There’s no doubt that you will have heard of the “Benz Punani Womanist” that is Kelechnekoff, and if you haven’t, you need to! Pole fitness coach, twerk coach and actress, Kelechi Okafor uses exercise and fitness to empower women, especially women of colour and give them a space to self-liberate, dance and feel amazing.
MM: Tell us a bit about yourself?
KO: I was born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to Peckham in London when I was five, and that’s all I’ve ever known. I watched Peckham change and so I wanted my studio to be there. I’m an actor, director and teach pole, and I’m a personal trainer.
MM: What first got you into fitness?
KO: I’ve always had a natural affinity to sports. Even when I was in high school, I was head of sports in year 11, I was air cadet for a few years and did athletics for the region. It’s another manner of self-expression for me outside of performing arts.
MM: Amazing! You were an air cadet?
KO: Yes! I learnt skills in the cadets that I never would have learnt anywhere else. For example, I can read clouds and I can tell when it’s going to rain and people are like, “how do you know how to do that when you dance around in pum-pum shorts?”
I’m the oldest in my family and I like there to be structure in everything I do. I like that discipline offers structure and motivation. You have to have discipline to see things through so that’s a focus in all my classes. Arriving on-time to my classes is non-negotiable!
MM: Tell us a bit about what inspired you to make the Twerk Werkz Twerkshops and who are they aimed at?
KO: I fell into it. I had been a personal trainer for a while and I found myself wanting to use my strength in a different way, so I went to pole classes. I got really good and ended up becoming a teacher. They also had a twerk class that no one ever attended, and it was set up as a fashionable class off the back of a lot of what Miley Cyrus was doing at the time.
One of the owners recognised that she wasn’t able to teach the class because she couldn’t physically move to the beats per minute so asked me if I could twerk. The class was so white-washed so I wanted to do a complete re-structure. I wanted to change the narrative so I brought in Afro beats and started posting it on my social media. Friends started coming and then people I didn’t know – black women and women of colour, and within a few months, it ended up being fully –booked twice a week.
MM: What would you say to women who feel held back by body confidence issues?
KO: With me, there’s no “can’t.” And this isn’t based on erasure but instead, it’s addressing the things holding them back. If they see themselves as bigger than your average person, or a different body shape than what we see in the media, I always tell them that fitness is an individual journey. We don’t have to accept the societal narratives of what fitness looks like. It can give people a sense of embarrassment and a sense of shame that they don’t look like the adverts. It’s about giving that judgement back to the owner (society) because it definitely isn’t ours. That risk of shame and failure isn’t an option and everyone is welcome in my classes. Just because you might not be able to do something yet, doesn’t mean you have to make that can’t eternal.
MM: Who’s your ultimate woman role model…who do you look up to most and why?
KO: Viola Davis without question! She’s an extreme baby girl and I love her immensely. In terms of her craft, I find her impeccable. Even when she gives speeches, accepts awards, she seems as someone who considers everything. As a dark-skin black woman, I’m sure she’d want to make her points in a more impassioned manner, as they might call it an “aggressive” way. She always gets down to the message and the message is this: We want to be part of this too. We can’t win if we’re not allowed in the arena.
“If I’m the black Meryl Streep, give me what I’m worth.”
When HRH Viola Davis speaks it’s from a place of experience, truth and authority. Long live the Queen.
— Daniellé DASH (@DanielleDASH) February 16, 2018
I commend her courage for speaking up recently about pay. She was brave enough to say that even though she’s been compared as the black Meryl Streep, they don’t want to pay her Meryl Streep money. She’s my mentor without knowing it. As fiery as I may appear, I’m constantly working to find ways that I can say what I want to say without saying it all. It’s when you get into the extra bits that people want to argue with you over minute details whereas if I just say exactly what it is, you can’t argue with that.
MM: Tell us a bit more about your acting and writing?
KO: Performing arts has always been my passion and it’s what I love doing in life. In October last year, I produced, acted and directed a play and that taught me that I don’t want to do everything all at once. I write poetry too; I submit it sometimes and don’t submit it other times. We’re used to being presented with one facet of someone. I’ve tried to keep every aspect of what I enjoy present in some kind of way.
MM: We love your Instagram stories. What’s been the worst reaction and the best reaction to something you’ve said?
KO: The worst reaction was when some girl decided that I’m a reverse racist because of the whole Reggie Yates drama. I think she expected it to be more of a storm than it actually was. I don’t feel the need to apologise where I don’t need to. You either conform or apologise or you’re labelled as a number of things. A woman such as Munroe Bergdorf is amazing and strong for standing up to so much criticism. In terms of the best comments, speaking to publications like yours and getting messages from black women who say that my Instagram story has made them really laugh and feel like I’m their friend or sister. That really makes me happy.
MM: You recently hosted the Screen Nation Awards. What was your best moment?
KO: Wearing the nice dresses and wearing nice makeup. It wasn’t when Idris came on stage, I didn’t get burnt by the sauce! It was being able to stand on this stage in front of esteemed people who have achieved so many great things. It was a massive honour.
MM: When you’re not working out and working, what do you do to relax?
KO: I read books. At the moment, I’m reading Blackass by A Igoni Barrett. It’s about how the character turns white and how he navigates in Lagos. It’s great and I can almost smell the Lagos fumes! I don’t often go back but my goal is to go this year at least once. I also try and meditate as often as I can and I like to use Tarot cards. I really like to try and connect with the metaphysical. To flip that on its head, I love watching trash TV. Real Housewives of Atlanta is something I really love to hate. I enjoy the frustration I feel when watching it. It must be a form of self-flagellation.
MM: What’s next in store for Kelechnekoff and what other ventures do you have in the pipeline?
KO: I don’t know! It’s like standing on a road with loads of paths leading off it. I want to give myself space for stillness so I can be drawn to what suits me best. So many things are popping up that I never thought I was going to do in a million years.