It is a hot day in Lagos when we talk and yet you can feel the chill when Eryca Freemantle tells you of her worst day that left her body crushed and mind shattered. It was very cold on that day; December 14, 1990, in Brixton, London. A raw wind gnawed into Freemantle’s cheek as she tried to keep warm at the pay window of a busy petrol station. She knew how cold the streets of the capital could be as she was born in London of parents who emigrated from Jamaica in the 1950s.
“I was putting petrol in my car. I walked over to the kiosk to pay for the petrol and a lady came in with a Volvo Estate car and instead of putting her foot on the brake, she put her foot on the accelerator and made me into a human sandwich between the kiosk and her car,” says Freemantle.
“The glass from the kiosk shattered across my face. My body went into shock, my hair fell out there and then and my left leg was broken in five places.”
By cruel, or as it turned out, fortuitous coincidence, Freemantle’s father was near where his daughter lay in agony.
“My dad happened to be across the road in the pub, the Angel in Brixton, having a pint and he came out because there was a crowd around me. Someone had said to him: ‘A woman has just got run over at the petrol station. He had turned around to say: ‘Stupid. How can anyone get run over at a petrol station?’ At the same time, his left leg started twitching, he told me later.”
When the cold realization set in, Freemantle senior was beside himself with grief.
“He went over to have a look and saw me lying on the ground. He went into shock and started screaming. Everyone kept on saying ‘She’s dead, she’s dead!’ And he said: ‘God, why have you taken my only daughter?’ and in my semiconscious state, I could hear him. My father and I were very close and I remember thinking I don’t want to upset daddy, I have to get through this.”
Within minutes the ambulance came to take Freemantle away.
“My hair was on the ground and my dad had picked it up and put it in his pocket. He followed the ambulance to the hospital in my car. I was taken to the King’s College Hospital in South London, where they informed my mother. She was told they’d have to amputate my left leg. My dad said: ‘No way, before you amputate her leg, you will have to cut mine off.”
Freemantle spent months in hospital, luckily the surgeons did not amputate and she was left to heal. On release, she underwent physiotherapy every day for two years as she learned to walk again.
“I was also told I would also have a crooked walk,” she says.
Doctors told Freemantle her hair would never grow back again. For a while, the scars meant she had to cover her face. It was then that the demons of her traumatic childhood, at a tough London school, crawled from her subconscious and bared their teeth.
“I had been called ugly while I was at school and had always been teased about my looks. So, when this accident happened to me later, I took that as confirmation of all the things I had been called by the bullies at school,” she says.
Freemantle’s parents could not get her out of the house for nearly two years. Her scars held her prisoner.
“Now, this was the early 1990s, when there was no make-up for women of color and what was available was Derma-blend. I however went out and got some mud which I mixed with some water and put all over my face to cover my scars—that was my first ever encounter with make-up. Of course, that only lasts for so long but that gave me a bit of confidence, even if it was only for five minutes,” she says.
“My parents noticed my new interest and thought it might be a good idea to send me to a make-up school, which was an idea that was frowned upon back then, in the West Indian culture, as you’d rather become a doctor or an accountant.”
Freemantle went to college to learn the trade and passed with distinction. She completed teachers’ training and the next thing she knew she was writing make-up classes for London College of Fashion. Her courses were endorsed by the British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology.
One day, the newly qualified Freemantle was invited by a friend, who was a model, on one of her photo shoots.
“When I got there, I immediately knew I could do a better job than the person who was working on her. I ended up doing her make-up and there was someone there from Island Records, who engaged me on the strength of my work at the shoot. Before I knew it, in a week’s time, I was doing celebrity make-up for names like Seal and Soul to Soul, Loose Ends. Whitney Houston would come into London a lot and I assisted her make-up artist,” says Freemantle.
“Seal was lovely, he used to wear his hair on his face because he used to have locks. He’s a very intelligent man, who was ahead of his time. I understood why they asked me to do his make-up, as he also had some scarring on his face.”
A pharmaceutical company, which had heard Freemantle’s story, approached her to create a make-up range. She said she would get involved only if it was a range for women of color. That is how Keromask was born.
Nearly a quarter of a century after the crushing accident that changed her life, Freemantle is in Lagos setting her sights on the world’s great emerging markets in Africa.
“There are many brands that are afraid to enter the market as they don’t know anyone on the ground… Africa is huge and many brands are looking to come in here presently. I see the biggest markets for make-up in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa,” she says.
“Training is the way forward. In Lagos there are 500,000 make-up artists. A high proportion of them are not trained or are self- trained. So, there is scope for certification and international recognition.”
Anyone with the courage to claw their way back from being a shattered heap on the cold stone floor of a London petrol station is surely worth listening to.