The name Leona Mazur might not ring a bell but, when you mention Miss Pepeiye – the famous original and first Miss Pepeiye of Papa Ajasco Family – you get the attention of people. The Nigerian-American currently based in the Neitherand with her family creatively played her role so well in the sitcom produced by Wale Adenuga’s Production in the early 2000s.
One of the pioneers of the Nigerian Fashion Show Industry, Leona was a famous fashion runway model who featured in the Nigerian fashion shows both in Paris and Milan. In 2001, she won for Zizi Cardo, the Nigerian Fashion Show Designer of the Year Award. She also modelled for some prominent Nigerian designers like Mon Ami, Zizi Cardo, Frank Osodi, Modella, and Remi Lagos Of blessed memory, to mention a few.
The financial analyst, a true military brat, was born and raised in Lagos to military parents Mr. Isaiah and Mrs. Juliana Ilile. Though out of Nigeria for the past 12 years, during which she went back to school to complete her bachelor’s degree. The proud mother of two boys bagged a degree in Bachelor of Science in Accounting with honors last December. She worked for Verizon briefly before moving to Amsterdam with her family.
The Benue State born actress who is married to an American diplomat who enjoys learning new languages, currently speaks Portuguese and French. If she’s not practising on her guitar, she’s reading anything on quantum physics and human psychology as she loves reading and writing. Her most life-changing accomplishments are her kids, because they have been her source of strength, inspiration, and accountability. Despite being away from the showbiz industry, the industry never left her, thus her desire for a comeback to acting. At her down time, the motivational speaker is writing a memoir about her life’s journey and experiences gathered from her trips around the world.
In an exclusive interview with Publisher, GATMASH NEWS, THERESA MOSES, the supermodel talks about her passion and purpose in giving back to her community by empowering young girls with practical knowledge that leads to achieving dreams, her podcast that she is working on about women empowerment, the Nigerian dream, fame, and more. Excerpt…
Since it’s been 12 years she left Nigeria, when asked what she’s been up to, she said: “I’ve been around the world hahaha! I’ve been travelling, as you know, I got married to an American diplomat and I decided to sit somewhere and complete my education. There’s no way I can go back to school travelling from one country to the other. So I decided to go back to the United States, and there’s where I’ve been for the past 9 years completing my education and, of course, I have kids, two lovely boys, and they also go to school in the US. I’ve just been developing and growing as a person. Going back to school was something I wanted to do for a long time, because I did my National Diploma in Mass Communication with the focus in journalism in Nigeria.
When I went back to the US I had to pick up something I could do without a lot of frustration, and that was learning business all over again. The standard there is different, although my Wolex Polytechnic credentials helped get me in. That’s what I’ve been doing and now I’m back, done with school and back to start my own thing, give back to the country that helped live that dream. I tell people to forget the American Dream, there’s the Nigerian Dream. The Nigerian dream is having your hands tied behind your back and your eyes blindfolded and somebody asking you to produce something. We Nigerians are geniuses, because with the situation that we are faced, we still come out resilient and surviving; it’s amazing!”
Speaking on her comeback to the entertainment industry which has changed since she left, Leona outlines her plan to cope as thus: “When I was modelling and acting, sometimes you work and don’t get paid; sometimes you go on set all day without food or drink and at the end of the day you are told ‘sorry, you can’t do your shoot today.’ Back then I and other models and actors that I know had the passion. It was something that we enjoyed doing, the money isn’t the goal, and the goal was to express our talent and creativity. What I am seeing now is more money-focused or fame-focused. Either way, Nigerians are doing pretty well. Our actors/actresses put us on the world map. Our Jollof Rice and Egusi soup and the music also put us on the world map. Nigerians are out there and the world knows who we are and they’re watching out for anything that we do.
I have this knowledge coming from overseas. If I just say Nig…, they will just say ‘are you Nigerian.’ Even my accent sells me out and people have something to say about Nigeria. One person out of two knows Jollof Rice and they are not even Nigerians. I want to contribute to that. This is what I started and many other people that sacrificed, we worked, we paved this way. I remember when I was modelling also; your parents looked down on you. People look down on you, saying models are prostitutes, they carry all sorts of names; you barely could expose any part of your body without being tarnished in the newspapers or gossip magazines; but now it’s like nudity is nothing, it’s no big deal. Those are big changes, but there are a lot of positives and I am very happy about it”.
When you were in the industry, there wasn’t much negativity or blackmail but now, if you must trend, it has to be on negativity. Do you buy into that school of thought? Miss Pepeiye has this to say: “Like they say in America, there’s no negative press, negative or positive, press is still press and you can monetise it. Are we ready for that in this culture is the big question? There’s something we would have to wait and see because we’ve started a trend and you can’t start a trend without reaping the repercussions of it. We have to wait and see what this repercussion will be. I don’t think we are prepared for that kind of culture, we are not designed for that kind of negative press, I don’t think so because you’re talking about a person going through some negative situation regardless of whom you are. In the public eye there’s something negative about you or people blackmailing you. That’s emotionally stressful. Now, you want to talk about mental health. How are we going to do this? How are we going to sort it out?
I think that should be the discussion that we are all having at this time regardless of whether you’re a superstar or not. It’s something that would affect everybody, kids are watching, people are watching and coping and we don’t want them to copy something that will give you mental issues tomorrow. If you have mental issues, are there places where you can go get treatment, or is it something that’s stigmatised in the community? There’s a lot that goes with this whole negative press. In the US, there’s a team of PR that will tackle this and doctors that will even help the artist cope with all the negativity. We might be seeing them on television and say okay, this is what they do, let’s do it. They don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. A lot goes on behind the scenes that people don’t understand”.
Asked why she want to live the Nigerian dream instead of the American dream? The supermodel said: “The Nigerian dream, like I explained, is a Nigerian who despite all odds has made it, is continuing to survive without stealing, with real raw hard work. The telecommunication industry is nothing to talk about. They give you data, you talk now, and tomorrow the data is out. These are those little things that you don’t even think about overseas. It’s natural, but here the case is different. I didn’t grow with the internet; I know what I went through. I came from a poor background and I know what I had to go through to make something for myself. That’s the Nigerian dream: Anyone who has made themselves independent despite all odds and surviving, living the basic life is the Nigerian dream. Nigerians are very, very smart because what the average Nigerian can withstand, the average American will pass out”.
With her knowledge traveling round the world, Leona states what she’s going to give back to society that made her who she is today. “I am giving back to society my knowledge. Everything I’ve observed because whether we like it or not, this is our home, this is my home. This is what made me and the knowledge and the wisdom that I got from all these places; the things that I’ve been through in Nigeria helped me survive in the United States. And the knowledge I’ve picked up in the US can help me build Nigeria by helping one person at a time, sharing knowledge. There’s one person out there that has lost all hope and believes that there’s nothing for them anymore, but there’s still hope. The access to information is something that’s critical to growth and that access is something I can give back through writing, because I enjoyed writing. You know me; we went to the same school so it’s something that I never forgot. It didn’t leave me so I want to give back through my podcast, talk about issues and bring real solutions that somebody might really find useful and use it to better their lives. Also going back to acting, I’ve been speaking with my producer, talking to a couple of other people so I can get back into the field” she said.
Speaking on how she intends to change the narratives in the entertainment industry, the mother of two said: “I think the best way to create change is to live by example. You can talk all you want, strategise all you want, but you just have to lead by example. So my brand is to uplift, educate and inform by entertainment, writing and also my podcast”.
Back then you were a source of inspiration to so many; don’t you think your comeback poses a threat? Leona laughs and said: “I believe in abundance because everything we have, whether we like it or not, God gave it to us so you cannot know better than anyone; we are all equal. Yes, one person might be fortunate now, but it doesn’t mean the other person that’s shining your shoes or sweeping the street, if they keep that hope alive inside of them, will not make it. I’ve seen things, I’ve tasted fame, and I’m not really carried away by that. You know me even when I was acting and modeling. So, I’m still the same person. I’ve seen the difference and I just think we need more people that would come together, use their fame to build our community, build ourselves up, instead of a flashy lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with a flashy lifestyle; it has to have some substance in it. You are famous, good, but what did you use your fame for? Are you developing your community, are you enlightening your community?
In the US, you see people like Jay Z, Rihanna, and Oprah building up their community. We need to do that here, we need to start doing this. I know some other stars do this, I am not saying nobody is doing this but we need more, we need to encourage the youths, if you’re famous today good but tomorrow somebody else is going to become more famous than you. That’s the giving. When we understand this, I think we won’t start fighting each other because it’s pointless. Like the Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah said, ‘The beautiful ones are not yet born’ and that’s the truth. You think you’re beautiful; tomorrow, somebody more beautiful is going to be born. That person that thinks she’s more beautiful, tomorrow, someone will be born. Life evolves and we need to evolve with it, I think that’s it”.
Mrs. Mazur got married, left Nigeria, have kids, etc; still keep in touch with your friends, why? “I kept in touch with a lot of people. I’m open, I’m accessible. Linda Ikeji, Blessing Effiong, Seyi Brown my realest guy, all started off, travelled together. I travelled, had kids, family and had to focus on me and I realised that I needed to build myself as a person so that I can be able to give fully to the next person and live something for my kids also. Everything is not all about money or fame, the human connection is what I value the most” she said.
As a creative person; Leona takes up art like music which according to her is the guitar. “Though I am still learning, not perfected it yet, but it’s something that I enjoyed. I love using my hands creatively; I have a travel guitar, not named her yet. I play the guitar in my free time. I like to be creative, like I said; if I am not doing anything I am either writing. I get inspiration from books and write them down. Trust me, there’s a Nigerian dream, if you are from Nigeria without anything and you made it to be a superstar, that’s the Nigerian dream. I don’t care what anybody says, because even as bad as it is we are fighters, warriors, we are bold. Who gives you that boldness? Na suffer”.
Amazingly, Leona said marriage changed her positively. “I will say positively because I don’t like that word ‘negative.’ Even the negative that happens in one’s life, I feel it’s God calling you to your power, essence, ability, independence. Being married and having kids has its challenges; but I’ve taken these challenges and turned them into positivity for myself and for some people around me too. This has helped me grow a lot. If I hadn’t experienced any of it I don’t know where I would have been. Everything that has happened in my life has helped me grow emotionally, physiologically and physically as a person” she said.
On how she managed from mass communication to studying accounting, Leona laughs and said: “It’s the opposite end of a spectrum. It was the hardest thing I ever did for my growth; but I told myself I will not give up. We Nigerians don’t give up. This is what I meant by the resilience of Nigerians. I didn’t give up even though I had kids. I had to do what I had to do, deprive myself of so many things – social media, etc. I had to be disciplined because in the US, nobody’s going to tell you to do this or that. They believe that you’re an adult and you know what to do and that was what I did, and I focused. I have a vision to graduate and I graduated with honours and my kids saw me do this. They are proud of me, I know that. And they were my motivator to go back and get my degree so that I can also motivate them; and I can motivate somebody out there”.
When asked which of her friends has stood with you through thick and thin, motivating you a lot, she said Seyi Brown. “Seyi Brown is one person that consistently motivates me. I have other friends too; but he’s the one that has been calling back and forth, he’s been actively pushing me. I appreciate that about him. He’s one person that’s authentically genuine that I know”.
Leona’s advice to the Nigerian youth is simply, have a skill. “God gave each and every one of us a skill but we get distracted a lot by the things we see – problems here, problems there. Have a skill and have faith in God. Your time will surely come, but you must have a skill and God” he added.