Before then as a pre-degree student, my social life was pretty much non-existent as I was restricted to evening lectures and more studying to ensure I wasn’t sent back home for not making the admission list. By 1995, I had secured my place as a bonafide student and I was ready to explore the social scene…parties, clubbing and soirees.
Like I said the year was 1995. It was the year of big box braids, patent leather brogues, lace up Victorian-style boots and flowery play dresses. Fashion was inspired by Janet Jackson in ‘Poetic Justice’, Hip-hop culture and girl groups like TLC, Jade, SWV e.t.c. It was also the year of ‘Waiting to Exhale’; a coming of age girl power movie that revolutionized the thought train of black women and changed how we viewed ourselves from being an object of pleasure for men to becoming an emancipated female who was independently driven toward being a success. Jamaican dancehall queen Patra’s jams was one of the popular music renting the airwaves. So it was normal for Cleopatra to prefer to be addressed as ‘Patra’ for short.
At the time, I was living with my friend Magdalene (nee Inameti) in her family house at Eta Agbor. Her brothers were good friends with Frank Edoho and we often hung out together. One night, I accompanied two of the Inameti brothers, Ekong and Ekpo to a campus gig that was hosted by Frank and current Nollywood actress, Vivian Anani. I wore a long black bandage dress with a silver zip running all the way in front. I had a killer figure and all the curves were popping out in that dress. One time at the show a campus entertainer was rapping one of my favourite Snoop Dogg songs and I climbed up stage to ‘spray’ him. The rapper wrapped his hand round my waist and pulled me toward him as I made to return to my seat. It was totally unexpected and since I didn’t want to embarrass myself in full glare of the audience, I simply played along. I wriggled my waist seductively like it was all planned and the crowd cheered.
Next day at school, I became the buzz at the department. My course mates were looking at me like…“I know what you did last night”…and I was like, “Whatever!” One of them, Johnbosco, who knew me from home walked up to me and said, “Peace, Peace…didn’t know you loved to party?”
“Well, now you do. You were at the show last night?” I asked.
“Yes, I was and you were hot up there. Tell you what? There’s a party next week. I’m sure you’ll love it. I’ll pick you up at 11pm, ok?”
That night, I stepped out of the house in a mellow yellow lace crop top, black skin tight jeans and black boots. My shoulder length hair was styled in a centre part Naomi-Campbell style. JB was waiting for me on a bike with two stunning ladies who were giggling happily and beckoning for me to hurry up. I crossed to the other side of the road to meet them. I was introduced.
“I’m Eno.” The pretty dark skinned girl in glasses introduced herself in a soft voice.
“And I’m Patra,” the feisty light skinned petite girl said. “So you are the sexy lady in black…meowww!!” She made the Cat Woman sound, making claws with her fingers as her eyes ran me over in a very interesting way. She was wearing a short black dress with suede lace-up ankle-length boots and her hair flowed down to her shoulders in a side-part. She had one of the loveliest hazel brown eyes I’d ever seen and I was transfixed (I’m a sucker for eyes). It would be the first time I’d see a sexy, very attractive straight woman, openly admire a fellow woman and even compliment her without feeling I was competition. Fuck, they don’t make women like her anymore!We got to the party, danced, drank and sat down to talk. She lit a cigarette and offered me one. I took it (I was an occasional smoker at the time.)
“So ‘lady in black’, what’s your story?” She asked. Patra looked you straight in the eye when she talked. She was a very intelligent and over-confident young woman.
“No story really,” I said. “Just looking to have some fun.”
“And you’re doing it like a pro”, she said laughing as she turned to Eno. “I noticed you upstage at that show last week, and what caught my eye was you didn’t look like the regular Calabar girl. You looked more sophisticated. And when you did that dance, I turned to Eno and said, ‘show off!’” She laughed again.
I laughed and told her the dance was totally random. “You nailed it. I like you,” she said. That’s how we became friends. We soon ditched Johnbosco and sometimes went on our own girly escapades…Patra, Eno and I.
Later that year in December, Frank urged me to apply for the Miss Cross River ’95 beauty pageant. I reluctantly picked up the form a week to the contest and only because the prize money was N100,000. Second prize was N50,000 and 3rd prize, N25,000. The girls and I were planning to buy a compact disc player with some of the money, where it would be party all night in our room after lectures. Patra’s elder sister was Lavonne Cele Tawo a top notch Lagos fashionista, model and socialite who had relocated from the UK to start a millenary business called ‘House of Etam.’ It was from her that Patra learnt fashion, makeup and how to walk the runway. She gave me an intense coaching for the remaining one week I had before the contest. She made me up on the contest day, and cheered me on when I was losing confidence. Nollywood actress, Nse Ikpe-Etim who was the pageant’s co-host and past Miss Unical, also calmed my nerves assuring me I had what it took to win. I was ‘Contestant no. 3’ and I became 1st Runner Up, with Philosophy student, Glory Okoro from Ohafia, Abia State, beating me to clinch the crown. Turns out the organizers were a fraud. I didn’t get my N50,000 prize money.
I moved in with Patra at her residence at 3 Atekong Drive, State Housing soon after the pageant. Her uncle owned some company called ‘Ogon Asu’ (if I remembered correctly) which had offices in front, while we lived in the boy’s quarters behind. We didn’t get our compact disc player, so we made do with her old cassette deck. We dubbed and listened to the whole tape of ‘Waiting to Exhale’ sound track with it, as well as TLC’s ‘Crazy, Sexy, Cool’, Whitney, Mariah…name it. With Patra, it was girl power all the way. We took many photos with her camera each time we played dress up or danced which alas I can hardly find any today. What’s left of my memory with her is the mouldy studio photo you see above.
She loved fine boys and wasn’t ashamed to say it. If she fancied a guy, she’d walk up to him and tell him. She wasn’t the traditional African girl who’d wait for a guy to walk up to her and ‘toast’ her first, and then she’ll ‘form’ before she finally accepts to date him. I met my husband soon after I met Patra. Ben was a professional photographer and owned the most popular photo studio in Calabar. I met him when I went for my Miss Cross River file photo shoot. I remember when I told her Ben was chasing me and she said, ‘Girl, what are we waiting for? Time for free photos!’
I remember picking that flowery dress (pictured above). The whole back of that dress was cut so low down to the waist. My back was so toned from months of Jane Fonda’s aerobic workout, that I was more than happy to flaunt it. Patra herself had a body to die for. Her abs were always rock hard. Her waist was so thinly set and tapered down to a pointy behind, so protruding, you’d wonder what such a butt was doing on such a petite frame. Her skin was naturally light and glowing and she had an exotic accent to die for. I think people who knew Patra would have 3 things stuck in their memory: Her eyes, her butt and her accent. She also picked a flowery dress, shorter than mine and paired it with one of her many boots.
We got to Lenstrokes Studios and Ben quickly requested to give us a photo session. All through the shoot, I could barely keep a straight face without bursting out in laughter. Patra was whispering in my ears, “lock your eyes with his”, “bring out your sexy girl,” “Make him want you,” “make him remember you”, “flirt, girl…flirt.” She wasn’t that kind of girl to feel jealous that another man fancied her friend. She was the type of girl who’d make that man realize he’d be a fool if he didn’t date her friend.
The following year, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals came to town to organize the Miss Visine contest. Visine was a popular eyedrop which whitens the eyes. Before now, former Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria, Regina Askia used to be the face of the brand. I guess Pfizer was looking for a fresh face and Patra knew she was that face. She came to ask for my support. By this time I’d moved in to live with Ben, I was in love, I was done with contests and kind of acted non-chalant…Looking with hindsight, I think I goofed there because I should have looked at it from the point of view that it meant a lot to her. Instead I tried to discourage her because I felt it would end up like mine…too much hard work yet no prize money. She insisted I had to be there with her for moral support. She won the contest but after that, we had a silly fight about a bag and stayed away from each other.
She didn’t attend my wedding. Back then, we didn’t have cell phones, it was a bit difficult to keep in touch. My wedding was in Warri, she was in Port Harcourt. But she did visit when I had my babies. She bought shoes for them and tried to spoil them rotten. I settled down in Calabar and she moved back to Port Harcourt after school to become an OAP. One of the things that made us drift apart was marriage. Ben wasn’t cool with her visiting. He felt she was still single, she smoked and being her friend won’t make me act like a ‘proper married woman’…whatever that meant. Slowly, she began to withdraw. It hurt me deeply, but I made the hard decision to choose my marriage over our friendship…a decision that still hurts me to this day.
In 2009, I found her on Facebook. I kinda got the feeling she wasn’t as excited to hook up with me, but she insisted it was all in my head. I told her I missed her and we needed to see. I sent her a friend request that just sat there for years, which she didn’t accept. I tried reaching out to her again in 2015, and this time she said she was hardly on Facebook. She told me Whatsapp was better for us to communicate. Still she wasn’t responding to my messages on Whatsapp. I didn’t want it to look like I was trying too hard, so I let her be. Now I wish I had tried too hard and even harder.Each morning I drove my kids to school, I’d hear her say her name, ‘Cleo Tao’ and read the news on WeFM. Her voice sounded ten times better than I remembered….and I’d miss her even more. I was planning that one day, I was going to trace where that radio station was, drive down there and say to her, ‘Wetin I do you?’ Then make her hash out any beef..if any…by fire by force.
That was never going to happen. I was shocked to read about her passing on Linda Ikeji’s blog. My heart must have frozen for God knows how long because I just stared and stared at the headline…speechless before letting out a shout and frantically searching for our pictures together.
I loved Cleopatra and I hope wherever she is right now, that she knew that. She was as real as can be. She’d call you out on your bullshit and still love you. She was very religious. She was a Catholic and always said her prayers. She also was a serious student. She knew when to read and when to party. She thought me how to make the native garden egg sauce…she was a good cook and very hands on in the kitchen. She didn’t like meat, she was vegan. She was also a twin. She had this cute dark skinned brother, Cee-Boy who dotted on her like a princess and she was fiercely protective of him.
The world may know her as Cleo Tao, ‘goddess of the air’, but we knew her as Cleopatra Patra Banku Tawo, the hazel-eyed sophisticated bombshell from Boki, Cross River State who was never afraid to live.