I faced lots of bullying as a child due to my skin colour – Shan George

This is an interview with GODFREY GEORGE and veteran actress Shan George, in which she discusses her childhood and acting career.

You have been a strong force in Nollywood for almost three decades. What has kept you going over these many years?

I would say that the Lord has been my strength. The desire to be able to speak out in defence of justice and to contribute any little I can towards the betterment of society is what drives me.

How have you managed to stay relevant over these years?

First of all, I have been in the industry since 1996. That would be about 26 years. Staying relevant is something that has to do with your input in the industry. I drink, eat, sleep this industry. So, it is hard for someone like me not to be relevant. I have not for one day said I wanted to diversify or do something else. It has been acting. My life is this industry. You know, as a woman, when you get married and start having kids, you may leave the scene for a while. But being relevant just has to come with some sacrifice. Even when I was not making money from acting, I have always been there. I also try to upgrade myself by reading books and attending acting academies. The better you get, the more the demand for you in the industry.

In your years of acting, directing, and producing, you must have had some challenges. How did you tackle such challenges?

The thing is that I am an only child. I have always been an independent person. I started fending for myself when I was in Primary Six. I was always bullied in school. So, as I grew up, it was like I fortified myself against all these negative vibes and people who just want to see others down. I have, over the years, always been known to fight my own battles. I have no big sister or brother who can help me fight my battles. That was basically what prepared me for the bullies in the industry. I am also a very liberal-minded person. I don’t react to things immediately. That is why it would be hard to see me in the web of transferred aggression. When people lash out at me, I try to understand first, their state of mind before responding to them. That is how I have been able to survive.

There have been many transitions in the movie industry since Nollywood began in the 90s. What are some of the beautiful memories you have carried with you?

There are many beautiful memories. I don’t even know where to start. Every set I have been on, every movie I have made, every colleague of mine I have had to work with within this industry left a beautiful memory with me. I have worked with very good and cooperating directors and colleagues. Worthy of mention is (the late) Sadiq Daba. He is one of those people I would say gave me good tutelage in the industry. He was harsh in a fatherly way. He set the foundation or lead I was expected to go on. He disciplined a lot of us to be stronger. He gave me some beautiful memories while we were working at the Nigerian Television Authority.

Looking at the transitions the industry has been through, what are some of the major differences in storytelling and quality of actors you have seen working on set of the 90s and what is obtainable now?

Some of the equipment used at that time and what we have now are very different. The cameras are so better now. We now have what we call Retro and others. The quality of actors is also improving. When we started, people never took us seriously. People didn’t see us people who had a job. I remember my mother once called me for an early morning meeting. She woke me up from sleep, sat me down and asked me if it was ‘drama’ I wanted to do after graduating from the university. Even in the colleges then, most of them did not offer Theatre Art. There were a lot of parents that would never allow their parents to study Theatre Art. They saw acting as a degrading kind of job. They never knew what went on behind the scenes, where the main work goes on. So, I would say it has improved. Now, you would hear parents telling you to come teach their children how to act. One met me and said I should register his kids in my film academy. The acting has also improved a lot because so many people now are into the business of teaching acting. The Internet is also there and it gives people the opportunity to watch established acts do monologues and all that. You will also watch on YouTube how a lot of stuff has improved. Technology has also improved and there are a lot of dynamics to acting now.

The storytelling has also gone deeper; interpretation has become more serious. You now know that if you get a script and do not deliver on it, they would drop you because so many people are in line waiting (to take the role). I like the competition now. It is like writing an exam. If you fail, you have failed. In acting, especially now, whatever bribery you have done doesn’t matter in front of the camera. People are taking it (acting) more seriously, so the quality of the movies has improved.

Have you always known you would be an actress?

I never knew I would be an actress. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer, the reason being that I come from a community that bullied me when I was growing up because of the colour of my skin. I have a very light complexion, so they would mock me and call me ‘Oyibo’. I was the only Oyibo before the other Oyibos began to come along. They picked on me a lot so I used to tell myself I would become a lawyer so I would put all of them, who were making my life miserable, in prison. There were a lot of things that shaped my mind that made it desirable for me to become a lawyer. But I didn’t pass the exam then, so I resorted to Mass Communication. When I got admission into the University of Lagos to study Mass Communication, I didn’t have anybody that would help me. So, I needed money to pay my fees. That was how this acting thing started. Someone took me to NTA and introduced me to Sadiq Daba. That was how I got a ‘waka pass’ role. Then, I became a Personal Assistant on set. I did all this at that time just because I was looking for a way to earn a living and not really because I thought about the job so much. I just needed money for my school fees and other expenses. As time went on, I started meeting people and began to like the whole thing. It became like a family then in NTA. Then, a lady, Blessing, told me to accompany her to a movie audition in Maryland, Lagos, held by Emeka Ossai. When we got there and Ossai saw me, he simply said, “This is the Joan we have been looking for.” I was shocked. He asked if I could play the role of Joan. I had just done a few ‘waka passes’ in Nollywood and honestly, I thought it was getting too serious. I didn’t trust myself, so I started laughing. I told the lady who took me there that I wasn’t sure I could do it. She encouraged me that I could. That movie was titled ‘Thorns of Rose’ and it was directed by Fred Amata. There were a lot of big actors on the set and it was a really beautiful experience. I was paid N20, 000. I became a big girl in school. That was how it all started. From there, I got another role for another movie and another one and another one.

Who did you inherit your complexion from, your father or mother?

My mom was fair. I think it was from her I got this fair complexion.

Do you think your skin gives you some kind of privilege or edge in the industry?

Honestly, when people say this, I wonder what they mean. Being fair or light-skinned, for me, has not made the road smoother at all. It has been the same thing darker people have had to face that I have also faced in my career path. I cannot relate when people say I have had a good run only because I am light-skinned. May be that is why many people go the extra length to be like us and end up spoiling their God-given skin.

It would appear that fate was at play when you couldn’t get admission to study Law and had to settle for Mass Communication, which led you into acting, a field in which you have achieved so much. Looking back, do you still regret not studying Law?

I studied Mass Communication, so I would be a journalist. That is the closest to being a lawyer. At least, I can always speak up for the voiceless (as a journalist). But when acting came, it became the ultimate. I have no regrets. I have had a good run in my acting career, and I won’t trade it for anything.

Did your mom eventually accept your decision to be an actress, having earlier expressed reservations about it?

As a student then, my mom never took me seriously because she didn’t think it was what I wanted to do for a living. She wasn’t bothered. I too was trying to be a good journalist. I didn’t think I was going to graduate and enter Nollywood. I just felt it was something I would do only for some time. By the time I finished school, I did a project titled ‘All for Winnie’. This was the first movie I produced in the 90s. One of the reasons that pushed me into producing, besides the fact that my Head of Department was very encouraging, was the fact that the man-know-man matter in the industry was just too much. It is either the man-know-man or the conditional-role-giving that came along with it. I just decided that I didn’t have time for all that. I was able to raise some funds and got a student loan and did that movie. When I left school, I did another one before I did ‘Made in Heaven’ and others.


It was after I graduated that my mother began to properly ask me if drama was what I wanted to do. I told her that it was drama I wanted to do. One day, when I bought her some good rice and chicken, I chuckled and told her, “As you dey enjoy this chicken now, na that drama o!” She also began to laugh.

You seem very fond of your mother. What is that thing you miss about your childhood with her?

My mother is an awesome woman. She recently passed (on) and I am even still mourning. I miss living rent-free as a child. I miss shouting that I was hungry and people would rally to send food to me. I miss eating free food. Adulthood is such a scam! I miss my mom so much. It has always been the two of us since my dad passed. I never knew much about my dad though. I only have tiny patches of memories about him until he passed (away).

Would you like to speak of any tough moment in your career?

I remember going for auditions that I was sure I did well but I was not chosen. The role would be given to some family member or so (of the producer or director). Another challenge was the fact that when I started I was in school, so it was hard combining schoolwork with acting. Sometimes, I would forget my lines because they clashed with schoolwork I had to do. Also, when we started, there was no GSM, so it was hard to know where there was casting. Then, we would wake up in the morning and go to National Theatre. It was tough.

What was your first day acting like?
My mouth was shaking like I had yellow fever. I didn’t have that confidence in myself. That did a very bad trick on my brain. But I had a couple of friends who cheered me on.

You have grown-up sons who you gave birth to very early in your life. Was it hard for you to manage them and your career?

It was not an uphill task. I look at those days now and I smile. I remember one time I was down with typhoid and I had my sons around me. They literally carried me. When we walk together people think they are my bouncers or bodyguards. It is so overwhelming. Being a mother comes with a lot of worrying to be sure your kids are fine. Keeping the decorum and following it up with the teachings so they can turn out as good citizens is a struggle. With the rate of insecurity in the country, the worry is a lot.

Your son, Deloi, in an interview, said his life and that of his brothers got better after your break-up with their dad. How has it been raising these children? Did you do it all by yourself?

I never raised them all by myself. My ex and I had to make sure we raised them together. He is married now but we still raise the kids together. We have a good rapport because of the kids. He paid all the bills. He never pushed any responsibility as a father to me, not even for a second. My children like him. They have always had a good relationship. My ex is a very kind-hearted and responsible man. It was his hot temper that made us break up.

What lessons did you learn from your marriage that has shaped you into a better woman?

I never even know yet o! I am not really shaped now. I have been married twice. I have my first husband who happens to be the father of all my kids. My second husband also didn’t work out, clearly because of distance. He lived in England. I lived in Nigeria. The gap was an issue, so we went our separate ways. There were no hard feelings. So, I won’t say I had a terrible experience. Well, I would say I have learned to be more patient. I am still trying to experience whatever it is I have to experience.

Do you feel pressure to marry anytime soon?

I feel no pressure. No one can even pressure me. I am the pressure.