•Beauty Queen, HELEN PREST-AJAYI
Meeting her for the first time, you will think she is just in her early 30s. This is because beautiful, stylish and gorgeous beauty queen, Helen Prest Ajayi glows radiantly. She is 58 but doesn’t look anything close to it. She won the most coveted Miss Nigeria crown in 1979 at the young age of 19. Thirty-nine years after, she is still very relevant. She was one of the stylish women that rocked the 70s like no other.
Her style was the model for ladies and girls who aspired to be like her at that time. Very highly educated, a beauty with brains, she cuts a picture of a role model for any young babe. As she has made a success of her career so has she made of her marriage and she has been married for over 3 decades. Helen Prest Ajayi is very “English” in her ways we must tell you. Her diction is second to none and she is a perfect example of a “good woman” loved by all.
She comes from a very illustrious family and this she says with all pride that her parents gave her quality education. Raised in England, she returned to Nigeria to run her advanced level programme at the International School, Ibadan. She later furthered her education at the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, where she studied Law. While there, out of excitement and adventure, she contested for the Miss Nigeria Pageant and won.
That was in 1979. In 1979, and the year following, she bestrode the Nigerian social space like a colossus. Being Miss Nigeria was a big deal, for it was the only pageant at that time, without Nollywood. There were no divas in sight then, leaving her a free zone to shine as queen and celebrity. It was a reign that was scandal-free. Three decades on, armed with a Master’s degree in Law from King’s College, London, married to Dr Tosin Ajayi with three grown up daughters and a thriving business, age seems too scared to come near her.
At 58, she looks effortlessly beautiful and epitomizes the dream of many women to age gracefully. At the 2017 edition of Miss Nigeria, she said ‘When I was Miss Nigeria, there was no Internet, no social media and there were no celebrities. Miss Nigeria was the only celebrity” and yes, she is still a celebrity, not a society woman but more of a corporate enigma who was part of the people that dictate styles on the pages of magazines.
Many of the pecks that came with the pageant that was organised by Daily Times was to travel everywhere. She got a 504 Peugeot salon car and also got a very high salary for a whole year. This lawyer who has practiced for over 35 years is a writer and was also active as a columnist in the 1990s. She is currently the CEO of Media Business Company and founder of HELP, Helen English Learning Programme. She is the granddaughter of popular politician Arthur Prest, and former communication minister.
Recently she stepped out at her friend, Mrs Tejuosho’s brother’s wedding in Lagos and she looked beautiful in an embroidery bottle green Velvet top and wrapper, with just a simple neck chain, let us tell you that it is only someone who is very stylish that can rock velvet well and to daze you, she rocked it without an earring which further solidifies what she believes in that less is more. City People Society Editor, TAYO FAJORIN OYEDIJI and Society Reporter TITI OGUNLEYE caught up with this woman who was the cynosure of all eyes at the wedding and she spoke about her life, marriage, her reign and the learning programme she is venturing into, the Helen English Learning Programme, HELP.
You are still a very stylish woman. How have you been able to keep up with your style which has not changed in many years?
I try to keep it together, I think it is important for any woman to keep themselves together. You know a woman is like a flower, she should be pleasing and she should make every effort to be as beautiful as she can. So I do make every effort and I try my best and hope it is very pleasing to the eyes.
I don’t believe you have to go extra or too loud to be noticed or be comfortable. My style is an expression of who I am. I am very comfortable in whatever I choose to wear, style is comfort. I believe less is more. I study what fits my body and do accordingly. I rarely but follow fashion at a distance. I wear what suits me. I keep up with the time but I am myself. My fashion taste has always reflected who I am, my personality. Your style should be yours and not follow people around. When you discover your personal style, you will be comfortable in it.
You are going to be 60 two years from now. You actually look younger than that. Is there any beauty secret you engage in?
Everybody knows my age, I can’t just keep that, how do I do it? I love life, I love myself, I love people, I have a great family, lovely children, peace of mind generally.
Beauty is within and I think if you are good to people, you are good to the universe, they will give you goodness back and then it shows all over you. Beauty comes from within as I have said then radiates outside. I am very youthful in my mind and I make myself very happy. I relate with different age groups which makes life a lot of fun. You should not see yourself as being old if not you will grow old fast. So renew your mind and heart to be happy. It makes life more of fun. When you are happy your skin glows.
39 years ago, you became a beauty queen how do you feel about this?
Wow, it is an honour. At first I didn’t realize what an honour it was, I had always taken it for granted but now that I am older and getting close to 60, when I look back,I think it is an honour that I carried with pride. It is a great responsibility I think because you become someone that people look up to and that should be the responsibility and I do take it seriously and it is a blessing because I am greatly blessed and I thank God for it. I must say, first of all, its God, humility follows and being myself is also very important. You have to be original and be responsible for any honour given to you. Healthy living which has a lot to do with how you look, then a stable lifestyle. Thank God I got a good education which plays a big role in my life and also gives me the opportunity to think well, understand well in every stage of life.
Many people look at beauty pageants as a very unserious venture for girls. What is your take?
I think it depends on how the individual is. I have always been a very responsible person and I think the years have shown that, I think I became a beauty queen about 39 years ago, almost 40 years now, when I was 19 and I am going to be 60 soon so I think everybody has the responsibility to give to the society. You can only give what you have. I come from a very good family, I have a very good heritage and I think I bring that to bear and I think I have a great responsibility to my country, to my family, to myself and if you know who you are. I am a princess you know, my grandmother was a princess to the Olu of Warri so I think when you know who or what you are, that comes to the fore.
I can just only speak for myself so I can’t speak for everybody else. To me being a beauty queen has been a great responsibility, a great honour and I carry it with pride and it is a blessing to me regardless of being beautiful, I think there are too many beautiful people around and if Nigeria says you are beautiful, I think you have to feel honoured for that: Winning the beauty contest was not by beauty alone, it was more than that, for Nigeria to believe in you and chose you as a winner means a lot, take it with pride and honour and behave likewise.
How do you juggle your career and keeping the family together as a wife and mother?
I think first of all you have to be prayerful, and to realize what you don’t know, know that you don’t know everything. Trust God in the matter and be humble, humility is everything. Humility goes before everything, once you are humble and you walk with God with humility, I think your path will be quite clear. You will be directed as to what to do, how to do it and when to do it.
You have been married for how long? What has sustained your marriage for that long?
I have been married for over 30 years, ofcourse you know I was once married before my new marriage, infact I have always been married because in between it was just one year out, so it will be 40 years all together.
Can you tell us about your family and growing up years?
First of all, we are a nuclear family, I have 3 brothers and a sister, my parents are educated, my father was a politician, a lawyer, my grandfather was a judge and first minister of communications and ambassador to UK, so I come from an illustrious family. I will say, my parents invested a lot in our education, they have always believed that education is key. My growing up was awesome.
Everything that one wants to achieve in life, you must be well educated. And I thank my parents for that, when I see what is going on in the country, it is saddening, we cannot move forward in this country if our people are not literate. We have over 59 pecent illiteracy in Nigeria, it is alarming. Illiteracy is being blind, it is a disability because it does not earn your life a good income and when it does not of that, you cannot look after your family, you can’t educate your children.
You can’t keep your family as a good unit together and it. leads to early mortality because you will get ill and not be able to pay for medicals. you are not properly housed, so it is the key, it is fundamental, it is the key to everything. I stand before you today and you stand before me today interviewing me because you are educated because our parents struggled to get us educated, the country gave us free education at that time so you can imagine those who do not have the chance, they can’t do anything and when they can’t do anything, then they are disillusioned, that is why you see people going into drugs.
It is just sheer hopelessness, without that key component of literacy, not even talking about going to school further, but literacy in the sense that being able to read, write and understand the global language which is English. you cannot key into the global economy if you do not understand English. You can’t even do anything on the social media, you can’t trade internationally. You can’t have access to knowledge and can’t even go on google if you can’t read and understand English.
Before floating HELP, what were you doing?
I was raising my children, I practiced Law for 35 years, I was in practice for some time then I went into IT business, design websites. We also have an online auction company called “U-wantit.com” that my daughter runs, which she is doing very well, it is still in operation, I don’t do it anymore but my daughter runs it and that is it.
Turning 60 soon, what can you say?
I am happy because I have seen my children go through a good cycle. They are well, they are whole, they are beautiful, they have established, they have all done very well in their universities, two have finished universities, but I have one who is still in the university. Now I have a daughter who is into real estate development, she works at Orange Line, I have another one who does film editing, she is the producer of a television programme with Yemi Blacq now.
She also has a passion for movies, my last child is at the University of Warwick studying. I am very happy. I am content, of course, you know my husband, Dr Tosin Ajayi, he is a genius. As a mother, I am fulfilled, my education project is a lifelong desire I have had to do something to give back and I am a teacher by nature.
For the programme, we have a device which is being developed on and it is for primary school children as they enter school and we are partnering with NYSC because we have to do something. We can’t just sit down and not give back. we should be able to add values to the society and country at large. I am not saying you must go to the university but first, you must learn English.You have to be able to read and understand.