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Friday, 14 December 2018


lawyer and ageless former Nigerian beauty queen, Helen Prest-Ajayi, is still enjoying a lot of attention in the social media despite being a mother of three. But the ex-beauty queen is not all about style and fashion as she has also made a strong impact in the area of advancing the nation’s educational development. She spoke with PAUL UKPABIO on her life as a lawyer, a socialite and a mother.

How did you manage to maintain your good figure decades after you reigned as a beauty queen?

As I grew older, I found that everything in life is a function of education. In the primary school, you are taught about balanced diet and the vitamins you need to extract from your food to maintain a great skin and a healthy body. We were also taught what to avoid. If you eat the right things in moderation, you will not gain weight. It is a matter of choice.

You also seem to have sustained that aura of a queen. Is glamour something that can be learnt or it is in-born?

I believe that one’s ability to learn determines one’s glamour quotient. What is innate is one’s desire to be glamorous. But being glamorous is a function of your interaction with the world around you. To be glamorous, you must be alive to your environment and engage with the world. Glamour is not static; it is a function of learning and continuous education. One is never too old to upgrade one’s knowledge in every aspect of life. My motto is ‘see, learn and apply’.

Who would you say has influenced you the most in terms of fashion sense? And what style and fashion do you go for these days?

When it comes to fashion, my philosophy is less is more. For me, simplicity is key. I love things that are well made and can stand the test of time. I still wear clothes that I bought 20 years ago because, for me, a fashion purchase is almost like purchasing a piece of art. I take time to choose and I am attached to it and tend to keep it forever.

It also helps, that I have practically been the same size for the past 30 years. Having said that, I don’t follow fashion. I am influenced by any designer that makes me look good and pays attention to detail in the execution and choice of fabric.

You got fame early in life, and from the look of it, with that fame came fortune. Why did you insist on getting a law degree afterwards?

Yes, I was famous from the age of 19. In 1979, Miss Nigeria was the only celebrity and every young girl wanted to be her. The pageant was run by the then Federal Government-owned Daily Times. So, there was a lot of prestige and honour attached to it. I also received a salary of N6,000 per annum and a car; quite a sum then when you recall that it cost N200 to go to London and come back.

As far as my law degree was concerned, I was already in the university studying Law when I won. So, throughout my reign, I continued with my studies. I went on to Law School with my classmates and went on to do a master’s degree in Law at Kings London. There was no question of my not pursuing my education. My parents had always drummed it in to me, so I was always aware from a very early age that education is the key to life.

At this time, in what ways do you think that the Nigerian nation can move forward?

There can be no meaningful economic growth in a nation if its population growth outstrips the quality of its human capacity development. This is what is happening in Nigeria right now and we are beginning to see the trickle-down effects. Sixty per cent of Nigerians are illiterate or near-literate. That is over half our population. The economic effect of that is that majority of those people will be living on subsistence wages below the poverty level.

How does that affect the present and future of the country?

How this affects you and I is that whatever creative business idea you might have might not have the mass market support to thrive because we do not have enough people who will be able to buy it in the numbers required for global impact. Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos could not have replicated their success in Nigeria in spite of our population because our middle class who have the education and the earning power has shrunk. And the growth in population is not increasing the middle class. Rather, it is creating more poor people who have no earning capacity.

So, what do you think is the way out of this situation?

The only way Nigeria can progress is to develop its human capacity, and the only way to do that is through education. Government must increase the budgetary allocation on education to at least 25 per cent and then take a critical look at areas of its education policy to ensure maximum impact in the shortest time. We have to direct our focus on education as a mere means of acquiring certificates to a means of knowledge acquisition to enable one find solutions to the critical issues of life.

How does the country go about that at this present time?

The key area government must take a look at in its education policy is the acquisition of learning and literacy. ‘Every child in school’ does not necessarily mean that, that child will be educated. I have seen so many people who in spite of attending the mandatory six years primary and three years secondary school, cannot still read or write or even communicate in English.

You are sometimes in the news, appearing in highbrow society events and then, you lie low and nothing is heard from you for some time. What have you been doing?

One hopes to be in the news for the right reasons and for a good purpose. In the last few years, my main focus has been on children issues with education being the main focus. I produced two best seller children’s books which have brought endless curiosity and enjoyment to thousands of children. As with everybody, I have seen the dramatic decline in our education system.

When I discovered that Nigeria currently has a 60% illiteracy rate, I was so disturbed and alarmed that I decided to do something about it. I realised that literacy unlocks learning and that if we could get primary 1 school children to achieve literacy, then a good proportion of our educational woes would be solved. So, I designed and developed an intensive literacy programme called HELP (Helen’s English Literacy Platform), which is targeted at primary 1 pupils with the aim of ensuring that within the first four months of primary school, all children in the class are able to read, write and communicate functionally in English enough to be able to work through the school curriculum and gain the knowledge required for successful progress in their educational journey.

You have three lovely children with your lovely figure still intact. How has motherhood been?

I have to say that, for me, motherhood has been a journey and a journey that appears to be never ending. I love my children dearly, but I would not say I was a natural mother. It is not something I can wholly say I enjoyed doing. Children are quite selfish, you know. But it was something I quickly realised; that if I did not focus on them fully or give the required attention to them, I would not get the right results I wanted at the end of the day. So I decided to put some of my desires on hold and put in my best efforts. My goal was to have healthy, confident, happy, stable, intelligent young girls who can be thinking critically and independently and be an asset to their husbands and contribute to the growth of Nigeria in whatever capacity they choose to serve.

What advice do you have for younger mothers and younger couples on grooming children?

My advice is that child care is the responsibility of both parents; it is not for the woman alone. Each party has something important to contribute in terms of guidance and teaching. Parents should endeavour to be friends with their children. I am so surprised to hear in 2018 the number of children who do not communicate with their parents. It is alarming, especially when you hear of the meteoric rise in drug use. I believe there is a definite correlation between drug use and the relationship one has with one’s child. It is important to be close to your children and keep up with the trends of what is going on in their world.

When you are abreast of what is going on, you will be in a better position to advise, and your advice would be better considered and respected.


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