Creator Spotlight is a weekly series celebrating young Nigerians in the creative industry doing unique things. Everyone has a story, and Zikoko wants to tell it.
Hi, I’m Jeiel, a singer, songwriter and actor. I played Olive in the YouTube drama Best Friends in the World. I used to be into sports but haven’t had time for it between work and school. I’m obsessed with fashion. Right now, I’m working on music; it’s my first solo thing. Writing and reading are therapeutic for me. I write songs and wrote a book in 2020. I’m working on a second one.
How old were you when you wrote your first book?
I was 17. It was during the pandemic period, and I was bored. I’d written many short stories before but never completed them. One day, I just went on my Instagram and was like, “Hey guys, my new book is coming out in three days”. I hadn’t written anything, so that literally forced me to write since people were now expecting a book. But I’m never doing that again. That was horrible.
Wait, you wrote a book in three days?
I wrote the first seven chapters in three days, then posted the remaining chapters on Wattpad every week. So I had time to catch up and finish it. It’s called “Honey Eyes”.
After you, na you. How do you get into so many things?
I grew up in a family that encouraged me to be multifaceted regarding things we wanted to do. It didn’t matter how big or small our interest was. My parents would always push us towards them. I’ve always had a wide range of interests in the entertainment industry. As soon as I could speak, I was making music with my sisters. We called ourselves Triple J Plus. We’re still a band, but right now, we’re focused on film. We released an album called Story, and it was kind of Christian-oriented but infused with pop elements. That kickstarted my love for music.
What about acting?
In 2018, when I was 15, my sisters had just finished film school. They came back to Nigeria and wanted to work on their first project. I wasn’t even interested in acting at the time. I wanted to be the next Ted Baker or Versace. But while prepping for their short film New Girl, the main actress playing Olive, and her understudy, didn’t appear on the first day of the shoot. I was supposed to be an extra with a five-second screen time just to support my sisters. I wanted to be behind the scenes helping the actors learn their lines or whatever department needed help.
We went home disappointed, and my mum was like, “Are you guys even thinking? You need a 15-year-old girl. Your sister is 15”. It didn’t help that while I was helping the actors with their lines, I pretty much learnt everything. So they asked me to take the uniform and do whatever I wanted. The next day, I ended up playing Olive, and that’s how my journey as an actress began.
It doesn’t seem like you were happy about it
It was so embarrassing because it wasn’t my best work, and I felt like I could do better. I told myself I would die of embarrassment if 100 people saw it. A week after, it was at 200k views. I was excited, but I also wanted them to take it down. Soon it was 500k and then 1m. This was during the lockdown in 2020.Soon it was 500k and then 1m. This was during the lockdown in 2020. At some point, we stopped checking because it was just scary. This was our pet project. We didn’t expect this many people to see it.
The fact that so many people were invested in the story when it wasn’t the best we could put out was mind-blowing. All the comments were like, “Oh my God, the actors are so good. You guys should make it a series”. It wasn’t the plan, but my sisters were down.
Halfway through the first season, I realised it was something I’d want to do for the rest of my life. It felt right. I liked stepping into another character and being someone else. When I was younger, I wanted to be so many things; this was my chance to be all the things I wanted to be through acting. From there, I started doing my research and taking classes to learn how to act, and it grew on me.
You took acting classes? Nollywood, when?
They weren’t professional classes. I watched YouTube videos and lots of high-school movies. The number one for me was Hannah Montana. I binge-watched season one to the end right before we started shooting. I watched a lot of Netflix teen shows too. An old movie called The Breakfast Club taught me so much about passionate acting. I read scripts from movies I’d watched and tried to act them out exactly. I focused more on sitcoms because of the comedy delivery. Best Friends in the World is more of a sitcom than a drama.
I wanted to put in the work even though I’d already got the role. I didn’t want anyone to think it was just because my sisters produced it. But even after all my hard work, people still left comments about me getting the role because of my sisters.
How much of Olive’s character is you?
When I first met her character in the first season, I’d always ask my sister, “Why is Olive doing this? She’s so annoying. If it was me, I would slap her”. My sister would say, ”This isn’t supposed to be you. Be Olive”.
Olive always wants to help people even if they don’t like her. Sometimes, I strive to be like that. We didn’t have a lot of similarities, but it would’ve been harder to be authentic if we did. s I got to know her, I began to empathise with her, and she became my best friend and sister. We have more similarities now, like how she loves her friends as fiercely as I do. She’s definitely taught me a lot of things over the past five years that I would’ve never learnt on my own or as quickly. For example, she’s terrible at communicating when she needs help. Yet once you offer, she’ll accept it. I’m not great at accepting help. She trusts and loves her mum, and that really strengthened my relationship with mine even though we were close before. I also became very attentive because Olive always paid attention to people. She’s very opinionated and strong-willed. In this world, people have opinions and want you to have those same opinions. I’m working on finding my voice and being more confident in who I am. And I learnt that from her character.
Oh wow, and that actually works?
It’s a work in progress because some days are harder than others. You need to have a certain level of confidence in yourself and your skills. In the beginning, my confidence was shaky 90 per cent of the time. I was always second-guessing myself, always asking questions like I didn’t know what I was doing. During the second season, senior year, I started to say things like, “Oh, she would definitely do this. She wouldn’t do it like that”, and it started to translate on screen, better than in the first season. Hopefully, people saw the growth in me as an actor.
You were 15. How did you juggle work and school?
It was exhausting but also rewarding, which is why I keep doing it. I didn’t want to do the first season, go to school for two or three years and be forgotten. So I chose an online school, which has a really flexible schedule. You could do all your homework for the month in a day. You can also take time off. I remember when we were shooting, I took two months off school because it was too much for me. My sisters would also give me time off from shooting to focus on school or just relax. Nothing suffered. Thank God for that.
How does it feel to be God’s favourite?
I always complain that they’ve spoiled me because I know it won’t be like this when I’m working for other people. It’s made me really grateful. As much as it’s easier here for us, I think I’m also mentally prepared to work with other production companies. There were times when my co-stars had busy schedules, and we had to shoot multiple episodes in a week or few days. I didn’t have the luxury to space out my schedule. Still, it was the best of both worlds, working hard sometimes and chilling.
Are you working on other productions now?
For now, I want to keep working with my sisters. They’re great at what they do. Jesi has figured out where Nollywood should stop and Hollywood takes over and is great at blending both standards. I’m not saying I don’t want to work with any Nigerian writers or producers. But there’s a gap because there are no actors my age or younger. They give those roles to older people. I’m still waiting for a big teen film where I’d see actors my age.
Maybe teenagers are hard to work with? Did your team have those sorts of problems on set?
If I’m being honest, I’m Gen Z, and I think I’m difficult sometimes. But you’ll find millennials who are hard to work with and baby boomers who are easier. People just need to be willing to give teenagers a chance. I’ve met so many talented people on our sets. If I could make 20 different films and cast all of them, I would. But I can’t. We just need to be given a chance to show we’re capable and aren’t as difficult as people assume we are.
Your sisters are doing a great job of platforming them. I keep seeing fresh faces
Yes, they are. Fun fact: the guy’s who played Adam and Roberts are my best friends. Some of the other actors are my friends from school. A lot of them had strong acting backgrounds, like Esther, who graduated from the University of Uyo with a theatre arts degree. They realised they wanted to act, and it’s something they’re good at, all because someone gave them a chance.
That sounds so soft. Who influences you as an actress?
I look up to actors who are versatile and embody their characters. I’m obsessed with Viola Davis, Natalie Portman, Octavia Spencer, Lupita is my queen and Timothée Chalamet. I like Robert Pattinson; after his Twilight era, he returned better. Nicole Kidman inspires me to act in more versatile roles. Olive is pretty much a teenager, but I want to do more weird characters set in fantasy worlds.
What about your music?
I’m kind of leaning towards alternative indie music. My music is influenced by the stuff I listen to, and I didn’t start listening to Nigerian music until 2018. I’m still new to it, so it hasn’t had the time to influence what I write. I listen to more American singers like Billie Eilish before she became famous, Sabrina Carpenter, Sasha Sloan, Julia Michael and Bea Miller. They’re honest with their music.
So no Nigerian makes the list of inspirations?
There’s Victony and Young John, Omah Lay, Joeboy, Fireboy, Asake, Burna Boy and Reekado Banks. Ayra Starr — I can’t decide whether I love her or am jealous of her because she’s so good and she’s my age. Like, God, I don’t want to be a mechanic; I want to be a baller.
Please, you’re not a mechanic. But what do you plan to do differently with your music to get people’s attention?
For me, music is a means of communicating because I’m a terrible communicator in real life. I’ll have a mountain of problems, and I won’t tell anyone. I want to be an honest artist who talks about relatable things — music that makes you feel understood and less alone. I want to write songs to make people feel like the world isn’t such a big, bad place, especially in Nigeria, where our instinct is to suppress our feelings and invalidate our emotions.
Whew. Between acting and music, do you rest?
I make TikToks, but it still feels like work. I always have to plan the perfect outfit, learn the dance and ensure it comes out great. When I’m not doing that, I hang out with my family, and if I want to be alone, I just listen to music and think. There’s never a time when I’m not working or thinking about work. But they don’t feel like work. They’re hobbies I’ll eventually make money from.
Wait, you’re not making any money yet?
The streams are good, but on YouTube, you’re only paid for the ads people watch. Everyone skips ads, so it doesn’t count. We get like five cents, ten cents, a dollar, if the ad is like 30 minutes. And there’s a 30 per cent tax on YouTube revenue for Nigerian creators. We’re making next to nothing, and it all goes back to production. We have to feed, transport and pay for locations. We’re also paying off debt because we borrowed money from our parents. We’ll probably do that for the rest of our lives.
How do you pay the actors, though?
When we wrote our contract for the show, we made it clear we wouldn’t be able to pay anyone. But at the end of this last season, we did a little gratuity thing to thank them for the past five years. It wasn’t a lot, and Lord knows they deserve so much more. We’re just thinking of it as an investment into our future because we know for sure our next few projects will have sponsors. It’ll be worth it.
What’s your favourite thing about what you do?
Every time we upload an episode, I love seeing how the fans react to my work and the project as a whole. All I do is read comments. It makes me so happy. That’s my payment. Even the mean comments, I read them because there’s a bit of truth sometimes. I’ve even accepted Olive as my new name and stopped correcting people.
Want to leave a message for your fans?
I just want to thank them. Without them, our production wouldn’t be where we are right now. I’m really grateful for all the love. Some people randomly start over from season one. I haven’t felt that kind of devotion before. Nigerians definitely know how to support their own. Even non-Nigerians support us. We’re working on a new project, and I’m really excited for them to see it. It’ll be bigger and better.
What do you plan to do in the next couple of years?
A lot of music and other projects. Even if it doesn’t give me as much income, I’m more of a quality-over-quantity kind of person. I model when I’m not acting and get paid well enough. In the far future, I want to open a cafe and invest in different things. I also want to start my own fashion line. I’m definitely not putting my eggs in one basket. My dad taught me better.
Finally, Would you have done things differently? Like just enjoyed being a teenager?
Those five years on set were pretty much my formative years. Sometimes, I wish I could’ve taken the normal route. There’s also the fact that my dad is a famous preacher. I used to wish I was a farmer’s daughter in some village. But I couldn’t have asked for better. It was a really wholesome set, very family and friends-oriented. We had premiere parties at the camp where we shot the series, or at home, whenever an episode was released. We’d dance, eat and sing. It was peaceful, and as much as I felt lost sometimes, I started to see the world more maturely.