The amazing Nigerian make-up artist and entrepreneur, Segun Gele who is based in the United States and has had his work featured on CNN for his ability to tie the gele in flamboyant style took us on a journey through his early life and start of his career.
Please tell us about yourself and your business?
My name is Hakeem Oluwasegun Olaleye. A lot of people don’t know me as Hakeem which is my first name. I attended St Gregory’s College and was known as Hakeem. After my education, I became known as Segun. I have different friends, so they call me whatever works for them. Over the years, I’ve had different nicknames and aliases. At LASU where I graduated with bachelors in English, people called me Segsy.
In the business industry in Nigeria, they called me Segsy as well but coming to America in 2001, the name changed from Segsy to Segun Gele. So pretty much that’s me.
So how did you start and what inspired you to get into the wedding industry?
I started out helping my mom. This is actually my 22nd year in the wedding industry because I owned my salon in 1996 before the wedding industry became the wedding industry. Some of us have been pioneers to start without saying, so I have spent that long in the industry. What I tell a lot of people is to turn their passion into possibilities, into their vision and make a living out of it. So pretty much that’s what it is for me. Starting, I never knew I was going to do this. Never! I wanted to go into journalism; junk journalism to be precise.
Junk journalism is dirty, oh-my-god gossip, and all the juicy stuff. I saw myself in Hollywood. I really wanted to go into journalism, but coming to America I realized it is a totally different ball game. I didn’t have any guidance and nobody to put me through prior to coming to America but when I came here I had to find my own way.
I had to find my feet and everything and I won’t say I regret it. I love what I do and I’ve been doing this for sixteen years in America. Thank God, it’s been good so far. So hence I’m still in business today.
Would you start your business if you were to do it all over again and what would you do differently?
Yes I will. When I got married in 2010, the wedding industry was not like this, social media was not like this, and makeup business was not like this. Photography business was okay but it was not like this. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. Yes, I will start all over again if the business is really like this because the industry has really grown. A lot of people I know (lawyers, doctors, etc.) left their professions and are fully in the wedding industry today. They are making a lot of money because it’s what they enjoy doing. It’s all about your passion. It is just all about you and your calling. So, yes I will go back to do it and I promise I won’t do it the same way because it will be bigger and better. That’s just what I know. It will be bigger and better.
What has been your greatest motivation?
My greatest motivation is seeing other people doing the same thing I do, succeeding in what they are doing even though there are ups-and-downs or challenges. For most of my peers back in Nigeria, given labor is cheaper, it is easier and cheaper for them to run their businesses. I don’t envy them. I just look at them and I’m like “ok wow! I can do better and I will do better”. Seeing them still in business and in the industry keeps me motivated and trust me there are tons of people that motivate me.
What do you think of the Nigerian/Ghanaian wedding industry? Has it changed over the years and how?
Has it changed over the years are you asking? It’s like asking if the Nollywood or Ghallywood industry has changed over the years. It sure has. I knew back in the days, for instance, when Banke Meshida started her makeup business which I think was almost the same year Tara started as well. Then I wasn’t into makeup but was doing hair. They would do makeup and I would do hair. I’ve actually worked with Banke one-on-one and most times with Tara’s staff back in the days.
It has really increased because back in the day people looked down on makeup artists and the gele guys. They felt they were university dropouts or whatever but forget it right now. That’s not the case. They know that most people in the business are doing it out of passion. Of course who doesn’t want to be a part of someone’s happiness and beautiful beginning?
What do you like about your business and working in the industry?
I get to travel a lot for free and meet a lot of people. I get to experience so many things. Most weekends I get a vacation and most importantly I get to be a part of someone’s happy beginning. I have built long lasting friendships because I am quite friendly with my brides.
What differentiates Segun Gele from others in your line of business and location? What are your great strengths?
My strength is me. It’s putting my personality in what I do. My unique selling point is me and the passion I have for my business. I’m self-taught and didn’t go to school to learn. Every day I still yearn to learn more. Like I said, I look up to those that are in the industry with me; seeing what they are doing and trying to better myself. I’m going to Nigeria in two weeks to perfect as there’s a new method of gele tying. I saw it and I kind of like it but I think there’s a way I can make it better for me. I have my own shortcomings that’s why I have not jumped into that style of gele yet. I want to go and learn how to do it and perfect it in my own way.
Is there a name for that gele tying style?
It’s a multi-plait gele that everybody is doing right now and I consider emphatically that they invented that style because they did not know how I tie my style (*winks*) which is the real traditional style. I can say it anywhere, not everybody can tie the gele the way I do but I can tie the gele the way they can. Not everybody, not everybody can.
I don’t tie gele like the market women back in Nigeria especially back in the days where they used paint buckets to tie gele. I don’t. I tie it on your head. I form it up and everything.
That’s one thing I really appreciate right now because a lot of people have actually reinvented those styles. They have put their own creativity and that’s just the beauty of the industry. Now I see some things and I’m like “oh wow that’s nice!”
I can actually think back 10-20 years ago and remember that style. I am pretty much my greatest strength. I stand apart from other people. Now when I work at weddings, I just don’t do it because I want to get paid. I do it because I want to leave a mark with my clients and be a part of something really good at the end of the day. When paid, I go above and beyond and that’s just it. I think that is what sets me apart.
What do you expect from your clients (brides and grooms) and what don’t you expect?
So far, I have really not been disappointed. I speak my mind really and during consultation I get to understand the client I am working with. I get to do tryouts which I really don’t do most of the time because most of my clients trust what I do as they’ve seen my work. Except for those that want something in particular and we actually discuss before providing service. In the long run, I expect mutual respect from both parties even if they’re young or old because I am rendering a service. Respect is key in this business.
What are the most rewarding aspects of providing your service and what are the most frustrating aspects?
The most rewarding aspect is when a bride gives me a free hand to work on her. I tell people if you want to look totally different, that is hundred percent transformation, don’t come to me because makeup is all about enhancing your inner beauty. It is not total transformation where you’ll see and not recognize the person. I don’t do that.
I tell people if you want to look like a drag queen, which I jokingly mention, you can go to some people but not me. Some brides are really very difficult and some brides are just very demanding. I have learnt to bite my tongue so I don’t say the wrong thing. You cannot have a face like mine, for instance round and want it to become oval right now, and tell me you want to look like Angelina Jolie when you don’t have the facial features. They want you to make them look like some person and they can’t look like that person. They start behaving some way. It’s just frustrating when you have a difficult client. At the end of the day, you don’t put your all in what you are doing. You just want to do it and just get out of their face. You just do what they want and you just leave.
When I see that she needs a touch up, ordinarily I would want to give it but if you are a bridezilla which is the word then I’ll just stick to my contract. If you are supposed to get two and I see you need four, you are going to get the two you deserve. But if you are nice and supposed to get two and paid for two and I see you require four or even six, I’ll give you the extra as I stand by my work. I do makeup for some people and they’re like “oh is there a way you can make me not sweat”. I cannot control that.
If you have a very oily skin, I can control the oil to an extent because it’s inherent. Sometimes they start to say “oh I heard they do make up that you don’t sweat”. How do you control that?
Another thing I don’t lie to people. I don’t Photoshop images for my work. What you see online is what you get. I’m talking about heavy editing when it comes to Photoshop. If at all I do anything, I’ll probably just smoothen out the skin just lightly and I do it on my phone; not heavily these days which is okay. I hate when I see a bride’s picture and they look like plastic. That’s not the work because when you depend on Photoshop editing too much you tend to relent on your efforts to do the actual job.
What advice do you have for future brides and grooms regarding your type of business?
My advice with the era of social media, photo enhancements, passing of in-law which is taking somebody else’s job and making it your own and everything, is to do a thorough research on the vendor.
Get word of mouth from somebody who has worked with the vendor before. What I’m saying is don’t judge a book by its cover. I get a lot of that because I’m a very strong and firm person. You see me from afar and you think this guy is mean but really I’m doing my job if it is what the bride says.
For instance, I have a bride I am working with and all she wants is for me to make sure nobody messes with her. Some brides are very detailed. These are the things they want. When she’s coming in, she doesn’t want people with their phones and tablets coming in front of the photographer to take pictures.
That is why she is hiring me. I’m not doing her makeup but just dressing her up. When you pay a photographer almost $10,000 to take pictures, then they should be able to deliver. It makes the job difficult when you have all these unprofessional photographers come in and mess up the day.
Pretty much that’s all she’s hiring me to do. Now guess what? Somebody in the crowd might see me and be like “oh he’s doing too much”. I was paid to do that. People do not realize that.
Some people know if you are supposed to rsvp for a wedding, with limited seating say four hundred guests, that you have to rsvp to attend the wedding. They have reserved seats. If your name is not on the seat you cannot sit on the table. That’s why they get me. I make sure you don’t sit on the table.
Another example, you come into a beautifully decorated wedding reception venue with eight chairs to a table, and you pull a chair from a table you don’t belong, it messes up the whole arrangement. I am all about making my brides happy and making the job easier for the planner or coordinator when they hire me for such services and even when they do not.
Is there a name for that role?
Not really. When I started, I had the business named the bride’s escorts, which is doing what I just described to you. Coming to America, I had to change the name because the word ‘escorts’ is totally different. I was getting lots of unsolicited calls wanting lots of unnecessary things so I just had to get rid of that name.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming businesses in your line of business?
Look for somebody you look up to and shadow the person. Right now, there are lots of people in the industry that are new to make up artistry. If you can do make up on yourself that doesn’t mean you can do it on somebody else. I cannot do make up on myself. If I was a lady, well I’m sure I would have improved on that because I don’t have the choice as I have to wear makeup every day.
Study the business you want to go into. Don’t just wake up one day and think you can just start doing something. Study the business, look for somebody and shadow the person. Be dedicated and committed to whoever you choose to shadow. It goes a long way. I am going to Nigeria to meet Oni Gele. He is like an aburo (brother). He does gele beautifully well.
I’m not going to say that I’m Segun Gele, featured on CNN twice, featured on this TV show and that TV show. No! He knows what I want so I go to him and he shows me what he wants to show me. It is now left to me to make it my own.
The industry keeps evolving and growing, so you just have to evolve. Never burn bridges with anyone because you never know who you can learn from. Be attentive, be patient, and just keep learning. I have a friend coming in soon, GlambyIsoken. I’ve had this product in my shop for the longest time and I just was using it the wrong way until she came and hung out with me.
I approached her online via social media and we became friends. She will say “Segun, you need to do this; you need to do that”. I really appreciate it. She’s a social media influencer in the makeup industry, and she showed me how to use that product. You just have to mix with other people and learn so many things from them. I’m not so proud to beg and that’s just the truth. If I need to learn something from you, I will ask you. There are some people that I have contacted and they refuse to respond but it is okay. You move on. Nobody is stopping anybody from growing.
What awards, if any, have you received?
There are quite a few of them. I can’t even remember. I don’t let those things get into my head. The best award is being married to my wife with my lovely children.
What else would you like to share with our readers?
Never judge a book by its cover. Get to know somebody and meet the person. In business, we all have different approaches and techniques of doing things. The only thing is we all arrive at the same answer at the end of the day. It is just like solving a math problem.
One thing I’ve learned to do is to never underestimate anybody. Be open minded and friendly. Never leave your door too open door though. Welcome criticism. A lot of people think I’m stuck up when it comes to it. Criticism can be positive or negative.
If it comes in a very positive light to let me understand I might be doing something wrong, I will take it in a very good way but if it comes in a very bad orcondescending manner then it becomes a negative criticism. When the person now responds, then it becomes “oh he is rude or he is mean”. It still comes back to never judge a book by its cover.
So never judge a book by its cover and take criticism lightly.