The making of PIERRA MAKENA

Pierra Makena is the queen of versatility. Thrown in the entertainment industry limelight at the age of 17 when a local daily highlighted her performance in the national schools drama festivals, she has honed her skills to not only become a regionally acclaimed actress, advertising guru and a media maven, but has also endeared herself to mass audiences as one of the country’s most sought after female deejays. She opens up to ESTHER AKELLO on her rise in the industry.

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Driven. Aggressive. Risk taker. Audacious words but entertainment siren, Pierra Makena, is unabashed when using them to define herself. Whether you remember her as the rich and spoilt Jean Joyce in the TV drama series Tahidi High, or as Kenya’s Lara Croft, nick-named after a hit advert she did several years back based on the stunts in acclaimed action film Tomb Raider, one thing is for sure, the world is Pierra’s oyster.

Few in the entertainment industry have achieved the feats she has, with her credits including but not limited to advertising, film, radio, TV and music. “All the success I have enjoyed is because of God’s favour,” the beauty philosophically adds. That, however, should not be taken to mean that she did not work hard to get where she has. In fact, Pierra, who seems to subscribe to the life motto Cape Diem (seize the day), proudly describes herself as a hustler and always on the look-out for new opportunities. They, however, did not come without their costs.

“I know what it feels like to walk to work because you do not have bus fare, or to sleep hungry because all you have is a prayer and your dream,” she says soberly as she refers to a time when she saw herself spiral after having a particularly hard year including losing her job as a news presenter at a local radio station.

Growing up in rural Meru with her parents and six siblings, Pierra’s dream was to become a paeditrician. And although she indulged in the arts, participating in drama festivals in primary and secondary school, entertainment was more of a hobby than a planned career move. This changed when in 2000, as she was sitting for her final Kenya Certificate Secondary Examination (KCSE) paper, the national broadcaster, KBC, headhunted her for a local programme, Tausi. “I had won several awards for performances in drama festivals in high school and had been highlighted in the dailies. I never thought it would amount to anything more than that,” says Pierra.

With her parents’ blessings, she took the job, which further opened doors for her. She secured a lead role in the KBC drama series Kisulisuli after her role in Tausi did not pan out. Additionally, her producers, recognising her potential, convinced her to join the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication for media studies, even pulling strings and calling in favours to get her in, ultimately changing her career path.

Determined to learn as much as she could, in addition to acting and studying, she took on other duties including news recording and reporting even producing some shows including KBC’s hit entertainment news show, Grape Vine. In 2004, after her graduation, she left KBC for a position as a news presenter at Radio Waumini before leaving again that same year to join YFM, now Hot 96. In February 2006, she parted ways with the station. It would take six months before her life would make a turn-around, career wise that is.  Emotionally, life was taking its toll. Two months after losing her job, Pierra lost her father.

“My parents were my mentors. Losing my dad, especially after unemployment was a trying time in my life. Life was not going as planned,” she recounts.

But even with her struggles, her fear of going back to the village kept her motivated enough to look for freelance work. Whenever things hit rock bottom, she would contact her elder sister in America to send her cash, never revealing how bad the situation had escalated. “I believed in myself and was determined to make it. Going home was not an option. I may have been a village girl, but my dreams were beyond the village level,” she says.

Eventually, her determination bore fruit as she was recruited to do odd production jobs on the set of the inaugural season of popular reality music show, Tusker Project Fame. Determined to network with industry bigwigs, she poured herself into her duties and soon enough, climbed through the ranks becoming a camerawoman. The calls she so desperately longed for also started pouring in as the producers of TV drama series Tahidi High contacted her for a role.

The show was an instant hit and Pierra was back in the limelight. However, longing to come to terms with the death of her father, she put acting on the back burner and quit her role after several episodes and accepted a job with music producers Ogopa Deejays, moving to Namibia to manage their sister stable group, Ogopa Butterfly. “Namibia was eye opening. I was in charge of a lot of talent and had creative license to do things my own way. More importantly, I was able to work on a lot of personal issues,” she says self-confidently.

Seeking to re-establish her roots, she quit her Namibia position in 2008 and came back home, taking up a position as a TV advertising producer with Scanad Kenya Limited. She held the position for two years and it re-ignited her acting career. It was around the same time that Africa’s largest satellite television provider, DStv, offered her the lead role in one of their productions, Changes. The role threw her into regional stardom and industry bigwigs sat up and took notice.

“I started getting offers from producers all over Africa including Nollywood and suddenly a full-fledged career in acting did not seem so out of reach,” she says. The crossover started paying off when in 2014 she got her first nomination in the Ghana Movie Awards in the best actress African collaboration category for her role in the movie, When Love Comes Around.

Never one to stare at a prized horse in the face, her determination and serious multitasking skills saw her leave Scanad Kenya Limited in 2010 to help set up One Fm radio station, including conceptualising its sound, format and hiring the staff. It is here that she also picked her other high-flying hobby, deejaying, after realising the station was understaffed and didn’t have a choice than to take on an additional position as a presenter.

“I had never deejayed in my life but I wanted my show to be unconventional. So I called some of my DJ friends and would practice on their sets before my show. After a short while and to my surprise, people started calling me to perform at their events,” she recalls. Following the requests, she honed her skill and has never looked back. She has earned a spot, arguably as one of Kenya’s most sought after and highly paid female deejays, and has played at international events in Burundi, Ghana, Nigeria and America.

Of course, with life in the limelight and party scene, there are bound to be assumptions and critics. Pierra, a teetotaler, says that many people are not aware that she is very spiritual. She meets a lot of people who cannot dissociate her from her dumb blonde character, Cindy, in Changes, while others assume she cannot perform at par with her male DJ counterparts. “I never take the assumptions personally. People are entitled to their opinion. In cases where people behave unprofessionally, I simply walk away,” she adds.

In 2012, she took up a brand assets manager position at Ogilvy Advertising, managing regional corporate giants such as Airtel and helping initiate projects such as the recently concluded Trace Stars that saw budding musicians battle it out for a recording contract with internationally acclaimed American R&B artist /producer Akon. Despite her busy schedule, she recently started her own production house and is scheduled to shoot her first movie in August. Preparations for the release of her first deejay track is also underway.

“I do not see why I should rest on my laurels when I am young and energetic. I want to contribute as much as I can to the entertainment industry,” she says. Her desire to contribute is not limited to the media. She has been involved in philanthropic activities including working in conjunction with the government as a road safety awareness ambassador. In keeping with her passion for children and young people, she does motivational talks in schools and someday hopes to achieve her life-long dream of starting a children’s home.

Speaking of children, family remains her top priority as she confesses that her siblings are her moral compass, giving her advise on various issues and never mincing their words when she strays. She also hopes to have a family of her own someday but admits that societal pressure that women should have a family by a certain age does not bother her one bit.

“I have always trusted God to bring my way the perfect opportunity at the perfect time and that goes for marriage and family as well. All in good time,” she concludes.

Currently Pierra is a TV Host. Congratulations from Parents Family.

akello@parents.co.ke

Published in June 2015

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