Patti Boulaye: From Lux girl to ‘Aretha and Me’

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Patricia Ngozi Komlosy, OBE (née Ebigwei; born 3 May 1954), known professionally as Patti Boulaye, is a Nigerian-British singer, actress and artist who rose to prominence after winning New Faces in 1978 and was among the leading black British entertainers in the 1970s and 1980s. In her native Nigeria she is best remembered for starring in Lux commercials and Bisi, Daughter of the River, as well as her own series, The Patti Boulaye Show. Of course, she has been involved in several other theatre, music and film productions. However, since the COVID-19 lockdown, Patti has been a vlogger in a series, ‘The Vlogging Grandmother’; most of which, can be found on YouTube. She spoke to Nkanu Egbe during the first part of the lockdown via Zoom. In this first part of their conversation, she speaks about her journey in entertainment – her beginnings and faith…

Patti Boulaye, circa 1978

I’m just wondering…I see you, just as you are, from 1977 or 1978.

That must be 1978.

‘Bisi, Daughter of the river’, you haven’t changed. Still the same person (chuckle)

God be praised.

Do you still remember the people that you acted with? Jab Adu

Oh I remember Jab Adu, bless him. Lovely man.

Wait let me see if I can remember the others. Most of them are gone now.

Jenny Berkeley

There was Yomi Obileye, he’s gone now.

Good heavens! Really? Oh my goodness!

Yes. You remember him? He was the one at the airport, who tried to pilfer the luggage. Remember the airport scene?

Oh wow. I haven’t seen the film in about…42 years. The last time I saw the movie was at the premiere.

Oh, I see. So, 1971? When you started with ‘Hair’?

Oh no. That was end of 1972, I think.

1972. There you were in line for Madame Tussauds, and you ended up in an audition for that. How did that happen?

Well, it’s really strange because it’s one of those things. It’s like it set the mode for, should I say, my journey or the shape of my journey. Because really, I thought I was going to Madame Tussauds, which is a different…it’s a museum. They had, Madame Tussauds had rainbow coloured hair. That was the logo.

Yes.

And the face of the building is kind of roundish. So I was on a bus in St Giles’ circus. There was a theatre called Shaftesbury Theatre and it’s got a rounded front and on top of it was ‘Hair’. It was rainbow coloured hair. So I thought, Madam Tussauds. There was a long queue, very long queue round the block and it turned out to be an audition. I was there for about 2 hours. When I got to the stage door, I asked the stage doorman, ‘how much is it to get in?’ He said ‘you don’t pay, this is an audition, It’s a theatre’.

I asked again ‘how much is it to get in?’ and he said ‘you don’t pay, you sing’. And so I put my name down and that’s how it happened.

Okay. When that happened, you did the audition, you were selected and you got into the play?

Patti Boulaye on stage

Yes. Actually, what happened was, they were looking for a soprano, and because it was the kind of show, it was a hippie show to me in those days. I remember the director saying to me that when they looked at me, they thought it was quite funny, they thought I was a comedian because everybody was dressed as hippies and I looked like I was going for an interview in the bank (chuckles).

Oh (chuckle)

Yes. I remember the audition. Everything I said, they laughed. I remember they asked ‘are you a member of Equity?’ It’s a union you had to join to be on stage. So I said what’s that and they all fell about laughing. Then the director said ‘what are you going to sing?’ and I said I didn’t come to sing. They laughed more. You came for an audition and you say you didn’t come to sing? I just wanted to see the theatre after I was allowed in. So he said ‘do you know any songs?’ and I said ‘yes, the Sound of Music’. Because in Holy Child College where I went, I used to help in the library and Sister Catherine would always put on The Sound of Music.

Wow

I didn’t realize that I didn’t know it very well, I thought I did. So, he asked what key and I said I don’t know, play it.. At this point I was irritated because it was humiliating that anything I said, they laughed. Then he played it and I sang “the hills are alive with the sound of music” in my best Von Trapp voice. I sang one verse and I thought, ‘oops sorry I don’t know the rest of it’. Apparently, because they were looking for a soprano, I hit the highest note. While everyone else was singing songs from the show like ‘when the moon is in the seventh house’ that had nothing to do with the soprano. That’s what everyone else was singing and I sang ‘The Sound of music’. I think that was just God’s doing.

That’s amazing.

Honestly, thank you Sister Catherine (Laughter).

And there you were.

There I was.

When you got back home and your father wasn’t very happy with you.

I didn’t go back home because when I got the job I had to be in England. I started the show and when my father heard that I was in show business, he was upset. Of course he was upset. He disowned me for three years, three whole years he disowned me!

Was he in Nigeria?

Yes, he was in Nigeria, I was in England. So it didn’t matter. (Laughter). It mattered but Dad was so far away. A few years later he tried to come to England but he wasn’t with his diplomatic passport so they wouldn’t let him in. And he asked if he could phone me, in those days we didn’t have mobile phones, so the immigration man asked for my full name. Luckily, he gave them Patti Boulaye, not my married name. And the man was a big fan. He said ‘you’re Patti Boulaye’s father?’. He gave my father two years’ stamp at the the airport.

Oh wow.

I’m telling you! My father was like, what, when did this happen? I remember him saying to my husband ‘what’s happening?’ He was in Nigeria so he didn’t know what was going on here. So I gained my father’s respect back.

And you got your name back...

Yeah. (Laughter)

Dr. Patti Boulaye, the Vlogging Grandmother

So, right now you’re vlogging. You seem to be vlogging to the youths.

I started vlogging because of the lockdown. I decided to learn how to edit videos because I never had a YouTube channel. I should have had but I never had the time. With the covid lockdown, I decided to learn how to edit videos and start passing messages to young people. I do that at university, I prepare undergraduates. I’m a visiting teaching fellow at Middlesex University and I give talks in schools. It’s just preparing them for life outside university.

Okay.

Yeah. So, I thought I might as well continue spreading that news through YouTube. That’s what my vlogging is about. I’m the vlog grandmother.

So, you did ‘Hair’ and then you did a series ‘Billie and Me’, that’s Billie Holiday and then you did ‘Aretha and Me’, what were those shows about?

In a sense I had just retired a bit from show business and we raised funds, my husband and I, we built basic health care hospitals. One is in Okpanam in Asaba, another one is in Rumuokurushi in Port-Harcourt and the other one is in Okpokuma in Bayelsa. We also have 2 in Cameroon. We built a school in Lesotho with Prince Harry’s charity.

Afterwards, I thought I would like to get my life back and do what I like doing, like singing, It was then I thought well what do I want to do and I realized I’ve never actually thought of doing jazz before so I thought I would try jazz and one of the biggest jazz singers that everyone remembers is Billy Holiday. So I started looking at her life as (I write my own show and my own script) and I said, oh my goodness, it’s not where you want to go as an artist, because she died of drug overdose. Usual story of show business. Quite sad really and what shocked me was that she died at the age of 45 when I thought she was 70. I thought i could use the show to give young people messages about how not to do this. And that’s where it came from.

Okay.

Yes. So, I started doing tours and I remember telling stories with comparisons between her life and mine in show business. For example, I never did drugs of any kind, I never even smoked a cigarette. I thought I would use that comparison plus the music and…I told stories about my childhood in Nigeria, growing up, about my mother and my siblings. Just to show the comparisons between her life and my life and that went down very well. I toured for about 18 months and then i thought I would try somebody else. Of course I thought of Aretha Franklin, everybody loves Aretha Franklin .

Billie Holiday was jazz and her story was quite down, whereas Aretha Franklin’s music was more upbeat so I thought I could do something upbeat but use the same method comparing both our lives and that’s what I did.

Fantastic. And how was the reaction? What was the feedback like?

Oh, my goodness! Aretha Franklin is…’Aretha and Me’ is such a success that this year, we had about 40 gigs which was too much. Most of them have been postponed to next year, which is amazing because most artistes just had their gigs cancelled. But all of ‘Aretha and Me’ have been postponed to 2021. So that just shows you the impact, it’s quite a happy show. I mean people come out clapping, laughing instead of depressed.

Yeah, I mean there is some message beyond all of that, Aretha and Me, Billie and Me, your vlogging as a grandmother, what is this thing that is behind you, that is making you do what you do?

Well, it’s really….I mean I always say to my children, if you can’t make the world a better place than you found it, then you have taken too much space. So what I’m really trying to do is, do my tiny little bit to spread good news and wisdom, by God’s grace, spread knowledge, tell people my journey. I have strategically planned my life, which is incredible because I thought everybody else planned their lives but I had strategically planned mine. When I say planned in that I wanted God to just take over, I mean who am I, what do I know? I found myself in a strange land. I found myself in a strange industry. The only way I could survive both is by letting the Holy Spirit guide me.

Interesting.

And it has worked so well for me that I will do anything to tell young people that it is the best way to go. When my husband and I first got married, we got married in a registry office because my husband was twice married before and being a Catholic, I wanted to get married in the Catholic church but as you can imagine, that was impossible. You have to get special dispensation to get married if you have been married before and as my husband had been married before, I started praying and fasting. 10 years, I prayed and fasted every Friday. I have continued till today. Every Friday I fast, it’s my prayer day. I have decided that every Friday, God has to listen to me. I have an appointment with Him, He has to listen to Patti (chuckles).

After 10 years, this incredible thing happened, we got special dispensation from Pope John Paul to get married in the Catholic church. Not only that, see, when God does things, He really goes all the way. Our wedding was officiated by a Canon, by a Monsignor and by a Bishop.

Patti with her daughter, Aret.

When did this happen?

We got married in the registry in 1979 and then we got married in the Catholic church in 1988.

That’s great. I see that you are very strong in faith.

Good heavens! Without faith, I couldn’t survive UK when I arrived here.

Talking about that, you happen…apart from, maybe, yourself and Shirley Bassey, I can’t think of any other person of minority background making it as far as you two have. I mean, you operate within the theatre where the top people operate, and you have appeared in shows where the top people appear in. How did you swing that? Is that the same faith you applied? Is that the same faith that you have been talking about?

Totally, totally. It’s all in God’s hands. I have always believed nobody is in charge of my destiny. When I came to England at 16, I had people saying to me “I can make you a star”. In my naïve way, I would say that’s very kind of you but if you want to make me a star, how come you are not a star? It’s only God who can make someone a star. That’s how I used to see it, so it stood me in good stead. The other thing was, I would not lower my standards for anyone. Not for love or money. I would not lower my standards.

Interesting. One of the things you did very early was to find love. you had spent just about 8 years in show business and then you found love.

No. I was in the theater doing a show. It was my first leading role, and it was a show called ‘Black Mikkado’ and this was 3 or 4 years into show business. The theatre, at the time, belonged to my husband. I was in the show for 18 months and I met him in the very last week. Thank God because he has been a blessing to me. We are celebrating 44 years together now.

That’s interesting.

He is my best friend. I always say to people that this lockdown really shows you who you’re with.

Yes, yes. One of your kids turned out as our Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria.

Patti Boulaye: Oh, my daughter.

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