Pamela Nomvete on picking up the pieces
I HIT ROCK BOTTOM BUT I GOT BACK UP!
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’
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.