I was 24 when I landed my first TV role in a major South African (SA) soap opera called ‘7de Laan’ (7th Avenue). I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t watch the show and had no concept of how huge the soap’s following was. I remember my first day on set: I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between the crew and the cast. When my friends and family heard I got a part on the beloved soapy they were all star struck and couldn’t believe that I was going to get to meet ‘Bart’, ‘Dezi’, 'Paula’, ‘George’ or which ever popular character was the nom de jour. I on the other hand had never watched ‘7de Laan’ and honestly didn’t know or care who these people were.
For me, it was just my first TV role. One of the literally handful of opportunities actors in SA had to be on TV in 2004. At the time, ‘7de Laan’ was shooting 4 or 5 months ahead of the actual TX (transmission) date. So I had been on set for about 4 months before my first episode aired…which would change my life.
I think the first person that recognized me in public was a gas attendant at a petrol station (jip, we have those in SA!) It freaked me out. I mean it was great, but also super weird. Here is this middle aged, Zulu man calling me ‘Liesl’ (that was my character’s name) and discussing the plot of ‘7de Laan’ with me in detail, whilst filling up my car!
And from there on it just got silly. Millions of people watch you on TV every night of the week and they honestly start to believe that they know you. I was stalked in shopping centres, stared at in elevators, people would even follow me into public restrooms and knock on the door as I was trying to pee, shouting: “Hey, are you Liesl from ‘7de Laan’?”
Look, I don’t think we experience 1000th of what the real stars here in Hollywood experience, but it is still a very weird thing to become a public figure all of a sudden. Especially with my personality. I love my fans and we need them to support our work, but it is also a total mind *&%$ for an introvert like me to deal with instant fame and thát many people invading your personal space.
Every actor thinks they want fame, but until it starts to happen to you, you actually have no idea what you are wishing for. It’s not something you can switch on and off or just have when it suits you. Which is why I think as a South African actor, we have the worst kind of fame, because it isn’t ‘real’ fame. It’s not like Jennifer Aniston fame, it was quasi fame, which meant that you were never sure… Do people know who I am or not? Is this waitress super nice cos she thinks I’m Liesl from ‘7de Laan’ or is she nice because she’s giving good service? Incidentally one of the lines I used to hear most was: “You’re famous, aren’t you?” Which kinda is an oxymoron, because if I was, you would have known!
Fortunately I had been married just before I became ‘famous’. I can not even imagine what it must be like to try and date if you’re a well known figure!
Plus, we weren’t paid enough money to go dine at fancy restaurants or fly business class or go for a holiday on a private island, we had to dine and holiday with the (as an actress friend of mine would jokingly say) ‘civilians’. This meant that we would have total strangers walk into our holiday home just to come chat to ‘Liesl’ or the girl from ‘Semi-Soet’ (Semi-Sweet which was the 2nd feature James and I produced and I starred in) or people have full access to you at the gym, the shopping centre or even on Facebook.
Being famous in SA was like having all the ‘bad’ of stardom without any of the perks. The best way to describe it is with what I used to call the ‘Kulula-Look’. Kulula is a budget airline in SA similar to South West in the States. Whenever I would fly Kulula (which incidentally was the only airline one could afford on a South African actor’s salary) people would give me that look… the look of: ‘How come you not flying in your private jet, famous person?’
I have been on the cover of more than 30 magazines, been on countless TV talk shows and magazine programs, been interviewed on radio stations and featured on more digital platforms/alternative media than I even know about (and I’m pretty good at keeping track, cos I’m sentimental). So I was probably famous enough to qualify as ‘isn’t that…?’
In 2007 James and I went to India for 3 weeks with my older sister, Marilet. I remember 2 very distinct incidents during that trip: Firstly I remember seeing a magazine shelf in Dharhamshala (where the Dalai Lama lives) with Jennifer Aniston and Gwenyth Paltrow on the cover of the magazines and thinking, wow… now THAT is what it means to be famous. Dharhamshala is literally on the ass end of India! I remember thinking, at least I get to escape the crowds when I go overseas, but Jennifer and Gwenyth can literally go nowhere! (Unless you have the unfortunate luck of stopping at a major tourist attraction like the Eiffel Tower at the same time as a South African tourist bus – then more pictures get taken of you than of the actual Eiffel Tower – true story!) I also remember the feeling of standing out like a sore thumb in India purely because we were Caucasian. We were treated like celebrities just because of the colour of our skin. Indian people would just randomly stuff their babies or children in our arms so we could touch them or so that they could take pictures of us just because we were white. I remember my sister remarking at the time: ‘Oh, Anel, I think for the first time I understand what it must feel like to be famous.’
Fast Forward to September 2016 when we moved our entire lives halfway across the ocean to a place where literally nobody knows or cares who I am or what I’ve done. I can not explain the feeling. The only way my mind can make sense of it was dubbing it as: The process of becoming ‘Unfamous’. For the first time in my adult life nobody knows who I am. Nobody has some pre-conceived idea of what I should look like, what I should act like or what they expect me to wear or say or be.
And it’s freaken AWESOME!
I have realized that we as human beings care waaaay too much about what other people think about us. And I wish I knew why? Because honestly: here’s the truth about the world: everybody’s too busy surviving and dealing with their own shit to care. And that’s very sad but also completely liberating. This meme sums it up perfectly (Thank you Karen Zoid for posting this. You won’t even remember it, but this really had a profound impact on me!):
So I find myself in this unique position of completely being able to reinvent myself. Starting with a clean slate. And it is wonderful and completely terrifying at the same time.