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Nigerian-born Patti Boulaye has had a unique life: she has lived through one of the great genocides of the 20th century to become a singer, actress, model, activist, and fundraiser — a career propelled by controversy, determination, faith, and willpower. Patricia Ngozi Ebigwei came into this world on the move, born in 1954 in a taxicab between two villages in the Bendel Igbo region of rural Nigeria. One of eight children, she grew up in the middle of the horrific Biafran civil war, witnessing such horrors as a man running down the street with his head cut off and stepping around fresh bodies as her family walked home from church. Later she credited her mother's steadfast faith through these terrible times as the source of her strength and her musical inspiration, later recalling her mother singing along to her favorite music, Louis Armstrong's "Nobody Knows the Troubles I Seen" and Mahalia Jackson's great gospel prayers.
At 16 she left Nigeria and moved to London, where she accidentally stepped into the wrong queue and wound up auditioning for a West End musical instead of going to Madame Tussaud's Wax Palace. She won the audition, and began a career as a stage actress, first in Hair at the Shaftesbury Theatre and then Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Phoenix. Her stunning exotic beauty and powerful singing voice landed her in an all-girl group, the Flirtations; she stayed with them for a year, and recorded several singles, leaving to perform in Jesus Christ Superstar and then the starring role in The Black Mikado. It was around that time that she met and was profoundly inspired by the then 70-year-old English theater actress Evelyn Laye, known to her friends as "Boo"; in direct homage, Patricia Ngozi Ebigwei changed her stage name to Patti Boulaye.
No one will really ever know how Boo Laye influenced the young Nigerian actress, but from this time her star ascended dramatically — more stage roles followed, then she returned to Africa to star in the critically acclaimed Bisi, Daughter of the River. Returning to London, she entered the highly prestigious New Faces TV competition, and easily bested the competition, getting the first perfect score in the five-year history of the show. New career peaks kept coming — she released successful records, toured around the world, danced with the Scottish Ballet, appeared on Talk of the Town, appeared in several more movies, and became the highly visible face of Lux Beauty Soap in the U.K. for five years. She was named Female Vocalist of the Year in 1981 by BBC-TV, and co-produced her own TV series, The Patti Boulaye Show, on U.K. Channel 4. She was then hugely applauded for her performances in Carmen Jones at the Old Vic Theatre, and many other critically lauded stage and television roles followed. The 100th broadcast of The Patti Boulaye Show — a Christmas Day special with Cliff Richard — was watched by millions. She performed at the 50th birthday of Prince Hassan of Jordan, and the inauguration of the President of Nigeria.
Politics became the undoing of her first career. Her support of the Thatcher government came under considerable criticism in the vulturous British press; their attack on her reached its peak when The Guardian quoted her as saying she supported apartheid. As a black African, she was outraged, and successfully sued, proving to the courts that she had spoken of the importance of supporting "the party," not apartheid, and had been misheard or misquoted by the reporter. Still, it took until 1999 to get that legal judgment, and in the meantime, her career stalled. Bookings dried up, her TV show was canceled, and her forward momentum came to a standstill.
Boulaye did not stay out of the limelight long, however; rather than being quashed by the political backlash, she marshaled her considerable energy and faith, and entered a new phase of her career. She organized a charity, Support for Africa, with a mission to eradicate malaria and generate awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, directly ensuring that the money raised went to building screening centers in Cameroon and Nigeria. "God took away my career — with a lot help from the Tories — so I could do this," she was famously quoted. She produced a massive fundraising event at Royal Albert Hall featuring a choir of 3,000 singers and major British footballers, and then, most impressively, increased it to a record 5,000 gospel singers for a parade she lead to Buckingham Palace for the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002. She has worked relentlessly for her charity, enlisting many high-profile celebrities in her efforts, including Cliff Richard, Michael Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal, and John Major.
Boulaye has remained creatively active as well — highlights in recent years include the stage production of Patti Boulaye's Sun Dance, a colorful pageant of African custom and dance, for which she wrote several songs, and in 2004 she released the stunning gospel CD In His Kingdom, a heartfelt affirmation of her Christian faith using African arrangements and instrumentation. In recent years she has become a successful painter and jewelry designer, and remains a tireless worker for her charity. In September 2007 she produced Football Reaching Out for Africa (FROFA), a charity event with a mass choir of 3,000 gospel singers and a host of football stars and musicians. Now in her fifth decade, Patti Boulaye continues her career with the same energy of her early youth, and the world is arguably a better place for it.