Nigeria’s former beauty queen and healthcare practitioner in the United States of America, Regina Askia-Williams, in this interview, talks about leaving her acting career in Nigeria for greener pastures, how she survived the 9/11 attacks, among other issues…
A lot of people know you as a former actress and beauty queen. What are the things they don’t know about you?
I am now a nurse in New York City, United States of America. I assess patients, diagnose their condition, write a plan of care, prescribe medication, monitor their response to treatment and be sure they are restored to their healthier selves. To be in a position to practise and earn great income anywhere in the world is a good thing and I am grateful.
Why did you relocate to the United States of America when you were very popular in Nigeria at the time?
Life takes us on many roads. Yes, I was popular but was I happy? It feels good to be hailed and fawned on but was my joy to be based on what everyone else demanded of me? The question was, what did I want for myself? I wanted a well-developed career with great pay, a family, a husband, travel around the world and I chose the latter. Those were the things I wanted for myself. Don’t forget that Nollywood, in my time, was just beginning to blossom. The popularity and panache we brought to it in my time catapulted it to where it is today. The entry of Netflix and Amazon have definitely been game-changers. Not only does Africa now have the opportunity to tell her stories authentically, she earns an influx of financial payout at it. Thankfully, I have been able to hit it big in two amazing careers in one lifetime and the journey has had its ups and downs but here I am sitting comfortably and pretty solid on all fronts, careers and family, and I am grateful for this.
What are some of your fondest memories of childhood?
My childhood was a dream. I was not a silver spoon kid but I had everything. I was borderline spoilt but I turned out great. It bothers me to no end that our children in Nigeria today do not seem to have the structure we enjoyed in our childhood.
We went to school on weekdays, had lunch, siesta, homework, playtime, Saturday playhouse on the weekends― art, poetry, debate club, library culture, church on Sunday, baptism classes and catechism classes. This continued into our boarding schools where we met and learnt from children from other cultures in a protected environment. This prepared us in many ways for different roles in society. What is happening to children in Nigerian boarding schools today is worrisome.
From demanding sex for grades to outright assault, who is looking out for and protecting the kids? What quality of education are young people getting now? Are regulatory agencies working? What kind of leaders are we raising for tomorrow? These questions should be food for thought for all and sundry.
Some people see you as a beautiful woman who had it easy. What were some of the hurdles or challenges you faced while trying to find your path in Nigeria?
My parents raised me to be able to go into the world and find my place as a productive member of society. While I had every comfort as a child, it was up to me to find a job/business, build my own home and family. None of that is a walk in the park. It is hard work but some of us just make it look easy. The key thing is to know what one wants and go for it. Find something you love, get trained on it, and find a job/build a business in that line. I don’t care how rich your husband or partner is, it is important to have your own thing going. A job, a business and a few streams of income. I wished I had started investing in property earlier. And, that is one area I would encourage everyone, especially women, to make a priority. It doesn’t matter if it’s an income property or private. Strive to get properties like you would get purses. I am not yet an Aliko Dangote (richest Nigerian) but I can gift myself whatever I need.
Some people think beauty opens doors. Was that the case for you?
Yes, that works to an extent, especially if one is in an industry that needs that type of attention. However, there are doors that would not open simply because one is beautiful. Expert skills acquisition is really required in many facets of life. One cannot be in the operating room team because one is pretty. One has to be able to read and interpret oxygen saturations and correlate with patients’ condition. One should also be able to read heart rhythms and know which medication works for which ailment. Being pretty cannot help one with that. Finally, we would all get old if we are lucky. Beauty would fade but one’s values, and life as one has built it would remain. Karma comes and one would reap what one had sown. Mine has been hard work, and sometimes rough roads. I have had to walk alone but all is well that ends well and here I am, accomplished, fulfilled and sitting pretty. As a matter of fact, I am still pretty at 53.
At 53, what are you most thankful for?
I am really thankful for everything right now. My awesome kids are moving up in their lives. The peace of mind that comes with not having to worry too much about things anymore is gratifying.
Do you still watch Nollywood movies?
Yes, I still watch Nollywood movies and it is really amazing how much the movie industry has grown from the home video system and Iweka Road (hub of movie distributors) days to high resolution cameras and now Netflix.
Nollywood has experienced significant growth. What do you miss about the industry?
I miss my friends. But, the good thing is that we still communicate via the Internet.
Some people think you stopped acting because of marriage. Was that the case?
I did not choose to stop. My job just never gave me enough time to shoot movies. All nurses know that when one is not on the unit, one is recovering on one’s bed. Nursing is physically and emotionally taxing.
Have you ever regretted leaving your acting career?
No, I do not regret leaving my acting career. I am so grateful for how far I have come and the solid gains I have made. It is wonderful to live in an environment where I know I am safe and there is a future for my kids. I am in an enabling environment where skills are rewarded and in a profession that would ensure I am comfortable wherever I travel to on earth. I have no regrets.
It is said that you survived the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, New York, on September 11, 2001. Tell me about the experience.
Yes, I survived the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. At that time, I was a manager at a company called Corporate Guard, which ran due diligence on Nigerian businesses seeking to partner with foreigners. We also marketed LaCampagne Tropicana Resorts. Our office was on the 79th floor of the International Office Suits. The planes hit just above our floor. I missed that catastrophe because I was pregnant with my second daughter, Teesa, and she was really hard on me, which made me late to work that day. I thank God I was late. The first call I got after the incident was from my boss, Mr Akinboboye, who was so relieved I was safe. I still get goosebumps when I think of the incident. I thank God for His mercies.
Was that the scariest moment of your life?
The September 11 attacks indeed have to be the scariest moment of my life.
You post a lot of photos of your daughters on social media. How has the experience been as a mother in a country where kids are more independent than what obtains in Nigeria?
I feel blessed with my daughters, not just because they are beautiful but because they are intelligent too. They are social media influencers and models. Stephanie is on retainer-ship with Dior. Ms T is new on the scene but is making waves too. Just like my father said to me – I say to my kids, “one can do absolutely what one wants as a career but one has to get an education”. In saner climes, that is a ticket to a good life and I’m thankful they listened. Stephanie is a graduate with two degrees, while Ms T is still in college. I have a son who is my heartbeat. He and his father have absolutely no interest in the camera. He is in high school and a gifted artist.
Where did you get your beauty from?
My mother and grandmother were very beautiful women. I am not sure anyone of us (me and my daughters) come close. I guess you can say something rubbed off. We are just blessed.
What gap did you intend to fill when you started ‘Office of the Citizen’ online?
‘Office of the Citizen’ is a platform for Africans to speak their minds. I believe it is a great collaboration. It can be likened to a social media town hall where we discuss issues, proffer solutions and build blueprints.
As a medical practitioner, how scary have your experiences been with the COVID-19 pandemic?
I actually needed to take time out and get therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. I am afraid there would be an exodus of nurses from the bedside into other areas of the profession. 2020, which was supposed to be the year of the nurse, was an onslaught of traumatic experiences for nurses because of the pandemic. Everyone is sick and tired of being sick. However, we are still in the thick of things with this second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Did you at any time fear you might contract COVID-19?
I made sure to wear my personnel protective equipment meticulously and religiously observe COVID-19 safety protocols.
What do you admire most about yourself?
I like and admire the fact that I am a courageous woman.
Do you think it is important to have mentors and coaches before toeing a career path?
I think it is okay to have mentors and coaches before toeing a career path. One can benefit from their experiences. This can help one have a smarter and more effective approach. One can prepare better when one is well informed.
What are your thoughts about challenges facing the youth of Nigeria, such as unemployment?
I think it is a real shame to have such poverty in a country so rich.
On the issues of insecurity, the service chiefs apparently have no clue (what to do). It is time to employ external security services to retrain our military, as well as do a total overhaul from the curriculum to armoury, to a refurbishment of living space and review living wages.
Police brutality was what led to the #EndSARS movement. Extrajudicial killings by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad and other acts of corruption are eroding the system. Sadly, it has almost become a culture but it must end.
What are the most important lessons you have learnt over the years?
One of the key lessons I have learnt is patience.
What is your take on gender equality?
I am all for equality in job opportunities, equal pay and equal rights. But, I always say men and women were built differently and have different strengths. Both should bring these to the table.
How do you keep fit and maintain your beauty?
Believe it or not, what you eat detarmines how you look. As we grow older, we tend to be more sedentary. And, that is the worse state one can be in. Even if one has to just walk, one should keep moving. Also, drink water and add a bit of lemon skin to it. When you feel like snacking, you can drink water. Your body cannot really tell the difference between being hungry and thirsty. It is important to always drink water.
Do you have a beauty routine?
I am mostly a naked face girl. Give me an eyeliner and lip-gloss and I am good to go. I always keep my face clean and moisturised.
You have what is described as ‘cat eyes’. Who did you inherit it from?
I was born this way. My children also have my type of eyes.
In 1988, Askia-Williams – a former Medical student who had transferred from the University of Calabar to the University of Lagos – was crowned Miss Unilag. That same year, she competed in the MBGN 1988 contest. Though she was the crowds favorite contestant as well as the outgoing Miss Intercontinental, Joan Maynard, she placed second.
However, she became titleholder the following year when winner Bianca Onoh resigned. In 1990, Askia-Williams represented Nigeria at Miss Charm International held in Leningrad, Russia, and came second. She also made history by becoming the first Nigerian at Miss International in Japan, where she made an impact with the most outstanding traditional costume.
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