Pamela Nomvete on pick­ing up the pieces



SHE’S best known for the se­ri­ous, pow­er­ful and of­ten tragic char­ac­ters she por­trays so con­vinc­ingly on screen. Who could ever for­get Nt­siki Lukhele, the in­fa­mous bad­die she brought to life in Gen­er­a­tions in the late 1990s – a char­ac­ter still con­sid­ered one of the best TV vil­lains of all time?

But the woman we see to­day is any­thing but se­ri­ous. Pos­ing for pic­tures, Pamela Nomvete cracks jokes, pulls funny faces and has ev­ery­one in stitches.

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to fathom that she once plunged into the depths of de­pres­sion, and was so down and out, she was home­less and had to sleep in her car.

She’d hit rock bot­tom but man­aged to beg and bor­row enough to get a one-way ticket back to her fam­ily in the UK where she started re­build­ing her life. Now those dark days of 10 years ago are well and truly a thing of the past.

This lady is back – and her fans are over­joyed.

In true Pamela style, she’s clinched a meaty role in the sec­ond sea­son of Lock­down, Mzansi Magic’s pop­u­lar fe­male prison drama.

And Lock­down fans, pre­pare to be blown away! If you thought the first sea­son was ground­break­ing, you’re in for a par­a­digm shift this time round.

“I play the role of Deb­o­rah Banda, a prison war­den who’s in­cred­i­bly com­plex, ef­fi­cient, bossy, volatile and ex­haust­ing,” says Pamela, rolling her eyes for ex­tra em­pha­sis.

“The woman is just stressed. She has terrible demons and her com­plex­i­ties are fed by the re­la­tion­ships she has with peo­ple around her.

“You’re in for a ride,” she warns view­ers. “He [di­rec­tor and pro­ducer Mandla Ng­con­g­wane] hasn’t held back this time.”

Pamela loves play­ing larger-than-life, out-of-con­trol char­ac­ters. “There are el­e­ments to these peo­ple that are a dis­com­fort for oth­ers be­cause they’re women, African, black and they’re scary – and that’s the way I like them.

“Now that I’m older, do you hon­estly think I’ll play safe moth­ers?”

SHE’S the cliché of the South African artist, she ad­mits frankly. “We have a rep­u­ta­tion for crash­ing and dy­ing as pau­pers. I was very suc­cess­ful but I didn’t know how to han­dle it and ended up home­less and liv­ing in my car for two weeks.

“There was too much pres­sure from ev­ery­where, which led to my grad­ual de­cline.”

Low self-es­teem saw her turn­ing to al­co­hol as a cop­ing mech­a­nism.

“I was in a bad mar­riage, be­cause when you don’t know your worth you at­tract peo­ple who see your value and cap­i­talise on it. My im­me­di­ate fam­ily be­lieved in work­ing for them­selves but my spouse’s fam­ily wanted to get some­thing out,” says the ac­tress who was mar­ried to Zim­bab­wean Collins Marimbe.

“It’s in­sid­i­ous be­cause you don’t re­alise what’s hap­pened.”

In her book, Danc­ing to the Beat of the Drum: In Search of My Spir­i­tual Home, Pamela ad­mits she avoided fam­ily and friends be­cause she’d fallen into debt.

She ex­plains how des­per­ate she was for money that she sold her en­tire wardrobe, in­clud­ing de­signer items, and traded a prized pho­to­graph of her­self with Nel­son Man­dela.

Things started turn­ing around for her when she went to the UK in 2007, she says, sip­ping on a cap­puc­cino.

She got her­self an agent and was act­ing reg­u­larly in theatre pro­duc­tions un­til she landed her­self the role of Mandy Ka­mara on UK’s long­est-stand­ing Bri­tish soapie, Corona­tion Street, from 2012 to 2013.

“First I had to do the work on Pamela,” she says, ex­plain­ing that al­though she had con­tin­ued act­ing, she no longer felt passionate about it. Her niece, ac­tress Sophia Nomvete, praised her work in a bid to rekin­dle her fer­vour, but it was hard.

“I told her, ‘I can’t bear it, I don’t love it!’ She said: ‘Isn’t it weird that you’re so good at it and you hate it? So, it doesn’t mean that someone who’s great at some­thing nec­es­sar­ily loves it then’.

“Some­thing about what she said sparked an in­ter­nal in­ter­ro­ga­tion. I had to come back to where I crashed and aban­doned my skills and fig­ure out a way for­ward.”

Yet de­spite the tough times she ex­pe­ri­enced in SA, she al­ways knew she was go­ing to re­turn home. She even­tu­ally re­turned to start a 10-week, 10-step pro­gramme for as­pir­ing ac­tors, while go­ing back to the UK reg­u­larly to act on stage. Her goal was to equip them with the sur­vival tools she didn’t have in the be­gin­ning, Pamela says. She wanted them to dis­cover who they are, con­nect with their roles and be­come their own sto­ry­tellers. “If you don’t know how to be a sto­ry­teller, you’ll al­ways be half an ac­tor. This is ther­apy, they don’t teach this in act­ing school.”

Pamela ex­pected her stu­dents to go out and ap­ply what she’d taught them, but she re­alised she needed to lead by ex­am­ple. She re­alised it was time for her to get back into act­ing in South Africa.

As she was shar­ing her skills and knowl­edge, she came to re­alise how much she loved act­ing.

“Even with my low self­es­teem is­sues, there was one thing I knew they couldn’t chal­lenge me on: my skill as an ac­tor. As a rule in act­ing, a char­ac­ter is a liv­ing en­tity. You have to do a lot of home­work in map­ping the char­ac­ter out and let­ting them drive it.

‘I was very suc­cess­ful but I didn’t know how to han­dle it ’

“Your char­ac­ters show you how they walk, how they talk and you have to to­tally sur­ren­der and trust the char­ac­ter,” says Pamela who ad­mits to talk­ing to her­self all the time when she’s prep­ping for a part – even in the shower.

PAMELA might say she has no in­ter­est in play­ing moth­ers but that’s not strictly true. She couldn’t say no to play­ing the role of Mam’ Sonto in pro­ducer Salam­ina Mos­ese’s de­but movie, Baby Ma­mas. “Your life knows why you do cer­tain things. I al­ways said I was never go­ing to play a mother then I did for like two min­utes in Baby Ma­mas and my agent nearly fell over,” ad­mits Pamela, who says she took a small role in the movie be­cause it’s “im­por­tant to sup­port young up­com­ing women pro­duc­ers”.

She’s hop­ing her name will in some way help pull au­di­ences to watch the movie. But in the same breath she’s also scep­ti­cal about the clout her name car­ries in the in­dus­try, be­cause even as Pamela Nomvete, she strug­gled to get work on her re­turn to SA.

“I went for an au­di­tion and this man walked up to me and asked what I was do­ing there. When I told him I came for an au­di­tion, he was mor­ti­fied.

“He ap­par­ently went to the di­rec­tor and asked how can you au­di­tion Pamela Nomvete? He was so em­bar­rassed, but I laughed it off.

“So ap­par­ently the name Pamela Nom--

vete should open doors in the in­dus­try, but when I re­turned to South Africa no­body was open­ing the door. I was won­der­ing if they know I’m here. I asked my agent to get me meet­ings with pro­duc­ers.”

She was des­per­ate to get out there but not des­per­ate enough to set­tle for sec­ond best.

She joined In­sta­gram and started chat­ting to Lor­cia Cooper, who plays les­bian gang­ster Tyson on Lock­down. Pamela started watch­ing scenes of Lock­down on YouTube and thought it was phe­nom­e­nal.

“I sent her a mes­sage and told her how amaz­ing the se­ries is and how amaz­ing she is in it. I also said I would love to be in it, even if it’s a cameo role.”

She was sur­prised when Lor­cia told her she showed Pamela’s mes­sage to the di­rec­tor – and there was a part for her!

“I was told the char­ac­ter has a se­ri­ous af­flic­tion. On hear­ing that I spoke ex­ten­sively to my agent, a friend and even a psy­chol­o­gist.

“But ev­ery per­son I con­sulted about the role told me I can’t go from play­ing Nt­siki to play­ing some namby-pamby.”

A few months later she re­ceived an email con­grat­u­lat­ing her on get­ting the role and, given her record, there was no need for her to au­di­tion for the part.

“Gen­er­a­tions was ex­tremely im­pact­ful. Peo­ple as­sumed that only black peo­ple watched it but it cut through eth­nic di­vides. It doesn’t mat­ter who I talk to – even to­day, peo­ple of all races re­mem­ber Nt­siki.”

Pamela ad­mits be­ing a pi­o­neer soap ac­tress back in the day is still open­ing some doors for her.

“I was in one of these re­mote places in the Ma­galies­berg three years ago with a friend and it re­ally felt dodgy. We walked into a bar filled with white peo­ple and my friend was get­ting ner­vous and he asked: ‘Are you se­ri­ous? Why are we here?’

“It was one of those aus­tere places where ev­ery­one goes quiet when a per­son of colour walks in. The lady be­hind the bar looked at me and she ex­claimed: ‘Oh my . . . It’s you!’

“She re­mem­bered me as Nt­siki and she even gave us free drinks. Nt­siki be­came an iconic char­ac­ter in South Africa.”

Pamela adds play­ing the con­tro­ver­sial vil­lain made a huge im­pact on es­pe­cially young black women who weren’t used to see­ing real African women on screen with dread­locks and big legs stand­ing their ground.

She re­counts a story of her be­ing in a shop­ping cen­tre with her el­dest sis­ter and her mom when a woman dropped her shop­ping bags and screamed.

“My sis­ter thought the woman was be­ing mugged or at­tacked and only later re­alised she’s a fan of mine. I col­lapsed, I laughed so hard.”

She only re­alises now that be­ing that fa­mous is part of the busi­ness and that ac­tors should use their fame to try to get en­dorse­ments.

“In our day we didn’t know about that side of things. A lot of peo­ple in the in­dus­try were drink­ing, do­ing drugs at par­ties and do­ing every­thing in ex­cess. There were no bound­aries and we were of­ten ex­ploited be­cause we didn’t know our worth back then. That con­trib­uted to me crash­ing.

“Now you see peo­ple have 360 000 fol­low­ers on so­cial me­dia and you’re ab­so­lutely able to count your worth. If we knew that back then we could’ve changed the face of the in­dus­try faster.”

She was among an ear­lier group of trend­set­ters, chang­ing the face of en­ter­tain­ment in South Africa, she says.

She’s back now in a very dif­fer­ent world and she couldn’t be hap­pier.

Her days of hat­ing her job are long gone. Right now she’s ex­actly where she be­longs.

Catch Lock­down on Mzansi Magic on Mon­days at 8pm.

‘It doesn’t mat­ter who I talk to – even to­day, peo­ple re­mem­ber Nt­siki’

– Nt­siki in Gen­er­a­tions.

TOP: Pamela Nomvete’s new­est role as a prison war­den in Lock­down prom­ises to be one for the books. ABOVE LEFT: As Mam’Sonto in Salam­ina Mos­ese’s de­but movie, Baby Ma­mas. ABOVE RIGHT: In the role that made her a house­hold name

Pamela’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Danc­ing to the Beat of the Drum, chron­i­cles her per­sonal trou­bles dur­ing and af­ter her rise to fame in the ‘90s.

Al­though Pamela‘s known for tak­ing se­ri­ous and chal­leng­ing on screen roles, in per­son she’s the life of the party and seems ready to crack jokes at the drop of a hat. BELOW: Pamela’s niece, Sophia Nomvete, is an ac­claimed stage ac­tress in the UK.

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