I don’t like to be categorised – Patti Boulaye

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Her stage name is said to have been inspired by the actress Evelyn “Boo” Laye. Patti Boulaye (nee Ebigwei, now Komlosy) was born dramatically after her mother went into labour in a taxi that was passing through two towns in Mid-Western Nigeria and was raised in a strict Catholic household with nine children, including airline pilot Tony Ebigwei, who was killed in the Nigerian Airways plane crash of 1978. At the age of 16 she left Nigeria for the United Kingdom where she decided to become a nun but, during a sightseeing trip in London, Boulaye stood in a queue for, what she assumed, was Madame Tussauds but turned out to be an audition for the original London production of ‘Hair’ and soon won a part, which launched her career in musicals. Her father, who did not approve of showbusiness, disowned his daughter but later forgave her. A devout Roman Catholic, Boulaye has two children and two grandchildren with husband Stephen Komlosy. In this second part of an interview that she granted Nkanu Egbe, she speaks about her daughter, Aret Emma Komlosy (now Kapetanovic), Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria 1996/1997; her birth country, Nigeria; mental health and more. Enjoy!

Patti, with husband, Stephen, daughter, Aret and son, Sebastian

One of your kids turned out to be our Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria.

Oh! My daughter.

Yes. Where is she now?

She is in London. She is a good songwriter now. I don’t think she really wants to go into show business. She just writes songs. She’s written theme songs for US movies like that but I don’t think she likes performing. My goodness, to me, she has better voice than I have, better talent, but she just doesn’t see it as her calling and that’s fair enough. She is into events as well. She is actually managing a big company so she’s good. Yea.

That’s amazing. The amazing thing is nobody knew she was Patti Boulaye’s daughter.

(Laughter)

Thank God for that. They should never have known.

Yes and all of a sudden, she became Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria. I think she won Miss Intercontinental too or so.

Yes. Actually, how it happened was she was at a university. She went in to study Law and she had the best result in the entire UK on Legal Reasoning. Extremely brainy. She didn’t take that from me. I think she took that from her father. While we are being honest here, while she was in the university before she started, she had an accident. She was opening one of those windows you pull up and leaned out. As she leaned out, the window came down on her head. She suffered a concussion for a long time. The doctor said her vision was impacted, that she can’t study for a while, they have to monitor her. So, my mother said send her to me. My mother absolutely adored her. So, she went to Nigeria to stay with my mother. It was while she was there recovering, that Ben Bruce asked her to come and teach the girls diction at the time and help them answer questions. So, she was teaching the girls when they asked her why she was teaching. They said “you should be in there, look how gorgeous you are”. That’s how it happened.

Oh wow!

Yes, it was the accident that led to it. So, all the states had been taken and they asked her to take Bayelsa. So, she became Miss Bayelsa.

That’s interesting. She did quite well in that contest.

Oh! She did quite well. It was surprising for us but it’s not something I would have encouraged my daughter to do.

Were you shocked that she had become a beauty queen?

No, that’s wonderful. It’s just thereafter, you have to go back to real life.

Photo credit: Tessa Hallman

True, true. So, talking about Nigeria, do you come home often to Nigeria?

Oh! I do come home a lot. I haven’t come recently but I was there three years ago speaking at a conference. Funny enough, whenever I come to Nigeria it’s for conferences, usually at Abuja. I came to a conference of scientists. This was years ago. That was my first conference in Nigeria. There were 600 scientists and I was invited as a plenary speaker in place of the Dean of Green College in Oxford. After then, I usually come for other conferences.

So, three years ago, I came for the APEN conference. I think it’s the Association of Private Educators in Nigeria. It was on the invitation of Margaret Ibru. She is my big sister. She has a school in Ikeja. She asked me to come and speak at the conference. Since then, I haven’t really been back. There’s been no reason to come back really.

Okay. But when you hear about Nigeria in the news, what comes across your mind? When you hear about the main Nigeria, what crosses your mind?

Sometimes, I think it’s a feeling of hopelessness that comes over me. We are very advanced yet we are quite backwards in many ways. I think it’s because we don’t do what the Asians do. You know, I have the Bipada Academy. We teach etiquette and it’s not fork and knife etiquette but etiquettes about life. If you have to be responsible, you need to know that you are responsible for yourself, your family, your life and your country. Seriously, own your race. You have to be proud of your race. The Asians do it well. Before you graduate from the Asian universities, you will need to have gone for etiquette classes from Harvard University, Yale University. Seriously. We don’t do that in Nigeria. I think we like to have these titles to our names, but we do not know how to carry it. The Asians carry it so well and the ones who have so many titles do not carry it so well. So, there must be something in this thing where you are trying to be someone you are not. You could have studied Law but it’s not you. It’s what you studied. In Nigeria, we become what we studied and forget who we are.

Mmmm. I get you.

We want the accolades and all, but we forget as people, unless people see the paper, they don’t know what you have done. They should be able to see you and know that you have achieved more than all of those. Wherever you go, people should see you and think that you have achieved so much. You cannot achieve so much, and people see you and don’t know what you have done. It’s like going to Chanel to buy a cloth and then let Chanel wear you. You should be wearing the Chanel. If you buy a Chanel, you should look like you can wear a Chanel otherwise, the Chanel will be wearing you. This is something I learned in show business. It’s something I observed as I was growing up in Nigeria. I’m a very inquisitive person. I look at someone or three people and know what I want to take from number one, what I want to take from number two, and what I want to take from number three. I also know what I don’t want in people.

My life is just like that. What I’ve learned from Nigerian women is priceless growing up. Not Nigerian women now. What women in my mother’s era taught me is different. I don’t know about them now but my mother’s era taught me courage. They taught me dignity, self-respect. Self-respect is important and that put me in good stead in show business. I think I am unusual in show business.

You are indeed unusual in show business. I once listened to your song, La Vie en Rosé, and I was wondering how you could switch from English to French in such a beautiful way.

I tell you what. It’s like it has everything to do with my life. I believe music is the fruit of the spirit. When I go to Japan, I try to learn a Japanese song and sing it the way a Japanese would sing it. I like the Kabuki. When I go to France or Italy, like in Aretha and Me, I sang Nessun Dorma.

You sang Nessun Dorma?

Oh yes. That goes down a storm because people do not expect it from me.

Young Patti

That’s interesting. So, if people were to categorize you, what would you be known for?

I don’t like to be categorised. If it was what would be written on my gravestone, that would be different.

 I try to avoid epitaphs.

I’m not afraid to talk about it because I always thought Africans are not afraid of death. It’s like two sides of a coin. But I think what I want will be. I want Africans to be proud of me and I want God to be so proud of me. That’s all I want. That’s my driving force. I don’t want to be categorised, that’s man’s categorisation. Anything that has to do with me must be from the Spirit. Whatever the Spirit categorizes me as and I hope the Spirit categorises me as a Christian in the right sense of the word.

Now let’s talk about your hospitals in Nigeria. Are they primary health centres?

They are basic health centres. So, we started out as a way to spread education about HIV knowledge. This was how many years ago that we started, because my husband was involved in the very first two cases of HIV in the United States. When they were floating a company and these two cases came up, we became interested. This was why I came to speak to 600 world renowned scientists. I wanted to build hospitals where babies can be born with HIV and be treated and where parents can be told about the dangers of HIV. But I realized that stigma associated with this, that people will be afraid to come out, so I built basic clinics and it’s like, going through the back door to give talks about HIV.

I believe the messaging will be Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission.

Exactly. So, it was tough in Nigeria. I mean, we donated. Once I built it, we donated it to the community, but we keep an eye on it. In Nigeria, it has been the biggest headache. But in Cameroon with the clinic there, it was seamless. We had report within the first year. They reported over 2,000 babies born there. Cameroon put Nigeria to shame if I may say so. I’m ashamed of it really.

So, in Nigeria, how many babies came through the clinics?

(Laughter). It’s like pulling teeth to count how many. They don’t keep records. They change doctors. They don’t keep accounts and all we were trying to do was to keep an eye on what we had given them. I was so convinced that Nigerians are entrepreneurial while growing up. You know, my father’s generation, they took pride in it. But some way along the line, we lost that. What I found was greed, greed, greed. The people do not come first. The country does not come first. It’s a shame.

So, The Faith of a Child. That’s your autobiography. Tell me what it was like for you during the Civil War. You were in your early teens and in mid-Western Nigeria. Tell how was it?

That was…I hesitated here because recently, I have been getting a kind of resurgence of people and I get that they are bitter about the Biafra. But once I finish speaking with them, I tell myself I do not look back, I only look forward. Because to look back in anger is not good and so I don’t. I mean, I had a horrible experience but not as much as some other people did. Just getting to Lagos from Asaba was a journey as the Federal troops were just getting to Asaba. We just escaped that massacre. That experience was to show me the kind of mother I had, and it showed me the kind of God that has created us. People ask why God allow that kind of thing to happen and I think that’s nonsense. God has nothing to do with that. We do things by ourselves. In our wickedness and darkness, He always shines a light. That’s God’s light if you can look out for it. The book is called, The Faith of a Child, because my mother said that to me once. I have sisters and I come from a family. When it comes to my mother and the best gift that she gave to us is Jesus. You know my late sister, Dr. Reverend Roselyn Nzeribe, she is an Industrial Chemist. My other sister has got her own ministry. My mom, she’s incredible; so is my brother. What my mum did for her children is just amazing. I have a sister who is in the US military and she’s also got her ministry. And I was telling her that I’m so shy. I know I’m not eloquent with prayers. You know how people can roll up prayers. It’s like a performance.

I see.

So, my mother told me that I have the faith of a child, that it does not go to the left and it does not go to the right. It is just straightforward. I thought that was such a powerful thing to say to your child.

Wow! Bless your mother.

So, my husband said to me that I have to name my book The Faith of a Child.

I want to point out, you see this logo here (pointing to the backdrop behind her) – Life with Patti Boulaye – that was designed by my son for a streaming program to talk to young people about suicide and share stories of the lives of celebrities.

Yes. That is something that is common in the British society. Mental health is something we don’t talk about here in Nigeria. But what are your views on mental health?

Mental health to me means lack of God. Seriously. You know I have spoken to quite a number of young people. If you have God, then you know that this is not it. Whatever is happening now will change tomorrow. The sun will shine tomorrow. I bring celebrities and people from all works of life to talk to young people through my programme – Life with Patti Boulaye – to talk about their struggles so that young people will know how much people struggle. Success is not overnight. We have reality shows and I refused to do reality shows because it gives the wrong message about instant game, instant money, instant this and that. I say to people, the quicker you get it, the quicker it goes. You need to lay your foundation. If you want a good marriage, lay a good foundation.

Fantastic! I’ll like to say thank you so much for your time.

Thank you too. God bless you.

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