Julie Coker was one of the pioneer broadcasters when Africa’s first television station was launched in Nigeria in 1959.
For over three decades she was the delight of many viewers on Western Nigeria TV (WNTV) and later the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).
Some call her the ‘Queen of the Tube’, others call her the television goddess. To another group of Nigerians, she is the ‘Queen of Nigerian Television’.
Coker’s journey to becoming a broadcasting legend started when she was only a teenager and she made good use of the opportunity brought by stardom to etch her name in the honours roll of Nigerian broadcasters.
Before the media career beckoned, Coker already built a reputation at age 17 as a star from her secondary school after featuring in the Festival of Arts and Culture. Her photos made it to the pages of The Daily Times Newspaper, Nigeria’s most popular daily at that time.
On WNTV, Coker enchanted viewers. In a career that lasted over 30 years in the public service, she was one of the best the Nigerian broadcast industry ever produced. And many agree that her rise to fame was magical. Born July 25, 1940, to an Egba, Ogun State father and an Itsekiri, Delta State mother, Coker grew up with her mother in Lagos and attended Holy Child College, Obalende, in Lagos.
“People thought I adopted the name Coker but my father was from the Coker family in Abeokuta. I speak Yoruba fluently to communicate with my father’s family but I was not living with them. I lived with my mother most of the time because I was her only child,” she said in a 2011 interview.
Back in 1957, she represented her school in a festival of arts and that event marked her break into the media world. Her performance made the news and her photo was featured in the Daily Times Newspaper. After secondary school, Coker took up a teaching job at Our Lady of Apostles Convent School in Warri, Delta State. While on the job, she found an advertisement for a Miss Western Nigeria competition. Her friends submitted her photos for the competition and she was crowned Miss Western Nigeria in 1958. That same year, she was also a runner-up at the Miss Nigeria contest. That moment officially marked her foray into mainstream media.
She recounted: “A friend who had seen that photo of mine that was published in Daily Times said, ‘Why don’t we send Julie’s picture which had appeared in the papers earlier?’ So she put her picture and mine and sent them to the Daily Times. A week after, we found ourselves as candidates selected for an interview in Ibadan…and, to my greatest surprise, I won the competition.”
She eventually got her break into broadcasting in 1959, at age 19, when she got a job at the Western Nigerian Television (WNTV), in Ibadan, Oyo State where she became the second female presenter at the station.
Despite having no university education at that time, when she appeared on screen that same year, Coker said her experience as a stage actress in secondary school had imbued in her the confidence needed to face the camera and helped her complete her internship under two weeks when it took others six months.
“Already I was grounded in stagecraft, and it wasn’t difficult for me to face the camera, with all humility,” she recounted in an interview with The Sun Newspaper.
“I wasn’t particularly disturbed by the audience at home but the people in the studio, who were calling the shots. My internship didn’t last for two weeks, but some people said it took them up to six months. Ambassador (Segun) Olusola was very helpful in putting me through.”
She was one of the three people including Charity Adadevoh and Segun Smith nominated by the first Information Minister, TOS Benson, for a study visit to the U.S. “I was the first person to be sent abroad. I was attached to Norridge television and later I came to BBC,” Coker said.
Coker set another milestone as the first female television presenter to cast the flagship news, a role reserved for only male broadcasters at the time on NTA Lagos.
On the day history was to be made, there was no male presenter on the ground at the time for the news hour. As the broadcaster was available, she was summoned to read the news and from then, female broadcasters were allowed to read the news on NTA Lagos. Pundits say that was the giant step that opened the door for other female broadcasters.
Before she retired in 1993, she moved from being in front of the camera to the commercial department, in a transitional marketing function.
And she was not just an extraordinary broadcasting career. Julie Coker starred in a 1975 film, Dinner with the Devil. She also tried her hands on music, releasing three albums under E.M.I. Music. American singer Anderson Paak sampled her 1970s record ‘Ere Yon’ on his track ‘Savier’s Road’ which was featured on the album ‘Oxnard’.
All these feats wouldn’t have been possible if she had resigned to her fate as a child bride when she was barely 14.
Recounting how she almost ended up as another victim of child marriage, Coker told Vanguard in a 2010 interview that she had visited her sick mother in her village in Delta State. Upon recovery, her mother’s aunt took her to Sapele where she promised to send her to Lagos, “but it turned out my aunt had made plans for me to be married off to a rich man in Sapele,” she said.
Narrating her encounter with the potential groom, she said: “I was taken to a big house, a beautiful story building where I met a huge man with a very imposing figure. He had other wives and wanted another one and I was given to him at age 14.”
“I learned they paid a huge bride price for me because I had a Standard Six certificate and was in secondary school. I was too shocked and I just sat there, frightened and shivering alone and my grand aunt disappeared. It was her mother’s younger sister who came to the house of the groom to rescue her and send her back to Lagos to continue her education.
“She grabbed my hand and we made good our escape. She was the person who went to town to look for money. She hid me somewhere in the village and the next morning, she took me to the garage, paid my fare, gave me some money, and sent me back to Lagos to continue my education. Eventually, I was lucky to get a scholarship that saw me through my education,” she reminisced.
According to UNICEF, Nigeria has the largest number of child brides in West and Central Africa, at 22 million, accounting for 40 percent of all child brides in the region, with 18 percent married by age 15 and 44 percent married by age 18.
While Julie Coker was lucky enough to have escaped child marriage in 1954 – 66 years ago- and went on to become great in her career, the dreams of many young girls are still being shattered following the practice of child marriage which is still prevalent in Northern Nigeria and other parts of the country.
Coker married Mike Enahoro, her colleague and a veteran broadcaster who died on October 9, 2015 aged 76. Their union lasted for nine years with three children. She lost one as a toddler, lost Richard, a sickle cell patient in 2004 and her last surviving child Michael died in 2018 at age 59. Since she retired from NTA in 1993, she has had her programme – ‘Julie’s World’ and also hosted children’s programmes. She has also written many books.
“I have written about my 30 years on TV. I have written some children’s stories which I have given out as souvenirs to mark some of the events in my life. In the last 15 years, I have been living in England and I have been involved with some TV stations out there,” she told journalists in a rare 2017 interview. Coker now runs a non-profit organization – ‘The Richard Coker Foundation’, named after her son Richard.