“I have out-prayed, out-cried and out-hoped myself, but I am back on top.”
In 2018, we set up a photoshoot and interview with comedian, actress and singer, Chioma “Chigul” Omeruah. In our brainstorming session, we all agreed that there was a special story to tell, but nothing could have prepared me for her reaction when I finally called her to formally invite her to be our October 2018 cover star. “You don’t know what this means to me.” She said, her voice wavering, giving way to tears and deep sighs of, I’m assuming, joy. Over and over, she kept saying just how much this invitation meant to her. I didn’t know how to respond in the moment. These things were usually more stress to organise than this. My heart was full.
If you’re wondering why you never saw the cover or the story that I am referring to, it’s because it didn’t happen. We actually got to the location for the shoot, we even set things up, but there were unforeseen logistical setbacks, coupled with Chigul’s energy being low– she had only recently began the recovery process following back surgery that left her in great amounts of pain, swinging between depression, self-loathing and a general sense that she just wasn’t her best. It was not quite the recipe for a successful shoot so we decided to shut it down and just skip the October edition altogether. We needed to recoup.
Cut to: an afternoon in April 2019. The team is setting up for our May cover shoot with Chigul. We’re all on edge because we want (read: need) this to go well. We’re all hoping that we’re able to make her feel as comfortable as we can and provide her with a positive and encouraging environment, without coming across condescending at any point. Turns out, we had nothing to worry about. The Chigul we saw only a few months ago, is wildly different from this one. She is full – of life, of energy, of confidence, of joy, of love, of sexiness! From the start of the shoot till the end, we were all in awe of this woman. Bouncing back is absolutely no small feat, and when you read what she had to bounce back from, you’ll understand more clearly that Chioma ‘Chigul’ Omeruah is not just an actress, comedian, MC, etc. She’s a damn superhero.
Interview by: Isoken Belo-Osagie
Intro and Story by: Sonia Irabor
“People think [comedians] never have down moments and are happy all the time.” Chioma Omeruah aka Chigul says, as we sit down to this conversation. “We have feelings, we are human.” The last few months have not exactly been a breeze for Chigul who has battled intense back pain, which a recent surgery didn’t exactly fix. “I am in pain most of the time and have to stay home or go out on crutches and depend on other people to give me a bath, wait on me hand and foot, and even clean my bum after I poop!” That last part left both of us laughing out loud. But behind all the humour is a woman who has been on a mental health rollercoaster.
With an interview like this, surrounding a theme as heavy and broad as mental – and physical – health, one must be careful not to manipulate the conversation too much. In this case our conversation was already so rich before the recorder came on that it’s easy to jump straight into the deep end. Name one time you failed at something. I ask.
“My marriage. I failed at my marriage.” There’s a pause. She continues, “After graduation, my dad asked me what was next. I knew that like the typical African parent, he meant marriage and children. I looked at him as if [to say], okay, if that’s what you want. Then he died and there was so much gloom and sadness in the family. He died unexpectedly and part of me wanted to bring joy to the family again. Getting married seemed like the answer, so I did it at 32.
“And then the reality hit me. I wanted to stay in the marriage because I didn’t want to go to hell because I [was told that] God hates divorce. Some members of the family wanted me to manage. I was torn between my own happiness and the happiness of others and that hurt me badly, especially when I decided to get divorced. I felt I had failed everyone including myself. I carried the burden for a long time until I broke down on Kemi Adetiba’s [YouTube show] King Woman. It wasn’t until I started getting feedback from people who said that they could relate to my story, that I felt I had done the right thing speaking up. I had expected a lot of backlash and judgment, but I got a lot of empathy instead.”
As we circle back to the pain she’s been in, I realise that a lot of what Chigul says is weighted, but as a lot of comedians are wont to do, she offsets the heaviness and the seriousness of the situation with humour and lightness. One wonders if she’s doing this for the benefit of the person she’s talking to; to alleviate the awkwardness of feeling pity but not wanting it to show, or if she’s doing it because it’s her way of coping. As humans, we deal with enough internally and maybe using humour as a coping mechanism somehow tricks your brain into believing that things are not as bad as they seem. Maybe. Sometimes…
For Chigul, the back pain was so immense, even with medication, that not even humour helped. “The pain was so unbearable that I literally had to depend on meds. In that state of mind, I began to slip into depression. It crossed my mind one day, that I could just end the pain by mixing a cocktail of my medicines with some brandy but realised I had no brandy and I couldn’t go out to buy any!” (Note: She said that with a classic Chigul face – she laughed, I laughed).
“The next thought of ending it, was while I was being driven along Third Mainland Bridge and it crossed my mind that I could just climb over the bridge and jump. But I wasn’t sure I could climb over without help considering all this fat….” She laughs again, “but on a more serious note, I just wanted to go away because I was very depressed.”
As I listen, I think back to Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014 and how we all seemed to share the same confusion: how could someone who was such a source of light and joy to so many, be battling such darkness within him? How did no one see it? The uncomfortable truth is, we don’t see darkness because it is often masked, tucked away and hidden from everyone but ourselves – and sometimes, if we’re that determined, we can hide it from ourselves as well. We all wear some sort of mask in our everyday lives, covering our pain and varying degrees of darkness in some way, whether we are well-known or not; it makes others more comfortable around us and sometimes, it honestly just feels easier to manage than the heaviness itself.
To the general public, Chioma is ‘Chigul’– the incredibly funny and talented entertainer, singer and actress with over 200,000 thousand followers on Instagram and scene-stealing roles in hit Nollywood movies; a never-ending source of light, joy and positive energy. It may be a bit disconcerting then, to discover that behind all of that light and joy, is a human being recovering from an intense surgery that sent her spiraling into a darkness, the intensity of which many may have never experienced.
“People don’t understand that [public figures] have bad days too. I once wore a neck collar and some fans wanted selfies. I obliged them but felt they should have understood and not asked. Most times we have to put on a happy face to please our fans even when all is not well with us.” She recalls another interaction when just before a show in Tinapa, Cross River, she posted a picture of herself and a social media troll responded by comparing her to Fiona, the princess from Shrek who becomes an ogre. “I was very badly affected that comment. I didn’t see it coming at all and my composure was affected. I mean, I was just about to go on stage to compere a show I front of hundreds of people!”
Since then Chigul has mastered the art of dealing with cowardly, faceless trolls. “I block them and their destinies and go further to block everyone who liked their comments.” These days, she’s in a much better place. It’s not without its darker moments, but the pain has become less incessant. “I am getting help and also praying about it. I am much better than I was, and I would like to commend Aunty Betty Irabor for her book Dust to Dew. I salute her courage in coming forward and writing such a powerful book on her battle with depression. It encourages all of us to seek help and stop trying to mask it. Clinical depression is an illness that has to be taken seriously.”
The first look of the day is a burgundy fitted midi dress. Chigul is sporting a slicked back look, with a sharp side part. She seems unsure as she steps on to the first set, by a rich mahogany grand piano. She looks fantastic. We tell her as much. She still seems unsure. By the time our photographer Seye starts snapping away though, you’d never tell that she was doubtful just mere seconds ago. By the time we get to the second look, a gold sequined maxi dress, Chigul has hit her stride. She is dancing to the music, giving us pose after pose and serving face after face, we forget that we’re on a tight timeline.
Depending on who you are, being the subject of a photoshoot can be a terribly overwhelming experience. Knowing that the onus is on you to give yourself over to a group of strangers who all want you to be the best canvas you can be to make their ideas come to life, is a lot of pressure on anyone. When you’re having a bad week, as Chigul admitted to having that week, it becomes even more of a burden. She’s been in a lot of pain and has been running on empty for most of the week and here she is, being asked to lay poolside in an awkward position that she isn’t even sure will look good in (it turned out great). She does it anyway. It takes a lot of communicating with one’s mind to actually bring yourself to a point where you can give yourself to the task at hand. But being who she is, Chioma not only did that, she exceeded that! For us, but more importantly for her.
By the time we get to the final look of the day, the look that we knew would become our cover from the moment she stepped on set, Chigul is at her best. It filled me with so much joy to watch her come alive in such a way. Putting this story together, it was my hope that I’d be able to see her come out on top. This may seem like a superficial moment to attribute that to, but you honestly should have been there. She was mesmerising to watch. All light and joy and an indescribable aura that spoke to her perseverance and strength.
As I reflect on the shoot, I am struck once again by this truth– “I’m ok” is an easy thing to say. In fact, it’s statistically one of the biggest lies we tell people and ourselves. Sometimes it’s easy to see that people are lying when they say, “I’m ok”, other times it’s a bit more difficult to discern. Sometimes, though, it’s not a facade. They really are ok. So when Chigul says to us, “I have out-prayed, out-cried and out-hoped myself but I am back on top.” I not only believe her, but I am excited about what that means for her. We go through many rebirths in our lives and that’s a beautiful thing to know. Chigul is going through one right now, it’s not without its bad days, but the great thing about being ok is that the fight in you is relentless. Chigul is having a rebirth, and I hope you’re ready for it.