Rakie Olufunmilayo Ayola was born in Cardiff, Wales in May 1968, to a Sierra Leonean mother and a Nigerian father. She was raised by her mother's cousin and his wife. She is of a Yoruba descent. Ayola studied at Windsor Clive Primary and Glan Ely High School, and was a member of the Orbit Youth Theatre, South Glamorgan Youth Theatre, South Glamorgan Youth Choir and the National Youth Theatre of Wales. She left high school before sitting her A Levels in order to pursue her ambition of becoming an actress.
She attended the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and studied for a three-year acting diploma. Her first acting role was for the Welsh Eisteddfod when still at primary school, playing a lady-in-waiting at the court of King Arthur.
Ayola said that Barbra Streisand's performance in Hello, Dolly! inspired her to act as a child, though but her adoptive mother encouraged her to act professionally. Ayola's first job was selling jeans on Bessemer Road Market in Cardiff.
She worked as a chambermaid whilst attending drama school, and, six weeks prior to graduation, was offered a job with the 'Made in Wales' theatre company which enabled her to obtain her union card.
Rakie began her career in the theatre, performing in a number of Shakespearean plays including Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth.
Ayola has performed in Twelfth Night in the lead roles of both Olivia and Viola. She has also appeared in modern performances, assuming the title role of Dido, Queen of Carthage at the Globe Theatre in London in 2003, which she described as "a dream of a part". She has deemed her dream role to be that of Isabella in Measure for Measure, as she once lost out on the part and would like to prove herself capable of playing it.
Ayola's first film appearance was in the 1993 film Great Moments in Aviation, written by Jeanette Winterson, in which she starred alongside Jonathan Pryce and John Hurt Ayola recalls having been daunted at the prospect of working alongside so many established names, but had a "wonderful experience". Her subsequent film credits are romantic comedy The Secret Laughter of Women, set in Nigeria and starring Colin Firth, thriller The i Inside, filmed in Sully Hospital, Cardiff, and starring Ryan Phillippe, and Sahara, filmed in Morocco whilst she was pregnant with her first child, starring Penélope Cruz.
Her first prolific television role was in the ITV drama Soldier Soldier, in which she starred throughout its third series in 1993 as soldier's wife Bernie Roberts. Ayola credits her chemistry with co-star Akim Mogaji, who played her on-screen husband Luke Roberts, for winning her her audition. She went on to appear in Gone With the Wind sequel Scarlett, and star in Welsh soap opera Tiger Bay. She has spoken critically of the way the BBC treated the soap, moving it around the schedules and declining to commission a second series. She acted alongside Pauline Quirke in both Maisie Raine and Being April, deeming Quirke to be a "fantastic" actress, and one she would work alongside again. In 1996, Ayola appeared at the National Theatre in Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. In 2001, she became a presenter of the BBC Wales arts programme Double Yellow, alongside poet Owen Sheers and performance artist Mark Rees. She posed nude but for a pair of yellow rubber gloves to promote the show's launch, and was highly critical of the BBC when the show was cancelled midway through its second series. She has since concluded that "the kind of audience they would like to bring in with shows like Double Yellow aren't really into watching TV", but at the time was outspoken against the show's cancellation,
Rakie's other notable television appearances include the BBC psychological thriller Green-Eyed Monster (2001) soap opera EastEnders (2001), Waking the Dead (2001), London's Burning (2001), Offenders (2002), Murder in Mind (2003), The Canterbury Tales (2003) and Sea of Souls (2004). In 2008, she starred in the Doctor Who episode "Midnight", playing an intergalactic Hostess alongside David Tennant's Tenth Doctor. In 2009, Ayola starred in the CBBC musical comedy My Almost Famous Family and the film Dredd. From 7 February 2006 to 9 December 2008, Ayola starred in BBC medical drama Holby City as nurse Kyla Tyson.
Throughout her career, Ayola has been outspoken on the subject of racial discrimination in the entertainment industry. Describing her motivation, she states: "I am not an overtly political person. I just want fairness". She believes that black actors receive less recognition than their white counterparts
Ayola was nominated and shortlisted for the 'Female Performance in TV' award in the 2006 Screen Nation Awards, for her role as Kyla Tyson in Holby City. She received Honourable Mention for the same role the following year, and was shortlisted again in 2008. In 2005, WalesOnline voted Ayola the 29th sexiest woman in Wales, saying of her: "One of our favourite thesps, she's black, beautiful and the term "yummy mummy" should have been made for her." She was placed 40th in 2008, with the Western Mail. She was also placed 17th in the awards in 2009.
Ayola describes herself as optimistic, cynical, lazy, naive and honest. She spends her free time "watching television, the theatre, cinema, concerts, indoor wall climbing, keeping fit with yoga and aerobics".
Rakie has an interest in travel, and has visited Peru and Kenya among other destinations. She has expressed a desire to visit Brazil and Argentina, and has "a romantic notion of travelling around Europe in a camper van". Ayola often speaks of her pride in her Welsh upbringing,describing herself as "an Ely girl through and through". She was made a Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2003.
Rakie is married to Adam Smethurst. They first met during a 1998 production of Hamle tand married in May 2004. They have two lovely children.
In 2008, offered her support to the Action for Southern Africa campaign Dignity! Period, aiming to provide affordable sanitary protection to Zimbabwean women.