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How Swanky JKA Went From ₦5k Modelling Jobs To Nollywood Stardom

Swanky JKA

If you saw Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, you saw Jide Kene Achufusi (known professionally as Swanky JKA) shine in his breakout role. Since then, he has starred in several other films that have boosted his stardom and bank balance. In a recent conversation with PiggyVest, he told us how it all happened and where he is headed next. 

Swanky JKA
Photo: Swanky JKA

How did Swanky JKA grow up?

I was born in Enugu and schooled entirely in the east: nursery school was in Ebonyi, primary school in Enugu, secondary school in Imo and university in Enugu. 

You moved to Lagos only recently? 

Yes, and, hopefully, I’ll move to LA one day. 

Amen to that. What did your parents do? 

I’m from a family of academics. My mum is a professor of Language Studies, and my dad was a doctor before he passed. 

They must have had certain plans for your future. Did you dabble into anything artistic as a kid? 

Radio was my first love. My sister and I would act like OAPs back then. About my parents’ plan, my dad wanted me to be a doctor. I wrote JAMB a few times so I could become a doctor, but it didn’t work out. 

I also didn’t want to spend all of my life in a hospital the way my dad did. My mum didn’t really have a particular discipline she wanted for me, but making movies was a no-no. It took a while for her to come around. 

You studied Geography and Meteorology at ESUT. What were your plans at the time?

I told myself in year one that I would have a big car in my final year. So I had big dreams even then. But then, I was already popular as a model before I graduated. I’m not God and I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I have always believed that it gets better. 

That’s why I told you I’ll move to LA; I never move anywhere for greener pastures, just to come and see whether it will work. I  moved to Lagos right after Living in Bondage. I only move when it is time for the next level. 

You were a model before. How did that happen?

I can’t remember fully. I think I did an audition for which I had to pay ₦2,500 naira. 

Do you remember how much you were paid for that job?

I can’t forget! It was ₦5,000! [Laughs]

What happened next?

There was another event, and it was a government thing. I was invited for that. There were other events. When Africa Magic Igbo came, I wasn’t an actor, but I got on the stage for a modelling session. 

How did you move to movies?

As a model, I started to post pictures of myself topless. You know abs…[Laughs] I won a few competitions, met Frank Oshodi, met Mai Atafo. When I started posting those pics, film directors in the east would reach out to me to play a love interest. 

The first time I was on a movie set, they put me on the poster because of my abs. I thought that I had blown! [Laughs]

Hahaha. All blow na blow. 

And it was just two scenes! 

How much did you get paid for that? 

I can’t remember if I was even paid. If I was, it was probably around ₦4,000. 

Ha. How can it be lower than your modelling gig? 

They pay per scene, and if you don’t have a name in Nollywood, you are in trouble — except for maybe Lagos, where there is a bit of fairness. Most times, the production manager will take your fee and tell you there’s no money; and you’d just have to be grateful. I wasn’t from a poor family, and I always understood when to make sacrifices. 

Even today, there are some alliances that I don’t receive money for because I know I am building something. Igbo people say, “If the baby goat wants to suck milk from the mother goat, it has to bend.”  

When was the first time you got to play lead?

My first lead role was given to me by Obi Emelonye. He had announced the audition on Facebook. I remember that the man I was training under got a few people who were doing well in the training. I wasn’t picked. So, I got money from a friend and went to Awka, where the training was taking place, because I am stubborn like that. 

When I got there, Obi Emelonye remembered me from Facebook. He called me “Gattuso” because that was my name on Facebook. After everything, he said I was going to be the lead. I was like, “No way!” From being in just two scenes and playing palace guards to being the lead. But the short film never came out.

What?! After that stress. 

It never came out. But the way I went about the role gave me confidence. During filming, the people around were impressed, and I started to think that if people on that level think I am good, maybe I am good. 

I took that with me when I returned to Enugu. And it was useful because in those areas, you need a lot of head-bowing and ass-kissing to get ahead. Well, that is also true in Lagos. But anyway, the experience gave me a boost. 

So when did you get your first actual lead role?

It was in a series. You know how people talk about limited series now. Asaba had started it long ago. YouTube was the market; it is still the market. I was the lead in a project like that and it was directed by Ernest Obi. 

It was the first time I worked with the real stars in the east, people like Yul Edochie and some others. But guess what?


It didn’t come out. 

Again. How come? 

Well, it technically did come out, but it was like it didn’t. There was zero promotion. If you walk into the store and ask, you will see it. But I had to ask for 1,000 copies of the CDs. Then, I took my mother’s V-boot and passed around posters of the film in Enugu with my guy, Michael “Charpy” Modeme. 


Yes o. I had to promote the film. People would see me passing the poster and ask if I was the one on it, and I would say, “Yeah.” 

Hilarious stuff! 

I graduated from using garri to getting Top Bond to paste the posters around the city. We would then go and check hours later to see whether other people had pasted their own posters over ours. 

Na wa. Were you getting paid for these films that didn’t come out?

Mr Obi Emelonye was the one who first paid me well enough. I think he paid me ₦50k, and I could use that to do full shopping. 

If you are not big in Nollywood, you will not be paid well. That’s how it is. But Mr Obi has always paid me well enough. In 2017, I did a series with him and he paid me around ₦200k. 

For the other series I did with a different director, I got paid  ₦70k, and I shot for two months. It was only that high because they knew I did that thing with blood and sweat. 

The hustle. 

Yes o! 

Swanky JKA in the trailer for Living in Bondage

So how did Living in Bondage happen? 

I used to chat with some producers, and I would always put myself out there. At this stage, I was taking small roles but only in films with a certain level of production value. One of those films I did was Black Rose. It was a good story and the budget was below or around  ₦3m. Ramsey Nouah had visited the man who made the film and watched it. 

Now, this was the time they were looking for someone to play the role I ended up playing in Living in Bondage. I had seen the audition call but, to be honest, I had given up on auditions. By then, I had become quite big as a model and was a modelling coach. 

I got a call asking me for a self-tape and they shared a script. I did one self-tape but wasn’t satisfied with it. I did another and sent it in. When they didn’t get back to me immediately, I was like, “I said it!” 

Must have seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Yeah. But then, I heard the Living in Bondage crew was coming to town to have auditions. By now, my family was supporting my hustle and they’d given me a car. I was an Enugu big boy, and I knew everybody around Ramsey. 

So my plan was to try and carry him to the audition ground from wherever he was. That morning I prayed for my hand. I covered my hand with the blood of Jesus. 

Hahaha. How did you know you would shake him?

As I said, I knew the people around him. 

So did everything  go as planned? 

Yes. I shook his hand and it was over. [Laughs] 

This is quite the story! 

Well, as it turned out, a lot of people that I thought could be my competition for the role did not come for that audition. And we have a lot of talented people in the east. A lot! But I guess they felt they were bigger than auditioning. But me: I always go for auditions. 

Clearly, the crew got back to you…

Not immediately. A week or two passed and then one day I got a call. They said they wanted me to do a rehearsal. If it didn’t go well, then they would have to use a celebrity, a star, but they didn’t want to do that.

So I flew to Lagos and did the rehearsal. Days later, I met the producer, my co-star and other people on the production. Then, they told me, “Congratulations, you got the role!”

Must have felt good. 

Yeah, it was a long journey. I thank God for my supportive friends. 

Did your life change after the film?

Yes. But it’s complicated. We shot in South Africa. That was the first time I was flying six hours anywhere. I think I had only been to Togo, Benin before then, and that was by road.

The film came out in November 2019. But it wasn’t easier immediately after. But thank God I had friends that helped me. I won an award sometime in early 2020 and then the pandemic shut down the whole world. I was ready to go for media rounds and get some deals but then everything closed. I was like, “I finally blow and now covid wants to ruin everything?” [Laughs] 

It wasn’t easy. Most of the roles I booked evaporated. I look back now and I am grateful. Maybe I would have gone too hard and then burnt out. 

What was the next big thing to happen to you?

I made a film titled Kambili. People love it so much that they sometimes rate it above Living in Bondage. The fans I got from it are probably more. It’s a feel-good story, I guess. In my head, I think maybe it’s because Living in Bondage was Igbo. So Kambili cuts across or just feels that way. But I know where the real work happened. 

Swanky JKA in the trailer for Kambili

Of course. So how are you doing financially?

I’m a big boy o. [Smiles coyly] Compared to where I was when I would hear that someone was getting paid ₦700k and just be unable to wrap my head around it. Sometimes, I am surprised by what my bank account says I have earned over a period. 

We should start calling you Odogwu! Tell me, between Kambili and Living in Bondage, which paid better?

Kambili. I was a star by then. 

What do you think of endorsements?

Those are quite good for a one-time fee. For me, over a period, acting often pays better. 

You mentioned LA earlier. Have you now worked in other countries? 

Yes. I have been involved in a South African production, a Ghanaian production, and a UK production. 

What else is happening?

I landed my first TV hosting gig, “HiLife fest by Life Lager”. 

Is it better paying than endorsements and acting? 

I’ll know in time. For now, all I can say is that it is very good. 

Considering how far you have come in what looks like a short time, what advice do you have for people looking to come into your industry? 

I think some of the advice I have would also be for those in the industry. Let me start with that. For my people in Asaba, I would say we need more professionalism and we need to treat everybody better. For example, when a beautiful girl believes she has to sleep with people to get a role, she will forget why she is in the industry or she will give up on the dream. 

The lack of proper treatment and professionalism is why everybody is moving to Lagos and we don’t need everything to be in Lagos. Look at how the stars in the north do. Ali Nuhu, Rahama Sadau come to shoot in Lagos and then go back. We can do the same. 

Professionalism means that if you have ₦10m as budget, you don’t share half of the sum among yourselves and use the rest for production. It also means sex shouldn’t be exchanged for roles. 

How about for those getting into the industry?

For anyone trying to get into the industry, they need to know that it will not happen overnight. Give it seven years. Don’t do one film, two films and think that’s it. I see some of my posts on Facebook from back then and I wonder what my motivation was. People see it and understand that it has been a while. No matter what you are doing, consistency is important. No matter what you’re doing, there is always something to learn. 

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