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Bunmi Mojekwu: The next chapter

THE NEXT CHAPTER: Bunmi Mojekwu

ONE THING actress Bunmi Mojekwu learned - and has gone on to cherish - throughout her time on popular BBC 1 soap Eastenders was the power of her own strength.

For the thousands who applauded her portrayal of feisty teenager Mercy Olubumi in the long-running series, there were those who used it as an opportunity to criticise the young star about her appearance.

As a dark-skinned girl “with African features, big lips and a pudgy nose”, she stood out from her fellow cast members and found herself - at times - the subject of constant ridicule.

“I joined Eastenders when Twitter came into prominence, so for me, seeing everything that people said on there was overwhelming at first. All I was doing was my job and my job was to act so I couldn't understand why people were so focused on everything else.”

Recalling her character's famed red weave and trademark yellow jacket, she jokingly adds: “But there were times where I looked at myself and said, 'Oh Bunmi, you didn't look too great there.' I'm that real with myself.”

Fun and jokes aside, the south London-born actress says the on-going preference to lighter skin within the black community is something that had never affected her prior to finding fame.

“I found that people tried to impose these so-called dark skin issues on me. When I was young, I noticed that I was dark skinned. I said to myself, 'do you have a problem with that Bunmi?' and Bunmi said no.

“It wasn't until I was [in the limelight] that people started with the 'she's dark-skinned, she's ugly' kind of talk. I didn't understand where this was coming from because I didn't have these issues. I know that people expect me to bleach because it's the norm, but why must I damage my skin to make others comfortable?”

Her advice to young women struggling with modern-day skin prejudice follows in the same vein.

“I would tell them to talk to themselves and find out what you love most about the person you are,” she says. “That way, if anyone tells you anything you know not to be true, it doesn't matter. Your skin will not stop you getting a man, a job, or anything in this industry. I'm here so it can be done and the reason why I'm here is not because I'm dark-skinned, it's because I'm a great actress.”

It's that defiant attitude that has seen Mojekwu rise to the top of her game in UK television, landing roles in hit shows including Channel 4's Fallout, award-winning play Gone Too Far and finally Eastenders.

“Ever since I was young my dream was to be on Eastenders,” she says. “I would say, ‘I'm going to be on Eastenders and then I'm going to America to become an international actress.’”

Mojekwu, who learned her craft at London-based Identity Drama School, was unsuccessful in her first audition for the popular soap and momentarily doubted herself, but soon picked herself up and went back for a second time.

She landed the role of Mercy in the soap's spin-off internet series Eastenders: E20 before her character was picked up for the main show.

The actress spent just over a year in Albert Square, the fictional east London area where the soap is set, before moving on to pastures new after she and the soap's writers agreed to mutually part ways.

Still, she has nothing but positive things to say about the show and its stars.

“I enjoyed my time there. Eastenders is such an amazing place. To be a part of one of the no.1 soaps is amazing. I will love them forever. They have made my dreams come true and they have taken me to new heights.”

Asked whether she agreed with comments made by Diane Coyle, the acting head of the BBC Trust, that the soap is "almost twice" as white as the real east London, Mojekwu said she did.

“I think a lot of TV in the UK suffers from that, which is what Lenny Henry is fighting for - more diversity. I'm right behind him. We need different types of stories. It's not everyday we're killing each other. We do other stuff.”

“For me, everything is like the movie 300. We need to come together with such a force and force our scripts and actors on the decision makers so they have no choice but to offer us a platform. At the moment we don't have that so it's hard for them to take us seriously.”

The actress has used her time since leaving Eastenders honing her skills in writing and hopes to debut her work - a top-secret feature film - next year.

“I can't say much about it at the moment, but I can tell you it's going to be great,” she says, revealing that she has also started up her own production company and drama school, Larj. “We're raising the money for it now and applying for funds.”

And as for those dreams to go to Hollywood?

“I definitely want to go to Hollywood, but I've come to a realisation, where am I running to?”

But there is another 'wood' the actress, born of Nigerian parentage, will be visiting in the near future.

“I'll be going to Nigeria in October to be on the judging panel for the Nollywood Movie Awards, so I'm really looking forward to that. It's been my dream to be in a Nollywood movie, so after I do that, I'm going to be having more meetings and discussions out there.

“I'm not limiting myself to one place.”

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