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, the Turkish language channel of SAT-7. Since January 2015, the 50 million subscribers to Türksat, Turkey’s national satellite broadcaster, have also been able to view SAT-7 TÜRK.
In her ten-year acting career, 33-year-old Şemsa has appeared in long-running soaps, historic drama series and comedy roles. But chatting to me at SAT-7’s Istanbul studios, she quickly confides how much more at ease she is in this new role.
“Soap operas are very popular here, but I wasn’t very comfortable,” Şemsa 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 programme because I am myself, I’m not pretending, and viewers know that it’s real.”
Şemsa 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!”
In contrast, Homemade presents a vibrant, life-affirming perspective as it invites viewers into an on-set living room and kitchen where Şemsa 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 Şemsa – 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,” Şemsa says. “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 SAT-7’s other channels, too. SAT-7 TÜRK Channel Director, Melih Ekener, says the interaction multiplies audiences by three!
“When people call in many give their personal stories and ask for advice from the doctor or psychologist,” Şemsa 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.”
Surprised and intrigued
Discovering that the presenter is a Christian has been a big surprise for many viewers. In a land where just 0.5 per cent of the population are Christian, many have a warped idea of what Christians believe. One of SAT-7’s aims is to correct this.
“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,” Şemsa says.
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.
“In the beginning we had difficulty getting guests because people didn’t know us since we are a Christian channel,” Şemsa explains, “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.
“A miracle of Jesus”
“I think it’s a miracle of Jesus,” Şemsa 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 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’.”
Alp Tolunay, Homemade’s chef and Şemsa’s father, is also finding fresh opportunities to speak of his faith. In the evenings a chef at a 150-seat restaurant, on the show he aims to widen people’s culinary horizons with lesser known but inexpensive meals. But learning about his faith is broadening his acquaintances’ spiritual horizons too. 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. Alp says that before Ho 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.
This article is adapted from a feature first published in Woman Alive (September 2018)