I’m sitting solo mio at a coffee bar in Sandton, minding my own business when a man walks up to me. “Excuse me,” he says, somewhat shyly, “You’re not Josef Talotta, are you?” Instant heart palpitations. TV Licence inspector? I pay my licence, of course, but what if I didn’t have the card on me? Or, worse yet, what if I owed money? Perhaps a drunken bar tab from years gone by?
“Umm, ja. That’s me,” I stammered, “Why do you want to know?” He broke into a smile, “I thought it was you! I read your column in Style every month— I love it! You’re really funny—” He hesitated a moment before asking, “But does all that weird stuff really happen to you? Or do you just make it up?”
“It’s my life, unfortunately,” I confessed, “the unedited version.” “Shew!” said the fan, before waving off. I sat, somewhat stunned. I hadn’t been recognised since childhood, when I sang back up for Karen Carpenter in a one-off concert. But the fans were my parents, so it really didn’t count. This was the first time an absolute stranger had recognised me.
A few days later it happened again, this time with a waitress. “Are you related to Josef Talotta?” Pretty much the same conversation followed. I mean, I know I can write. And I enjoy writing my Style column (it’s a cathartic experience) but I never really thought anyone really read it. Or, at least, I never really entertained the concept of people identifying with it. And if this was happening to me, I could only imagine the world of A-graders like Gwen Gill, Barry Ronge and David Bullard – those who command financial premiums for their holy words. I returned to my coffee, thinking about the power of the media and the cult of celebrity.
Style‘s founding editor, Marilyn Hattingh, once said to me, “Joe, go to the functions, but never get yourself confused with your subjects. You’re just a journalist and you’re there to work – even if you seemingly have priority on the red carpet. Remember you only have priority because you’re reporting on the event. They don’t want you. They want your words.” Perhaps a mutilated paraphrase of her pearls of wisdom – but the message has stuck with me through the years.
And it’s something of which Sunday Times columnist Gwen Gill is well aware. “I do seem to get special treatment at times,” she says. “But it’s difficult to know whether they’re treating you well because you’re you. Or because they want you to write about them. It’s difficult to read people’s minds.”
Gill has probably done more than any other print journalist in the country to build a South African cult of celebrity – through her popular weekly column, she has paved the way for other publications and columns. But she somewhat disagrees with that assessment. “Celebrities make themselves,” she says. “If they’re worth writing about, I write about them.” She avoids “TV presenters, pop stars and all those other opening-the-envelope people who don’t possess an enormous amount of talent”, preferring big-ticket names like Bassie Kumalo and Tokyo Sexwale. Their appeal is that they can “capture readers’ and viewers’ imaginations. Aspiration is important.”
“Celebs are performers who are comfortable being in the spotlight,” say Melinda Shaw, editor of Media24’s Heat magazine (ABC 44,933 Jan-Jun 2004). “I don’t consider politicians or captains of industry to be celebrities, although these people may be very successful and/or powerful. Politics and business aren’t exactly glamorous, and glamour is an essential part of celebrity— Celebrities have jobs that make for great photos. They’re on stage, in the spotlight or on the sports field, exerting themselves and looking great doing it.”
Shaw points out that celebrity culture is still in its infancy in South Africa and that it should develop as local performers wake up to its career-building opportunities. “As a performer, you have a platform for regular exposure and not just a once-off interview when your new album is released, for instance, so that the public becomes familiar with you. And familiarity is a road to popularity, something that can only improve your marketability. In this way, someone moves up the list from C-list through the B-list and, if they lead interesting enough lives, there’s no reason for a local celeb not to become A-list.”
Andrea Caknis, editor of Caxton’s People magazine (ABC 113,862 Jan-Jun 2004), says: “We’re in the process of repositioning People, with a stronger local content mix. But local celebs are very sensitive. We recently tried to shoot a radio personality, who was downright rude, saying ‘Just leave me alone. I don’t want paparazzi near me!’ He doesn’t seem to understand that his income is directly linked with his popularity. You can’t have it both ways, being both well known and left alone. Too many of our local celebs don’t seem to be equipped to handle the concept of celebrity, compared to their international counterparts.”
From the “target” side, there’s a different story. “We do get it,” says actress Nambitha Mpumlwana, who plays Zandile in 7de Laan. “Many of us are quite strategic in our careers and work. It’s about remaining relevant in a relatively small, divided market, which is one of the reasons why I opted for 7de Laan. I’d been doing local and international work for years, but I never had a white audience until I did 7de Laan. That’s not by chance. I thought 7de Laan was a good product, and I knew it would expose me to the Afrikaans market, which is an important element in the SA audience, one that’s still divided between black and white. Few local celebs can transcend race, though Bassie Kumalo is one.”
Actor and presenter Ashley Dowds agrees with Mpumlwana’s take on relevance, in the context of the local market. “My beef is that one can have a glamorous though mindless presenting job on the telly,” he says, “but corporates certainly seem to fall for it. If you’re a ‘socialite’ and doing continuity presenting, your income can be quite high once you crack the A-grade gigs. As an artist, you have to maintain a profile. Someone like Gwen Gill can label us to an extent, influencing who gets the A-grade work and who gets the C-grade work, at least when it comes to MCing. People can forget you very quickly in SA. There’s almost an MTV mentality here. In the States or UK, once you climb to the top, you can virtually choose your work. Here, even once you’ve cracked it, you still have to audition with the unknowns.”
Perhaps Dowds should also work on a local soapie? Soaps sell, says Andrea Caknis, but international ones sell better. “Soapies always work for People,” says Caknis. “We’re constantly testing the market, trying new covers and topics, but it’s the international soapies that sell best. When we did an Isidingo cover, our circulation took a major dive, losing 10,000 sales. Must say, we’re completely baffled by this.”
Daniel Ford, editor and publisher of Top Billing magazine (expected monthly sales exceeding 40,000) is bullish about the rise of the local celebrity. “There’s an upsurge in local interests. Readers are attracted to celebrity for two reasons: voyeurism and familiarity. We’re in the process of forging our identities as South Africans and, with time, the familiarity side will dominate the voyeuristic.”
People magazine has been at the forefront of building local celebrity brands through its four-year-old Crystal Awards, which serve as a South African barometer as to who’s hot and who’s not – readers select their favourite local celebrities in 17 categories. “Most of our popular celebrities are from the worlds of TV, film, radio and music. Very little business or sporting personalities. Our teen section has a bigger local content, particularly in music. Our younger readers are mad for celebs. Danny K is very popular. And when Owen Meyer (who plays Kyle in Isidingo) did an autograph signing at Cresta, the girls waited two hours to get his autograph. But, as I said, our Isidingo cover didn’t move as well as we’d expected, while our Days of Our Lives cover hit 116,000.”
While Shaw doesn’t separate SA celeb culture from general celeb culture, she also thinks it’s a “growing industry” – and one that locals should prepare for. “Being a celebrity is not only about being successful in your career. It’s someone who seeks the limelight, allowing the media to sneak peeks into their lives. Just look at the Beckhams for instance. They manage their public appearances with great skill. When they go out, they look great and make good pictures. There’s a lesson to be learned there.”
Says Gill: “Social columns and like-minded magazines have done a huge amount of work to build celebrity. We have so many interesting people here in South Africa. Sportsmen and women can be bigger, like local versions of Beckham. I go to party after party and rarely see a Stormer or a Shark. I don’t know if they’re not being invited, or if they’re not accepting the invitations. Ditto people like Ruda Landman and Derek Watts.”
I figure the status of the South African celebrity is much like the country itself: all the ingredients are there for a delicious meal, but we’re haphazard and slow in putting them together. And it’s not such a bad thing – there’s still an element of accessibility with local celebs, which is brilliant for journos and fans alike. I’ll know we’ll have arrived when one gets the PA’s PA on the line. And I hope that day’s a long way off.