Owolabi Ibrahim is an actor many lovers of Yoruba movies are never tired of watching. Since his debut movie, Elepo Lo Lere, he has wowed his fans with A-list performances that peaked in Igboya, a film produced by Bimbo Oshin wherein he acted as Oshin’s husband.
A fact that is lost on many of Owolabi’s admirers is that he doubles as a barber; a vocation he practices till date. As a matter of fact, he would rather have himself addressed as a barber than an actor.
“Of course, I am a barber, he said proudly in a chat with our correspondent in his exotic office in Ebute-Meta, Lagos. “That is what I was before any other thing.
“I know that you know me as an actor. The truth, however, is that it was my being a barber that led me to becoming an actor.”
Hearing him talk about his rise from the nadir of poverty to creating employment for many would evoke the emotions of even the hard-hearted. As the son of a poor tailor, Owolabi started out life on a very rough patch. Even before he wrote his last paper in the secondary school, the young man knew that it would take a miracle to further his education.
Explaining his predicament, Owolabi said: “It was by the grace of God that I finished secondary school. Even before I finished, I knew there was no way I would further my education.
“I came from a very poor background. And when I say poor, I mean poor in the crudest sense of the word. We didn’t even know when or where the next meal would come from. I tell people that there is a difference between being poor and being wretched. My dad was not just poor, he was wretched.
“Believe me, I cannot recollect any day we had three square meals on a particular day. But after secondary school, I realised that I had the talent to make hair. At the time, we used blade and comb to cut hair. People around me would always come to me to help cut their hair, and I kept improving every day.
“As a teenager, it was a difficult period for anybody to be hungry. But that was what I experienced most times. You know, it would take God’s grace for a hungry man not to eat his enemy’s food. That was what I had.
“The Yoruba say the child of a cloth seller should not wear rags. But my father was a tailor and we wore rags.”
Owolabi also realised that he needed to know how to make hair for women. Fortunately for him, an old woman who lived in the same compound where his parents lived was an expert weaver. So, every day, Owolabi would sit and watch the woman.
“At that time, I was not really cutting hair for money. People just gave me whatever they had and I was happy that I was making something for myself. But at a point, I decided that I needed to also know how to make women’s hair.
“And luckily for me, there was a woman who lived in the same house with us. I would wake up and sit down beside her as she made hair.
“One day, after I had watched her very well, I called one of my younger sisters and sat her down. After a few trials, I realised that I have mastered the art of making women’s hair. From that point, I knew I wanted to be a barber.”
But the young man’s dream was almost truncated even before it took shape. His father wanted him to join him in his tailoring business. Faced with a choice between obeying his father and following his dream to become a barber, Owolabi opted for the latter.
Recalling the experience, he said: “It was a tough period for me. I had to decide on what I wanted for myself because each time I remembered the economic hardship we were facing at home, I told myself that I didn’t want to be a tailor.
“I was always confused that my father was a tailor and he could not meet the needs of his family, yet he wanted me to become a tailor too. His life was not inspiring to me each time I looked at him. As a tailor, he could not feed or clothe his family. So, I decided to disobey him and follow my dream.”
In order to follow his dream, Owolabi had to leave home to fend for himself. Incidentally, a US-based Nigerian came and decided to set up a modern barbing salon. At the time, the salon, Choices Barbing Salon, located a stone’s throw from the popular Yaba Bus Stop, was the best around and truly the choice place to have a hair cut in the whole of Lagos. You were not a big boy if you had not visited Choices.
But for young Owolabi, the use of modern barbing tools was strange. In place of the modern clippers, Owolabi was only ardent in the use of comb and blade.
“Let me confess to you,” he said, “my story has really firmed up my belief in destiny. While I was struggling to convince myself that I had to go ahead with my dream, a Nigerian who was based in the US came back home and decided to set up a barbing salon.
“While he was searching for the people to work for him, somebody mentioned my name and I was invited. When I got there, he said he had been told that I was a good barber and asked if I knew how to use the clipper. Confused about what to say, I simply said yes, though I had never seen an electric clipper, much less handling it at the time. There and then, I was asked to cut hair for a young boy.”
For him, it was a test of a life time; one that that would make or mar his future. Surprisingly, Owolabi handled the task masterfully and secured his future.
“You know, while the little boy was being prepared, I watched how others who worked there handled the clippers. The truth is that I am a fast learner. So, within the few minutes that I watched them, I was able to master how to handle the clipper. By the time I finished cutting the boy’s hair, everybody around liked my work and I was employed immediately,” Owolabi said with a sense of fulfillment.
After years of service at Choices, Owolabi decided it was time for him to move on. Although he was not fully prepared for the move, he made up his mind to leave. He decided to team up with a colleague to start a salon on the balcony of their home.
“My decision to leave at the time was not one that I wished for, but I had to move on even when I was not sure what the future had in stock for me. Fortunately for me, one of my friends and colleague also decided to join me. We started from the balcony of our home.
“But the interesting thing was that all the big men who knew us decided to follow us. They decided to forego the comfort of the former place and opted to come to us in the open under the sun. That was the beginning of the story of what you are seeing today.
“Today, whenever I remember that story, I just marvel and praise God for His mercies over my life.
“Like I told you, mine is a story that sounds like a fairytale, even to me. It was simply the grace of God that made it possible. Imagine people giving up the comfort of the former salon and coming to us.
“More confounding was that they would pay me about 10 times what they were supposed to pay.”
In 1994, Owolabi, having saved enough money, decided to set up a truly modern barbing salon on the old Yaba Road in Lagos. Twenty-two years on, Owolabi’s beauty salon has grown in leaps and bounds and has become something of a brand.
Although he declined the reporter’s request for the identities of his clients, Owolabi boasted that it is a list of who-is-who in the country. He told our reporter that he often flies from Lagos to Port Harcourt and Abuja to attend to barbing needs of his clients.
“I value all the people that patronise me. It is not about the amount of money they pay. I travel to Port Harcourt and Abuja by air to barb hair for my clients,” he said.
With the experience of his father always on his mind and growing up in an improvised room that served as both a shop for the father’s tailoring business and a living room for the family, Owolabi decided to make the old man happy by building a house for him.
“My joy today is that God has used me to put smiles on the face of my father. I had to make his need for a house a priority over mine. As I speak with you, he lives in a very comfortable house I built for him,” Owolabi said smiling.
With his wife and children based in the UK and a thriving business, many would see Owolabi as an accomplished individual. But he sees himself differently. “I don’t think I have anything yet. I continue to work hard every day, hoping that the next day would be better.”
Asked what drives him, the man who fondly describes himself as barber said the fear of being poor drives him to work harder every day.
He said: “I grew up in a very poor environment. When you are poor, there is the possibility that you may one day become rich. But when you are wretched, it would take the grace of God for you to make it. It is by the grace of God that I have attained this position. So, I simply cannot afford to be poor again. It is that fear that drives me.
“It would be very foolish of anybody to say that he has arrived. I have not made any money yet. Each time I speak with my staff, I try to use my life story, but I see in their eyes that they don’t believe me. We shared the same room with big rats.”
Owolabi’s success with barbing laid the foundation for his movie career. He was first invited to appear in a movie as a guest artiste. The late prolific movie producer, Alade Aromire, who at the time was Owolabi’s client, was the first person to feature him in a movie.
While he has featured in more than 50 movies and earned himself a place on the list of good actors, Owolabi insists he is a barber.
“My main job is barbing. It was on this job that I was invited as a guest artiste. Most of the actors and actresses are my clients. Most of them made their hair in our salon,” he said.
Of all the movies he has starred in, he singled out Igboya as his best and most memorable.
“When I say I believe so much in destiny, this is one of the reasons. I was not originally the person cast for that role. But one way or the other, the person was not available and Bimbo Oshin decided to give me the role.”
Asked to take a look at his story from where he started and his present position, Owolabi looked up and summed it up in one word: unbelievable.