by Emeka Nwankwo
Nigeria’s 15-year veteran of television is more than his shoes, his bags, his make-up and his chains…
I was at Denrele Edun’s house at exactly 3:55pm but it would take another one hour before our interview would begin.
He took me around the house (which he got early this year but only moved into a few weeks ago) introducing me to the over eight persons living therein – the names and faces came in such quick succession that I soon forget who was who.
And this wasn’t the day of a party. This was every other day in the Edun household.
Denrele’s house is a constant beehive of activities, friends and family coming and going, Denrele thrilled at the prospect of playing host to whosoever shows up at any hour.
Dressed in a thigh-length shirt, leggings with a shawl dripped across his shoulders, Denrele is a box of activities – easily holding down multiple streams of conversation with different persons while still fiddling with his constantly ringing phone. He possibly has a condition that makes it impossible for him to not pick up his phone, or to not respond to a person.
“I haven’t slept for almost two days,” Denrele tells me as we descend the steps of his one-storied building. Of course.
It’s cliché to call Denrele an original – there is literally no one else like him across the breadth of Nigeria’s media and entertainment industries, as well as in public life. Not just because he is clearly, visibly, daringly different – but also because he doesn’t exist in a vacuum; everything he does in service of a professional calling, as an entertainer.
His identity as a person is built on his over-the-top personality and outlandish everything, most clearly evidenced by the high boots, gender-bending skirts-or-trousers-or-something-in-between, make up and jewellery. But that identity is also, more importantly, his brand.
And, at least as far as popular acclaim goes, it’s a highly successful one.
He had worked hard to get to where he is now, along the way racking up credits in almost everything – modeling, dancing, acting, TV presenting, producing, hosting, writing.
At his core, Denrele is a hustler.
And a fighter.
It is with a fierce pride that he tells me his story – how he has worked as a backup dancer for several artistes, including for blogger (and friend-from-university) during her ‘Style Night’ event series (an annual show that the popular blogger had to close down in 2008). How he has worked as a model in a deeply competitive fashion industry, and carved a niche.
It still isn’t easy 15 years after his career began, the 33-year-old says, but then, it was decidedly hard.
Denrele is quick to share the many doors that were shut in his face (so often, he says, that he literally “lost count”) amid the stigma he had to face just for being who he is.
He was often refused entrance into public transport – which resulted in him trekking long distance while still being mocked and, sometimes, stoned by passersby – and even though he downplays it, and tries to joke through, you can see clearly in his eyes that life building a career and being a student at the University of Lagos was a little bit of hell.
So why does he do it?
Why is Denrele (who still attracts a staggering level of negativity on social media that he dutifully retweets), Denrele?
Born in Hamburg, Germany, Denrele is mixed-race – his mother is German and his father, Yoruba. Even though he is quick to dismiss any effect.
“Who half-caste epp?” he says, brushing some of his bouncy hair away from his forehead. “Wetin half-caste put inside my account? Not really.”
His dad however, is a different matter.
“You’ve seen my Dad already,” he says, clapping his palms together. “My Dad is a proper Yoruba man, Egba man from Abeokuta!”
His father has been a rock, he says, deeply fond of the man who stood by him and supported him regardless of opposition and ridicule, even from extended family.
His family returned from Germany to Nigeria when he was a child. But a quick reversal in financial fortune forced them to move out of their upscale home into an incomplete building.
“I remember so well,” he tells me, slapping his left palm against his rolled up left fist, because it is impossible for Denrele to sit still. “There was no window, no door. Hunger was kicking; you know it is when you are cash strapped that the hunger will come.
“I had to scale the fence to the next compound and uproot their cassava and then we will cut the cassava and boil it. I ate cassava morning, noon, night, it was crazy.”
He is now on a roll.
“Getting into secondary school, I remember then I used to wear my uniform to church because I never had Sunday clothes. So coming from that background, a lot of people look at me and think ‘oh however loud and flamboyant that I am, I spend and plunge on clothes.’ For where? My brother, I can recycle for Africa. Clothes that I used to wear in 2000, I will re-rock them. I’m lucky with the sort of identity I have built over the years, I can wear anything I want to wear and get away with it.”
Denrele recalls the day his uniform burnt while he was ironing it (“I wanted to die”). Other kids often bullied and abused him for wearing his uniform to church.
Days withstanding intense bullying prepared him for a career daring a conservative public.
Over the years, as Nigerians have come to know, love and hate the kid who first gained stardom on the Nigeria Television Authority’s KiddieVision 101, Denrele has been fearless.
In his identity, first and foremost – flamboyant, outlandish, confusing.
He insists this is no means to an end. This is just who he is.
“If it was an act or a means to an end people would have seen through it and I would have gotten tired of it by now,” he says, now very serious: this is point he needs to make. “If it was all put on and very arranged and strategic, you’d be able to see through it, you know. These clothes are just like an extension of my personality, like a reflection of my individuality: my all-over the place, vivacious nature.”
And then of course, he reminds me, there is a fact that his style evolved because he was the boy who didn’t have enough clothes.
“But then again, I think my entry into the modeling industry kind of opened my eye to high fashion, haute couture,” he ventures. “I saw clothes from a different perspective and I was like ‘why can’t people wear this off the runway?’ They only wear it on the runway for the aesthetic and visual appeal. But after then what happens to the clothes? They are back on the mannequin.
“I went through a phase of always designing my clothes by myself. I will cut the sleeves off the shirt… I mean everybody knows this story. I was the king of recycling. I recycled shege, bastard and damborawa out of my clothes! I think, for me, the clothes are – you know that thing they say: sow a thought you reap an act, sow an act you reap a talent, sow a talent you reap a character, sow an identity, you reap a brand. Let’s face it, this whole identity is a brand.”
Now, he says, the clothes and shoes poor in – free. A symbol of how far he has come, and how strongly that identity has converted into brand.
But Denrele is still confused that people still don’t get him.
“People don’t just get it,” he says, distressed. “And I would relate it to a lot that is going on presently. With the advent of Bobrisky and everyone saying that ‘uh, I’ve been wearing fish net tight for twelve years and have not cashed in like Bobrisky and all of that.’
“So people kind of misunderstand the whole essence of this brand, it’s not about trans-dressing or transgender – if I wanted to transgender, I would have done that ages ago. Like when Bruce Jenner came out as Catlyn Jenner, I just noticed that I was trending on Twitter. For what? Denrele is next. Charly boy is next. Denrele is next. And I said ‘who ever mentioned that I was going to do transgender surgery.’
“And then for the fun of it, I was mopping at my former house – just down the road – with my little cute dog and I said ‘look even my body frame is so structured in such a way that I don’t need to do transgender surgery.’ I already have a body that is tight and tilt towards the effeminate – which of course I have to deal with, God created me this way. I can’t start blaming Baba God. So I think people don’t quite get it, till date.”
And he wonders why they can’t interpet everything the way he clearly sees it – as creativity.
“Why don’t you pause and admire the creative mind behind all the paraphernalia of uh uh uh?” he says, still slightly worried… and then he catches himself. “But then, still, I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. At the end of the day, when the lights are out and when all the action is done and you come home, who do I come home as? What do I come home as? Do I lie down and start tearing this out or I’m still the same person? And I come to bed with peace in my mind because I’ve done all the work. I don’t care what people think of it. Because I know that at the end of the day, the will to entertain is built in me.”
He admits he used to care deeply – especially when people were violent towards him, just because, or when he was walked out of class by his English Education lecturers.
“If you know (University of Lagos) campus shuttle and I was in Education (Faculty), so from Education to gate they would stone me with ‘pure water’… I mean it was crazy. But that was in the school environment because they didn’t understand what I was doing.”
“Honestly, truthfully and authentically, I cannot be bothered anymore about it now.”
But has that same sense of misunderstanding affected his career in any way – say in his lack of mainstream corporate endorsements?
“It’s a Naija mentality,” he says, resigned. “With the endorsement and all the campaigns, a lot of people just think ‘ah this person is too much for this sort of thing and how will Nigerians take this brand? Will they look at the brand from another side or will they appreciate the brand for its spokes model?’ So I understand their fear. It will be brilliant to have all these things – it’s added money, it’s added value but when it will come, it will come. I’m as patient as I can be and I know that when it comes it will come big.
“I have been to a lot of places and I have seen the sort of reception that I get. I was at the New York Fashion Week two years ago and all the A-listers were coming up to me. Beverly Johnson, the first black model on Vogue, came up to me and said ‘Oh my God! Who are you? I want to feature you on my reality show.’ EJ Johnson came up to me and was wondering ‘oh I love your shoes, where did you get them from.’ And when they hear my accent, they are like ‘you’re African?’ and I’m like ‘Yes, Nigerian.’ ‘Oh my God, you’re like the most outlandish Nigerian we know!’
‘On the streets of New York alone, I will be walking and people will just be stopping me ‘can I take a picture with you? You look so fabulous. Where are you going? We have a ticket to Mercedes Benz Fashion Show.’ That’s how I was getting VIP tickets, front row seat throughout that period and it was so overwhelming.’
Indeed if anyone has had a storied media career, it’s Denrele, the original red carpet god who has interviewed everyone – Beyoncé, Tyler Perry, Cuba Gooding to Genevieve Nnaji. (“The list is endless,” he says with a chuckle, not even bothering to be modest. “I don’t want to start going through all of that.”).
He recalls a time when former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s daughter wanted to launch her product. Obasanjo specifically asked for him to come and host the event.
“I was like ‘Baba knows me?’ And Baba said ‘wear your high heel when you’re coming.’ So I wore flat shoes because the event was a very corporate event and Baba said ‘where is your akpola?’ We were laughing about it and he complimented my performance. At the end of the day, the clothes are my identity. Yes.”
And for his distinctive work, recognition has come – over 55 awards to speak of, some trophies displayed on a wardrobe in his home.
“One of the awards I hold dearest definitely will be The Future Awards for OAP TV,” he says. “I was nominated five times for that award from 2006. I won Producer of the year in 2006, because then, you know, when I was at SoundCity I was handling all the programs but that’s not the one I wanted. I wanted the one for presenter. Every year, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010! And I clinched in 2011!”
He is proud of his work – because he is proud of his range.
“All round entertainer, life of the party, entrepreneur. “Let’s just put it,” he tells me “I’m just one multi-tasking entertainment entrepreneur.”
“The way the industry is, people that have money want to utilize your brand, to make more money but then they will not want to pay you! Ah ah, you have money, you want to use me to make more money but then you don’t want to pay. But overall, for me, it’s all about the fulfillment and satisfaction at the end of the day. I’m not broke, but I’ve worked really hard. I wasn’t really born with a silver spoon but I’ve worked so hard to create one for myself and my family.”
And what stands him out also is how many careers he has been dedicated to lifting, over the past few years. Indeed, the joke in parts of the industry is how a huge number of Big Brother Africa’s posse owe him their celebrity, and continued relevance.
“I’ve helped quite a number of people,” he says. “People these days don’t help people. ‘What’s your own? In this industry? Abeg you’ll find your square root. Find your feet’ that kind of thing. There are very few people who will take you on and say ‘let me see what I can do to help.’
“You see a lot of creative minds like us – I like to call myself creative, if nobody will sell your market for you, do it yourself – a lot of artistically oriented people like us are not money oriented. To us, it’s all about getting the job done.”
“It is the love for the art. We are doing it for the art’s sake and not for making money.”
As our fast-paced conversation draws to an end, Denrele tells me about his new television show with Frank Donga, ‘The Boot’ – one he appears incredibly proud of.
“The name is kind of a play on my own boots,” Denrele says, pointing to his array of shoes. “We hijack celebrities anywhere we see them and interview them on the back of a keke.”
It is, as always, distinctly, resolutely Denrele – taking celebrities like Banky W on a literal wide-ride through Lagos while asking piercing questions that reveal more than any random presenter would be capable of.
The Boot is barely one month old, but it’s already seeping through the public consciousness.
And as usual, Denrele is giving it everything that he has, no matter what anyone says. Or what anyone thinks. It’s his way, or no way.
That’s the only way he knows how to do it. That’s the way he knows how to win.