Toni Tones Talks Challenges Faced in Her Career, Gaining Acceptance as an Actor & More in Flair Magazine

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What does it take to stand out in an overcrowded entertainment marketplace? Some would say it takes more than just talent to be noticed. Multi-talented Toni Tones is not just being noticed. She is being remembered.

Born Gbemi Anthonia Adefuye, Toni Tones is a triple-threat force to be reckoned with: She is an actress, singer, and award-winning photographer whose influence in the Nigerian entertainment industry has become undeniable.

Her role in the box office hit ‘King Of boys’ directed by Kemi Adetiba brought Toni Tones critical acclaim. Her electrifying performances in top productions have positioned her as one of the most sought after A-list actors in Nollywood today.

On the road to success, Toni Tones has faced and overcome challenges. In an in-depth interview with The Nation’s Flair Magazine, she speaks about this, and more.

What or who inspired you to go into acting, singing and photography? 

Ever since I was eight years old, I have wanted to be an actor and a musician. I was always the one who would put together elaborate plays and musicals for Christmas, Easter and New Year. I would automatically declare myself creative director and make my siblings and cousins take part. I would decide who would play what roles. Everyone got used to it and it became part of our family tradition.

My cousins would literally come to me before Christmas and say, “so what do you have planned for us this year?” I was exposed to music at a young age. My brother was a musician. He was part of a music group in the late nineties called ‘Oxygen,’ a group that included Paul IK Dairo and two other members. My brother discovered I had a talent for music, and would take me to the studio to record and sing backup for some of his songs. He would act as my vocal coach. I was about eight years old and from then on, I knew I wanted to be a musician.

Regarding photography, I have always loved taking pictures ever since I can remember. I have loved being both in front of the camera and behind it.

Which of the three would you describe as your best?

I love them all! They are gifts from God that He has blessed me with. So, I am extremely grateful for all of them.

What was it like at the beginning? 

I started my career as a photographer and because of that, it was quite a challenge getting people to take me seriously as an artist and as an actor, at first. At some point, I began to wish I had never started with photography at all, because then I wouldn’t have to fight the tough battle of gaining acceptance, I would just have been able to go straight to building a fan base.  Some OAPs simply wouldn’t play my music because they didn’t take me seriously. It took a lot of hard work, persistence and determination before I was finally accepted in the industry. There were times that I wanted to give up but I am exceedingly happy I didn’t.

Let’s talk about your role as young Eniola in Kemi Adetiba’s movie titled King of Boys that’s trending at the moment. What were the steps you took to get ready for this role?

As an actor, I always try to give above and beyond what is required of me. I prefer to do too much to avoid the risk of doing too little. Putting in the work to make every character as authentic as possible is key for me.

Playing the ‘Young Eniola Salami’ (Young Sola Sobowale) in ‘King of Boys’ was quite challenging for me. It’s easier to create a character from scratch; you get to make it your own. But when you’re playing the younger version of someone, there’s already a blueprint set out for you that you have to follow. You have to move, look and sound like the person.

You have to convince your audience as much as possible that you really are the younger version of who you are playing. I made the decision to put on weight for the role. I put on roughly 15kg to play young Eniola. Aunty Sola was probably much slimmer as a young girl, but we don’t know that ‘Sola Sobowale.’ We know the Sola Sobowale of today, so it was my job to convince the audience that I was the younger version of the Sola Sobowale we all know today.

So putting on weight was one of the steps I took. Not exactly the same size as Aunty Sola, but a size that makes her more easily recognisable and more easily conceivable that I could have morphed into her present size at her current age.  I also strained and lost my voice on purpose to try to attain the husky tone that Aunty Sola has. I figured if I could get that same hoarse tone her voice has and learn to modulate like she does, while also learning her gesticulations and mannerisms, I might just be able to pull off a younger Eniola to a level that most people were not used to in Nollywood.

It was also very important to me to make Kemi Adetiba proud of her decision to cast me in that role. I was very grateful to not have been typecast, so I was determined to go the extra mile.

I am glad all the work paid off. I spent over two months doing nothing else but studying Sola Sobowale. I refused other work so I wouldn’t have to go out of character and stay focused. The audience and industry’s reaction to my ‘Young Eniola’ makes all that work one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done as it has brought me critical acclaim.

You’ve gotten so many rave reviews for your role in King of Boys. Were you expecting such feedback?

I put in a lot of work for the role, and I had hoped that people would appreciate it but nothing prepared me for the level of people’s reaction and appreciation of my performance. It completely blew my mind! It was on a level I never saw coming.

Tell us about other roles that you have taken that motivate you 

Every single role I take on as an actress motivates me, because, in general, acting challenges one to be dynamic, as you play a different character each time. So I am constantly motivated to put in my best with every role I play.

Shall we talk about some memorable moments in your life and career?

Let’s start with photography. While I was still in London in my early days as a budding photographer, the producers of D’banj’s reality show ‘Koko Mansion’, a show that had the same format as ‘Big brother’ but with only female contestants, reached out to me about doing a photo shoot for the girls in the house.

They brought me to Nigeria to do their photo shoot. I got to do the shoot on national TV, broadcast to millions of viewers who were heavily invested in the show. This brought me instant popularity as a photographer. Afterwards, I bought every magazine I could find, contacted them and showed them my photography portfolio.

Eventually, I started shooting for ace publications like Genevieve magazine, TW magazine, Allure magazine, Elan magazine, Soundcity, Made magazine and so on. Numerous artists also started seeking me out to photograph them. I got to work with artists such as Wizkid, Don Jazzy, Tiwa Savage, Nneka, Waje, M.I, to name a few.

The most memorable moment in my acting career would have to be everything that is happening now with the release of ‘King of Boys’. Nollywood has come to recognise my level of craftmanship as an actor. The movie has brought me critical acclaim and I will be forever grateful.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered?

It was tough being accepted as an actor because people knew me as a photographer and after then, a musician. Hearing that I was an actor as well, I think it was hard for them to take me seriously initially. A lot of people probably assumed I was just playing around as opposed to chasing my dreams. It seemed like having more than one career was looked upon as a bit of a crime; people tend to put you in a box. They know you for one thing and that is what they choose to be comfortable with and when you try to break out of that box, there’s a lot of opposition. But I am not here to make anybody comfortable, I am here to achieve every single goal that my heart desires and achieve I will.

How do you cope with them?

I was determined not to be put in a box. I was determined to excel at every single passion I had chosen to pursue. Sometimes, I would ask God why He didn’t just give me one passion so it would have been easier, but I remember praying one day and hearing a voice within me say, “if God has given you many skills, it is meant as a blessing, not a curse.” That put things in perspective for me.  I made a vow never to relent, to give everything I had, to show God I appreciated every skill he had gifted me and I would honour Him by using them. Successful or not, at least I would know I tried. Being able to actually do the things I love is already success to me, because for so long I was afraid to even try. I am glad I never gave up, otherwise I would not be living such a fulfilled life now.

Who or what do you consider as the greatest influence in your life and career?

My mother. She is the kindest, most hard working, and God-fearing person I know; and these are three traits that I try to embody.  For music, it’s Beyoncé; her work ethic and dedication to her craft is undeniable.   Acting, it’s Meryl Streep and Viola Davis; their level of talent inspires me.  Also, Viola Davis continues to break barriers for black women in Hollywood and in turn black female actors all over the world. I also love how she embraces her natural hair and her beautiful ebony skin. There was an episode of ‘How to get away with murder’ where she stripped off all her makeup, lashes and wig to reveal herself and hair in its kinky natural state. That was a huge moment for black females everywhere in my opinion. She inspired all of us to embrace our beauty and not the ideology that the world around us has sold to us as beauty. We are beautiful just the way we are.

Let’s compare when you started and now, what has changed?

Back then, I was just a dreamer. Now I’m living the life of my dreams. I never take this for granted.

In what ways has it changed your lifestyle? 

As there is always work to be done, I do not have enough time to spend with family and friends as I would like and this always breaks my heart. This is why whenever I am not working, I make sure to spend quality time with my family and loved ones.

Are there changes that you would like to see in the sector?

I would love to see more training academies for the arts in Nigeria. People shouldn’t need to travel abroad to attend New York Film Academy and the likes, just to get the training they need to be better at their craft. I believe we have the talent, resources, and knowledge-base needed to be able to establish these institutions here in Nigeria.

What are some of the lessons that you have learnt? 

I have learnt that persistence and consistency are key in everything you do. If you keep at your purpose diligently; whether or not it seems to be going well or not, with time, the universe will align in your favour.

How do you define style?

Style to me is self expression. How you look is the first thing people see and it’s a way of telling people a bit of who you are without using words.

I would describe my sense of style as chic and timeless. I rarely follow trends. I just wear what I like, whether it’s in style or not. I can dress like a tom boy today, a power woman tomorrow or a young starlet; it really depends on my mood but I definitely like to play with fashion, like with everything else in my life. I don’t like to be boxed in.

I prefer for my style to transcend time. 50 years from now, my looks should still be relevant and be recreated by the young starlets of that era.

What are those things that you treasure most in life?

God, my family, my friends, my career and my camera.

How do you relax?

My job requires me to be up on my feet a lot, therefore I tend to get a lot of pain and aches in my legs. I go to spas a lot to get massages to keep the pain as minimal as possible. I love swimming or just relaxing in the water. Watching my favourite TV shows relaxes me as well.

 Which principles do you hold on to?

Honesty and integrity at all times.

Dream big, it’s free.

Never let anyone who doesn’t have the power to tell you ‘Yes’ tell you ‘No’. Be kind. Believe in yourself, you can achieve anything you put your mind to. There are no failures, only lessons.

If you had to advise young people, what would you tell them?

Be fearless. Never stop learning, you can ALWAYS be better. When it comes to the pursuit of your happiness and achieving your dreams, make it a no retreat no surrender situation.

On your journey called life, you will encounter setbacks; this is inevitable but DON’T ever give up. Your breakthrough is just around the corner.

Life is tough, but always remember you’re tougher. There are no failures only lessons.

Your reputation will always precede you; integrity is key. Pray.

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