The make-up brush is the magic wand that Muthoni Njoba uses to transform many a woman’s face. Currently riding high as Kenya’s premium make-up artiste and brand ambassador for global make-up line Maybelline NewYork under the L’Oreal stable, her life is a sharp contrast to the one she led a few years back. ESTHER AKELLO digs deep into Muthoni’s past, her rise in the make-up industry and staying grounded.
Thirty-one-year-old Muthoni Njoba has a welcoming spirit. “I am a hugger!” she says as she stretches her arms towards me and then, in an unexpected move, ushers me deep into the sanctuary of her bedroom where she pats her bed saying, “We can speak better from here.”
From the outset, she is everything you expect a make-up artiste of her caliber to be. Elegant, organised and relaxed just enough not to take herself too seriously. Her unpretentious nature makes one feel comfortable easily. It’s no wonder she claims Radio Africa’s group marketing manager Caroline Mutoko and Roberta Naicker, group managing director ABN Group among her top clients.
In between the interview, she laughs airily at what she considers to be her youthful foibles. Other times she is emotional as her voice breaks and her attempts to fight back tears fail as a drop or two escape.
In 2011, Muthoni was down, out and depressed. So much so, she prayed for death. While on one hand, she was enjoying raising her then four-year-old son Lemayan Gatheca, on the other, her fiancé was walking out on her, taking with him the idea of the quintessential picket fence family she had so desperately hoped for. This was the second time Muthoni was facing rejection of this magnitude. Just four years before, while only four months pregnant, Lemayan’s father had walked out on her, leaving her with the title, single mother. History was repeating itself and it cut deep.
“I was in my room, curtains shut, heavily drinking and smoking at 11am. I remember thinking how far I was from the woman I wanted to be. Crying, I told God to give me a reason to live or otherwise take me,” she says.
Whether by sheer coincidence or divine intervention, on that very same day, one of her mentors rang her saying she had registered Muthoni in a programme geared towards empowering women in the face of personal crises and Muthoni was to report to the programme’s open day that evening, which also happened to be the programmes last day of intake.
“I needed something to get me going. I questioned the point of life. Nobody understood my vision, dismissing it as madness. Had I made a mistake?” she says.
The mistake Muthoni was referring to was the decision not to go back into the corporate world after she got fired from a well-paying job as the personal assistant to then CEO of Centum.
Instead, she wanted to pursue the unpredictable and little appreciated world of professional make-up artistry full time. The decision had far reaching consequences. Not only had she managed to get herself fired from a secure job with massive benefits including travelling allowances, but she had lost an opportunity for an upcoming promotion as an executive assistant in charge of human resource, a position she had gone back to school for.
“Despite working at Centum then, I still had time to work as a make-up artiste on the side. In July 2008 while working on a client, I met renowned photographer Emmanuel Jambo who encouraged me to work full time as a make-up artiste,” she says adding she remained undecided for a while.
By 2009, while her professional life seemed to soar, her personal life was tanking. The pressures of work, school and raising a family took a toll on her. She developed ulcers and had little time for her family especially her son who also bore the brunt of her high stress levels. One fateful day in November, she bumped into Emmanuel Jambo who asked her if she had quit her job.
“In that moment, when I was trying to explain why I hadn’t, he challenged me by saying if I did, he would shoot my portfolio for free,” she explains, adding emotionally, “This was the sign I needed. However, I could not bring myself to resign from my job because I did not want to give anyone one more reason to call me a quitter. I had always been the student that joined a musical instrument class or a sport only to leave it midway because I did not have the passion to sustain the momentum. Additionally, my dreams had never been validated because while my family supported my brother’s passion for motor cross enrolling him in races, my passion was dismissed as girl’s play.”
Meanwhile, Muthoni’s issues festered motivating the Centum management to get her a counsellor. On coming back from compulsory leave, she was given a termination letter. Her decision to never seek corporate employment however did not sit well with her father who had supported her when she was straight out of campus, broke, pregnant and alone at 22. He stopped speaking to her. That was in 2010.
Unperturbed and armed with her savings, Muthoni hit the ground running, covering shifts for make-up artistes who were otherwise pre-occupied and those kind enough to relinquish some of their clients. Despite backlash from other artistes who thought she was not worth her salt, Muthoni pushed hard covering events for free and even sponsoring some in several countries including Tanzania, South Sudan and Ethiopia. However, by 2011, the strain of having only one breadwinner in the home took its toll on her relationship and Muthoni and her fiancé split up. With no steady income, Muthoni could not even afford to feed her son.
“I would sneak to my dad’s office and ask the security guard to fill my containers with water. I also started homeschooling Lemayan; paying tutors to teach him only the subjects I could not teach. Other days, I would carry him to work while on others, I let him play with his best friend at their house because it was the best bet that he would have three meals that day and adult supervision while I was away at work,” she says wistfully.
Her breakthrough finally came in 2012 when an old client called to tell her a local media station was looking for a make-up artiste. After making her pitch, she got a contract supervising a team of make-up artistes that would work on the anchors. From there, her clientele grew. After realising how serious Muthoni took her craft, her father finally agreed to sponsor her for a seven-day foundation course at the prestigious Academy of Freelance Make-up in London in 2013.
In 2014, not one but two international make-up lines approached Muthoni to become their local brand ambassador. She ended up choosing Maybelline New York by L’Oreal who officially announced her position in January 2015.
“To be approached by Maybelline is both prestigious and surreal. It was my brand of choice whenever I needed to practice my craft in campus. As brand ambassador, I use my networks including social media platforms to talk about the Maybelline products I love. I also train the beauty assistants in all the shops that stock Maybelline products,” she says.
Ironically, for a student who suffered from low self-esteem as a result of always being the last one to complete assignments, Muthoni is an ardent student of the make-up industry. She went back to the Academy of
Freelance Make-up this year for an advanced course. “People ask me why I went back to school. There is always something new I can learn. The day I stop hearing that voice then I know I am in trouble. I also wanted to prepare for the 2016 New York Fashion Week which Maybelline, one of the official sponsors, have invited me to,” she expounds.
And the offer could not have come at a better time. In a world where a woman is said to be beautiful on the basis of how much she weighs as opposed to the content of her character, many more women are re-defining the standards of beauty, Muthoni being one of them.
“I was overweight as a teenager and suffered from low self-esteem. Make-up became my escape because although I was fat, I got complimented a lot for having a beautiful face. When I was 21, I went on a diet losing 35 kgs in four months and despite being able to finally wear tiny clothes, the confidence boost I had been secretly pining for never came. At 22 I became pregnant and gained it all back and have never looked back since!” she says confidently.
Though Muthoni would not call herself an ardent shopper, she does support a lot of start-up designers and commissions them to make one-off clothes for her. In January this year, she promoted Kung’ara Boutique, modelling clothes in their plus size collection.
According to Muthoni, women need not feel pressured to fit only one mould. To that effect, she does not endorse being lax about ones’ body. Despite her plus size, Muthoni treats her body like a temple, cutting off alcohol, smoking, drinking lots of water, stacking up on fruits and vegetables and working out when time allows.
Her need for perfection carries over into her luxury brand (a query on the cost of her services merely elicits a chuckle from her). Muthoni says her success can only be attributed to God and family who despite disapproving her early foray into single motherhood have kept her grounded.
“I made a conscious prayer at the beginning of my career to never allow my reputation overtake my love for what I do. Tithing and giving keep me grounded, as they remind me that material things are merely temporary,” she explains.
Speaking of giving, Muthoni’s generous spirit displays itself from time to time. After the 2007/ 2008 post-election violence, she helped find accommodation for seven single mothers from Limuru’s Kirathimo IDP camp while equipping them with income generating activities and even taking up some of their children’s medical bills. She still keeps in touch with them.
Additionally, during most weekends and holidays, she and her son Lemayan spend their time at Little Rock Early Childhood Centre, which cares for vulnerable children in Kibera. Additionally she says after the shame she experienced, her heart and home is always open to single mothers especially the young ones.
“Feelings are hard. Young mothers feel shame, not good enough, and this immobilizes them from pursuing their dreams. If I can change the life of even one single mother then I know I can sleep better at night. I also attribute a lot of my strength to my mother who had me at the same age as I did my son, 22. She of all people understood the challenges I was going through as a young mother and has always supported me throughout my journey to success,” she says
As for the picket fence family she so desperately desires Muthoni says she is wary of love. “I have days when the pain of broken relationships haunt me. However, certain days, I tell God that I want to share this journey with a good man who appreciates the value of raising a child. I am selective about the people around Lemayan because I want him to be a good, strong, humble man. I have male friends who are amazing figures in his life and right now that seems to work for both of us. The greatest lesson I have picked in life is that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it and trust God, ” she concludes.
Published in January 2015