“The standard of beauty that was deemed acceptable or even aspirational when I was growing up, isn’t what it is today.” -Chioma Nnani
The concept of beauty has always been taboo, particularly within the Black community, because it seems it is difficult to address the elephant in the room as it relates to self-love and acceptance. In truth, the stigma that is placed on physical appearance is all but crippling, especially because it transcends the barriers of a specific community or type of people. However, it is a conversation that has yet to be taken seriously by people of color, specifically Black people.
Author Chioma Nnani explores some aspects of beauty in her novel “FIFI, The Beauty Influencer.” The book tells the story of how a young Nigerian lady – whose strict parents have sensible career aspirations for her – falls into beauty influencing in London and deals with the fame she didn’t quite bargain for in the midst of her personal, legal, and medical issues.
The journey of Fifi, the titular character, will resonate with aspiring or struggling beauty influencers. And the book will be available for sale in paperback, Kindle, and EPUB formats on Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and Okada books.
Chioma Nnani holds an LLB (Law) degree from the University of Kent and a Postgraduate Certificate in Food Law from De Montfort University in Leicester, her novel, “FIFI, The Beauty Influencer,” is set for a May 2023 release.
Candis: What is your SwagHer? What makes Chioma, Chioma?
Chioma: My voice.
Candis: Can you talk about the importance of following your dreams vs. taking on traditional or more stable career choices like being a teacher or doctor?
Chioma: I think “following your dreams” is a dangerous phrase as it takes certain uncontrollable variables for granted and rarely shows the full picture.
It’s like when XFactor or American Idol, or America’s Got Talent auditionees to say that singing, filling out arenas, or headlining tours is their dream, but they’re not even good at it. I know those shows are edited and heavily produced, but still… 20 years ago, beauty influencing on social media wasn’t a thing; social media wasn’t a thing, but make-up artists worked on campaigns for big make-up brands showcased runway models and female celebrities. Suppose someone had it as their dream and followed it, but the call to make up Penelope Cruz, Beyonce, Freida Pinto, Eva Longoria, Andie McDowell, Cheryl, Christy Turlington, Aishwarya Rai, or Liya Kebede for L’Oreal, never came. In that case, it’s like, “Oh, I failed.”
Back in the day, and it still is the case in some quarters that, you would only be taken seriously as an author if any of the big, traditional publishers took a chance on you. But now, while it’s hard work, there are authors from much smaller presses whose fans are super loyal, and their books have even been adapted for the screen. Some of these authors couldn’t have foreseen it, so it’s not a dream they could have worked towards. Also, following a dream, the traditional publishers might have had some implications for an author’s subsidiary rights and other IP stuff.
Some people’s dream is actually a job that others might think of as traditional. But is there any really good doctor, teacher, or surgeon who, at some point, didn’t cry during their studies, “I want to go home. I can’t do this anymore!” Yet, it’s their dream!
I fell into the media. I help women in Law and Media develop strong voices, solid careers, and stable personal lives, but this was NEVER my dream, so I don’t think anyone is more surprised than me. Yes, I’ve written since the age of 6, but it was just something I did. Yes, I trained as a stage actress, but that’s just one thing I did while trying and waiting for university admission. The dream was to become a kicka** lawyer. So, everything I did at uni was geared towards that. And I wasn’t horrible at it. Only to wake up the morning of my final Law exam with the realization that I had to pivot into what I didn’t even know at the time. Then, after one thing led to another, my first book came out, and I had no idea what I was doing. So, I had to learn.
Whatever career a person wants to get into, they need to aim for the trifecta of a) that thing they’re good at, b) that they like to do, and c) that people will pay for. Then, stay open to possibilities.
Candis: The standard of beauty has changed dramatically in this day and age; the idea of fillers, lifts, and tucks plays a major role in self-esteem. In your opinion, how influential is social media as it pertains to beauty?
Chioma: It’s influential enough to make me feel pity for anyone growing up in this era of social media, and worried for anyone raising children in this era. I’m an adult, so I’m old enough to know certain things. I work in the media, so I know about the manipulation of looks cos I’ve seen it. Yet, even I sometimes forget that some of the images on social media are not real, or that there are some things real skin or hair doesn’t do.
I’m not going to tell an adult not to fill, lift or tuck anything, but there’s something to be said for basing your self-esteem on the picture of beauty that somebody else thinks you should be, and isn’t even fixed. Do you remember there was a time when the ideal eyebrows were plucked to within an inch of their existence? Now, some say it’s got to be as thick as a slug!
The standard of beauty deemed acceptable or aspirational when I was growing up isn’t what it is today. Just think, if you’d lived in that era, permanently changed something about yourself to fit in or feel worthy or live up to someone’s idea of perfection, but you have to exist in today’s world, you’d be pretty scr*wed. Whether you’re natural or got help, it could be more smart and healthy to depend on your looks for your self-worth.
Candis: Should the concept of colorism be addressed within the Black community, especially as it relates to darker skin tones vs. those of lighter skin tones?
Chioma: It should be addressed. The question is how. The relationship we have with the media is tricky in that we’ve gotten to a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation. So, is this person on TV or billboards what’s supposed to be desirable now, or did this person get on TV because they’re already the definition of desirable?
I was in Lagos some years ago to do some work. There was an audition where I was the only female on the panel. Many auditionees bleached their skin, and my male co-panelists were trying to give mediocre chics roles because they were lighter-skinned or thinner. I remember them trying to find fault with a particular darker-toned girl who was the absolute best we saw that day, and I was so mad. I said, “I swear I’ll go over your heads to the boss and fight for this girl.”
I think the media is a way to address the issue of colorism in the Black community. I know the power of the media and how certain pictures and advertising can send you a message that gets calcified in your mind through repetition, even if it’s subliminal, because I still recall how I felt about my hair when I’d see Indian movies as a child. On the one hand, it doesn’t make sense to deprive a lighter-toned chic of a role to be seen as inclusive or progressive. On the other hand, I’m not going to give a darker-toned chic something she doesn’t deserve, cos I’m trying to escape allegations of pandering to or being influenced by colorism.
Candis: Why was it important for you to tell the story of “Fifi, The Beauty Influencer”?
Chioma: I had to. I noticed the audition situation wasn’t a one-off. So, even when I wasn’t involved in a decision-making process, I saw girls who were deliberately starving themselves and bleaching their skin in their desperation to be part of the industry. I asked a few girls, “Why are you doing this to your bodies?” One said, “My talent doesn’t matter if I’ve got dark skin, but someone like you could never understand that.” I thought she was defensive until I looked at higher-rated films and TV shows in Nigeria at the time. Most had lighter-toned actresses. Maybe just two were good at acting. And those decision-makers and marketers I asked why said, “Cos, this is what sells.”
After that, I was in pre-production for a TV series whose lead was deliberately written to be dark-skinned. The actress I had in mind and would have advocated for, I’d have made sure she was well-compensated. She’s pegged as C-list yet really underrated. But I went on Instagram and saw she had bleached her skin. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I kept trying to psyche myself that it was the camera angle or lighting. But I saw she had become the brand ambassador for a skin-lightening brand. Words can’t express the depth of the disappointment I felt.
I’m lighter-toned, but I have rosacea and, from time to time, serious hyperpigmentation issues. I didn’t even know until recently that Black people could have rosacea. And while that combo has made me self-conscious in the past, and I trained as an actress when I was younger, I’ve never been desperate for media roles. So, when I treat discoloration or lose weight, it’s for me. Never to fit any industry’s standard of “marketable.” I don’t know that anyone has ever hired or dated me because of my looks, I’ve never intentionally bleached my skin, and I am that woman who will go build her own table if someone else says I can’t sit with them cos I’m too anything.
That’s what that young lady who answered me was trying to say, “You ARE privileged,” even if I didn’t see myself that way. Privilege is having a lot of money. But if you’ve got my looks + voice + determination/doggedness/stubbornness + angels + innate skills/talent + education + other half, which all = nobody can f*ck up my career or life without repercussions – that is a privilege that not everyone has. And not realizing it, doesn’t make it less true. I heard this somewhere, and strength is for service, not status.
I also feel like some things have a way of waiting for us in the future. So, I don’t want my son to have the belief that he’s doing any darker-toned chic a favor by being with her. Or to endanger his life by being with a psychopath or abuser because they’re lighter-toned, but skin tone is how he was taught to judge a person’s worth. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking the world owes anyone who’s lighter-toned, so you can afford to be a horrid excuse for a human being. I want whoever gets to have the privilege of raising my future daughter-in-law and the friends she’ll eventually call on for advice to have access to things in the media that say, “You can show up and demand all you deserve in career, relationships, and life, no matter your skin tone.” I don’t want my children to have to ask, “Mama, if you really believed what you and Dad taught us at home, where’s your product pushing that message? We know you’re powerful enough to have created it, so why didn’t you?”
Yes, this isn’t a book for children, but children are more aware of stuff than we give them credit for. I remember my husband from age 5, but there’s proof that we met in kindergarten. So, we’d have been 2yo or so. He says he felt drawn to me from then, even if he didn’t know why at the time. If a child can pick up stuff that young, they can be deliberately taught anything.
Now, because my own skin tone has never affected my ability to get the right assignment or man, it can be easy to see a Naomi Campbell, Iman, Alek Wek, Yvonne Orji, Lupita Nyong’o or Viola Davis and say, “Well, they’re not lighter-toned, they just worked hard, and they’re now known for their work; what are you on about?” But when Alexandra Burke says she was told at 16, “We can’t sign you cos we’ve already got a Black girl,” or at 19/20 to bleach her skin so she can sell more records, it makes me really angry. Who sets these idiotic rules that mean a 19/20yo can be told she can’t succeed till she endangers her life to fit an aesthetic?
There’s also fake friendships, toxic people you might not feel strong enough to cut off, trolls, deciding how much of you to give away when selling your message or product, especially if fame isn’t a thing you really planned, making money and, just as important, keeping it. Stuff I know people in Media and Entertainment go through.
So, I wrote “Fifi, The Beauty Influencer”, because it’s not just about beauty or skin tone. It’s also about making bank even when you feel unqualified, finding and sticking up for yourself, the female-to-female friendship that lets you grow and isn’t toxic new experiences, and navigating life as a person when fame finds you. It’s just that the young lady who gets to have all this happens to be darker-toned and in the beauty space, so that affects the story.
Candis: Is there ever an appropriate time to address a social media troll?
Chioma: Oh, absolutely! However, it does depend on what your purpose is AND what you consider to be a response. I’m good with words; otherwise, I would not do any of this, but it’s about more than sentence construction or grammar. It’s also about the spirit behind the words, in that when I speak, people feel compelled to listen even if they don’t like what I say. If you’ve a gift and a personality like mine, there is a temptation to always or only use words. I am also from a background where if you didn’t shout, you didn’t get heard. Silence was weak or foolish.
But my partner has taught me that while it’s OK to breathe fire, playing dead might be more effective when you’re trying to unmask vultures. Only then can you truly deal with them in a final way. Acting quietly can be strategic. It’s not a weakness. He’s one of the strongest and most intelligent men I know, and his playing dead has served us scarily well, so I take it on board.
Social media trolls are the worst, most miserable, self-loathing, achievement-free, bottom-of-the-barrel cowards you’ll ever encounter. They know it and feel the need to try to control public perception of you and make you feel as sh*t about yourself as they do about themselves.
I will always respond when anyone tries to play with (how I make) my money, mental health, or personal life. So, when dealing with social media trolls, I decide what’s really important to me and why:
- Verbally lampooning someone who doesn’t even know me well enough to have a problem with me so that strangers can be entertained or horrified, I trend for the next couple of weeks.
- Blocking the troll, thereby cutting off their negative energy.
- Doing something offline means they never pull that again.
I’d go with the first two options. When I trend for any reason, my books sell. And when I block folk, I forget about them, and they whine.
Candis: What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in the beauty industry?
- Decide what your offering is, and build a brand on it. Do the work, but don’t be so emotionally tied to it that it becomes your identity. If what you do becomes your identity, any talk of pivoting, if you need to, will give you a nervous breakdown cos you’d have been working with another person’s definition of success. No matter how good you are at it, you are not your art.
- Think of what you do as a business, not a cute side hustle. If you’re doing good work, you deserve to get paid. You might love and be passionate about it, but it’s not a business if you’re not getting paid. Folk who don’t want to pay you, insist on paying you in exposure, or send their broke mates to you for consistent freebies are destiny destroyers. No, they will NOT pay you what you’re worth next time if you do it free now.
- Learn to recognize people, things, and situations for what they are – not what your ego or emotion would prefer – and treat them accordingly. People who play with your money or open you up to abuse are not your “family” or “friends.” Your Superman/girl may not wear a cape or move with an entourage. If you’re anything like me, the people who will change your life for the better may show up looking poor, ordinary, anonymous, or invisible. They could be a maid, cleaner, or gateman who moves your application to the top of the pile because you spoke to them like a human being. I work hard, but I only got some opportunities because some people said my name in the right room/phone call/email.
- Get your mind right and get an education. Learn the craft so you know how to do the work. But learn the business, so you can monetize the craft, grow wealth and stay out of unnecessary trouble. You don’t always need an MBA or the top beauty/acting/etc. Schools, if you can’t afford them. Read, YouTube, webinars, coaches. You want to be caught when your time and chance come.
- Listen to your gut. Sometimes, your spirit knows something your brain hasn’t encountered, acknowledged, or even articulated yet. It is possible to do your due diligence, and it all looks kosher, but that’s not your “it.” Some people lie, and you’ll have no logical reason to know till it’s too late. And there’s times when the other party isn’t being deceptive. Still, there’s actually an unforeseeable thing that’ll crop up in the future, that if you’d listened to your gut, you wouldn’t be anywhere near that situation. A number of times, stuff has been presented to me, and my gut said Wait or Say no, but because I was desperate or really needed the money, I forged ahead, and it ended in premium tears for me. In some, I’ve even ended up losing more money than I was paid.
Candis: What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?
Chioma: Clarity, perspective, affirmation, and a good laugh.
Candis: Do you believe by following your dreams that it is, in a way breaking generational curses?
Chioma: Not at all. I know from personal experience that breaking generational curses takes a mindset shift, intentionality, knowledge, and follow-through. It requires taking a hard look at yourself, recognizing the habits or patterns that have perpetuated the generational curse, pinpointing the reason(s), and making decisions. Sometimes, we say we want to break a generational curse, but we’re not willing to do what it takes. Some people even think it’s about going into a religious building or repeating words after a hyped-up religious leader. (Laughs)
Fifi’s bestie, Imani, is a generational curse-breaker in the book. She literally lifts her family out of poverty, but the way she does it is subtle, yet focused, and intentional and there’s consistency. Imani is Blasian (she’s got one Black parent, and one Asian parent), and when she cracks the code, she moves differently. The relationships she has a choice about getting into (so, romantic or friends) and the way she carries herself in the ones that exist without her permission (like parents and siblings) change. She’s not trying to prove anything by doing any of the stuff that a lot of people who come into money in the Black community do that backfire, so they end up worse off.
Stuff like spending without restraint on things that are actually liabilities, turning into a free bank for “family” or “friends,” or arguing to try and show them you’re right.
So, even after Imani drops the seed, she lets Fifi make her own mistakes. What’s ironic is that Imani didn’t grow up with the money, but Fifi’s dad has money, and Fifi has money. Yet, Fifi’s mind needs to be corrected for growing wealth in the new environment that she’s in. She’s making decisions out of fear and has a hustle mindset, but thinks she’s OK cos she’s got some shares. And I got that from interacting with someone who grew up with a lot more money than I did, who I assumed would already know certain things I only learned as an adult. I realized, “This is why some rich people can’t pass wealth on. There’s a mindset disconnect in their kids.” Something happens, and Fifi asks Imani, “Why didn’t you make me learn?” Imani says, “Because you weren’t ready before.”
It took me a while to learn that you can have good intentions and education, but if those around you don’t share your goals or mindset, you need to leave them alone, or you’ll never reach your goal. It’s not a debate. You don’t get any points for arguing with them. I promise you will lose. It never happens that you pull them up; they always pull you down, and you’ll be hearing nobody from that family gets married and stays happily married. Every male in that family goes to jail before the age of 25. They die of heart attacks before 40. They have a spirit of falling and rising, so even when they make money, they can’t keep it.
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Interview Done by: Candis Johnson | Candis Johnson is an author and freelance journalist from NJ. She is the editor of the Literary Magazine series SOUL as well the erotica anthology Erogenous Zone. She has a passion for music and the artists who create it.