FROM SOAP STAR TO CHRISTIAN TALK SHOW HOST
Soap operas are hugely popular in Turkey. But former soap actor Şemsa Deniz Tolunay reckons she has landed an even better role as host of the first live Christian women’s show available on Turkey’s national TV satellite platform.
Homemade is a daily weekday show on SAT-7 TÜRK. In her ten-year acting career, 33-year-old Tolunay has appeared in long-running soaps, historic drama series and comedy roles. But she admits how much more at ease she is in this new role.
“Soap operas are very popular here, but I wasn’t very comfortable,” Tolunay says. In TV dramas, “it’s about money and about popularity”.
Over the last three years, going to church more often has ignited a faith that remained dormant for her since she was a child. 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 this program because I am myself – I’m not pretending, and viewers know that it’s real.”
Tolunay 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 says. “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 that people will look to see more of the inside of a woman, her mind and her thoughts and the beauty!”
Homemade presents a vibrant, life-affirming perspective as it invites viewers into an on-set living room and kitchen where Tolunay starts each show with a positive Scripture and then talks with guests from all walks of life. A chef (Şemsa’s father!) introduces what he is going to cook and gets busy in the kitchen. Then actors, psychologists, lawyers, writers, and other professionals join Tolunay – 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”.
“When the guest comes on set, depending on the topic, we also introduce how to solve the problem with the help of Jesus,” Tolunay says. “Then I’m turning back to the chef and giving the recipes.” The program also takes live telephone calls. This uncovers issues in people’s lives and is key to multiplying audiences by up to three times, according to the channel’s Executive Director, Melih Ekener.
“When people call in, many give their personal stories and ask for advice from the doctor or psychologist,” Tolunay 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 land where just 0.2 percent of the population is Christian, many have a warped idea of what Christians believe. One of SAT-7’s aims is to change this.
“Since I was an actress, many people started watching my program because of me but over time they started watching other programs on the channel as well,” Tolunay says.
“This is what I wanted: for people to watch the channel and experience 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’.” Seeing the show as welcoming and inclusive has encouraged former colleagues and other non-Christians to agree, or even ask to come on as guests.
“CHRISTIANS ARE NOT LIKE WHAT WE EXPECTED”
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’s a miracle of Jesus,” Tolunay says. “I think it’s the way Jesus is helping me to represent Him 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 than we expected. They had the idea that there are no rules for people in Christianity. But now, they said, ‘we see it is not like that and we are interested to find out more about it’.”