‘I THINK WE POSSESS ALL THE ANSWERS ABOUT OURSELVES’
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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