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Patti Boulaye: African ambassador

STAR TALENT: Patti Boulaye

PATTI BOULAYE has always seemed like a confident woman. On stage and on television, the entertainer has the persona of someone who owns her fame – and during a recent interview with Life & Style she was no different.

Polite and instantly at ease, the 59-year-old star began the conversation with details about her health clinics in Africa, which have kept her out of the limelight for the last 14 years.

As our conversation continued, a more detailed picture of Boulaye emerges; one of a humble, kind-hearted performer who, contrary to popular opinion did, at one time suffer from her own self-esteem issues. It’s hard to believe now but the Carmen Jones star admitted that she used to get terribly nervous before each of her performances, not because she was shy, but because she didn’t recognise her own talent.

“I went straight into show business without knowing anything about it, then it [fame] just catapulted,” Boulaye said of her meteoric rise to stardom in the late 1970s. “I spent my entire career thinking ‘I’m pretending at this. This is crazy – I’m faking this.’”

Born in Nigeria, Boulaye came to England at the age of 16 following the Biafran war. It was at this time she began her musical career when she secured a part in the West End show Hair.

A string of successful parts in hit West End shows followed, which led to Boulaye being cast in the starring role of the biggest grossing African movie of all time, Bisi, Daughter of the River.

But despite her massive popularity and celebrity status, the singer still suffered from a lack of confidence.

“In showbusiness people kiss you and sing your praises to your face and then talk about you behind your back, so I didn’t really trust what a lot of people said. Then finally I sang opera and that gave me confidence.”

Boulaye then landed the role of Carmen in the Hammerstein remake of the classic opera Carmen Jones; a role that she says changed her life forever.

“Everybody said, ‘you can’t sing opera’ and I said ‘why not?’ I trained for six months to play Carmen and she became my alter ego – she was everything I was not. The minute I stepped on stage I was a different person.

“Now I realise I have gained so much experience and I watch young people and I think ‘don’t worry you will learn.’ I also believe in myself a bit more. I know that I’m not faking it. I am a good performer.”

So now, 14 years after she inadvertently gave up the limelight, Boulaye is back with an autobiographical cabaret show called A Trip Down Memory Lane. The performance will reintroduce fans to the star and her music, and recall the singer’s life in showbiz with catchy, hip-swaying tunes.

“I haven’t done cabaret in so long and the scene has changed, so I thought I would just do something for those who know me, to tell them about my life in showbusiness through songs.”

But it’s not all a song and dance affair for the entertainer. There were tough times in Boulaye’s past but she has saved those stories for her soon-to-be-released autobiography.

“There are things I don’t share,” she confirms. “I’m writing my autobiography, which has been a very emotional journey. There were times it took me three months to write certain bits and I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ But my inspiration has been my children; I want them to know about my life.

“Usually I don’t look back. You become a slave of the past, and you should never do that. If you do, you continue to be a victim and I’m never the victim.”

Humanitarian work in Africa is where Boulaye has focused most of her attention. After encountering a small village in Nigeria with an HIV epidemic, the singer is now the proud founder of five clinics, a school and academy that has helped hundreds of thousands of people.

“I was invited to Nigeria by the then First Lady to help advise on charity work but when I got there, I wasn’t taken by what I saw,” she admits. “Nigeria is a big country and I expected the First Lady to be looking after or a patron for at least two million children. But when I got there, it was less than 20 children.

“I said to my brother how ridiculous it was and that I’d wasted my time on this journey, and he said: ‘If you really want to help, let me show you what’s happening here. We drove two hours to a little village and there was a doctor looking after 60 babies. He had saved them from being buried alive because they were HIV positive. It changed my life.

“I came back to England determined to save those babies. I decided I would build clinics where the babies can be born and where mothers can go for medical help and we can give them the education they need. In our fourth clinic in Cameroon we have had over 2,000 babies born. Most are born HIV-free but those who have AIDS are being treated to prevent mother to baby transmission.”

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