BY ANDREW BELL
Thirty-six-year-old Ngo Okafor sits on a sofa backstage in Tuxedo Park, New York preparing for his debut in the role of a bodyguard in the opera L’elisir D’amore. The Nigerian-American boxer and model (who calls himself the most popular black male model on the Internet, based on search engine results he has tabulated) has a fervent following. He’s appeared in ads with Giselle and Lil’ Kim—maybe you’ve seen him, shooting hoops for Under Armour or posing for a Mac cosmetic ad with Lil’ Kim— and in a swath of local and national TV appearances. When not modeling, he’s been crowned Golden Gloves champion twice.
But Okafor understands that at age 36 he is at the tail end of his modeling career. Worse, his fallback option, a successful pro boxing career, is dependent upon a good promoter, and he hasn’t found one yet. He has to evolve, and he believes that the natural progression is from modeling to acting. Hence, tonight’s gig: an amateur production of a 19th century Italian melodrama. He will be paid next to nothing. But he believes that even a small role will be the first baby step toward a new career. He even delayed a trip back home to Nigeria to be here.
Prior to going onstage, he’s a bit unsettled and alternates between doing last-minute pushups—he’s very good at them, and can do 30 per minute without breaking a sweat– and chatting with his cast mates. It’s an intimate gathering in the exclusive upstate New York gated community known as Tuxedo Park. It’s a tiny role, but he’s euphoric. His big moment will come toward the end of the show, when he snatches up the nettling paparazzo, thrusts him onto his shoulder and tosses him offstage. The moment a great deal of the audience is desperately waiting for, though, will be when Okafor has his shirt ripped off by an admiring female cast member at the end of the performance.
Although Okafor’s first stage show happens to be an opera, Okafor doesn’t understand a word of it. But he’s not worried. Okafor has two distinguishable features, aside from his impressive physique. He isn’t afraid of anything, and he doesn’t much care what people think about him.
“In life, I just never want to feel like I could have done more and when I feel I have a gift, I have to go after it,” he says.
Okafor was not groomed to be a male model or a boxer but pays little heed to the concerns of his manager, parents or friends. Okafor’s father is a brilliant man, one of the first Nigerians to be awarded a Ford Scholarship to Harvard, where he earned a doctorate and returned to Nigeria to become a college professor. He dreamed his son would follow in his footsteps. Okafor was a strong student and showed promise, and his father saw the potential and pushed him to the breaking point. “No girls, no dates,” Okafor says. “If I mentioned any names of females in school, their hands went up in resignation. Sports also were absolutely out of the question. I felt trapped, and I wanted to bust out of there.” His secret was to skip grades to graduate as fast as possible. Okafor was out of school at 15. He decided to to come as fast as possible to the United States and graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in computer science.
In America, his first job was as an IT specialist. It didn’t last long. He was fired, like many, after the 1990s dotcom bubble popped. But far from being disgruntled, Okafor was ecstatic. He finally had the opportunity to go after all of his secret fantasies. Since he was 14, he had always been impressed by how strong he was and how much more developed his body was than his friends. The first time he lifted, the trainer told him he was a freak of nature. “No body I’ve seen has ever responded to weights so quickly,” Okafor says he said. Okafor decided that he had to take advantage of his body —and modeling was a logical next step.
There are two types of male models: the lithe, sometimes emaciated ones who book the bulk of fashion shows, and the “built,” towering guys who show off mammoth chests and six-pack abs. Okafor knew which category he fit. At 6-foot-two-inches tall, 200 pounds and with a size 42 chest, he wouldn’t fit into the standard 38 cut blazer anyway, and when blessed with a remarkable physique, why try?
It took him five months to book his first gig. and longer to get an agent. “Most said at first that I was too big or too tall or too muscular. But eventually they came around,” he says.
Although Okafor became successful fast, he wasn’t invested in the scene. “The majority of the girls and many of the guys don’t eat. Cocaine alone, I’m told, is enough to keep many of their stomachs calm. Some of the people are cordial, but models aren’t generally the type of people I’d like to have a beer with,” he says.
Since his first gig with Paco Jeans in 1997, Okafor has done campaigns for Reebok, Adidas and a plethora of other brands. He was the featured model for John Hancock insurance for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, which he looks back on reverently. “I always wanted to be in the Olympics; in some small way this made me feel like I was there,” he says.
Okafor says modeling agents don’t really do much for you. “Sometimes they can help get your name out there or book you a rare gig, but if you don’t do the back end work, people won’t know you who you are a year down the road,” says Okafor.
To counter anonymity, he registered Getingo.com, a website that he has used as a platform to promote his work and to keep fans apprised of news. Okafor blogs and updates the website with content every day. The website has video content, multimedia and photo shoots, and he allows fans to download, save and use photos. “When I first started my websites, people would steal my images and use them on dating sites,” he says with a laugh. “In the beginning, I used to get pissed off, and then I realized I can’t control it. A part of me said, ‘this will help me do my promotion.’ The more viral your stuff goes, the more downloadable you are.” Being the most downloaded model online propelled him to a series of television appearances with the comedian Mo’Nique and four or five local news shows. The money wasn’t bad, but at 31 he still felt unfulfilled.
Okafor is a thrill seeker, and modeling wasn’t a thrill. Invited to watch a friend box in 2004, he took to it immediately and found a trainer in the city to prepare him for competitive boxing. His modeling agent didn’t like the idea of him risking getting a lip busted up in a boxing ring, but Okafor didn’t care. Modeling itself had been a rebellion of sorts, and so boxing was another chance to live out his fantasies. “You are never more alive then when you are in that ring. You are up against a guy who you are evenly matched with, and it’s time to find a way to outshine him. I adore that,” he says. A somewhat contradictory element of boxing is that being “ripped” is seen as a liability. Okafor thought of that as a rule to break. After all, his livelihood depended on staying ripped. Secondly, boxing is a sport where athletes generally abstain from sex for months before a fight. Okafor found that asinine, and he and his girlfriend refused to follow what he describes as an arcane and puritanical notion. “They say that come fight time, if you don’t do it for a long time, you will be maniacal. That’s silly. I’d just be more depressed during training and less inclined to keep at it,” he says.
At first he wasn’t taken seriously by others, who scoffed at the idea of a model stepping into the ring. But Okafor turned out to be a natural boxer. By 34, he had won two Golden Gloves. “For many days, I was ready for it to be my last day, and it was a risk I had no problem taking. Out there I was free at last,” he says.
Okafor started boxing way too late. Most fighters peak at 30, an age when Okafor was still posing in underwear for cameras. In four years of competitive fighting, Okafor never had a broken nose or a black eye. His worst ailment was a busted lip. He didn’t miss a day of modeling, sometimes doing a shoot within 24 hours of a fight.
His parents initially maligned him for pursuing modeling, “seeing it as a disgrace and a waste of time,” he says. They were even less pleased with amateur boxing. But on his last trip to Nigeria in November, Okafor was welcomed like a star. Imagine a 21st century version of Muhammad Ali at the Rumble in the Jungle. Okafor was interviewed by all of the major Nigerian press and met with hundreds of kids for his new charity organization. His dad has come around a bit, and even told him in a moment of surprising intimacy that he was “proud of me,” he says.
In the ring, Okafor struggled with endurance but overcame it with speed, desire and scrappiness. “I was able to keep pushing because of mental toughness,” he says. “That discouraged a lot of my opponents, because even when they saw that I looked tired, I would get a second and then a third wind.”
Initially, Okafor faced the same questions he had when he tackled modeling. His trainer, Elliot Mess at Mendez Gym in Midtown Manhattan, said he was too strong and defined, and that he needed to reduce the size of his arms and chest. “There’s this stupid old tradition in boxing that you don’t want to get too muscular. I ignored it, and it helped me. I was much stronger than everybody I came across in my weight class and strength combined with a good jab is what got me the Golden Gloves,” he says.
At 35, boxers have to stop competing on the amateur circuit. Okafor decided that he wasn’t ready to turn pro yet. He still wonders whether he made the right choice. “If I could find a promoter who could chart a course for me, I’d think about it still,” he says.
Okafor is looking for his next chapter. He has made a calendar of his famous photoshoots to raise money to help young men and women in Nigeria, and sees himself devoting a large amount of his time to developing a charity program. But Okafor believes that his next career will be acting. He’s appeared in a slew of soap operas and even had a small part in the 2009 film “The Rebound” starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. But as with boxing and modeling, he is finding that breaking through in Hollywood is arduous. “The shift in the entertainment business that occurred after 9/11 has made it really challenging for black actors,” he says. “Hollywood stopped making a lot of black films.”
Okafor’s girlfriend Kindra believes that he has a great chance to succeed. Describing in an email why she fell in love with Okafor, she writes, “What drew me to his personality, is his curiosity about life, people, stories, etc. He is fiercely smart and is my personal encyclopedia.”
Over the last few months, Okafor has been directing a documentary called “Three Rounds” about his life. He hopes that it will be finished and funded by 2012 in time for upcoming film festivals. Tonight, in Tuxedo Park, the opera is his chance to see if he has as much confidence on a stage as in front of the camera. Okafor rushes on with the eagerness of a child. The females cheer when he runs out for chorus calls without a shirt. But the older men also root for him. He’s brash and ferocious, but there also is something dignified about his performance.
Backstage, Okafor jokes and smiles for photos with other cast members, mingles with opera goers, collects his belongings, grabs a cocktail and heads for the door. He has no idea where his life is headed or whether acting really is the next step. But Okafor’s a guy who has always found a way to make it work —and charm them anyway. And somewhere inside the sinewy fighter is a precocious kid who will transform himself and blow us away.