STAYING POWER: "My passion is to help people," says the hostess (pictured with Kevin Downswell). "We are not on this Earth for ourselves."
Launching a new gospel-based TV show and stepping up her philanthropic efforts has brought Suzie Q unquantifiable joy and real fulfillment. In an exclusive interview, she opens up to TALLAWAH readers about overcoming heartbreak, finding happiness and her mission to help young people.
THAT first time encounter with a celebrity can go either way: you’re terribly disappointed or utterly impressed. There’s no middle ground. When Paula ‘Suzie Q’ Bonner steps out of the sleek white car that has brought her home on this bright Thursday afternoon in St. Andrew, she’s sporting a curve-hugging little red dress, a big smile and a cascade of curls atop her head. Utterly impressed. Classy and radiant. She looks like a woman who wears her success well.
And if recent history is any indication, Suzie Q – she of the groundbreaking Video Alley TV show, Reggae Trail talent search, and the introduction of many up-and-coming reggae artistes to mainstream audiences – is without a doubt a fascinating success story.
As her fans will recall, she started the Reggae Trail talent search back in 1998 and within three years she’d given birth to another television hit, Video Alley, which became the first Top 10 music video countdown/chart show in Jamaica. “I’ve always felt the need to highlight the positive songs of the moment,” she says, “and because of that, entire families were able to watch the show and provide feedback. That’s what I believed in so that’s what I promoted.”
Fast-forward a decade-and-a-half, and Suzie Q still holds fast to that belief. But these days, reggae and dancehall music is in the rear-view mirror. Gospel music, gospel artistes and life-changing Christian testimony is now her focus. How did she get here? What led to this transition?
When Suzie Q remarried in December 2013, she wanted a total life overhaul, and that included committing her life to God – personally and professionally. “As I got deeper into the Word and deeper into my relationship with Christ, I just decided to let it all go and cast my cares upon him,” she tells TALLAWAH, seated on the sprawling verandah of her lovely home.
But business is business. Suzie Q has always had a solid working relationship with Stephen Hill, who runs the New York-based CIN television station, a champion of indigenous Caribbean programming broadcast throughout the Tri-State area. When she told him of her decision to go the gospel route, he didn’t hesitate to throw his support behind the idea. “When I told him I wanted to switch to gospel, he was very receptive. We discussed the idea and he believed the show would do well,” she remembers.
There was no time to waste. Filming for the Suzie Q Gospel Trail began in earnest in November 2016, and the first episode aired last month (April 9 to be exact) on CIN’s Channel 73, to largely positive responses.
If Suzie Q had her way, the start of the debut season on CIN would have coincided with a premiere on local television, as we all expected. (She even hosted a launch party and gospel showcase in Portmore, with Carlene Davis, right, and Lt. Stitchie).
Sadly, the price factor is a major issue. “The plan is to get it airing locally as soon as possible, but air time in Jamaica is way more expensive than in the States. The high prices make it very hard to do business here, and I really think they are overcharging,” asserts the hostess, who still has a home in Florida. “Sponsorship wouldn’t even be able to cover the air time.”
But she’s not daunted. Patience and strategy are her keywords. Still, we can’t help but wonder how it must have felt to say goodbye to Video Alley, a programme which made her a household name and meant so much to the reggae community. “It was hard because I wasn’t just saying goodbye to Video Alley; I was saying goodbye to my source of income, and my baby,” she says. That show was created by me. So it hasn’t been easy, but it’s something I had to do.”
THIS FAR BY FAITH
Suzie Q has been on the Christian path for the past three years. But it’s her second time around. A do-over, as some would say. She first got “saved” at age 14 but back-slid within a year. “A lot of stuff was happening in my life at the time. Really horrible stuff. At the time, I was living with my stepmother and she would test me, test me, every day,” she remembers. “I was young, naïve and I didn’t have the guidance I needed.” But she’s ready now. Older, wiser and in complete control.
Naturally, a large part of this ministry she’s embarking on is geared towards saving young people’s lives. She’s been there, she knows the struggles and sacrifices, and she wants to play her part. “Anywhere I go I tell people about Christ, and quite a few people have gotten saved. One of my editors [on the show] got baptized,” she tells us. “I think I’ve always been a good person. I love to help people. I have a passion for it. It’s always in me to help.”
But, as she takes us deeper into her story, her early adult life in particular, it becomes clear that Suzie Q wasn’t always this “together”, this strong and self-assured, to take the lead in her own life.
She brings up the messy divorce, finalized in 2012, that truly opened her eyes about dark human nature. ”It showed me who my true friends are. You can’t please everybody,” she says. “I was never in love. I was with someone, then I realized that his ways were not my ways. It was really hard but I stuck it out.” She first split from this husband in 2005 but they reconciled – until “irreconcilable differences” set them apart for good seven years later.
Then, there were the so-called friends who eventually showed their true colours. “I lost a lot of my friends. I learnt that people will let you down when you need them most. I learned that you cannot look to man; you have to look to God. I learned that the hard way.” She cried a lot, too. Looking back, she concedes, “Tears are a language that God understands.”
LIFE GOES ON
Turning her life over to a higher power brought the healing that Suzie Q craved. It’s been a wonderful journey of self-discovery so far, and she wants to keep hitting a higher and higher octave. She attends services on Sunday and dedicates the work week to her show and philanthropic efforts. “I enjoy it,” she says of the Christian life, “but it’s not easy.”
If you want to see Suzie Q light up like a Christmas tree, just mention her husband of four years and counting, secular-to-gospel artiste Joseph ‘Spanner’ Bonner, her number-one fan. “I want to see this ministry that she’s doing expand all over the world and touch a lot of lives,” he tells TALLAWAH, fresh from picking mangoes out in the front yard with a few visiting clients. “She loves to help people, and I know she’s gonna help a lot of gospel artistes and spread that message of Christ.”
So, life is good for this 40-plus businesswoman, wife, mother (her kids Jahmeka, 17, and Marcus, 9, are currently in Florida) and devoted Christian, who has vowed to live her life like it’s golden. When she’s not busy working, she likes to catch up on TD Jakes and Joel Osteen sermons or watch episodes of her all-time favourite TV show, Law & Order. “I have no regrets at all,” she emphasizes. “My passion now is to help people, young people especially. We are not on this Earth for ourselves.”
When she thinks of the road ahead for the Suzie Q Gospel Trail, the possibilities are endless. “We started Video Alley in October of 2001, and by February, we were doing a Black History Month interview with the Governor of New York!” she recalls, beaming. Still utterly impressed. “So I know the gospel show is going to surpass the secular show. It’s going to be a tremendous success.”