On the set of her first-ever in­ter­na­tional mag­a­zine cover shoot, girl boss of t he mo­ment Ayanda Thabethe talks about own­ing three busi­nesses, slay­ing it as a TV star, and her se­cret son how you too can rise to the top WORDS HOLLY MEAD­OWS PHO­TOG­RA­PHY KATINKA BESTER/ HERO CRE­ATIVE MAN­AGE­MENT FASH­ION BEV NATES

As Ayanda Thabethe touches down in Jo’burg from a Top Billing shoot in Paris, her boyfriend – rap­per Dash – sur­prises her with plane tick­ets to Mozam­bique to cel­e­brate their an­niver­sary. She doesn’t know it yet but she’s about to get an­other sur­prise. I dial her num­ber. We’ve never spo­ken be­fore, and as I in­tro­duce my­self as the new ed­i­tor of COSMO South Africa and tell her we’d like to fea­ture her as our Septem­ber cover star, I’m met with ex­cite­ment and ut­ter dis­be­lief. ‘I can’t be­lieve it, this must be my lucky day!’ I can al­most hear the smile em­a­nat­ing down the phone, and I’m imag­in­ing her wide-eyed, laden with Ga­leries Lafayette shop­ping bags and em­brac­ing her man in the mid­dle of OR Tambo. Around them life goes on and the hus­tle of tran­sit­ing pas­sen­gers con­tin­ues; but this mo­ment is all about Ayanda. It’s a mo­ment she truly de­serves, and one she worked damn hard to earn.

Life wasn’t al­ways COSMO cover shoots and in­ter­view­ing celebri­ties at red-car­pet fi lm screen­ings. Raised by a sin­gle mother in Dur­ban, Ayanda moved around a lot as a child, grow­ing up in town­ships from KwaMashu to Um­lazi. With five girls to raise, her mother was what Ayanda de­scribes as a ‘power woman to the T’. Life was happy but tough. At times there wasn’t money for food, and Ayanda re­calls a day her mom spent her last few rand on a scratch card, win­ning R100 for gro­ceries the next day. A ma­tri­arch to the max, Ayanda’s mother worked many jobs – she was a nurse, she had her own shop sell­ing cool drinks, she sewed gar­ments and sold them. ‘I knew, from her, that a woman could be so many things – and I owe ev­ery­thing I am to my mom,’ says Ayanda.

She learnt in­de­pen­dence from a young age. She used to take taxis and buses to school, and nav­i­gate long dis­tances alone. She was head­strong, talk­a­tive and opin­ion­ated, some­thing she puts down to be­ing a mid­dle child try­ing to find her iden­tity. ‘I lived in a dream­land mo of the time. I’m some­body who al­ways had an ab­stract vi­sion for my life that wasn’t af­fected by my sur­round­ings. I used to watch TV and want to be like those peo­ple. I used to just want more, you know?’ From want­ing to be a pageant queen to a me­dia mogul, Ayanda be­lieves that peo­ple who say they can’t be some­thing be­cause of where they are have got it wrong: as much as your sur­round­ings can tell you one story, there are other peo­ple and av­enues that shape who you be­come.

De­spite fi­nan­cial hur­dles, Ayanda paid for her own tu­ition, tak­ing out a loan to fund her fi nal year and pay­ing it off her­self. She moved to Jo’burg af­ter com­plet­ing a BCom in com­mu­ni­ca­tions, to work as a per­sonal as­sis­tant at a fi nan­cial com­pany. ‘But ev­ery day I made sure some­body out there got my CV be­cause I knew al­ready that’s not where I be­longed.’ Af­ter months of search­ing for some­thing bet­ter, she got a mar­ket­ing in­tern­ship with John­son & John­son; at the same time, she com­pleted an hon­ours de­gree in mar­ket­ing. Af­ter fi nish­ing her stud­ies, she be­came a sales rep for J&J, ped­dling med­i­cal de­vices and di­ag­nos­tics in the­atres and hos­pi­tals. It was only af­ter a stint sell­ing phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal prod­ucts for an­other firm (and a loom­ing re­trench­ment) that Ayanda got her big break at L’Oréal. She di­alled back­wards from be­ing a se­nior sales agent and ac­cepted a mar­ket­ing in­tern­ship po­si­tion at the cos­met­ics gi­ant. ‘I thought, “This is my way in – and if I have to take a salary cut to get in, then I’ll do it.”’

Af­ter a year of in­tern­ing, she leaned in and spoke up, ask­ing for a pro­mo­tion. ‘I’ve al­ways been the kind of per­son who asks for what I feel I de­serve,’ she says. ‘To my sur­prise, they ac­cepted it.’ She be­came the brand man­ager for hair­care pow­er­house Dark and Lovely for three years, all the time try­ing to get into tele­vi­sion.

She con­tin­ued to model, some­thing she’d dab­bled in since school days, and hosted a show along­side AKA on Top TV called Top En­ter­tain­ment. She got tapped by Con­nie Fer­gu­son for a lead­ing role on Mzansi Magic but, be­cause of the tim­ing, she couldn’t take the leave re­quired to fi lm. The op­por­tu­nity forced Ayanda to take a leap and leave the beauty cor­po­rate to pur­sue a ca­reer in en­ter­tain­ment. Im­bued with en­tre­pre­neur­ial, goget­ter spirit, she opened a mar­ket­ing agency, Buz­zwor­thy, reg­u­larly pitch­ing against big­ger agen­cies to win global client cam­paigns. Fer­gu­son got back in touch, call­ing Ayanda in for an au­di­tion that saw her cast in the role of Aliyah in Rockville.

From there, the op­por­tu­ni­ties be­gan to flow in. She spent a sea­son host­ing BET A-List with Nandi Ma­dida, and was re­cruited as the face of fash­ion brand Le­git.

Fast-for­ward to 2017, and Ayanda is the lat­est ad­di­tion to the Top Billing pre­sen­ter crew, and the face of Pond’s South Africa. Oh, and those In­sta­gram posts hang­ing out on the High Line with Michelle Obama’s hair­styl­ist Johnny Wright? Ayanda was in New York to shoot a cam­paign as one of the new global am­bas­sadors for Mizani hair­care. There, she was on set with the likes of César (hair­styl­ist for Demi Lo­vato, Ciara and Kim Kar­dashian) and Jen­nifer Hud­son’s makeup artist Yolanda Fred­er­icks.

The av­er­age week for Ayanda never looks the same. (The day be­fore we spoke, she was beat­box­ing with Cara Delev­ingne.) Her sis­ter Lungi Thabethe is also her as­sis­tant – a fab­u­lous one – help­ing her balance a di­ary of in­ter­views, busi­ness meet­ings, pho­to­shoots, MC gigs and fi lm­ing. Ayanda has three busi­nesses to run, one be­ing the hairand-beauty salon Liyanda in Mel­rose, which she co­founded (and self-funded) with her busi­ness part­ner. ‘I’m a chronic saver,’ says Ayanda. ‘We ac­tu­ally had cash in­vest­ment – we didn’t take out a loan.’ Buz­zwor­thy, which she has am­bi­tions to grow into a mul­ti­mil­lion- rand em­pire, has nabbed an in­ter­na­tional reper­toire of clients (in­clud­ing Nestlé); it’s 100%-owned by Ayanda, and runs in con­junc­tion with an­other part­ner and a net­work of free­lancers. Busi­ness num­ber three is an in­vest­ment in an abovethe-line agency of which Ayanda is a silent fun­der.

My jaw is just about on the floor by the time Ayanda is done reel­ing off her CV. How does she deal with the pres­sure, the de­mands, the anx­i­ety? As a woman who knows what it’s like to per­pet­u­ally feel as though I’m not cop­ing, I’m both cu­ri­ous and as­tounded.

‘I’m al­ways stressed out. I strug­gle,’ she says. ‘One of the ways I over­come that is by es­cap­ing once in a while. I man­age anx­i­ety by look­ing back at the things I’ve done well. I gain strength from the fact that I was scared of them at some point and I over­came it – which means I can over­come what I am do­ing now, too.’

For Ayanda, self-be­lief and con­fi­dence are key to nail­ing suc­cess. ‘We of­ten look to oth­ers to tell us how good we are at do­ing things – but we need to start look­ing within and be­ing hon­est. I need to know what I’m not do­ing well.

What is stop­ping me? What can I do to help me im­prove? I think we pos­sess all the an­swers about our­selves.’ That (and a healthy dose of per­se­ver­ance) keeps Ayanda reach­ing new heights. ‘You have to say, “This is what’s in my mind, it’s a vi­sion I be­lieve in – and be­cause of that, I’m go­ing to do it. I’m go­ing to have the de­ter­mi­na­tion and the pa­tience to see it through.”’

The odds were never on Ayanda’s side. She went to a ru­ral high school and came from a sin­gle-par­ent home where money was tight. ‘An­other per­son wouldn’t have seen that I’d end up on Top Billing. One of the in­tim­i­dat­ing things about it is the Eng­lish that peo­ple speak – it was in­tim­i­dat­ing to me, you know?’ By her own ac­knowl­edg­ment, her story shouldn’t have ended up here. But it did. ‘If I am able to do it by just be­liev­ing in my­self, any­one else can too. If you’re look­ing at your cir­cum­stances and try­ing to see where you’ll be, you’re do­ing it wrong. Where you are, your past and how you were raised – those are not as big as what you be­lieve in your heart, and where you want to end up.’

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