Denrele Edun is a burst of positive energy, we know this. But in addition to that is a strong-willed man, who, through countless criticisms, has remained unapologetically true to himself.
Denrele is living his life and urges the world to do the same! In this interview, he shares his views on toxic masculinity, building a brand and lessons learned. -VIVIENNE BELONWU
When you made the decision years ago to
live beyond the limitations of gender. Was
it a deliberate move to build a brand?
Firstly, I like the fact that you have used the
word “brand” because I’d quickly say the
keys to a successful brand are; self-definition,
authenticity, accountability and relatability. I
started professionally on TV in 1994 and there was no form of social media back then. We didn’t own a television either so there was no way I was privy to information from the western world. It naturally came as a result of just trying to be different. I could remember one casting I went for back then for a famous brand; I was selected out of the entire crowd [because] of the way I looked. It was more of an industry that accepted me at that time.
You have described yourself as a sexual
outlaw; as you get older, do you feel a
shift in your sense of identity?
No, because I am what you see. I’ve been
labelled all kinds of sexual [things]. At first,
when people threw [those labels] at me, it did hit me, especially in school when people would yell, “gay!” at me or hurl stones at me
or bus conductors would push me out of their
buses. I was a culture shock to a lot of people.
They just couldn’t place me and oh! How they
tried! Though it hurt, I paid no attention to it
and when I started working for Soundcity, I
didn’t want any of those vibes to flow into my
work space. I didn’t want any form of sexual
orientation to be attached to my work; I wanted people to just appreciate my art, so I coined the term, ‘Sexual Outlaw’ and when someone asked me what that meant, I simply replied; “it means my sexuality is free flowing like a fluid”.
Suddenly the media became frenzied with all
sorts of news about me. All manner of stories
were carried about me by soft sell magazines and blogs. It didn’t go down well with my employers then.
What happened with Soundcity?
Ah! That period, I made every headline and
it always started with, “Denrele the Gay
Presenter…” I could tell Soundcity was not
comfortable with that as a brand. I equally tried on my part to keep it at bay but when that Charly Boy incident came up, I knew it was the final straw. So basically it’s not that I’m trying to create a mystery around my sexual orientation, I think it’s something I would write about because growing up, I had a fair amount of attention from both sexes. I believe, however, that who you go to bed as, is different from who you go to bed
In terms of non-conformity, do you feel
the need to protect yourself from people
who may not understand you based on
the image you present them with?
Growing up, it wasn’t even about protecting
myself but more [about] protecting the people around me. I lived in an extended family house where everyone, except my parents and siblings, thought I was mad. I was the cursed one; the strange kid who would never amount to anything.
As a result my family suffered for the path I chose. The need for me to protect myself did arise because beneath all the thick skin and
bravado, I’m still a human with feelings just like the next person. But the truth was that I had no one to run to, I was the one everyone came to with their problems instead! So I learnt to protect my sanity the best way I could and the rest, I left it up to fate because at the end of the day, it is what it is.
Let’s talk about toxic masculinity and
society’s expectations that a man must
be a certain way simply because he is a
man. What are your views on that?
In my case, the toxic masculinity does not
only arise because I am not dressed the way a
quintessential Nigerian man dresses, but the fact that I might just ‘infect’ the next person. That said, I think we have over-flogged this issue of masculinity in Nigeria. I understand we are Nigerians are, to an extent, still conservative about a lot of things. However, we should just allow people express their individuality in the manner in which they deem fit for them. If some people see clothes as a medium to express themselves, let them be by all means. I think we just need to draw the lines between self expression, self individuality and going overboard with it.
In a world where society expects us to act or live our lives in a certain manner, you have unapologetically remained true
to yourself. How are you able to achieve
I know my story and how far I have come better than anyone else. Simple! People only see the glory and not the journey. I lived in a family house where I, my dad, mum and siblings, had to share one room. We couldn’t use the toilet because it was out of bounds; I always had to do my business in a nearby bush. It was a shared kitchen and sometimes we would get back home from school and find someone had spat into my mum’s pot of food. It was hellish, but all of these things strengthened me. I’ve had open
confrontations in the past. People have walked up to me and said despicable things no human being should hear but I have never allowed it to change me. I would attribute that strength to my mum, who, being a foreigner, came to Nigeria with my dad, stayed in a family house with family
members who wanted nothing but to frustrate her. She still had to fend for her family by holding down five different jobs as a teacher. My prayer each day is the one of sincere gratefulness to God who through me, has raised my family from poverty. Tell me, why would I want to live my life to please anyone when living the truest version of myself has brought me thus far?
Do you ever confront any of these people
who stare or have a judgmental look on
First, you have to have the ability to categorise how people look at you. I’m a body language expert so I know how to discern the looks from disgust, to bewildered, hate and judgmental. Most times I just make a joke out of it and then we end up taking pictures and laughing. But whenever I’m out of the country, the reception is entirely different! Just walking on the streets of New York landed me an invitation to a fashion
show. On getting to the reception, Beverly
Johnson (First African American model on
Vogue cover) invited me for her reality show. My sister just like that!
About that, I often wondered why you
haven’t left the country yet.
My sister if I tell you I haven’t thought about
that in the past, I’d be lying o. However, I
believe I’ve made it work here and will make it work again and again. I’m not saying I want to force myself down the throats of Nigerians o! Ejo e ma binu, but I think I’ve worked [too] hard to just let it go. Let’s face it too; the country has helped me a whole lot.
How do you put outfits together with the shoes? Especially the shoes!
It’d shock you to know that most of the shoes I have are all gifts. As a matter of fact, everything I’m putting on right now is a gift. I’m like a walking freebie. (Laughs). People who appreciate the outlandish, but would never try it out [for themselves] always get these items for me. When I was shooting the Lip Sync Battle in South Africa, Puma sent me their newest Fenty stiletto!
For someone who has successfully built
a space for himself in the entertainment
industry, what is your message to
Love! Love more, give more, listen more, care
more, forgive more, and tolerate more. When
people learn to abide by these basic rules, the
world will be a much better place for you and me and our generations to come.
What would you love to be remembered
I want to be remembered as the guy who lived by those principles.
Photo Credit: Seye Kehinde