Simply put Naomi Nga’ng’a’s life befits the phrase “from slum to stardom”. She talks to us about growing up in Huruma slum, the serendipity that led her into showbiz and her ambition that has seen her conquer the world of TV, radio and now fashion.
If you enjoy local television, chances are you have watched Naomi Ng’ang’a do what she does best – act – in one of the many drama series she has featured in.
Naomi, now in her 20s, has been acting for close to nine years and although she is now living the good life, her childhood was far from blissful.
Naomi grew up in Huruma in a family of eight children. She was raised by her mother for the better part of her childhood as her father travelled in search of greener pastures to try and get his family out of poverty.
“Growing up in the ghetto was tough. When I look at how far God has brought me, I am just so grateful,” she says. Naomi’s father was forced to stop his travels when her mother passed away. The family struggled even more to survive with only one source of income.
After completing high school, Naomi enrolled for a course in hospitality in 2006, though she did not complete her studies.
“I always hate it when people ask me what I studied because I changed my course about six times. I was never sure of exactly what I wanted to pursue. I started off with hospitality, moved to tourism, tried psychology and even aviation. I have never completed my degree,” she confesses.
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As Naomi jumped from course to course, she started acting out set books at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT). “I realised I had talent. Acting just came naturally to me,” she says.
Her time at KNT provided her with a good foundation for what was to come.
One day in 2007 as Naomi waited for a friend in town, she had an Iman-esque moment (Iman, the high fashion model, was spotted by a photographer who launched her modelling career). A casting director spotted her in town and thought she was a perfect fit for a role in an upcoming drama series.
“He approached me and asked if he could take my picture and phone number. I thought he was one of those jokers trying to make a move on me. I gave him my number anyway and didn’t think much about it,” Naomi says.
She lost her phone but when she replaced her sim card two weeks later, the first call she received was from the casting director. “He said he had been trying to reach me because the production team wanted me on the show, and just like that, I got into TV acting.”
Naomi got a role as a bubbly, busybody hairdresser in the TV series Wash and Set. This was her breakthrough role and after that, calls kept streaming in for more roles. She has since acted in other TV series including Noose of Gold, Demigods, Lies that Bind and Sumu la penzi.
Naomi says that as her experience grew and she became a household name, she started commanding more pay.
Serendipity comes knocking
“It’s important to always do your best in whatever role you get because you don’t know who will remember you and think of you for another role,” she says.
Naomi says that women should rely on their talent to get ahead, rather than their bodies. “You have heard stories of women who sleep around to get roles. It’s not only in the entertainment industry, but every profession. I always tell women to rely on their talent. What God has set aside for you will be yours. Do not feel pressured to give up your body for work. Opportunities will come to you at the right time,” she says.
In 2012, as Naomi was enjoying her life as a sought-after actress when she got a call from a radio producer. “He said a friend of his had told him about me – that I was fun and had the right personality for radio. He told me to go for a voice test.”
Naomi said she had never thought about being a radio presenter, but she went for the voice test nonetheless. “I went on a Friday and I had no experience in radio but I was just myself. I had fun, made jokes and laughed at myself and on Monday, I was called and told to pick up my contract.”
That was how Naomi’s four-year stint in radio began. She says talent, rather than studies, will take you everywhere.
“I didn’t complete my studies because acting jobs came along and I love money so I put my studies on hold but I’ll go back at some point. Education is important, but it is not all there is. There are people who have studied radio production but if you put them in front of a microphone, they won’t hack it. Natural talent is important.”
Plus size fashion
Naomi decided to hang her headphones at the beginning of the year to pursue another passion – fashion. She has always been an advocate for plus size women – she was the brand ambassador for the campaign Plus Size Fabulosity, and modelled the plus-size collection for fashion designer Wambui Mukenyi.
Naomi says she had struggled finding clothes that flattered her figure for a long time. And as she got more acting jobs, there were more events she had to attend. “I started having up to three events a week and I would struggle to find something that fit my curves. That frustration made me start a fashion line,” she says.
Style by Neomi makes custom-made clothes for plus-size women. Naomi says a lot of curvy women are self-conscious and end up dressing badly as they try to hide their trouble spots.
“I hate it when I see women in town with hoodies, baggy clothes and rubber shoes. That looks bad. A woman should be well-groomed at all times. Being plus-size does not mean you should look bad. Wear fitting clothes.”
Naomi is not shy about her curves. She wears fitting clothes and is comfortable in swimwear. With this comes some negative comments, especially on social media, but she says she does not focus on negativity.
“There will always be people who celebrate you and others who hate on you. I am never affected by people who post negative things about my weight on social media. Those are just idlers and they mean nothing to me. I focus on the positive comments,” she says.
Naomi adds that she, however, does not advocate for women letting themselves go. “You can be plus size but you should never let yourself go. Make sure you eat healthy and work out so that even with your curves, you do not put yourself at risk for diseases such as diabetes,” she says.
Although Naomi’s journey in showbiz seems rosy, she admits there have been some thorns along the way. Take, for example, when she had the idea to start a talk show.
Although the idea has finally paid off and Naomi has her own Kiswahili talk show called Sema Nami, it took five years for the show to get picked up.
“I had the idea of featuring successful people so people can get inspired by their stories and I shot the pilot in 2011 but it never got picked up by stations,” Naomi says.
“I let it rest for a while and then finally, five years later, it has been picked up and we have shot more than 100 episodes. People should never give up because you never know when your time will come,” she says.
Naomi concludes by saying, “Everything is possible. Look where I have come from. Women should strive to be successful and independent,” she says.
“If you look at the people with fuel guzzlers on the roads, you will notice that more and more women are behind the wheel. We are taking over and no woman should be left behind. Don’t sleep. As you are sleeping, someone else out there is making money. Money never sleeps.”