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“Our father taught us to respect everyone”— Najite & Mitchelle Dede

Daughters of esteemed diplomat and former Nigerian envoy to Ethiopia Brownson Dede; Michelle and Najite are two of the leading lights in the Nigerian entertainment industry and the Lagos social scene. Both university graduates, the siblings stand out for their closeness, their diversity of talents and interest in the arts and culture. This is not to mention their style.

Initially trained as a lawyer in the premier university of Ibadan but best known as a comedian, Najite

is more of the bohemian, with shoulder length dreadlocks and a super-toned physique; Michelle isthe fervent fashionista, with a style completely impossible to deconstruct.

Both have great zeal for social issues, mostly domestic abuse, and this has reflected a lot in Najite’s work as director of the Vagina Monologues (now V Monologues), which has grown ‘bigger’ under her nurture. Michelle is best known for her part in the lone version of Big Brother Nigeria. Both are actresses.

In this interview with Morenike Taire, they talk about sisterhood, style and the serious business of entertainment.

So, Najite, I know you’re a lawyer. Where are the wig and the gown?

I never got a wig and or a gown. I got the degree but never went to law school. I realized it wasn’t my calling.

Is there anything in your background that attracted you both to showbiz?

Michelle: I was always involved one way or the other

Najite: My dad went as far as collaborating with my professor in writing a play and my mother was an active dancer. We were always encouraged to always express ourselves.

A lot of people don’t know you’re sisters… what’s the first reaction when they find out?

(laugh simultaneously)Najite: “Oh, you’re Michelle’s sister!” I’m like, “yes, I’m Michelle’s sister”. “You guys look nothing alike. Then after a while, no, no no, actually, you do, the eyes and the way you express yourselves.

Michelle: They say, ‘who’s older?’ People think I’m older

What do your parents say to losing two children to the glitz, as it were?

Michelle: They always knew I was going in that direction. I actually studied fashion design and marketing. When I was in high school I was obsessed with anything to do with fashion

Najite: My Dad is quite liberal: “is this what you want to do, are you sure, if so go ahead and do it.

Michelle: I would say they’re very supportive. He just wants you to be certain, don’t be all over the place.

Najite: When I did tell them a career in Law is not where my heart is, he was full of suggestions. No worries there at all.

Mum? You didn’t talk about her

Michelle: I’d say my dad first because in Nigeria the father is more about what you’re going to do. Both of them are ok. It’s not much of a surprise, I was going in the fashion direction so it was easy to tell them.

I’m sure you guys have rubbed off on each other in different ways career wise?

Michelle:: I don’t know about career wise. I knew about designers, different colours, fabrics, models; I was watching Style with Elsa Clench(on CNN) when I was 12. I knew I wanted to work in fashion which I did for a while, and then coming to Nigeria kind of changed that.

You mean you haven’t rubbed off on…

Najite: Let me tell you that Michelle has been trying in the last 5 years or so to get me more interested in clothes; fashion and style and all that. After a while it was all too much of a bother then I cut all my relaxed hair off and got dreadlocks. She was horrified, like what happened to you, you were so into your clothes, and you were an inspiration.

I think our careers have been quite distinct other than one time I managed to get her to perform for me. Michelle… she blew me away. I know she’s my sister and all that.

And you don’t think you were biased because you are sisters?

Michelle: If anything I think she was harder on me because there were definitely times when I got so upset during the auditions of the Vagina Monologues last year, I’d go to the corner and complain to a friend or probably cry to myself. I thought she was deliberately being hard on me but I think she treated everybody pretty much the same

Najite: She surprised me; I mean I marveled at her. She actually blew me away

What mutual values do you guys have?

Michelle: More life in general. The number one thing that my dad instilled in us is to respect people, no matter who they are, the driver, the maid, gateman. That is one thing all of us do. When I was in Big Brother there were times I’d come in and say to the gateman, good morning sir. He kept on saying, why did you call me sir? Because you’re older than me I can’t call you by your first name. He said “just call me Mr. John” and I said “okay, Mr. John”. They say, “you’re not Nigerian, are you?” and I say, what does that have to do with anything? “ Because you’re too polite”.

Najite: In showbiz anywhere you kind of lose your bearing. You have people constantly judging you not for what you are but for what you do and people can get confused. We were brought up to treat everybody without exception… It’s not negotiable. Every human being is worthy to be treated with courtesy, not necessarily all smiles. You will be civil to everyone. In terms of how that works with your work it’s a little bit difficult because hanging on to your integrity…

Especially as a director?

Najite : Well, as director I have no problems with that because in that capacity I’m the boss.

So you have to act like the boss

Najite: the thing is that you can be firm but even when I’m getting a little upset I’m not yelling insults or calling anyone names. I’m being very clear on what it is I want. I like to think that with the way I work people can say that she may be hard but she’s fair. And she treats everyone not necessarily with kindness but with courtesy. That is what counts for us in terms of the industry

Now, the other side, has there been sibling rivalry?

Najite: No! (emphatically). Not at all?

Michelle: Not as adults. I know when we were young I was jealous of Najite like crazy (Najite laughs heartily). That’s the funny thing. You find that happening a lot in the industry; everyone imagines being in competition with each other.

Najite: In theatre you cannot function alone. You may be the best actor in the world you need the director, you need other actors. You need the guy that brings the light. Understanding that, it brings the idea that we are all in collaboration and there’s no one person in the movies. There’s no one person in stage and between Michelle and I, her career prospects are different from mine within the industry. Of course apart from that I want her to be successful so she can buy me stuff.

(To Michelle) On your part too?

Michelle: On my part too.

Showbiz in Nigeria has blossomed since you entered it. Is it a coincidental or you can venture to say your family has contributed a lot to that?

Michelle: I personally don’t think so. I think it’s timely. From when I came the industry had started growing and a lot more is happening. Media in general has grown so much. The market is saturated in England and the states but we are an emerging market, just as Bollywood was some time ago and still is.

Do you think there’s a market for that or we are basically working for nothing?

Najite: Since when I got into entertainment in 1997 in terms of the creative industry: fashion, music, film, journalism, Nigeria has probably never had so much global airplay. The whole thing is getting so much noticed that we have no choice right now than to improve. In terms of our contribution we have maintained a certain standard. We may not have reached some level of fame but we have a reputation that we get the job done well.

When will our comedy go past standup?

Najite: Standup comedy is social commentary. Laughing is the sugar that takes out the sting.

I’ve never quite heard it put that way

Najite: If you listen to our comedians they’re actually commenting on our vices, skewed value systems but it a way that after you’re done laughing…

Anywhere in the world that’s what stand up is. The fool in the court of a king is the one that says the truth but in such a way that the king will laugh.

Michelle: AY already has a show. The fact that they’re even doing standup abroad, not necessarily where there are Nigerians. Basketmouth was in Nairobi. It’s got a much wider reach.

Najite: We’ve been used to a slapstick kind of comedy when it comes to television. I’m not putting it down. People think it’s just hopping about. It’s actually very hard to look like an utter fool. It’s pure genius. Back in the day we had Baba Sala even though in Yoruba. The genre is slapstick comedy and is incredibly difficult.

Do you think women are contributing enough?

Najite: Most minorities are always talking about being marginalized ; ‘we’re not being carried along’. All those phrases that frankly get on my nerves. Women in this country are contributors in all aspects. If you want to be part of the comedy business you have to step up to the market like Mandy, Helen and Princess. I stopped doing Standup because it’s not my calling. Yes I’m funny but I want to put my comedy into my theatre work. It was pure bread and butter. I had a generous mentor in Patrick Doyle. The first day I got on stage I didn’t know I was going; he literally pushed me on. It worked.

I suppose that’s what they say about opportunity meeting preparedness

Michelle: You’ve got to be ready. Sometimes it comes and you’re not ready, other times you grab it.

Najite: For women in comedy: if you want to make a mark, then step up to the mike.

Do you see you guys collaborating on anything in the future?

Both: Yeah!

Michelle: I don’t know what it would be. We’ve already sat down and come up with ideas for TV shows and radio shows

Najite: I’ve been more or less behind the camera as a director. I was very clear there were certain films I was not going to do but at the end of the day television has changed so much, and Nollywood.

Michelle (cuts in): The Nigerian film industry. When I first came in 2006 I can see the difference in the films I watched back then and now. Even then there were a lot of directors that were very good. Unfortunately they are down with the name Nollywood.

It looks like it has stuck

Michelle: Nollywood is a name given by a foreign journalist.

Najite: I’m poised to do more work as an actress. One of them premiered last week. I should be on your TV screen very soon.

Soap?

Najite: Yes, soap.

Michelle: And I should be on your TV screen very soon too. We have signed non disclosure agreements. We have to dot the I’s and cross the t’s .

n Makeup by Tope Odubela

n Photo by Folake Akinola

n Outfits by Zizi Cardo


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