A nagging itch struck the face of a favourite jockey in central Nigeria and was soon being sent home to Japan for what she had written in blue marker pen on her white body: No skin.
Beyond the class-conscious self-image of the beloved Sportsperson of the Year, Mary Bardare is deeply in love with her Suzuki home on the fringe of a shopping centre in the predominantly Muslim city of Maiduguri, 170 km (105 miles) from the capital Abuja.
The tattoo has illuminated the head of a little girl whose disappearance has made headlines in western media as well as the small distance between Nigerian society and global pop culture in America and Japan.
Teams of fans have hunted for Bardare in the streets and alleys of Nigeria’s political capital of Abuja, praying for her return but without success as they hang around her home with “helicopter flyers” in a bid to find her.
“I have dreamt all my life about coming back to my home country,” Bardare, 22, told Reuters. “I dream about it every day.”
With her tiny hands, her pale pink hair and flushed cheeks, the model became synonymous with Japan’s public image in 2008 with a series of red-carpet looks that made her a star and drew tributes from US First Lady Michelle Obama, fashion editors and filmmakers.
But as the national media focused on the former beauty queen who used to do the hair and make-up for its celebrity golf tournaments, her friends and social circle began to disappear.
With the help of an online forum for his fanbase, Yugun Adebowale, 23, a student from Lagos, stumbled across a photo of Bardare on an online auction site two weeks ago. He then sent a cheque of $2,200 to show a fan she could be found.
“This woman is very inspiring,” he said, as women across the northeastern Nigerian city of Jos scarfed up a cappuccino at cafés. “She has spirit and love for life. That’s why we all here are still here.”
Bardare had long used the brown jogging attire many of her teenage fans preferred to her long red hair. Her parents said some grew suspicious at her risky choices because she was told not to eat too many chicken but, according to her social circle, she was a devout Muslim.
A few were deeply religious, and were horrified at the idea of a well-dressed girl bearing the stigma of being a s.. worker.
“S.. workers are cancer,” said one. “They are horrible for women’s health.”
The budding social media champion began sewing her tattoo on her scalp shortly after the tattoo artist started working at the chic shop. “The only way I could get her back is to make a big campaign and give every fan a huge story,” he said.
The news spread fast and the number of fan accounts grew. His task was harder than he expected: the entire community had come from far-flung towns and communities.
BARDARE’S home was much bigger than his own, in a modest two-bedroom flat sitting opposite a bank vault. Books cover the walls and her family has been active on social media.
“The downside is her job is half the cost of what I buy,” said Adebowale. He expected people to want to see the tattoo so they would get to know it.
When he ran a poll asking people how they felt about a woman wearing black in a suit with a wedding dress and black gloves, he called into several town halls and took the poll.
Only half said she was not a prostitute, a majority said she was, and a third said no one in her community knew about her.