These women are: Lupita Nyong’o, Angel Waruinge, Joy Kendi, Liz Njagah, Alison Ngibuini, Natasha Likimani and Carol Nguta
LUPITA NYONG’O, 20s
ACTRESS / DIRECTOR
Why she is a woman to watch: Lupita started acting at 14 for school musicals at Saint Mary’s in Nairobi before venturing onto the stage, clinching the lead role in Romeo and Juliet at the Phoenix. She then moved into TV, playing Ayira in the popular drama series Shuga. She has a degree in film and theatre from Massachusetts and is currently doing her masters in acting at Yale. She both acts and directs, has taken the role of Ayira to the next level, and we can’t wait to see her in the second season!
If I were not an actress, I would be a filmmaker and still co-direct like I’m doing now for Shuga. Shuga is a series about the sweet things that we want – love, sex, beauty, fame, money, success, and the price we pay to get them. It’s also about knowing yourself well enough to avoid compromising yourself in the name of the things you want. Other than that I would go into the field of alternative medicine. The most difficult role I’ve had to play is Ayira. I had little time to prepare and it was such a fast-paced show. I had to really act with courage because I had no time to second-guess myself. I always like to think that my next role will be my biggest. But for now, Ayira in Shuga is the biggest.
The most memorable character I ever played was Venus, from Suzan-Lori Parks’ 1996 play Venus. This character was based on an African woman taken from South Africa in 1810 to be exhibited in London and Paris as a “freak”. It was a role that was close to my heart because it told an African story. The movie I would have most liked to act in is the The Color Purple. I’d have loved to play Celie, Whoopi Goldberg’s character.
To be a successful actress, you have to be emotionally available to take on the role of your character. Be open, a good listener, and be able to play off your co-actors. I would advise all upcoming actresses not to do it for the fame only. Act because you can’t live without it. Do it because you want to tell a story or understand human behaviour. It took me four years to decide to act and I remember being told “this industry will eat you alive, especially as a woman – only act if you feel like you can’t live without it”. And that is the same advice I would give to someone who wants a career in acting.
The first film I directed was In My Genes, a documentary about being white in a black world, mainly focused around the social challenges albinos face in Kenya as a minority group.
I like where the Kenyan film and TV industry is heading, and the Kenyan market’s demand for our own stories to be told as we did with Shuga. It would be amazing to see the industry being supported and sponsored by local companies and organisations, instead of relying on NGOs for funding. Right now acting in Kenya is all fame and no fortune.
My parents are very supportive. My dad was an actor so it wasn’t such an unusual path. I don’t really see myself as a celeb, I think other people decide if you are a celeb or not. What is important to me is to stay humble and grounded.
In the future, I want to do more action films and continue directing with the hope of providing jobs and training for budding actors. Actually I’m working on a Kenyan TV show right now, but that’s all I can spill!
I enjoy a good movie and book. But right now it’s books and my favourite is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I’m not seeing anyone special but when the opportunity arises I would like to get married, but I don’t believe in planning my life out or being too busy for family.
My strongest attribute is that I am honest and sensitive. My weakness is indecision. I have trouble with menus that are longer than two pages.
Before I die, I would like to take a cruise or skydive – the two most unlikely things I would do!
ANGEL WARUINGE, 29
Why she is a woman to watch: Angel can be seen on our screens every Tuesday evening as Miss Morgan, the no-nonsense deputy headmistress of Tahidi High. She stumbled into acting 10 years ago after spotting an audition poster at the French cultural centre. Her vast body of work has resulted in various endorsement deals, and she now has ambitions of producing her own TV show. Keep doing your thing Angel!
Acting was not something I had planned to get into. In high school I was more of a sports person. One day in 2001, I was waiting at Alliance Francaise for my dad to leave the office when I saw a poster looking for people to do commercials. I went in for the auditions and I was called to do a beer commercial. My mum freaked out because I was just 18 and doing a beer commercial was not something she expected me to do. But after seeing the hefty pay and the thrill of seeing myself on billboards, there was no looking back.
After the beer commercial, I was called to do a stage play called Gone up in Smoke. I had a minor role but after the directors and producers saw me on stage, they started giving me bigger roles. I was on stage until my big break in TV and film came when I did a show called Stigma in 2006. I had a main role and I also got to be on set with Naomi Kamau who was writing for Tahidi High. She told me about it, I went for auditions and got the part of Miss Morgan.
Playing Miss Morgan has been my greatest challenge but also my greatest joy. She has helped me grow as an actress and has exposed my talent in the most amazing way. Through her, I have become easily recognisable and other doors have opened more easily.
Many young people tell me that I am their role model but they are actually referring to Miss Morgan, not Angel. However, I am quite different from her. I smile and laugh a lot, something she doesn’t do. But when it comes to principle and no-nonsense approach – that I have! I admire her character and borrow a lot from her because she is principled, confident and focused.
When people first meet me, they take time before approaching me because they think I am like Miss Morgan, my character in Tahidi High. Most people call me Miss Morgan. Even my mum has started doing it! I laugh and smile a lot and can be quite witty.
I have done a film in Ghana and acted in other international films. One was a Danish movie called Lost in Africa where I worked under a Hollywood director. I have travelled widely and considering that acting was something I got into quite unexpectedly, I have had a lot of fun.
The most interesting thing about acting is that you get to be someone you are not. I can even get to be a queen and know how that feels like. I get to live someone else’s life even if it’s for a short while. The most challenging part is that your private life is no longer private. People out there are always judging you and the media is always ready to pounce on you. It is also hard to maintain who you are as a person and not let fame get to your head.
When I was younger, I dreamt about being a lawyer because I believe in justice. I love watching criminal investigation shows. However, I did journalism in school, first a journalism diploma at Kenya Institute of Mass Communication and then a communication and sociology degree at Nairobi University.
To anyone wanting to join the film industry, I would say follow your dream. The sky is not the limit anymore; people have gone as far as the moon! But the only way one can stand out in acting is by combining it with a good educational background. You need to know how to manage your finances and negotiate your contract. You can’t do that without a decent education.
To really make it, one has to have discipline, principle and respect. Discipline helps you to focus on executing your roles and opens doors to other productions. You also have to research your roles so as not to come off as fake. People think that acting is easy but trust me, it’s not. It is work! For a long time, acting had been a career that one wouldn’t rely on to foot the bills. Things are gradually changing. I live majorly on acting.
When I’m not working on Tahidi High I am busy at Media 4 Production, a company I started with two of my colleagues from Tahidi High, Dennis Mugo (O.J.) and Lydia Gitachu. Our company deals with developing talents in marginalised areas. We also do a lot of motivational speaking and also aim at creating jobs for the youth in their own communities. I was also recently approached by Naivas Supermarket to be their brand ambassador. They gave me a one-year contract so every month I do a promotion for them.
The one character I would have loved to play is Ann Merai Harrison which was acted by Sanaa Lathan in the film Out of Time. Locally, I’d say Liz Njagah is one of the actresses I look up to. When I started acting, I saw her on stage and was wowed by how comfortable and natural she was. She actually seemed to be enjoying herself!
In the future I would like to try my hand at producing. I want to do a local show that is juicy and broad. God willing, I would like to do an East African show which would draw talent and concepts from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan.
The one weird habit I have is that I can’t sleep without my socks on. It doesn’t matter whether I am in Nairobi or Malindi, I will pull on my socks before going to bed.
I am not married though it is about time! I am seeing someone who I am in love with and I hope it leads to marriage. I have no kids because I believe in doing things the right way. I was brought up in a marriage institution and it’s only fair that I give my kids the same. In my free time, I love travelling, camping, swimming and watching movies.
JOY KENDI, 22
Why she is a woman to watch: Better known as Patricia in the Kalasha award-winning TV show Changing Times, the youthful Joy is creating a buzz, especially among the youth. She has looks, talent and passion, and we know it will be just a matter of time before she’s the next big thing. Watch this space!
I am very down to earth. I know I don’t look like it but I am very easy to work with. When people first meet me, they expect me to be bitchy but I am not. I was born in Kenya but I moved to the United States when I was seven. I only came back to Kenya two years ago. That explains my accent!
I started acting about a year and a half ago. I was just lazing at home when a friend called and suggested that I audition for Changing Times. Acting was not something I had ever thought of getting into but I got the role of Patricia, a mean girl who also has a good side to her. She is a fun character to act.
When I’m not acting, I attend classes at USIU, where I am taking a major in psychology and a minor in philosophy. Other than that I dabble in fashion and design. I recently opened a fashion blog which basically looks at Kenyan fashion be it street, vintage or even traditional fashion. I am a fairly decent writer too. Juggling classes, blogging and acting is a lot but I manage. I believe that when you love doing something, you can find a way to do it all.
The interesting thing about being an actress is the ability to be someone else. I wake up in the morning as Joy and
later step into my character as Patricia, I get a chance to live two lives and I am paid for it! Acting the emotional scenes is a bit of a challenge. I find it hard to fake-cry.
It is possible but it is hard to live only on acting. It’s not like roles happen every single day. You can’t do many roles as it would really take up a lot of time and you would end up not executing them properly. Kenya is not like the US where one can make a hundred dollars just from acting. I think it is smarter to have a side gig.
My mum is very supportive of whatever I do as long as it doesn’t affect my studies negatively. My sister has also been my champion, pushing me to follow my dreams. The only opposition came from me! In the beginning, I was so horrible but with time I started having fun.
The Kenyan TV and movie industry is growing. People are getting more interested in investing in film and TV and the audience is also becoming more receptive. I would say as Kenyans, we are less prudish and can now watch shows with more westernised themes. It has become easier to talk about sex and HIV, as Shuga has proved.
To be a successful actress you must have discipline and passion. Discipline keeps you focused on your goals while passion drives you to achieve them. If you have no passion for something, then you have no business doing it.
I would have loved to act in Sex and the City. It was a fabulous show and managed to combine my two passions, fashion and acting. I would also love to act a character with some kind of mental disorder, nothing extreme though, maybe something like bipolar, schizophrenia or multiple personality disorders. I think such a character would be interesting.
I have never seen myself as a celeb and I find it awkward when people consider me as one. I think you are a celeb when you get to where Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson are. If you can still walk in the streets, you are not a celeb.
Three rules if you want to get into acting: Audition, audition, audition! Try to audition as many times and for as many productions as possible. You never know which doors will open if you don’t go knocking.
Other than fashion, shopping helps me unwind. I don’t shop in the big shops though, I mostly shop in flea markets like Toi or Ngara. I love buying vintage and then altering them to fit my style. As for travel, I am not that into nature but I love cities. If I had to choose one destination, then it would have to be New York because the fashion there is just amazing.
In the future, I want to act and design full time. I would love to be a fashion editor for a magazine like Vogue or Bazaar.
I have been dating someone for a while but I don’t plan on getting married anytime soon. Maybe in seven years’ time.
Right now I am focusing on enjoying the present.
First thing in the morning, I look at the time and then pick out my outfit. I believe that what you wear has a huge influence on your day.
LIZ NJAGAH, 30s
Why she is a woman to watch: One of Kenya’s better known actresses, Liz has been in the profession for eight years. She ventured into a different industry for a while, before making a welcome return to the small and big screens. She has acted in Makutano Junction, Saints, a number of films, and is currently taking Nigeria and Africa by storm in her new role on Tinsel, a Nigerian drama series. We have no doubt that if she keeps up the spirit and discipline, it won’t be long before she heads off to Hollywood.
I lost my mother when I was 12 years old, and my dad later on when I was 24. But my aunt took us in when my mother passed on. Sometimes at Phoenix we would finish plays as late as 9pm and just like every other mother, she worried about my safety. She was worried acting had taken me away from home since I would spend less time at home. Right now, she is my biggest fan! She watches everything I appear in! When I took a time out from acting for a while, she alongside family and friends convinced me to go back into acting.
Right after high school, there was no money to take me to college so I got into auditioning for roles in set book plays at Phoenix theatres. I never anticipated being a professional actor. I grew up with dreams of being a lawyer or a singer.
I am currently working on a Nigerian drama series called Tinsel. My character is a controlling, bossy woman. When I heard about the auditions, I went and gave it my all. I was thrilled when I got a role!
Acting in Nigeria is different from the Kenyan acting scene. Acting there is taken more seriously. Nigerians watch their own shows and actors have support from the public, which I still believe is not the case in Kenya. Other than that, I have acted in Makutano Junction, Saints, All Girls Together, Behind Closed Doors, and a British production, to mention but a few.
Every time I meet someone and they learn that I am an actress, they always ask if that is all I do or if it is just a side gig. I swore once that I would scream if someone asked me that question one more time! I even posted it on my Facebook wall. Kenyans don’t support their own. They criticise even before watching. If only filmmakers could take advantage of resources at their disposal. Kenya has a beautiful landscape. No one has ever done a movie showcasing these magical sceneries. With support from the public and corporate sponsors, we surely can go a long way.
As an actress, you get to do and say things that you never would have dared in real life. Sometimes I get to play a husband snatcher, something I would never do in real life, or sometimes I get to play a control freak. You can get away with it because it’s acting and not the real thing.
The most difficult role I have ever had to play was in an Italian play at Phoenix theatre. I had to play a man’s role. It was the main role. I was still new on the scene and was acting alongside giants such as Charles Kiarie. I love playing the role of the beaten up woman who emerges strong in the end. My mother went through tough times but still came out strong. I have much respect for such women, in real life and in acting.
I love Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, and not because he oozes charm (laughs), he is a great actor. Locally, I love Churchill. He is not necessarily an actor but I love the fact that he is using his talent to establish himself and succeeding at it.
I would have loved to star in the movie Salt, because of all the action and drama, and take Angelina Jolie’s role.
I wouldn’t exactly call myself a celebrity; I’m just a recognisable face … but my family love it. I have six sisters and we resemble each other. People usually stop my sisters at the mall or on the streets and ask, “Are you the girl from Saints?” and they say yes.
My future plans are to go to acting school and start my own production company. I want to make a stronger mark in the international market, get married and have kids, preferably two. I grew up in a family of 10, so I think two will work just fine. I have been seeing someone for one and a half years now.
I love singing. I have a karaoke machine at home. I also love dancing and reading. Currently I am reading Michael Shurtleff’s book called Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part. I would recommend it to anyone who is into acting. I am also involved in mentoring children at the Beijing School in Mathare slums with a couple of friends.
I am loyal. Friends and family often approach me for advice. Most people meeting me for the first time might think me snobbish but once we get talking, they find that I am a very down-to-earth person. My most annoying habit is that I procrastinate a lot. I wait until the last minute to do something.
Before I die I want to climb Mount Everest. Maybe start small by climbing Mount Kenya or Mount Kilimanjaro.
If you want to go into acting don’t sit at home and wait for an opportunity to present itself. In Nigeria, I see people go as far as Ghana to seek opportunities. And if someone wants to go into acting just for the money or fame, I have doubts that they will go far. Once you start, don’t look back.
ALISON NGIBUINI, 36
Why she is a woman to watch: Alison is CEO of Al is On, a production company that has been behind numerous films, documentaries and TV shows such as Siri, Shuga and Staying Alive. She is a natural storyteller with a hands-on approach and a passion for her craft
As a child, I was awed by films such as The Ten Commandments and Macbeth. Watching Factual Films inspired me to form my own company. The early days were difficult and every day I woke up wondering when the phone would ring, but being focused and driven helps.
I have worked on productions such as The Constant Gardener, Love Actually and Seconds Before Disaster: 2008 Nairobi Bombing. I also worked on the ZAIN Africa Challenge, which gave me an opportunity to travel and to understand the challenges facing education.
Producing is about stringing things together, about turning ideas into reality.
When I first saw Yizo Yizo I said I must find the producers of that show but I never did. Then came Jacob’s Cross and I met the producer who became my mentor.
My day begins at 5am and by 5:45am I am heading to the gym. At 9am I start an in-house production meeting.
Depending on what is in production and at what stage it is, I could either spend the rest of the day in brain-storming sessions or meeting clients to pitch for jobs. On production days I spend weeks on location filming. In the evenings I watch the day’s filming and review scripts, so I often get to bed at 3am. I make a conscious effort to take breaks from
work between productions to unwind and catch up on sleep, family and friends.
As a producer, my greatest challenge is funding. The government needs to create legislation to encourage growth and recognise the industry as an economy driving sector. Distribution is another major challenge as we need more channels to sell locally produced shows across the globe.
This is an exciting time to be in the film industry. There is a lot of potential and growth. Ten years ago there were very few Kenyan productions but now we have a variety.
I am what I am today because of great mentors. Working with international crews gives me an opportunity to evaluate myself and to learn.
Siri is a very special show to me. It is inspired by the secrets that we carry in our everyday life.
As an artist, I look up to pioneer greats such as Miriam Makeba. As a producer, I look up to Steven Spielberg. Locally, I look to winners on the corporate scene for inspiration: Joanne Mwangi, Rose Kimotho, Sheila Amdany, Wachira Waruru.
I’m working on a soap. I feel that Kenya is ready for a local soap. We need to stop running home to watch news. I also want to do feature films and go into reality TV.
NATASHA LIKIMANI, 29
Why she is a woman to watch: Natasha has worked on shows such as Tahidi High, Makutano Junction, Tabasamu and Know Zone. She recently returned from Durban, South Africa, where her story Children of the Sand was accepted at the Durban Film Mart. She is passionate, talented and prolific.
I’ve been a scriptwriter for six years. I’ve just finished Demi Gods, and am writing for three upcoming other shows. When I first started, it was tough. I was still learning about the industry and didn’t know how to break in.
I didn’t study screenwriting but learnt on the job. I learnt the basics (format, acts, actions, character development) by reading movie scripts and studying the movies, and also took workshops to learn about writing for TV and polish my knowledge of film.
You can never really say that you’re “professional”. You have to keep learning, keep writing and rewriting. Currently, I’m working on several projects, one being another short film. But as always writing and rewriting.
The best part about being a scriptwriter is the stories I get to tell. Life is rich – with stories; you don’t have to look far.
To stay on top of my game, I usually watch a lot of movies and series, network, keep track of the box office and movie news, and read movie and TV scripts. I also attend workshops.
On a normal day, I wake up, pray, go to gym, then depending on what show I’m writing for, I’ll either go to the office or go home. I work from home when writing scripts.
For inspiration I watch an episode of a TV show that resembles the genre I’m writing.
To unwind, I hang with family and friends, watch a movie or TV show, have a pedicure, or take a road trip. I enjoy classic movies, playing Scrabble, trying out new restaurants and trivia games.
I’d like to survive on scriptwriting alone, but we are not there yet. Work is sporadic: sometimes there’s plenty, other times it’s very dry. You learn the intricacies of budgeting and saving for a rainy day.
My role models are Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrik, Alfred Hitchcock and Spike Lee. The one film I wish I had written is North by Northwest by Alfred Hitchcock.
CAROL NGUTA, 41
Why she is a woman to watch: Carol’s production company has been behind several notable films, such as Woman of Substance, Help! I’m Married and Shattered. She has a genuine affection for people and loves seeing them succeed.
I’ve been a producer for nine years. Before starting Dream House Productions, I was a stay-at-home mum and prior to that I was a sales executive in the airline industry. At first, trying to get people to believe in my vision was daunting, but I persisted.
A producer is a facilitator, bringing people, finances and resources into a project to make it a reality. In a cast, I look for teachability; in a crew, professionalism.
I’m working on Shattered, a high budget movie with Nollywood actress Rita Dominique. Life inspired, Shattered just as life inspired all our other productions – the human story!
My favourite movie is The Sound of Music, anytime!
When I see people doing their best or wanting to do their best it drives me to help them succeed.
Our vision is to empower people and showcase untapped talent. It’s important to have a big heart and be patient with people. Treat people with respect and they’ll go the extra mile for you.
My late dad and my husband are my role models. My husband supports my passion. We have three children and that’s where we stop. The grace of God helps me balance family and work.