Helen Paul is a woman of many parts. She is a singer, actress and a business woman. She is also a stand-up comedian, known as Tatafo, characterised by a voice range that makes her sound like a child. She recently bagged a PhD in Theatre Arts from the University of Lagos. Helen talks to Festus Akanbi about her career and industry-related issues
You have carved a niche for yourself as a stand-up comedian and a Nollywood actress. Which of them is giving you more satisfaction?
Both are close to my heart. To sustain yourself in any industry, you need to have knowledge of that industry and know how to turn your talents within that industry into a business. When you have talent but lack business acumen, it can be frustrating. And it can also be vice versa – business know-how without talent or content is also a waste of time. Let’s break it down this way – there are movies that obviously lack a coherent plot or gripping role interpretation or delivery. However, with a solid plan in place, they could sell out tickets at cinemas and break box office records. And there are great movies out there that lack a decent promotional push so they end up being box office bombs. Let’s flip things a bit – you can be great at anything – comedy, music, trading, etc but if you lack sales and marketing skills, your talent, expertise, and skills may remain under-utilised. I can’t market or sell my talents to myself – I have to be able to sell those talents to other people and audiences. Therein lies my reason for holding both dear to my heart.
How will you, as a business woman describe the pervading business environment?
They are just like any other business out there – there are ups and downs. We occasionally do what businesses call SWOT analyses – we have our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Through it all, we’re keeping our heads above water.
How do you feel being the first Nigerian comedian to bag a PhD?
The funny thing is I never even considered that I was the first comedian to bag a PhD. It was during my convocation that someone made that observation. The only point I would be happy to see proved here is the fact that once you set out to achieve a good cause, no force can stop you. You will achieve it if you believe. I’ll be happy if every young man or woman out there is inspired to achieve his or her lifelong dreams, no matter how daunting the challenges may be in the process of doing that. I’ll be glad to see how a story of humble beginnings like mine can have a positive impact on the youth, especially ladies. No matter how relegated the role of a woman is, within every woman lies the birthplace of nations. I’m really hopeful that my story will inspire every young man or woman out there to go out and achieve that dream. Hard work and perseverance pay. Everyone can achieve great things regardless of their circumstances or backgrounds. We can all sit and make excuses but we can also look our fears and challenges in the eye and overcome them. It’s all about choices. No victory or success is too big to achieve, no mountain is too high to cross. The question is – do you want it? And if you do, how bad do you want it? That desire should lead you to sweat and burn the midnight oil. I wanted to achieve something; I set targets for myself and, to God be the glory, I conquered. Veni Vidi Vici. If I could earn a PhD, anyone can achieve his or her dream in any field, sphere, or sector.
How profitable is comedy business at this period of economic downturn?
Comedy business can be the same way other businesses are. Just like many businesses thrive by securing deals, comedians need to secure events and other business transactions. We can’t make a broad or sweeping statement by saying that comedy business is lucrative or not. Whatever you and wherever you’re located, comedy business can earn income at any level. No matter your geographical location or whatever the business you do, there will be low and high income earners.
All said and done, we need to combine the God and human factors to be successful at whatever we do – grace from God and hard work with perseverance.
To what extent will you say your gender has helped you climb up so fast in the industry?
I wouldn’t know if it’s gender-related, but all I can say is that I learnt a thing or two from other female acts – from Aunty Mandy to Lepacious Bose, and Princess. I was interested in knowing what kept them going in a male-dominated space. I hold the lessons I learnt close to my heart. And then, I chose to see things in black and white – I disregarded all gender biases and just saw the opportunity to thrive with other male acts in that space. At the end of it all, it’s all about God’s grace. I must admit that it’s a challenge and half being a female in a male-dominated industry. But with God, your courage, determination, and resilience, you’d break through.
How did you come into comedy business?
I learnt a lot from my grandma; being cultured, observant, the idea of being a disciplined person and being street-smart. I remember as a child, people in my vicinity used to gravitate towards me as they enjoyed listening to my jokes. I didn’t understand what entertainment was at that point, I was just being myself. I was never ahead of myself, took things a step at a time. With the way things were, I decided very early that I must find my path and be true to it. So, as I grew older and opportunities presented themselves, I leveraged on my childhood experience in seizing the moment. The traits I acquired from childhood helped me make mature decisions at crucial points in my life.
In the entertainment industry, what everybody does, either through music, acting or comedy is a representation of what is happening in reality. I grew up in different areas of Lagos like Fadeyi and Iju-Ishaga, where I quickly developed interacting skills. And one of the best things one can have as an entertainer is to have a keen sense of observation, and secondly, the ability to call back when that observation is needed. So, I try to always remember the places I have been to. For example, Alhaja DonJasi is a product of my observations about the sociocultural issues. I simply re-enact those issues, being funny while at it because the purpose of entertainment is to educate and entertain.
How do you combine your activities within your busy schedules as a comedian, a Nollywood actress, a business woman and an academic?
I will say knowing what to do at the right time, in the right places and with the right set of people. Identifying that life has its purpose – knowing that time is precious. When you are conscious of time, then you will know when to and what time to do what. This is what everybody does. As a banker you have children, you have to take care of your husband and you must also be in the office on time where you have to report to your boss and handle your direct reports. It’s all about multi-tasking. I also have a management team that takes care of bookings and other things. I cannot be at every event, so there are some I let go because of other things that are of essence.
Men have brains, women have connections is one of the quotes ascribed to you. Can you explain what you meant here?
Well, I can’t remember when this was said, but assuming without conceding that I said it, I will say if a man has nine ribs and women have seven ribs from the man, that means women are connected to the one with the brain (laughs).
What will you describe as your greatest challenge as an entertainer?
First, people may not respect your privacy. They get carried away by the personality they see and hear in the media. To a large extent, such behaviour can be excused – entertainment thrives mostly on make-believe. People form opinions about you based on what they’ve seen and heard about you, whether true or not.
Also, juggling several responsibilities can be challenging but as I explained earlier, God and the right people make things a lot easier.
So how do you react when people don’t take you seriously?
It happens a lot, but in a way, it works for my good because I love the power of underestimation. When people underestimate you, that is when you should be able to stand strong and make a point. I remember when I told people that I was undergoing a PhD program, many people laughed it off. In fact, some asked “what do you want to do with a PhD?” Such reactions actually gave me the strength to keep moving. Most comedians are deeper and more intelligent than what you see at surface level. They can be so serious-minded that they’re some of the best writers of tragedy.
Have you ever been sexually harassed as a Nollywood actress?
Well, with the way my mouth is always busy, if such had happened, you’d have heard it in the news. I would have mentioned names. Trust me, I’d have spoken because I don’t keep quiet. So, it’s a big no to that. I have never been sexually harassed.
How will you describe yourself?
Helen Paul can be your usual or unusual girl, depending on what lens you’re seeing her through. Helen is a perfect blend of choleric and sanguine traits though. Helen is sometimes confusing when you are trying to understand or know her though (laughs).
Meanwhile, Helen wears many caps. She’s so malleable she can fit into different roles all at once.
Are Nigerian entertainers satisfied with tax system in its present form?
I’m sincerely trying to understand our tax system. I have not lived long in any other country to be able to compare. Many of us don’t know how the tax thing works. I think the people in charge should be able to work with banks and Corporate Affairs Commission to have one system that will deduct taxes. This will stop tax officers from running after entertainers on social media and within other spaces. Sometimes, when people say things on social media, it’s show business and it’s left to the public to believe or not. The person involved might be doing or saying something, promoting a narrative to make himself or herself happy or relevant in the industry, so the tax officials should not come after him or her because of that. But at the moment, I’m paying my tax.
Have you learnt any lesson from the current global pandemic?
I wouldn’t say I learnt something entirely new. But some of my long-held convictions were reinforced. Firstly, people need to always have savings or a back-up plan and learn to adapt to survive in unfavorable conditions. It’s what some people call a Plan B of some sorts; something that you can fall back on when things go awry. As we know, there was no movement at all at a point during the lockdown. Although some jobs could be done from home, some businesses could not be done from home due to the very nature of such businesses. For example, some businesses depended heavily on daily commuting. And some people could only eke a living or sustain themselves based on their daily hustle as we call it. The lockdown, partial or total, was a game changer. It altered everything. Thankfully, some people who had managed to save were left with whatever savings they had. Unfortunately, some had nothing saved for the rainy day. Imagine how such people fared during the lockdown. Some would most likely resort to crime to eat. How tragic would it be when word gets out that someone passed away as a result of hunger and not the virus? Really scary. Therefore as we work, let us try to always save for unforeseen circumstances such as the covid-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, as an entrepreneur, I understand that a lot of businesses were terribly affected by the pandemic. Several stores could not open. Certain items such as water and tissue paper became scarce or even unavailable. When they were available, they were unbelievably expensive. So, at that point, you need to decide whether or not to restock and whether or not to inflate the prices of goods. A lot of critical and tough decisions had to be made just so things could keep moving. That takes us back to the issue of a fallback plan, businesses need to be run with sudden eventualities like the pandemic in mind. When you have shock absorbing plans on ground for your business, it can withstand threats.
Going forward, what sort of changes should we expect ?
I envisage positive changes, growth, and knowing that technology now works. In roses, there are thorns. There are opportunities in challenges. For example, technological initiatives were brought to the fore during the pandemic; businesses that had to work from home quickly realized that they could overhaul in-person meetings and replace them with virtual meetings through avenues such as Zoom. Also, productive man hours lost in heavy traffic gridlocks were avoided with the option of working from home.
I believe things would get relatively back to the way they used to be. I used the word “relatively” because, as I said earlier, we now have a new normal that has come to stay with us. So, things may not necessarily return to exactly how they used to be but won’t also remain the way they are at the moment. There’ll be positive changes. And with that, some activities that had hitherto been at a standstill will gather momentum. Take the entertainment scene for example – I’m sure the music, sports, and movie industries can’t wait to get back on track. The post-covid era would birth a ton of activities, from movie shoots and sports events to music and comedy concerts and so on, everyone awaits the opportunity to gather and enjoy those fun moments again. And for the industry players, everyone would come out with new materials and energy for their respective audience who must have missed their content. Retreats give birth to new energy and apparently, new materials. With proper attention to the safety of health of everyone at events, a certain level of normalcy would be achieved. We should all be ready for the change and growth. Generally, I expect more positive changes than otherwise.T