Former soap star ?emsa Deniz Tolunay tells SAT-7's Lindsay Shaw why she’s thrilled to be hosting the programme Homemade on Turkey’s national TV satellite platform
In her 10-year acting career, 33-year-old ?emsa has appeared in long-running soaps, historic drama series and comedy roles. “Soap operas are very popular here, but I wasn’t very comfortable,” she says. “It’s about money and about popularity.”
Attending church more often over the last three years reignited her childhood faith and, as she “got closer to the Lord,” she says, “I felt this isn’t what I want for my life. I wanted to do something else where I could feel closer to God and more comfortable. It’s not about money or fame!”
Moving away from acting “was really hard”, she confides, “But the person I am on this channel is really who I am. It’s the reason people like Homemade, because I am myself, I’m not pretending and viewers know that it’s real.”
?emsa feels that Turkey’s TV dramas also reinforce attitudes to women that need challenging.
“There is a wrong point of view towards women in this country and I wanted to do something to change that,” she explains. “In soap operas here, people look at you as if you are an object. They notice your figure; they are not thinking about your mind or your soul. I wanted to change that so people will look to see more of the inside of a woman, her mind and her thoughts – and the beauty!”
It’s an experience that sounds all too familiar in the year of #MeToo and the attention being given to views voiced by former Suits actor and equality campaigner Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex. But Turkey is a conservative society and, away from the more cosmopolitan cities, women’s lives have changed little over centuries. Rabia Tufan, who has also presented women’s shows on SAT-7, has said that “women in Turkey are minimised”.
In contrast, Homemade presents a vibrant, life-affirming perspective, inviting viewers into an on-set living room and kitchen, where ?emsa starts each show with a positive Scripture and then talks with guests from all walks of life.
A chef (?emsa’s father!) introduces what he is going to cook and gets busy in the kitchen. Then actors, psychologists, lawyers, writers and other professionals join ?emsa – either to talk about their work or to grapple with a host of practical issues. These range from how to care for children when they are sick through to dealing with depression or addressing violence against women.
One show a week has a focus on books and three shows out of five “are mostly connected to Jesus, talking about his life and sharing about him,” says ?emsa. “When the guest comes on set, depending on the topic, we also introduce how to solve the problem with the help of Jesus. Then I’m turning back to the chef and giving the recipes.”
The programme also takes live telephone calls on the show – a feature on other SAT-7 channels, too. This roots issues in people’s lives and is key to multiplying audiences by a factor of three, according to channel director, Melih Ekener.
“When people call in, many give their personal stories and ask for advice from the doctor or psychologist,” ?emsa explains. “Or they might ask spiritual questions, like ‘Why are you calling Jesus the Son of God?’ Since I always include words from the Bible, they often ask about that as well as the problem they are seeking help with.”
Discovering that the presenter is a Christian has been a big surprise for many viewers. In a country where just 0.5% of the population are Christian, many have a warped idea of what Christians believe. One of SAT-7’s aims is to correct this.
Says ?emsa: “Since I was an actress, many people started watching my programme because of me, but over time they started watching other programmes on the channel as well. This is what I wanted, for people to watch the channel and be exposed to the Gospel more and more.”
TV colleagues who knew her before are intrigued too. “Many people are really interested, saying ‘We did not know you had this side of you,’” explains ?emsa. “In the beginning we had difficulty getting guests because people didn’t know us since we are a Christian channel, but after some writers and lawyers started appearing, people began calling us: ‘We want to come to your show’.”
Christians in Turkey are often viewed with suspicion and misrepresented in sections of the media, so willingness to appear on a Christian channel is a powerful endorsement.
“I think it is a miracle of Jesus,” ?emsa says. “I think it’s the way Jesus is helping me to represent him and myself to my guests. We have had lovely conversations and many guests came to visit my church as well. They were really curious about why I am so enthusiastic when I speak about Jesus.
“They said Christians are not like what we expected; you are more lovable and deserving of respect. They had the idea that there are no rules for people in Christianity, but now they tell me, ‘We see it is not like that and we are interested to find out more about it’.”
Alp Tolunay, Homemade’s chef and ?emsa’s father, is also finding fresh opportunities to speak of his faith. Whilst on the show he aims to widen people’s culinary horizons with lesser known, but inexpensive, meals; in the evenings, he is chef at a restaurant with 150 places. Many people he knew were not aware of his faith either. He says some have been amazed when he shared how he was once an atheist and, 30 years ago, became a believer in Jesus.
There are signs that the show is having an impact in other ways too. Alp says that before Homemade there was no other programme on Turkish TV hosted by a father and daughter team. But now, Kanal D, one of Turkey’s biggest channels, has copied the format in a show hosted by a famous soap opera actor and his daughter.
If, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, then in this sense Homemade is surely doing something right.
Homemade is a daily weekday show on SAT-7 TÜRK, the Turkish language channel of SAT-7, a Christian satellite TV network whose Arabic, Farsi and Turkish channels are watched by 25 million people across the Middle East. Since January 2015, the 50 million subscribers to Türksat, Turkey’s national satellite broadcaster have also been able to view SAT-7 TÜRK.
Find out more about how diverse Christian programming is giving a voice to the Church across the Middle East at www.sat7uk.org
Lindsay Shaw is press and communications officer for SAT-7 UK.