By Tony Ogaga Erhariefe
I was sitting in the front seat of a bus and feeling stuffy and sweaty despite the weather. Gusts of wind sent dust spiraling, giving the streets a much needed sweep as pedestrians and hawkers rushed by, eager to make it to the safety of shelters before the water gates of heaven go burst.
It began with just a few drops. As the tiny drops hit the earth, the aromatic smell of the first rain of the year pervaded my nostrils as I hopped off the bus at Oregun bus stop, Ikeja. I had scarcely made it out of the bus when the rain burst out in fury. For an instance, I toyed with the idea of doing a detour but I changed my mind, the venue of the interview was less than 200 meters away and so I made a dash for it.
I had scarcely settled into a seat when star actress, Mercy Aigbe stepped into the reception clad in a tight fitting split orange pants and a black top that displayed a lot of cleavages. What struck me about her was that determined look in her eyes.
She threw me the brightest smile I had received that day. On the surface, she cut the image of a happy-go-lucky, carefree woman and beneath that I could perceive a lot of talent. It was exciting to know that the woman standing before me made her debut in 2006 in a flick entitled, Ara and six years later, she has emerged a major force to reckon with in Nollywood, and what’s more, she has her finger in every pie. Aside being an actress, she is also a scriptwriter and movie producer.
What gave you the inspiration for your comedy flick, Osas? I asked, throwing my first question as the interview kicked-off. She threw me a smile as she began to speak, picking her words. “It’s actually my desire to connect with my own people. I am a Yoruba actress with strong Bini roots. I was born in Lagos so I can claim to be a Lagosian but I am from Benin City, Edo State. I am very proud of my Yoruba people but I also wanted to connect with my own people, the Bini people.
“I wanted my people to know that there’s a young Bini girl who is in Nollywood and who is very popular in Yoruba flicks and also for my Yoruba fans to appreciate me more because they made me who I am; that’s what inspired Osas. The success was overwhelming. People are asking, ‘when is the Part 2 going to come out?’” she says laughing softly, a glow in her eyes as she adds that work has begun on the Part 2 which is entitled, Osas Reloaded and scenes have already been shot both in Nigeria and the UK.
One problem plaguing Nollywood is the absence of verifiable figures hence it has failed to attract investment from financial institutions. Despite being aware of this, Mercy refuses to disclose the exact figures Osas grossed while conceding that the flick was a resounding success.
“I am not going to declare my figures publicly,” she says defiantly, again throwing that heart warming and disarming smile my way, “if I want a loan from a bank, of course I will present my figures but aside that I won’t make my books open for public scrutiny.”
Mercy laughs playfully as she continues: “Let me tell you something, it’s not the figures that I reveal to you here that will prove that I am a bankable actress. I can give you any figures I want. Do you understand what I am saying? I don’t think it’s the amount of money that you make in a particular movie that makes you a bankable actress. I am not going to make how much I made from Osas public; it’s a private issue and I have my reasons.”
Born to a family of five, Mercy is the second child of the family. She reveals that growing up was not a tea party as she received a lot of flogging from her dad who wanted her to study Accountancy.
“Growing up was tough,” she recollects, a look of nostalgia beclouding her visage as she stares into space, reaching back to those early years. Then a smile etched on her lips as she continues: “I am from a Christian home and my father is very strict. I had to always follow rules and regulations at home. It wasn’t easy for me. When I was much younger I always made sure I got my way. I was very stubborn. I was always getting into trouble with my dad and he was always flogging me!”
We both burst into laughter as she mentions the word ‘flog’. Really? Your dad flogged you? I enquire in mock shock.
“Yes,” she retorts as we both share a laugh.
Fela once disclosed that he got over 300, 000 strokes of the cane from his dad. How many did she get, I ask jokingly.
“I can’t count. All I can tell you is that I was thoroughly flogged by my father. He did not use wooden cane. He used electric wires twisted together. Growing up was fun but my father was always flogging me because I was very stubborn. I always wanted to have my way,” Mercy explains as we both burst into laughter again.
However, today, the actress views the experience rather philosophically as she says that despite the flogging, she has no scars on her body because her father took extra care when he flogged her.
“The good thing about it is that my father actually wanted to instill high moral standards in us. So, whenever he flogged me it was either on my bum or my hand,” she states.
The light skinned actress, however, confesses that the floggings helped mould her into a responsible child and had shaped her into whom she is today. But then, one experience Mercy won’t forget so soon is the running battle she had with her dad who believed that acting was not the way for any responsible child to go.
“For my dad, acting should just be a hobby and not a profession. In fact, he did not want any of his kids to be actors so, he forced me to go to Ibadan Polytechnic to study Accountancy. I am not trying to praise myself but I was a very intelligent kid; I was very good with mathematics and sciences so my dad believed I would make a great Accountant.
“Along the line, I discovered that I had this outgoing nature and I loved acting and loved meeting people and so eventually, instead of going back to study for my HND, I went to UNILAG where I studied Theatre Arts.”
And you could guess her dad’s reaction. He was livid and practically disowned her. Eventually, Mercy had to get elders and uncles from her village that went to plead with her dad to take back his erring daughter. In order to finally settle the case, she bought a goat for her dad to appease him.
“He did not take it likely. He was broken hearted! He was so mad at me. To show that he meant business, he did not pay my first year’s school fees. I had to beg, I had to buy a goat to appease him according to tradition. I had some of my uncles come over to beg him and later, he came around and said, ‘anyway, in Nigeria, it’s not what you study that determines the job you do. My daughter, you can study Theatre Arts and still be my Accountant someday.’ He eventually gave me his blessings.”
Answering the call
Consequently, when Mercy graduated from UNILAG, in order to appease her dad, she got a job in a bank and worked as a marketer. However, there remained a vacuum in her life, as she was not fulfilled. Eventually, Mercy had to resign even though the job was paying well and she had a car and could afford anything she wanted.
“Any time I came back from work and I watched TV and saw people acting, my mind kept telling me ‘no Mercy, this is where you should be, this is where you belong.’ It’s not like I did not like my job. I am a restless soul. I was marketing and was always on the road and enjoying my job but I was not fulfilled so, at a point I just had to take that bold step and resign.
Stepping into the unknown
With acting calling and Mercy growing even more restless, she was compelled by her passion to resign her bank job and step into the unknown. However, success would not come over night as she hopped from set to set looking for a job and when eventually a job came along, she got a paltry N2000 after spending two weeks away from home on location.
“I wept,” she recalled. “I was comfortable. I had everything that I wanted including a car and was earning a good salary. Now somebody was paying me N2000 and making me feel like he was doing me a favour. I made up my mind as the tears rolled down my cheeks that I had had enough; I was done with acting!”
Mercy says as soon as she got home that day she dusted up her CV and began applying for jobs again. In fact, she even wrote a couple of tests and the prospects were bright. But then, acting kept haunting her and in her quiet moments she was forced to admit that her fate was tied to the silver screen.
Recalling that period of her life, the actress said: “I told you earlier that I am very stubborn. If I want something I go for it and I hate failing at achieving whatever I have set my mind. I was convinced beyond doubt that God had ordained me for acting. So, I said to myself, ‘Mercy, this is not what you want, that is what you want. No matter what you’re going through in life, no matter the challenges, life is not a tea party. Why don’t you just take the bull by the horns and confront your challenges and with time and prayers, you will get to your dreams.’ In my quiet moments, the thought of returning to acting kept haunting me.”
Finally, Mercy got her first big break when she acted in Wemimo Olu Paul’s Ara, a movie that transformed her career and ever since, she has never looked back.
Marriage & stardom
Today, Mercy hugs the limelight as she has starred in over a dozen movies and successfully branched into movie production. What’s more, she is happily married to a loving husband and blessed with two kids, and her debut movie production effort, Osas, has been described as a success. But how is her husband coping with her stardom?
“Men like women who depend on them. I think that is part of the qualities that attracted me to my husband and it is the same qualities he saw in me that made him fall in love with me,” she says with a smile, displaying a perfect row of teeth.
Isn’t he scared he could lose her to some other guys?
“I don’t know,” she says, laughing, “I think you should ask him when you see him.” We both share another round of laughter as she continues: “he is actually in the best position to answer that but for me, I have not giving him any reason to doubt. He knows me and knows the kind of person I am, he knows that since I have made up my mind to be with him, I will always be with him.”
A stern look descends over her visage as she speaks further: “I hate failing at whatever I do. This is actually my second marriage and I know I am not going to fail because I know this is different, I am more matured, I have embraced God so I know it’s gonna work.”
Mercy says she is now much more mature, insisting that in her first marriage she was very young but her approach to issues now is different from the way it used to be. The actress says she has been praying to God to sustain her.
However, one thing Mercy thinks is unfair is the way celebrity break-ups are treated in the media. She argues that there are a lot of marriages that are in trouble but are not celebrated because those involved are not popular.
Mercy admits that over time she has developed tough skin over reports in the media about her and these days she merely laughs when she sees such negative stories. “I married my husband because he is very mature; that’s the number one reason. For you to be an actress and still want to be in this business and get married, you have to marry a man that is mature and understanding. Because it only takes a mature and understanding man to cope with an actress,” she explains.
Why? I enquire and she responds thus: “As an actress, you’re going to have a lot of negative stuff flying around. Some people will just beef you and the next thing they will call a journalist and give them false stories about you. And a lot of journalists are lazy; they don’t even authenticate or try to get the other view when they do their stories. They just publish without a care in the world. And of course, your family is going to read it, your husband is going to read it so, if you don’t marry a man that’s mature and understanding, you’re going to have problems. Then at times you have to go off on set for like two weeks so, it’s only a mature man that can let his wife out of his sight for two weeks.”
Despite her busy schedule as a mother, wife and actress, Mercy still finds time to be with her kids and family. How does she handle it?
“Its not easy,” she confesses. “Marrying all these is a big challenge. I love my job, I want to be on top of my game, I love my career; it’s something that gives me fulfillment and it’s not easy wanting to be on top of your game because it takes a lot of hard work, you understand?
“I love my kids; they are everything I have, they are my world and I always want to be the best mum for them no matter what it takes. I love my husband; he is my big baby. Marrying these roles as a mother, a career woman and as a wife is hectic and very demanding. Somehow I find a balance; I guess it’s the grace of God in my life.”
Despite having two kids, Mercy still cuts a great figure. How is she handling over bearing male fans?
“You know men, if you are a good looking woman, men will make passes at you. I am used to it and I know when to draw the line especially if it’s a male fan. When you go beyond your line, I just tell you, ‘look, I am a married woman’.
“I don’t care about how they react. Some might even say it does not matter but that is offensive already! All I want them to know is that I am married and I never ever will have an extra marital affair because I don’t want to break my home. I love my kids very much and I don’t want them to go through any problems.”