I’m Famous In South Africa

A collection of South African celebrity by Nicky Greenwall and Robin Fryer

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Robin Fryer

As a television host, writer and producer behind entertainment news programs like The Showbiz Report, The Close Up and Screen Time with Nicky Greenwall, Nicky Greenwall has spent the last 15 years face to famous face interviewing the type of person you know from the TV.

Nicky’s own celebrity story started with an autograph that she got from Brad Pitt when she was a 13-year-old girl. Years later, she saw the actor at Cannes, and on her return to Johannesburg International after the trip a star-struck little girl asked her if she was the lady from the TV. Her reaction was a deep uneasiness with “this ‘celebrity’ thing”, and at a crossroads in her career, Nicky decided that instead of traveling around the world in order to spend three minutes with a guarded Hollywood star at a press junket, she would dedicate her life to trying to better understand the concept of fame.

And it’s her experience as a minor celebrity that has helped Nicky to empathise with the people she interviews, where ultimately her aim is to allow them a platform to make themselves better understood.

Maps Maponyane had a stutter? Black Coffee worked as a cow herder? AKA attended an elite private school? Desmond Dube was homeless? Tol A$$ Mo was arrested for an unfortunate incident where he sort of stole a car?

It’s these stories that Nicky has a knack for uncovering, eschewing the obvious in order to discover what it is that ultimately makes these people in the spotlight who they are.

While filming the four-hour interviews that were then edited into half-hour spots, Nicky’s husband, model-turned-photographer and now owner of 20 Model Management, Robin Fryer, would photograph each celebrity. These candid and unstaged portraits offer the visual authenticity for which Nicky has always strived with her interviews, and the best of these have been curated and published in their book I’m Famous in South Africa.

The Way of Us spoke with Nicky about what it means to be famous in South Africa.

So fame, what does it all mean and why did you do this book?

When you get up close with fame and people screaming you start to question how it’s quite strange that we do this. When I stopped doing Hollywood celebrities and focused on local celebrities I found how strange it is that there are people who are hugely famous to a massive section of the population of South Africa and completely unknown to another section. There’s a really interesting tension in that.

There’s that caveat in South Africa, so what’s the difference between international and local celebrity?

Our celebrities just want to be understood. They feel very misunderstood. Generally the people I’ve interviewed overseas are a lot more guarded, well versed, and you only have five minutes with these big stars like Leo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie. You’re flown halfway across the world, you’re half asleep, they’re half asleep, you’re the 99th person that they’re seeing that day and you then get 3 ½ minutes with them and they’ve already got their answers before you’ve asked your questions. With the South Africans, it was much more interesting, because they want to be understood and they want to tell their stories.

Do we have a habit of comparing our celebrities to international stars, like calling AKA the South African Kanye?

That’s definitely a thing. And I think that they might even do it themselves in a sense, because they’re looking to be international celebrities, but will probably never be on that level, purely because of geography. Look at the size of America compared to South Africa. So I do think our celebrities look at celebrities overseas and think, ‘Well that’s how I want to present myself!’ And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. I think it’s good that they’re serious about how they want to present themselves.

What’s it like dealing with such big egos?

There is always an ego, well not always, but most of the time. What I always do is just try and talk to a celebrity like they’re normal people. Not too much pomp and ceremony. Keep it casual. Time is also a factor where the longer you’re with someone the more they relax.

And AKA?

AKA is someone I’ve interviewed loads of times. He really knows what he’s doing, is very clever, and has created his celebrity himself. Having interviewed him before, in the middle, and after his rise I’ve seen that trajectory. I don’t actually find him egotistical, I find him quite straight. He’s a smart guy who knows his business.

So what’s your favourite portrait?

Tol A$$ Mo. He has quite a hectic story where he was arrested at 17 where, basically he had an out of body experience and stole a car. Well he didn’t actually steal the car, he had a weird reaction where he chased someone down the street who he thought had stolen his car, and was in such a weird frame of mind, that he grabbed someone and shouted at them for stealing his car, but they weren’t. He was arrested, and the thing is, his dad was put in prison for a cash in transit heist when he was younger, so his mother was obviously adamant that he should never turn out like his father.

* I’m Famous In South Africa, a book by Nicky Greenwall with a collection of celebrity portraits by Robin Fryer, revels some of Mzansi’s most prominent talent and exposes several of their deepest thoughts about their career and lives in general. The book which comprises of about 44 South African celebrities is printed in black and white and is in A3 size.