Pulling back the curtain

Behind the scenes with the team behind Superbalist 100 winner Suzelle DIY

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Travys Owen 

Styling: Gabrielle Kannemeyer

I’m on set with the team behind YouTube sensation Suzelle DIY, who right now is busy braaing boerewors bagel dogs for their Heritage Day show. Spoiler alert! Suzelle DIY is not a real person, she’s a character played by Julia Anastasopoulos and while she’s out of character she’s just quickly using a Cadac gas cooker to speed up the braai process that’s being filmed on the Weber. Pull back the curtain far enough and you’ll see just how much goes into these two-minute webisodes. Once the boerewors bagel dogs are a golden brown Julia moves back to the Weber and her voice changes and her face becomes more expressive and by the time the director shouts ACTION! Julia has fully transformed into Suzelle. 

“The boerewors bagel dogs are ready! I am so creative! I made this!”

Ari Kruger is the director and other half of Suzelle DIY. A filmmaker with a background in animation and visual effects, Ari has shot big-budget commercials, cool-guy music videos and award-winning short films, but it’s Suzelle who has won him the most eyeballs. And hearts.

“Braai stuff does really well,” says Ari, eating a piece of boerewors. “It speaks to the heart of every South African. Initially we didn’t set out to do that but when we noticed how successful it was, that people genuinely love things that are distinctly South African, we did more of it.”

Julia jumps in.

“The expats especially love it. We get emails from people in England and Oz all the time, ‘Oh Suzelle, we miss home, thank you so much.’  That’s cool.”

It’s a strategic move putting out a braai webisode around Heritage Day, as this helps to get traction for the videos, because even if you can’t tan a chop on 24 September, you can share a proudly South African braai-themed video on social media as the next best thing.

It’s not a particularly new concept, these DIY type shows, and South Africa is spoiled for choice when it comes to the format. The Home Channel’s Die Nuutsman, Show Me How and The Gardener all have varying levels of cringe, but what makes Suzelle DIY such a success is that the team behind it has done this on purpose in order to create a South African icon. Or as Suzelle would say, “I-kon.”

Cath and Kim, Ali G, David Brent… Suzelle is the South African answer to these anti-heroes that we can’t help but root for. And the reason why we feel empathy for such a tragic character is because of the actress playing Suzelle, Julia. With a BA in Theatre and Performance majoring in Acting at the University of Cape Town, the Dean’s Merit List student played Ophelia three years in a row and then worked stages across the country in a number of diverse roles, which included designing sets for theatre productions. And those hand-drawn illustrations on the walls and windows of a few MyCiti bus stations? Also Julia.

“Julia is Suzelle DIY,” says Ari. “That’s how it came about. She’s actually really good at doing things. She’s inventive. The 'getting the fluff off the jersey' thing was an actual thing. She did that to me years ago, chasing me around the house getting fluff of my jersey, and that’s something we remembered and thought would be funny in a video.”

“And I invented the boerewors bagel dog!” laughs Julia, self-deprecatingly, speaking in Suzelle’s voice before switching to her own. “I’ve just always enjoyed making things. I’d rather make it than buy it.”

The similarities between Julia and the character that she plays end with both of them being creative women. Where Suzelle is larger than life in her fashion and the way she interacts with people, Julia is quite reserved, quiet and somewhat shy. The DIY thing extends to the team producing the series though, and  there’s a lo-fi, shoestring, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel. All of the gardening and braai episodes are shot here at Ari’s mom Glenda’s house.

“When we started we pulled in friends and family and shot on weekends,” says Julia. “Then we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to have a dog?’ and pulled in Gina’s dog. (Gina is the actress who plays Marianne). Obviously a lot of thought has gone into this, but it’s also been very organic. It’s definitely evolved. When people responded to certain things, like the flowers in her hair, we picked up on that and now Suzelle always needs to have a flower in her hair.”

Because Gina isn’t on set today (she recently had a baby, congrats Gina!) the team is even smaller than usual. Natalia Segerman (her father found Sugarman, her sister is It-Girl Fani and her brother Rafi plays for the band John Wizards) is the third wheel and deals with admin and production. Otherwise Julia does her own make-up, wardrobe, styling, hair… and Ari shoots, directs and does the edit.

“We write everything together,” says Julia. “We’ll write a loose script and then a lot of the dialogue kind of happens on the day. A lot is improvised. We sort of develop it while we’re shooting it.”

To illustrate Julia’s point about how organic everything is and the improvisation that takes place, one of the scenes plays out like this:

Suzelle: “The bagel dogs are ready. Off you come little guy. Oh fok! Just jokes. Can’t say that. Because Checkers!”

Natalia: “What about the flags?”

Ari: “I feel there’s too much South Africa. We have the flag salad and the little flag in the bagel dogs.”

Glenda: “But that’s what you want.”

Suzelle: “I made this!”

Ari: “That’s Suzelle’s new line.”

Suzelle: “With my own creative knowledge.”

Ari: “Another one.”

Suzelle: “The bagel dogs are ready!”

Ari: “Cool. Cut.”

Glenda: “Nothing with Bakkies?”

Ari: “Not today, Mom.”

Suzelle: “Bakkies, don’t!”

Glenda: “Yes, I’m telling you!”

Suzelle: “The boerewors bagel dogs are ready! Bakkies don’t look at me like that. This is not for you.”

Ari: “Good idea, Mom.”

Julia: “Very good idea, Glen.”

Ari: “I think we should end with Suzelle singing.”

Natalia: “Zama zama ey ey… “

Ari: “The Coca-Cola one.”

Suzelle: “When I am older… when I am younger… nana na na na…”

There’s laughter throughout, real laughs and Suzelle’s stage laugh “ho-ho-ho”, which elicits more laughs, and there’s a light breeziness where everyone is able to contribute without fear of being rebuked or sounding silly or being ignored.

Julia admits that it can become a bit frustrating to keep doing the same line over and over, but that a lot of the time she’ll use this as an opportunity to develop the jokes and that, yes, Ari’s mom does tend to put her five cents in, things like, “Julia, open your eyes more.”

“I feel that we all know the character so well, and there’s a definite vocabulary that goes with Suzelle. So we all just chip in.” says Natalia.

“It’s quite fun to do it like that because everything else we do is so planned,” says Julia. “Story boarded. Scripted. Suzelle was originally a vehicle to generate material and build a character.”

In the same way that some of our most-loved skits and shorts have gone on to become feature films, there are bigger plans for Suzelle, too. Watch the webisodes and you’ll see that the shorts only chip at the veneer of what’s quite a complex character.

“The videos are still very much South African with South Africans watching them,” says Ari. “Where the movie could really transcend to an international audience. We want to take it to festivals and introduce Suzelle to the world.”

Julia tells us more about the character.

“Suzelle’s 32 years old, single, but would love to get married. She works at a guesthouse called Somerset Guest, which gives her plenty of time to look at magazines and get all her DIY ideas. She has a next-door neighbour called Hennie, a school kid who's very into computers and cameras. He’s the one who films and uploads everything to YouTube.”

All this and more will be revealed in the movie, and there are so many things that they can’t do in the webisodes that they’ll unpack in a feature-length film. How Suzelle is so desperate for acceptance, for instance, and the movie will act as a sort of precursor to her YouTube success and fame.

“Right now we’re pretty close to a good outline,” says Ari. “We haven’t scripted yet but will know what direction it’ll take by the end of the year. Ninety minutes. Way more difficult. Totally different project. We’d need funding and in a totally different way from how we’re funding these.”

What started off as self-funded is now being sponsored. Today is Checkers’ turn, early in the week there was a video for Virgin Active and before that was Lasher Tools. It’s all pretty subtle though and the only branding you’ll see is at the end of the videos, when a slate screen comes up. Right now they’re in the enviable position where they get to pick and choose who to work with and Natalia's inbox is being flooded with requests.

“We are getting approached every day now," says Natalia. "Either to get product featured or brands to sponsor a video or a series. People also want to come onto the show. We do love to collaborate as those videos get a great reception. Where we have guests on the show. To see Suzelle interact with them, that dynamic, does so well.”

The boerewors bagel dogs are done, it’s a wrap, and time for lunch, which is, yep, you guessed it – boerewors bagel dogs! Julia is actually a vegetarian so she simply peels the pastry off of the boerewors and eats that with stuff from the plate of condiments. The “condom-mints”, as Suzelle would say, are laid out like the South African flag and because there’s no food that’s blue she’s used blue serviettes and blue plastic cutlery. So kreyatif!

Julia: “I'd do this again. It’s a bit labour intensive. Having to cook the wors first."

Natalia: “But how often do you have leftover boerewors?”

Ari: “Always. I think it’s going to be a really good episode."

Glenda: “When you finish will you guys just move the tables back. And remember to sweep.”


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