thus, she made it a duty to teach her children Yoruba. They are also learning Mandarin.
Her new age is exciting. She claims she is living the best
time of her life.
“I actually have a licence to do whatever I like. I spent too many years actually caring about other people’s opinions. This is me! It’s either you really like me or not,” she explained.