Allure Cover: Stephanie Okereke Linus – Proudly Nollywood
Words By- Josephine Agbonkhese
Ever since her debut on the big screen in 1997 when she starred in the movie Compromise, Stephanie Okereke Linus, has never made a U-turn.
From growing into one of the most respected and accomplished actresses in Nollywood and Africa at large, she has evolved into one of the very few that have borne on their shoulders, the responsibility of using the platform as a medium for social change. The graduate of English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, Cross River State, has since 1997 received several awards and nominations for her work.
A director, producer, entrepreneur and a successful model who was in 2002 a Runner Up at the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria pageant, she was also in 2011 honoured by the Nigerian government with a national honour—Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR).
A die-hard advocate for women and girls’ health, Okereke Linus is the Executive Director of Extended Hands Foundation; an NGO that helps to facilitate free treatment for women and girls with obstetric fistula.
You’ve been off screen for a while. Is work-life balance a challenge or do you deliberately turn down movie roles these days?
The changes that have occurred in my life in recent years, such as becoming a mother, haven’t slowed down my career in any way. The great thing is that, I love what I do. So, achieving a work-life balance is not a challenge. However, I’ve always been selective about the kind of movies I feature in, and I love to do roles and films that exude high quality with positive and far-reaching impact. Because I find so much fulfilment from my career, I don’t see it as work.
What are your thoughts on Nollywood since your break?
I haven’t been on any break. I’ve been deeply involved in the changes that have occurred in Nollywood over the years. With new technology, we’ve produced a lot of good quality films that have shown in the cinemas and streamed on multiple platforms locally and internationally. The way our movies are consumed has evolved, and we also now have a lot of vibrant, young people in the industry. I’m proud to say that we created Nollywood out of nothing, and this is an industry Nigerians should be very proud of. This is a vibrant industry that needs support from the right channels. Nollywood is on the rise. Yes, we face different challenges, but we always find ways to overcome them and get better with our craft.
If you could change anything about Nollywood, what would that be?
I don’t think about changing Nollywood. What I’d rather love to change is the support and encouragement we receive from our government. I want to reiterate that Nollywood has done extremely well even under tough conditions. It’s an inspiration to the world; a vibrant industry formed out of nothing. Unfortunately, our government doesn’t realise how much of a gem this industry is. I would love to see more investment and policies that support the growth of Nollywood. Many times, they only pay lip service to their initiatives—talking and having endless meetings for years.
For this industry to thrive at the level that it ought to, we need our government’s support. The oil and telecommunication industry has achieved so much growth because of the government’s support. Nollywood needs the same. This industry has the potential to create thousands of jobs, improve tourism and represent our country on the world stage. So, the only thing I would change about Nollywood, is our government’s understanding of the industry to ensure that it is protected and that it functions better.
What are the major challenges you face as a filmmaker now?
One of our biggest challenges is piracy. When our work is pirated, we don’t get adequate returns for our investment and that can be very discouraging. Distribution and funding of our movies is also another challenge. Filmmakers are faced with several questions: how do we monetize our content? How do we price our content so that we get the proper remuneration? How do we protect our work? How do we get funding? These are the kinds of challenges we face every day.
What other career path have you been pursuing since the COVID19 lockdown?
This period has given me much time to look inwards and take action on some things that have been bothering me about our hygiene culture as a nation. I recall how we all got into this frenzy of regular handwashing during the Ebola crisis and dumped it soon after. We neglected a good practice that saves our lives because it just wasn’t our habit.
With my new “Hygiene First” campaign, we want to remind people that hygienic practices are good and should be something we do without being asked to. Our goal for this campaign is for everyone to take responsibility for his or her health and hygiene. We’re taking a strategic approach of educating people, to make that conscious decision to have clean environments.
I’m very passionate about this cause and grateful that I have a platform to influence people positively. I want us all to take responsibility and be part of the solution; not the problem. Good hygiene saves lives. We can reduce our visits to the hospital by simply living in cleaner communities. I want people to understand how serious these issues are, not just because of COVID, but for the long term.
What got you interested in girlchild advocacy and what do you enjoy most about it?
The fact that there is so much injustice in the world is enough reason to get anyone interested in advocacy. When I was a student at the University of Calabar, I heard the harrowing stories of some young girls in northern Nigeria who did not have access to education and quality maternal health care. These girls are married off as children, get pregnant and become incontinent after a difficult labour. They end up being rejected by their husbands, family and society. I was distraught by this terrible injustice and knew then that I had to do something about it. That thought never left my mind, and several years later, I was in a better position to use my craft-acting and filmmaking to make a difference. That’s how it started. The greatest fulfilment I get is when I see lives change because of our stories.
Your movie, DRY, was said to be instrumental to the ban of child marriage in Gambia; did you imagine it could be that effective?
When we created Dry, we had a simple but ambitious goal—to eradicate fistula and end child marriage in Africa. I believed the movie would have a positive impact but, I had no idea what form it would take. I’m humbled that it had such a huge impact, and this has motivated us to do even more.
Dry has now been translated into different languages and screened across different communities. We are taking the film into the nooks and crannies of the African continent, ensuring that community leaders, policymakers, parents, children and everyone who needs the message, hear it. Dry is more than just a film; it’s a movement against injustice, child marriage, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, rape, poor maternal health care, fistula and much more. The message behind Dry will continue to be relevant because it is a timeless piece. So, yes, I’m elated but there’s still a lot of work to be done, and we are not relenting.
Why are filmmakers not utilising the power of the audio-visual media to change society and mindsets?
It will be unfair to generalise. A lot of filmmakers are already utilising the audio-visual media. I’m proud to say that I am one of them. But we are all in the boat; the filmmakers, the news media and you, the journalist. We all have this powerful tool to use to change perceptions, educate, and inform people. We need to be more deliberate about the kind of messages we put out for people to consume.
After Dry, a lot of filmmakers became more socially conscious about the kind of films we’re producing. No matter what genre your content is—comedy, drama or thriller—a positive message can still be passed across.
I’m glad that there are more filmmakers like myself now taking up the challenge; but we need to do more.
What do you consider most fulfilling about your role as UNFPA Ambassador?
The UNFPA has amplified my ability to reach more people and do great work with causes that I’m passionate about. As an Ambassador, I’m able to leverage on the enviable reputation of the organisation in connection with my platform to achieve set goals. Some of those causes include maternal health, female genital mutilation, gender-based violence and other women’s issues. The most fulfilling thing about my role is the testimony of changed lives and policies we’ve influenced.
You were a successful model; do you see yourself doing something along this line?
My face and brand are on the cover of products, services and initiatives that I promote, and it has lasted throughout my career; and there is still more to come. So, technically, I never stopped.
Toughest career moment so far?
This was several years back when I had a terrible road accident. I thought I was going to lose my legs and my face, and won’t be able to do what I loved anymore. I’m grateful that God saw me through that period and brought me out of it stronger and better.
How would you describe your personal style?
My style is effortlessly classy, sexy, chic, fun and tasteful.
How has life been without the red carpets?
I’ve definitely missed the red carpets! But at the same time, this has been a learning process for us. A lot of families are bonding during this period; children are seeing their parents more— especially their fathers, and a lot of wives are seeing their husbands more.
On the flip side, there’s been a disturbing spike in domestic and gender-based violence. This period is amplifying our innate qualities, both good and bad. It’s time for us to take advantage of the resources we have at our disposal and make good use of it. With or without the red carpets, change is the only constant thing in life. The world has changed, so we have to figure out how to work with it and make it work for us.
What should your fans look forward to from you?
My fans have been so supportive over the years, and I wouldn’t disappoint them. I will continue to deliver great content in the form of film and worthy initiatives. I am currently working on new projects right now, and they should look out for them.