It has taken Osita Iheme seventeen years to achieve overnight success. At least as far as the internet is concerned.
On Facebook stories, Twitter threads and on Instagram timelines, Iheme has in recent months, been at the center of a renewed kind of stardom.
The kind fostered on privileged beneficiaries by amused, content chasing millennials and clout obsessed influencers as they power through the endless search for the next big viral moment.
It may seem sudden but this kind of overwhelming attention is usually anything but.
Iheme’s career predates the social media era but thanks to the Internet, the actor/comedian has stumbled upon a second act.
His face has become the one that launched a thousand memes, as films which he starred in eons ago, have become rich sources for mining usable, shareable content, each one suitable for expressing relatable life experiences.
The GIFs run the gamut of human expressions. From depicting disgust and disappointment to confusion, excitement and bewilderment, there is no shortage of Osita Iheme impressions for every mood.
In one of the most popular memes, culled from the 2007 film, Stubborn Flies, Iheme is in character, sitting on a chair, wearing a yellow shirt and making a show of doing some mental calculation while reading from the holy book.
This clip has been posted by no less a behemoth than Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty Twitter account where it has been viewed over 80 million times.
Def Jam Recordings, home to American rappers like Nas and Big Sean also found this particular clip appropriate for engagement on Twitter, sharing it alongside a Jay Z line from Kanye West’s 2012 recording, Clique.
It has also amassed over 80 million views.
American rapper 50 Cent chose a different clip of Iheme in character- masticating furiously while adding up his monies with the aid of a manual calculator- to send a reminder to his debtors to pay up. Mr Curtis Jackson’s tweet has racked up almost 300,000 views and over 6000 likes.
The trailer for Royal Dust, a new title that reunites Iheme with his creative twin, Chinedu Ikedieze has since gone viral, an unheard-of feat for films coming from Nollywood’s Asaba-Enugu axis.
In the racy trailer which clearly plays to the strengths of both actors while riffing on royal tussles common in Igbo communities, Iheme’s character, a wealthy trader type, finishes off a roadside confrontation with an adversary played by Ken Erics with the question, ‘’Do you have visa? Aha! local man.”
This verbal dismissal, typical of Iheme’s brand of loquacious comedy, has, of course, prompted a flurry of retweets, copycats and likes.
In the age of the internet, constant engagement at levels such as these, point to something that might be akin to a phenomenon.
Iheme’s brand of comedy, big on broad gestures, caricature and outsized humour is clearly made for the social media generation.
The positive response, emanating from all parts of the world points to a hypothesis that perhaps there is an audience out there waiting to discover the comic talents of Osita Iheme.
Routines that were made to appeal to a local audience, have proven to be very much transferable on a global scale. Isn’t that the power of film?
Every day, there is someone on the Internet asking for the kid who is the source of these hilarious clips involving Iheme.
There is always a Nigerian somewhere around the corner to remind them to put some respect in Mr Iheme’s name.
The man is not a kid
For those not in the know- which surely includes no Nigerian anywhere- Osita Kenneth Iheme is not a kid.
The 37-year-old who hails from Mbaitoli in Imo state was raised in Aba, the commercial capital of Abia state.
He was born with a medical condition broadly defined as dwarfism, into a family with five offspring.
This condition manifests in short stature (under 3 feet tall) and the persistent youthful looks that have served him so well.
Iheme describes his childhood as pleasant but not entirely comfortable.
The family lived in a troublesome part of town and during rainy seasons, the home would routinely get flooded.
The patriarch of the household, Herbert, a businessman who also served his community as a mediator passed away when Osita Iheme was eight years old in unknown circumstances.
As a result, Iheme was raised by his single-parent mother, Augustina, whom he says made up for his father’s absence by playing different roles in his life, all at the same time.
Naturally, Iheme’s size would attract constant teasing from his mates but he downplays such situations, crediting his strong will and cheerful disposition with keeping bullies away.
He reflects, ‘’I have been able to set aside anything that could bother me and moved on. I didn’t allow anything to really bother me while I was growing up.’’
Iheme’s showbiz career would start, like with hundreds of performers before him, in the church where he partook in drama recitations.
It wasn’t until he accompanied a friend- surprise, surprise- to an audition that he considered venturing into acting professionally.
This audition resulted in a bit part in the movie Cold Blood.
Work demands led Iheme to consider a move to Enugu as the city hosted a more vibrant film community than could be obtained in Aba.
Countless auditions and bit parts later, a shrewd producer with money on his mind made a strategic casting decision that would change the lives and careers of everyone involved.
The producer was the late Chukwuka Emelionwu, founder of Kas-Vid international, and producer of popular titles such as Issakaba and August Meeting.
Emelionwu who died in a tragic road traffic accident in 2018 had worked with Chinedu Ikedieze, another actor born with a similar condition as Iheme in the drama, Last Burial.
According to Iheme, Emelionwu spotted him at an audition in Enugu and took an interest in him. Emelionwu envisioned something different for the struggling actors and had the brainwave to commission a writer to write a screenplay around the two men.
The result of this experiment was the runaway hit, Aki na Ukwa. Ikedieze recalled the late producer fondly, ‘’He saw something in us that other producers did not see. He made us who we are today.”
No one could have foretold the massive success that Aki na Ukwa, a pretty square comedy about a father (Sam Loco Efe) and the unruly pair of twins (played by Iheme and Ikedieze) in his care, would become.
But audiences across the country responded to the crackling chemistry between Iheme and Ikedieze, to their slapstick physical routines and the verbal put-downs they dished out so freely.
The backstory of the actors and the sense of discovery of these diminutive adults who were so believable as children kept viewers coming back. and copies flying off the shelves.
The unlikely little film announced the arrival of two major stars.
Even though both Iheme and Ikedieze would later complain of being paid peanuts for their participation in the film, Aki na Ukwa was the gift that kept on giving, and springboard to greater commercial success. Aki na Ukwa gave rise to future pairings in hits like Okwu na Uka, Mr Ibu and Tom and Jerry.
Iheme and Ikedieze seized on this break and in fast succession, churned out countless numbers of similarly themed films, making themselves into household names and faces.
Their success was quite unusual as far as Nollywood fairytales go. In a few short years, Iheme had gone from the guy whom producers didn’t know what to do with, to overbooked and identifiable by one name only, Pawpaw, his character from Aki na Ukwa.
During this lucrative run, Iheme made some good films, and a lot of bad ones. Through it all, his audience stayed faithful as he cycled furiously from one set to the other.
After a while, the inevitable burnout began to creep in.
As had happened with other stars before him, Iheme began to take on more projects than he could conveniently deliver on time.
Marketers and producers, falling over themselves to cash in on the latest commercial sensation, paid fees upfront and waited in line for Iheme to come around to working on their projects.
Soon this system became unsustainable and the bubble burst when both Iheme and Ikedieze were picked up and detained overnight in a police station in Enugu over allegations of unfulfilled contracts.
“There were times that I couldn’t rest for five months at a stretch because I was busy shooting films everywhere. I used to sleep in hotels for months.
There were times that we would finish shooting movies by 1 am, only to begin shooting another one by 5 am. Whenever I remember those days, I am amazed.” Iheme reminisced in an interview with The Punch newspapers.
Iheme has since slowed down his roll coming off those heady days. The video market is no longer what it used to be and fewer producers can meet his asking price these days.
Fans looking for a more regular fix have to turn to Youtube where a sizable backlog of older movies can be found, or on television where Iheme co-stars in the Globacom sponsored social impact comedy, Professor Johnbull.
Cashing in on his good fortune was inevitable. Iheme took the opportunity to diversify his assets, investing in several other businesses, from hotels (the recently commissioned Resident hotel in Owerri) to agriculture and even transport.
There has even been talk of a political run in the future. “One cannot depend only on acting because there is no security in it.” He once said.
Nevertheless, acting has been good to Iheme. He has won a competitive award at the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCA) and a lifetime achievement award at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA).
Former first lady, Patience Jonathan is a huge fan of Iheme’s work and in 2011, he alongside colleagues Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke, received the national honor of Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR).
The re-entry of Osita Iheme and clips from old Nollywood films into the culture as disposable internet content has generated a fresh conversation about intellectual property and copyright ownership in the internet age.
Who is responsible for making use of content that is available on the Internet and who is allowed or expected to profit from it?
Sports culture website, Bleacher Report recently bit into the Osita Iheme fever, by sharing the popular Stubborn Flies video clip of Iheme and his yellow shirt reading from a book.
However, Bleacher Report went one further by photoshopping the instantly recognizable Lakers jersey and hat on Iheme’s figure and then branding the clip with their logo, effectively making the content exclusive to the site.
Nollywood star, Uche Jombo was having none of it and tweeted at the website’s handle, calling the American brand out for copyright infringement.
The world is still learning how to navigate these tensions that have trailed the adoption of new technology and while Iheme may not stand to benefit from it financially at the moment, nothing says he cannot do the same indirectly. Social currency is after all the one big, sometimes game-changing factor that the internet can offer.
From Twitter to Youtube, Instagram to Snapchat, a new generation of influencers and stars have risen in the last few years to occupy legitimate positions of influence based off the number of followers and the cache of clout that they command.
The Kardashian clan have been serving masterclasses in real-time on how to leverage social media for outsize fame and fortune. Back home, the internet has helped develop a generation of entertainers- from Maraji to Broda Shaggi- who would have had a much more tortuous journey breaking out via traditional means.
It is quite understandable that social media is still an evolving vista and indeed, there is such a thing as early adopters but Iheme’s management has shown little or no grasp of the opportunities that could and should be opening up for him.
Iheme’s unverified Instagram account has over 500,000, there is a considerable Facebook presence but the little strategic deployment of this clout.
A shrewd brand development team could be leveraging on this windfall of attention to take his career to the next possible level. For some reason, there hasn’t been much visible calculated effort in this regard.
Now that he has the attention of the world, at least as far as the internet is concerned, it would be interesting to see what Osita Iheme is willing to do with it.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.