For the past three years Tony Okungbowa has simply been known as "Deejay Tony," Ellen DeGeneres' sidekick on one of the most successful talk shows on television, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The show's unprecedented success has been partly due to its unconventional format, part of which has been Tony Okungbowa's role as resident Disc Jockey, spinning upbeat tracks to which Ellen would do her signature dance in between her opening monologue and welcoming her first guest. Together Ellen DeGeneres and Tony Okungbowa shared a unique rapport; him giggling at her humorous musings and throwing in a punchline or two himself, while spinning the latest music for Ellen to boogie to.
His electric charisma and great taste in music developed a huge following, resulting in the release of his album, Hollywood Sessions, Volume 1. The album is a compilation of some of Tony's favorite songs to fit different moods and occasions. The album was inspired by an overwhelming queue of requests from fans of The Ellen DeGeneres Show for songs that Tony recommends.
After three years of breaking new ground as the first deejay of a major network television talk show, Tony Okungbowa is departing The Ellen DeGeneres Show to pursue his first love, acting. In this interview we discuss his career plan for the immediate future, the possible roadblocks he may encounter along the way and why he feels incredibly blessed. Of course it wouldn't be a PR.com interview if we didn't get a little off course, especially when he shared with me that he was calling me from a waxing salon...
PR.com (Allison Kugel): You're a busy man.
Tony Okungbowa: Well, actually I'm a man of leisure today. I'm sitting in a place called "Wax." Have you heard of it?
PR.com: Is that in Los Angeles?
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, it's my friend's really nice waxing place... not that I'm having a wax...
PR.com: Go for a wax; it's fun. It doesn't hurt at all.
Tony Okungbowa: I can't do that, but if you come to L.A. you should check it out.
PR.com: You don't trust me? I'm telling you, it doesn't hurt at all.
Tony Okungbowa: What would I wax?
PR.com: Well, the bikini wax is very popular.
Tony Okungbowa: I'll pass on that, thank you.
PR.com: (Laughs) The other day they had a big party for you on The Ellen DeGeneres Show; that was your farewell?
Tony Okungbowa: Yes, that was my farewell.
PR.com: So tell me about the farewell show. What kind of guests were on and what kind of stuff did they do for you?
Tony Okungbowa: Well, they surprised me with everything. A bunch of people sent messages to congratulate me on my move and they kind of surprised me with The Pussycat Dolls. I've known them for a while; they came and performed. They gave me a bunch of gifts. They gave me an amazing Cartier Watch as a gift.
PR.com: Very nice!
Tony Okungbowa: Everyone in the audience got two free tickets to London with Virgin Atlantic Airlines. So, it was a lot of fun.
PR.com: And they're still going to keep you around for a few more shows?
Tony Okungbowa: Well, I'm actually going to do one more show and then I'm done.
PR.com: When did you decide to leave The Ellen DeGeneres Show?
Tony Okungbowa: Probably mid-way through the third season.
PR.com: What was Ellen's reaction when you told her you were going to leave?
Tony Okungbowa: It wasn't so much that I wanted to [leave the show]. It's more the fact that I had to go on and pursue other things. It was very sad all around. We sat down and sorted it out and it wasn't possible, and so we came to a situation where okay, we're going to celebrate it as opposed to mourn it. It's probably the longest celebration ever for a farewell.
PR.com: Were you the first Deejay to ever be a sidekick on a talk show?
Tony Okungbowa: No. There were a couple of others. But in terms of national network [television], probably. But I mean, like on cable there was Grand Master Flash on The Chris Rock Show and I think Orlando Jones had a show as well for a brief period of time. But for mainstream and the level that we had, I would be the first. 'Cause Deejays normally were seen as edgy and just below the radar in terms of culture.
PR.com: And probably too edgy for daytime...
Tony Okungbowa: Absolutely. And I was able to make it not too edgy for daytime... I hope. (Laughs)
PR.com: It worked so well and it started that whole
thing with Ellen DeGeneres dancing on the show. Who came up with that?
Tony Okungbowa: It's truly the whole notion of spontaneous combustion. It literally was, okay, I'm going to move from here to there, how am I going to do it? (referring to Ellen DeGeneres) Okay, I'm going to shimmy a little bit over there. And that's how it started.
PR.com: And did you decide what kind of music you were going to play in meetings for the next day's show, or did you just kind of improvise?
Tony Okungbowa: You always have to choose ahead of time. There's clearance issues. And then also you want it to be appropriate to the guest coming out, depending on what they're promoting or what they're known for. So if "The Rock" comes out and you could go anywhere from "We Will Rock You" by Queen to coming from a movie he's promoting. Pierce Brosnan comes out and the theme song for the movie they did was "A Town Called Malice," by The Jam which is one of my favorite songs. You'd be amiss not to play that because that's what's playing on the trailers and all through the movie. You just have to be aware of what's going on.
PR.com: Were you raised in Nigeria or London?
Tony Okungbowa: I was raised in both. I was born in London and educated in London and Nigeria, and New York actually. I ended up doing some in New York as well. I make it sound like jail time. (Laughs)
Tony Okungbowa: Between that and the waxing...
PR.com: You're lucky you're a man... You don't have to get waxed.
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, that's what people tell me.
PR.com: I was lying to you before, it does hurt.
Tony Okungbowa: Oh really?
PR.com: Yeah. So tell me the difference between growing up in Nigeria and what the culture was like there, as opposed to London or The States.
Tony Okungbowa: There's a kind of simplistic beauty about Nigeria, in a lot of ways, even though at the same time it's an incredibly complex place. You don't take as much for granted in Nigeria as you do while you're in America, or England for that matter.
Tony Okungbowa: There could be a power failure tomorrow. And if there's a power failure you just either turn on the generator if you have one; and if you don't, you entertain yourself and talk to people and hang out. You get together by candle light. Just because there's a power failure doesn't mean you roll over and go to bed. You know what I mean? You can come home one day and flip a switch and there's no light on.
PR.com: Why is that? Is it just because their system isn't as sophisticated?
Tony Okungbowa: Absolutely. And in areas where it is as sophisticated, they haven't got it to... It's basically sophistication, you're right.
PR.com: Right. And what is the economy like in that particular country?
Tony Okungbowa: Oh, it's a very wealthy country. It's probably, I think, the fifth or eighth biggest oil producer in the world.
PR.com: That's the primary source of wealth in Nigeria?
Tony Okungbowa: Unfortunately, yeah. But I mean, in Nigeria
also you have things like
Fela Kuti, who is pretty amazing. I don't know if you've heard of him. Do you know who he is?
Tony Okungbowa: He's an African musician who plays Afro Beat. And the music and the culture there is amazing! But then you come to America and it's just a different ball game all together.
PR.com: What do you think of some of the social issues in the United States as far as race relations and things like that? If you're coming from the perspective of a country like Nigeria where you are very connected to your roots and it's celebrated, and then you come here to The United States where we have the kind of history that we have between the black and white races... not growing up in this country, how do you interpret that?
Tony Okungbowa: Everybody has their opinion on different views and how they feel things should be and could be. There are differences. [America] is a young country compared to most other countries in the world, and there's a lot of kinks to be ironed out. Without pointing the finger, every country has... there's no perfect place yet, and if you've found it, let me know. But you just sort of roll with the punches and do the best you can. I'm incredibly blessed, incredibly fortunate. But is it a perfect situation for me? No. I don't know what comes next for me. Having said that, there are things that are really awry. I mean, New Orleans should tell you a lot about what's going on in America.
PR.com: Right, exactly. Now, you started off studying acting for a while? How did you get into music and deejaying?
Tony Okungbowa: Well, I've always been into music. It just so happened that I started deejaying around town and getting sort of a name. One thing led to another and I would [deejay] publicity photo shoots with my friend Andrew McPherson and we met a lot of celebrities on those shoots. One of them happened to be Ellen DeGeneres. They offered me the job. (of Deejay on The Ellen DeGeneres Show) I was very nervous at first because I'm an actor and I want to be able to go on an audition and work on different projects.
PR.com: So you had the same dilemma as any other actor in LA. Like, "How do I have this day job and go on auditions?" Except your day job was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Tony Okungbowa: Yes, and also my representation at that time said "Hey listen, one of the reasons you don't get the role that you want is because they say, 'Oh, we have to give it to a name, we have to give it to someone who's known.' This could make you a known person, so take it, and hopefully you'll be able to do as much as you can with it."
Tony Okungbowa: And time went on and I realized that I still wanted to act but I didn't have the time to act. Even though there was an audition, I had to call up before I could go on it, and I had to make sure that it wasn't going to be shooting when I was shooting. Considering I shoot four days a week, we do 160 shows, 170 shows a year. No production would say, okay, we're gonna shoot around your schedule. So it reached that stage where I had to say, I have to either move on or restructure my time commitment to the show.
PR.com: But you know you made the right decision in taking the job. I mean, it would have been crazy not to take the job!
Tony Okungbowa: Absolutely, it's been nothing but a blessing. It's been an amazing run and I've had a great time. I love everyone over there and I'm sure I'll be around. Everybody's like, "We can't wait until you come back, promoting something that you're doing."
PR.com: So they are supportive of having you back when you want to promote something?
Tony Okungbowa: Absolutely.
PR.com: I know that when Kathie Lee Gifford left Live they didn't want to have her back because they didn't want to distract from the new format of the show, which I think is ridiculous. After all the years she put in there, the least they could do was let her plug an album or something.
Tony Okungbowa: Absolutely. That's Live with Regis and Kelly?
PR.com: Yeah. When Kelly Ripa came in, I think Kathie Lee Gifford had just made an album and she wanted to come on to promote the album and they said, we don't want you to come on because we don't want people to get distracted, we want them to get used to Kelly.
Tony Okungbowa: Oh, that's not right.
PR.com: Which I was like, come on, are you kidding me? She was on that show for how many years? That's crazy!
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, that's not the case here. Everyone's been really, really cool.
PR.com: Do you think that you and Ellen will ever work together again on something?
Tony Okungbowa: Oh, I hope so. Hopefully it will be a movie rather than anything else, which is what I really want to get back into doing.
PR.com: You wrote two screenplays?
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, I've written two screenplays and still constantly changing them. One's kind of dark and a little mean, and the other's a romantic comedy/ fish out of water type situation; semi-autobiographical. That's the one I'm most excited about right now... to get that out there.
PR.com: What is this coming year going to look like for you? What are your immediate plans?
Tony Okungbowa: Immediate plans are to go to Europe and see my family, and taking this thing called my life and throwing it up and hoping for the best...
Tony Okungbowa: (Laughs) I truly don't know. I'm taking a lot of meetings. Unfortunately there's not a lot of roles that are available for a black, British guy, though I do accents...
PR.com: Can you do an American accent?
Tony Okungbowa: Oh yeah, I can. The problem seems to be that since I'm known as a British guy... since everyone's seen me on a day-to-day basis on the [Ellen DeGeneres] show with an English accent, they're like, "Hmm...is this right??"
PR.com: They're looking for mistakes...
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, I think it just takes a lot of creative casting. The truth of the matter is, for me to walk into an audition and say, "Hey, I'm just going to be a Joe Shmo that nobody knows" is asking for a lot. I think what it takes is someone who has an open mind or a creative mind to say you know what, "He's got this following from the show, capitalize on that and put him in a place where he can really help the show."
PR.com: It's going to be a whole different ballgame for you now, because now you're coming off a high profile gig.
Tony Okungbowa: Well, that's what we hope for, but I don't think anybody should ever take anything for granted. I try not to, and I want to be given a fair shot, not necessarily preferential treatment. It's an exciting time.
PR.com: What about doing some acting over in Europe?
Tony Okungbowa: I have thought about it. But I've been so far removed from it. The Ellen DeGeneres Show wasn't shown in Europe...
PR.com: Do they know Ellen DeGeneres over there?
Tony Okungbowa: Yes, they do, from other things like movies, comedies, and of course from Finding Nemo.
PR.com: I love Finding Nemo!
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah. So you have that built-in audience over there.
PR.com: I love Ellen. I was a fan of hers years ago before she even had her first sitcom. Remember when stand-up used to be the hottest thing? I would catch her here and there and I would be like, "This woman is hysterical!"
Tony Okungbowa: She's definitely funny, that's for sure.
PR.com: You just recently traveled somewhere. Did you take the show somewhere else?
Tony Okungbowa: I went to Kentucky to do a segment for the show. But, yeah, we were in Orlando a few months back, which was fun and New York, of course, we did. So, they take the show on the road every once in awhile.
PR.com: What kind of segment did you do in Kentucky?
Tony Okungbowa: It was this couple who had become engaged through an email thing on our show and we threw a wedding for them.
PR.com: Very cute.
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, it was very nice.
PR.com: Ellen's not happy that you're leaving the show, I can tell you that much.
Tony Okungbowa: Laughs.
(His giggle is silly and mischievous; much less sophisticated then his usual spoken British accent.)
PR.com: Trust me, she's not a happy camper. You guys had a good thing going.
Tony Okungbowa: It was fun, definitely, but things must come to an end.
PR.com: So what is she going to do now for a sidekick?
Tony Okungbowa: They're looking for a new Deejay.
PR.com: Maybe DJ AM.
Tony Okungbowa: He's already been on.
PR.com: He's broken up with Nicole Richie now, right?
Tony Okungbowa: I have no idea.
PR.com: That's your next career move; you have to ask out Nicole Richie.
Tony Okungbowa: Oh, God, no!
PR.com: You can one-up DJ AM.
Tony Okungbowa: That's not my bag.
(Strangely, I was the only one laughing here. I thought it was funny, anyway.)
PR.com: I'm just playing with you! And you have an album out now?
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, it's been out for a while now, about a year. (Tony Okungbowa, Hollywood Sessions, Volume 1)
PR.com: And it's a compilation album of just some of your favorite songs?
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah.
PR.com: Is this stuff that you recorded, or you just put together some of your favorite music?
Tony Okungbowa: Literally a compilation. I kept getting demands of, "So what are you doing? What are you going to do?" On my website, as lazy as I can be sometimes, I try to update it and have you know, "Hey guys, this is what I'm doing, this is something that I found, that I really like..."
PR.com: And are you going to do another album?
Tony Okungbowa: My focus right now is on acting, just from a time perspective.
PR.com: Who are some of your inspirations? Which favorite actors and movies come to mind?
Tony Okungbowa: Well, it's one of my favorite films that I've loved forever and ever and I wish I could re-make this film. It's called A Warm December. I believe it was Sidney Poitier's directorial debut.
PR.com: What year did that come out, do you know?
Tony Okungbowa: It was 1972 or 4.
PR.com: Okay, I'll look for it, I love finding a jewel of a movie. The kind of old movie that no one really talks about anymore.
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, this is a movie that has, the lead character in it just has an incredible style. It also mixes all the elements that I'm used to which is, an African-American goes to England and meets an African. I mean, that's my life right there!
PR.com: Is that the kind of career you aspire to? Like that of Sidney Poitier?
Tony Okungbowa: I could only hope to have half his career.
PR.com: It's interesting, because he doesn't fall into the stereotype. I mean, now we have more of an urban hip-hop kind of a slant on things. You know, if you're an African-American artist of any kind, you're normally in that category. If you're not in that category, a lot of times people don't know exactly what to do with you.
Tony Okungbowa: Yes, that's the problem that I find. I'm not in that category, as much as I love hip-hop and I love a lot of the culture, but I'm not going to go out and purport to be a hip-hopper, so to speak.
PR.com: It's funny because a lot of black actors will say, "There aren't enough roles for us," and I don't think that's it. I think there are plenty of roles, but there aren't enough roles that aren't overtly urban. They're not finishing the sentence.
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, I mean, I can see that as well. I think the roles that are there, tend to be written in a very shallow manner. You know, there are not enough three-dimensional characters and I don't just mean that in terms of the characters. I mean in terms of the diaspora, like doctors, lawyers, you know? It's all about burglars, gangsters or funny guys.
PR.com: You don't very often see a character that happens to be black, but the role isn't about him being black. It's like, when you see a white guy in a movie, it's not about him being white; he's just playing a role...
Tony Okungbowa: Right. It's just matter of fact. So many factors contribute to that, but for the most part, that's the way it is. And you know, we just have to do the best that we can.
PR.com: I think that's a glass ceiling that needs to be broken through.
Tony Okungbowa: I hope I can be part of that. I've spent my life being different from the norm in America as it is. Hopefully that will be a bit of enough of a help to push boundaries a bit.
PR.com: I think that's something that should help to inspire you.
Tony Okungbowa: When we get off the phone I think you should call every casting director and tell them.
PR.com: Yeah. (Laughs) Give me all their numbers and I'll lay into them. I find a lot of those people aren't very open-minded. It's like, maddening!
Tony Okungbowa: To be honest with you, I have no idea why people do the things that they do. Whether it's money, whether it's the way they chose to see the world, or whether they're not open minded or whether they are. For whatever reason it is, there's one thing I've discovered a long time ago. You can't sweat it, you just have to do the best you can and things will fall as they may. With all that being said, I'm still incredibly blessed. I'm excited at the possibilities of doing this and I'm looking forward to the challenge.
PR.com: You're a graceful person. You don't strike me as a rebellious person. You strike me as somebody who can sort of whisper their way to success.
Tony Okungbowa: Thank you, I hope that's a compliment.
PR.com: No, no it is a compliment! Because there are people who overtly get very aggressive and they pound on the door very aggressively. Then there are people who just sort of use their intellect and kind of do it in a more quite, graceful way. So, I would say that's definitely a compliment.
Tony Okungbowa: Thank you. There are so many things going on in the world, so many causes to fight and try to champion. A war has many battles. If we're going to use the analogy of life being a war, which is kind of an ill analogy to be honest with you, but just using it as a description, you choose your battles. You win some, you don't win some. You use different strategies to approach things. Screaming and pulling your hair out, jumping up and down, is not going to benefit the cause of any kind.
PR.com: Right. I tend to do that sometimes.
Tony Okungbowa: Well, what's your struggle?
PR.com: What's my struggle? My struggle is...I tend to be very angry at the double standards between men and women. Growing up, my father was a very strong influence on me and he was kind of the stronger figure in the house. I always aspired to be like him. He's very street smart and sharp and he has a good business sense. He tends to kind of... he walks in a room, and he has that room.
Tony Okungbowa: He has gravitas.
Tony Okungbowa: Gravitas. It means a sense of being, so he gets into a room and people take to him. He basically has a personality that can't be ignored.
PR.com: I resent the fact that a lot of times women are told to be more demure, more quiet, not as assertive. Then there's a sexual double standard. I get enraged when I sense that a man looks at women as less than human.
Tony Okungbowa: Right. I tell you what the thing is. Once again we talk in general terms here, and I feel like in America there are so many variations of the female movement. I mean, especially working with the women that I've worked with, strong, positive women. My show, from my EP to Ellen to the head writers. But the good thing about that that I've seen in my experience is that women that I've known don't want to be seen as men. I think that's a misconception that a lot of people have sometimes. I grew up with my mother and three sisters in the house. As a black man, I don't believe in a melting pot syndrome. I truly don't. I don't want to be part of a melting pot. What I want to be is appreciated and respected for who I am.
Tony Okungbowa: My strengths and my weaknesses. And I think it should be the same with men and women.
PR.com: Exactly. I always say, I'm like, I don't want to be regarded as a man and I don't want to do certain things that men do. You know, women have certain strengths, men have certain strengths, but I want equal respect.
Tony Okungbowa: That's exactly it. But a lot of people go to extremes. By that I mean, men go to extremes of "No, you can't do this or that, or you must be like that." And a lot of women sometimes go to the extremes of, "I can do whatever it is you can do."
Tony Okungbowa: A man can't do whatever it is you can do. Why should you be able to do whatever a man can do? A man can't have a kid. You know what I mean?
PR.com: Right. We have a lot of similarities but we also have a lot of differences. But, I just feel like we should have equal respect. It's not a matter of being the same. Men and women are different.
Tony Okungbowa: Absolutely.
PR.com: So I guess that's the thing. I love men. Oh please, forget it. If there were no men on this earth, I wouldn't see a point.
Tony Okungbowa: Go nab you one and get married and have a great family! (Laughs)
PR.com: Speaking of that, Are you dating anyone?
Tony Okungbowa: No, I'm single right now.
PR.com: Are you looking for a girlfriend out there in L.A.?
Tony Okungbowa: Am I looking for love? Yeah, in all the wrong places!
Tony Okungbowa: But still looking, you know. When it comes, it comes. I haven't found her yet.
PR.com: Would you ever date someone in the business?
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah. For me to say no is a bit hypocritical, because someone could turn around and say the same thing about me. I make my judgment call based on the individual, not based on what they do.
PR.com: Did Ellen ever try to fix you up?
Tony Okungbowa: She's mentioned it a couple of times, and joked about it a couple of times. I don't think it's the best way for me to go.
PR.com: In case it didn't work out?
Tony Okungbowa: Not so much that, I just don't want my love life in public.
PR.com: Okay. Then you wouldn't want to date an actress or a musician because then it would be in public.
Tony Okungbowa: By that I mean under the scrutiny of like "Oh, let's see how they're getting on," in terms of, they've met on the show or whatever. I think one of the things about people in the industry is that they have more of an understanding of what it takes. So that's a plus if you're dating someone in your own industry.
PR.com: You just didn't want to walk into the office and have people going, "So, how's it going?"
Tony Okungbowa: Not so much the office, I don't mind that, more the daytime TV fans.
Tony Okungbowa: (mocking the potential embarrassment) "So you went on your first date, how was it...?"
PR.com: (Laughs) Right. Like as if a first date isn't awkward enough...
Tony Okungbowa: Exactly.
PR.com: Are you still involved in any charitable organizations?
Tony Okungbowa: Yeah, I'm involved in this one called Dollar for Africa. It's for a very good cause and of course I try to encourage everyone...
(He trails off and becomes distracted by the women who are going in and out of the waxing salon that he has called me from.)
Tony Okungbowa: I told you where I am... so all these women are coming in to get waxed and I'm checking them out as they're walking in.
PR.com: Oh boy.
Tony Okungbowa: Oh, I'm teasing.
PR.com: (Laughs) You know what, seriously, you're sitting in a great place right now to meet someone.
Tony Okungbowa: Ummm... in a waxing salon? (Laughs) Women don't come here looking for men; they're just here to get some hair off their body.
PR.com: But can I tell you something... you know they're well groomed. :)
Tony Okungbowa: (Laughs) That's funny.
PR.com: Anyway, tell me about Dollar for Africa.
Tony Okungbowa: Dollar for Africa is this charity where they try to encourage everyone to give a dollar to Africa to different programs, not just one program. It's one of those things where we're just trying to get it going. There's that. And I also give my servitude from time to time to different charities here and there. I did Amped for Africa with Charlize Theron and Vanity Fair, which was fun.
PR.com: And you're still deejaying around town?
Tony Okungbowa: Not as much as before but I'm still doing different events. I'm doing the CFDA Awards in New York on the 5th of June. So I'll be coming in for that. Then a well deserved break.
PR.com: What kind of career advice did you get from Ellen DeGeneres?
Tony Okungbowa: Ellen just said, follow your dreams. You won't be happy until you follow your dreams. Come back, and the door is open anytime.
PR.com: Who are your musical inspirations?
Tony Okungbowa: Oh, there are so many. Everyone from Donny Hathaway to Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder... David Bowie... Chaka Kahn... Aretha Franklin, they go on forever. So many different ones.
PR.com: Do you sing?
Tony Okungbowa: No, I don't. In the shower or to the one I'm dating. (Aww)
PR.com: I don't know what that thing is about singing in the shower. I've never sung in the shower.
Tony Okungbowa: Never done that?? Never had music playing while you're in the shower?
PR.com: I sing in the car.
Tony Okungbowa: Okay. Try turning on the radio while you're having a shower.
Tony Okungbowa: Try that. I guarantee you'll sing.
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