Amid a 24-hour tabloid stream of sniping and titillation, the brash reality television starlet from Nigeria with her endearing personality, entertaining tantrums and provocative bustline captured the hearts of "Big Brother Amplified" viewers across the African continent.
Karen Igho, a 27-year-old former bikini and lingerie model, returned home to Lagos in early August to be feted by the city's cocktail-sipping gliterrati at a welcome party hosted by one of the megacity's hottest nightclubs. But her win wasn't the first for Africa's most populous nation.
The last three winners of the continentwide contest aired by a South African satellite provider came from Nigeria, a country of 150 million people, each eager to stand out and earn themselves life's little comforts in a place where good education and health care, reliable electricity and clean water are too often out of reach. To many, Igho, with her rose-tattooed breast and Madonna lip piercing, embodies that spirit.
"Nothing in Nigeria is really handed to us when you think about it; social amenities, when you get sick. ... It's coming all out-of-pocket (so) Nigerians have that hustling mentality," said Nkechi Christine Eze, an editorial assistant at the entertainment and lifestyle website Bellanaija, "You'll hardly find a calm, soft-spoken Nigerian and people love to see entertaining loud people that love to stand up for themselves."
Igho spent 91 days in the "Big Brother Amplified" house, the sixth edition of Africa's response to the world-renowned reality television show. She competed for the prize with 25 other housemates from 14 different countries while cooped up in a house in South Africa. Contestants are filmed nonstop, even when sleeping. They get orders from the voice of an unseen Big Brother and vote for who should be evicted.
The show grips viewers through the antics of the contestants, whether in fights, jokes or come-ons. Igho had all three. Asked why she forced herself on a male housemate, Igho told fans: "All the fine boys were taken. ... I had to (make do) with Zeus."
Her failed attempt to make out with a Botswanan rapper was one of many episodes that have left viewers glued to their screens.
"Later, I heard that's what they were looking for: the average Nigerian girl with a tattoo who people will misjudge, thinking she's the bad girl," Igho said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "It's not everything that glitters is gold. It's not what is outside my body, it's about what's in here, that's my heart."
At the end, Igho and a white Zimbabwean named Wendall Parson walked away winners with $200,000 apiece. She joined fellow Nigerians Uti Nwachukwu and Kevin Pam in clinching the show's top prize. Like her predecessors, Igho hopes her victory will boost her career in Nigeria's entertainment industry, a thriving field with a film industry that makes 40 new movies a week and music that can be heard across the continent — and beyond.
"Winning 'Big Brother' has made life easy, it has made the journey shorter," said Nwachukwu, who now models, acts, works as a TV show presenter and hosts events. "And every day I'm making more money."
But while celebrity beckons, many of Nigeria's unemployed youth find the dark side of Lagos' tooth-and-claw environment. The industry remains unwilling to take risks with unknown names. Meanwhile, recording studio time is expensive for those who believe enough in themselves to pursue independent careers, and greedy agents are lurking to prey on the naive.
Add to that regular blackouts in a country where constant electricity only comes to those able to afford belching diesel generators, and it seems that the select few who succeed do so, not thanks to, but in spite of their environment.
That pursuit has been deadly in at least one case. A contestant on the Nigerian-aired reality show "Gulder Ultimate Search" died in 2007 while competing in the program, drowning in a lake while heading to complete one challenge, local media reported.
"I kept wondering what on Earth would have prompted such an unprecedented number of youths to risk everything for such lucre. It has a lot to do with the shift in value that now characterizes our society," a letter to the daily Punch newspaper at the time read. "All we now celebrate is money and the things money can buy. The nation has left its youths stranded in a dark abyss in our pursuit of national development and advancement."
Still, money made by the show's winners is a fraction of what it makes.
"Big Brother Amplified" solicited viewers to send their comments by text and voice messages, as well as vote to decide who stays in the house. Those text messages, numbering as many as 20 million in a week, likely make telecommunication companies and content providers as much as $10 million weekly, said Chris Abhulimen, who runs a Lagos-based technology company in the industry.
"It's humongous the revenues that come out from these shows," Abhulimen said.
That money and glamour drives interest in the show, bringing out about 200 fans to greet Igho at her VIP party, where security guards consulted guest lists and a red carpet awaited the nation's newest reality television show star.
"I bet they will really want to see Karen live after 'Big Brother,' eh? So camera will be rolling with me 24 hours, hey!" Igho shouted during the AP interview. "Ain't you guys tired of seeing me? For 91 days — apparently not."
Associated Press Writer Jon Gambrell contributed to this report.