Arafa Ukonga Is Empowering Women Through Dace , Clothes And Everything Else
Women’s empowerment takes different forms. From how the law views them to what society makes of their outward appearance, it is clear why women have always been considered a marginalised group throughout history—the playing field is simply not even. However, this doesn’t stop women from lifting each other in whichever way they can; we see that take shape differently. For Arafa Moma-Ukonga, a cast member on the Abuja instalment of the Real Housewives franchise, empowerment of women’s outward appearance is central to her passion-driven enterprises. Between clothing and poles, her business of minding women’s business is about to get deserved exposure courtesy of her casting on the dramatic reality TV show. She speaks with DOWNTOWN’s Onah Nwachukwu on life before the show, what she aims to get out of it and how she is helping women find their superpower.
You are a businesswoman; what line of business are you?
I Own a lifestyle company called Selara Lifestyle, and under that, it has a subsidiary of baby companies. We have Selara Casuals, my clothing line. Selara Shack, my healthy café. Selara Stilettos Studio is my sensual and pole dancing studio for females only.
Which of all the businesses you own would you say is your favourite?
I’m quite passionate about the studio actually. Right from when I was growing up, I’ve always loved dancing. I remember my sisters and aunts would just put on music and make me dance; I used to be the entertainer of the house. Now growing up, getting married and having kids, my body was just not the same after the change, and I was so conscious. In fact, I am still conscious, but not as bad as I used to be. And I could understand how other married women would feel. I am someone that is quite out there, and to now have gone through this process and come out of it and be body-shamed and just be conscious of your body. So I decided to start up something to boost women’s confidence about their bodies and help them recover from that phase of being married, being a mum, and feeling ugly to say no matter what size or shape you are, you can still live your life, you can still be confident about how you look so far as you feel that way.
What was your husband’s reaction when you decided of all the dance genres, you would start a pole dancing studio?
I got into pole dancing through my older sister, Nene. I had gone to visit her, and she had a performance, and I was like, “seriously?” As I watched them perform, I kept thinking, ‘if only I could look like that and do what they were doing. So I just started taking classes of my own, and one of my instructors, who really used to push me, motivated me that I could be a Zumba instructor because she saw that I really liked to dance. She— my instructor, Sharon, used to teach Zumba and pole dancing together. She was my mentor in the whole thing. She then motivated me to be consistent and keep taking classes. So I started taking classes and would come back home. I started with one pole in my house. My husband used to see it and thought it was fun, so I was just like, “can you imagine me opening up a pole studio and teaching women how to pole dance and each woman having a pole in their bedroom, so the husbands don’t have to go out and look for it outside?” When I started it as a business, he didn’t really frown upon it because he understood what it could do. So for him, it wasn’t a big deal how I transitioned from my own bedroom because, basically, I just want to help married women.
So it’s focused on married women?
Married women or women getting married mostly. Especially here in the north, where being a second or third wife is common, the women are constantly thinking, “what do I need to do to get my husband’s attention?” And I’ll be like, “just be you and bring it. Just have something special,” I call it a superpower.
One of the businesses is clothing. Is it mostly casual outfits you make?
Yes, mostly casual outfits. My sister and I started the business. Somehow, if we are going to do a fashion show, we would put together a collection of our casual pieces and just tweak them. I don’t sew; I just do casual ready-to-wear pieces that people can just come into the store and pick up. Most of my businesses are passion-based and just trying to bridge the gap between the need. I noticed that, especially in Lagos, people are lucky; there are like a million stores. But here in Abuja, people feel like Abuja is a power city and everybody has money. I want to walk into a store and buy an outfit that I’m going to wear that night and be able to go back into the store again the next week. Pieces that people could just pick up without having to break the bank but still look good.
As I said earlier, my sister and I actually started it together, and we found it really difficult trying to find things that could fit us because of our body shapes. Even when we go to the stores to buy pieces because the top and bottom are completely different, we have to buy a small top; meanwhile, my bottom is like an extra large. So it’s like people don’t make things for women like us, so why don’t we do it? We like clothes, and we like fashion, so we thought, ‘why don’t we do it and make it affordable?’ When we started, we called it ‘Selara 10k Casuals,’ so everything was 10k. Unfortunately, because of the country we live in, we had to drop the 10k and leave it at Selara Casuals because some princes jumped up due to the economy, and we couldn’t maintain that. But our things are still pretty much made so that every woman can afford them and look good without having to break the bank.
You mentioned how you would always entertain your family growing up. Is that why you agreed to come on the Real Housewives of Abuja show? Why do you think they reached out to you?
I guess so. It was a different producer that actually reached out to me. The video that leaked, most people didn’t know, was just an audition tape, so it wasn’t the final cast. There were different production companies actually that were vying to produce the show in Abuja. The company that ended up producing the show didn’t even reach out to me. It was the company that produced the Lagos edition that did. When they reached out to me, they were like, “okay, we know you’ve been in Abuja for a while, you’re also an entrepreneur, you have businesses, and we feel that you will be able to add to the show,” and I was like, “me? What do I have to offer? I don’t think I will be able to do it.” And the lady said, “do you know you are the only one with a pole studio in northern Nigeria? So what do you mean?” And I was like, “I’m shy”, as I blushed. She said, “don’t worry, we know you are shy, but you will do well in the show.” So I auditioned, and they reached out to me, saying they saw my audition tape and would like me to be a part of the cast. I was initially nervous, but I was excited because I had been trying to reach a wider audience in Abuja with what I offer. Many people still don’t know I have a pole studio and all the things I do, and there’s only so much publicity I can give myself. So it was a no-brainer for me once my family was on board with me to go ahead and do the show.
What do you hope to get from the show?
I want to sell my market; that’s what I hope to get from the show [laughs]. I basically want to touch lives. I’ve always been about empowering women; we learnt that from our mum. Even when we started our business, it began with Selara Faces, and it was a Makeup and Skincare brand we had basically to empower women to make them feel good about themselves. And we always used to give back to the children’s home. The goal is to help women, and I hope that once I’m gone, the memory I will leave behind is that I imparted lives.
Are members of the cast of The Real Housewives of Abuja actual friends, or are some friends and others not?
Some people on the show are friends, and some just got to know each other. Most of us have heard about the other person, so yeah, they have some friends on the show, and then they have some of them just like me [laughs].
What do we hope to see in this first season?
The drama the guys is on already. Lagos has nothing on us. The difference is that we kept it classy, we did have the gbas gbos, but it was never a matter of physical fighting or any of that nature. Tune in; there is a lot. People think about Abuja as being laid back, but we brought it.
I saw a clip and was like, “okay?” So we are going to see sides of you we’ve never seen.
Oh my God, yes! I know the clip you are talking about. Even I felt so embarrassed. But you know how you media people do. That was my main drama. There’s so much for you guys to see, fashion, and so much to see and learn from.
I bet your husband has also seen some more clips of the show. What is his reaction? If there were to be a second season, would he continue to be on board?
To answer that question, let’s wait until he finishes watching season one. To be fair to him, he didn’t want me to do the show at all. He is still not about it at all, but he’s like, “I know you’ve always wanted to do this.” Growing up, I always wanted to act, and my parents, especially my dad, may his soul rest in peace, were like, “we are not going to be paying dollars for you to go and be acting in America.” I have always wanted to do this, and he, my husband, has known. So he didn’t stop me because he was like, “I don’t want to kill your dreams; I know you’ve wanted this, but left to me; I am not ready to have our family out there like that. But at the same time, I know why it is important for you to do it. But when he watched the premiere and saw the introduction video, he was like, “why is your ass out everywhere?” [laughs]. And I was like, “babe, I was dancing.” And he was like, “couldn’t they not zoom in?” I was like, “The same way I’m trying to sell my market; they are trying to sell theirs too, so hey.
You said in your intro clip that you are a Jesus girl. Many Christians would question if a Jesus girl would dress that way. What is your response to that?
For me, what is the definition of a Jesus girl? A Jesus girl is somebody that loves Jesus. Yes, I am a party girl, but Jesus doesn’t come for the righteous; he comes for the sinners. So yes, I am a Jesus girl. I love Jesus very much, and as I explained earlier, what I’m doing is to help. You can’t see a swimming or gymnastics coach, for example, not wearing the outfit they should wear when teaching. So it’s not like I’m always dressing with my butt out, but I was in class. If I’m in class, it’s going to show. What I’m going to say to them is that I am a Jesus girl, and Jesus came for sinners and I am a sinner, so hey.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING (INTRO) BY KEHINDE FAGBULE
A lawyer by training, Onah packs over a decade of experience in both editorial and managerial capacities.
Nwachukwu began her career at THISDAY Style before her appointment as Editor of HELLO! NIGERIA, the sole African franchise of the international magazine, HELLO!
Thereafter, she served as Group Editor-in-Chief at TrueTales Publications, publishers of Complete Fashion, HINTS, HELLO! NIGERIA and Beauty Box.
Onah has interviewed among others, Forbes’ richest black woman in the world, Folorunso Alakija, seven-time grand slam tennis champion, Roger Federer, singer Miley Cyrus, Ex Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio while coordinating interviews with Nigerian football legend, Jayjay Okocha, and many more.
In the past, she organised a few publicity projects for the Italian Consulate, Lagos, Nigeria under one time Consul General, Stefano De Leo. Some other brands under her portfolio during her time as a Publicity Consultant include international brands in Nigeria such as Grey Goose, Martini, Escudo Rojo, Chivas, Martell Absolut Elix, and Absolut Vodka.
Onah currently works as the Editor of TheWill DOWNTOWN.