Cover story – Rami Chuene on women supporting each other
RAMI CHUENE is fastidious about always telling her story from an honest place. The actress, author and radio DJ opens up about the responsibilities women have to each other, the real narrative behind her current TV role and not being lazy to start afresh
No matter how hard The Queen actress and all-round multitasker Rami Chuene tries to put on a composed front, her usually loud TV personas follow her like a moth to a flame. Whether at the till or during a mall walkabout, she often attracts the attention of fans who expect her to always be speaking at the top of her voice. However, she insists her personality doesn’t always light up the gloomiest room as most people would assume. “The fact that I’m not always as loud as my TV characters is usually disappointing for most people. Yes, I’m a free spirit but I won’t walk into a room full of strangers and start screaming for no reason,” she explains.
Just like an uncontrollable twitch, small traits that liken her to her infamous character Gracious ‘TGOM’ Mabuza keep surfacing, especially when she randomly drops Bible verses to substantiate her points. “When I watch The Queen, I always marvel at how insane and loud Gracious is,” Rami says.
Throughout the interview, her consistently warm energy fluctuates between the type of excitement that sees her highfiving me for approval to a calmness that has her quietly digging into the shared serving of cheesecake that sits between us.
WHO RUNS THE WORLD?
For the longest time, a female TV character who played a villain was either her man’s sidekick or linked to a withcraft storyline. Never before in the history of South African television have women wielded guns to their enemies’ faces and ran illegal empires all while still being nurturers as we’ve seen on The Queen.A staunch female cheerleader, Rami remarks about how fiercely and excellently women execute so-called “male roles”. She pegs this effectiveness down to women being born leaders. “Remove the drug storyline from The Queen and you’ll realise how the soapie reminds us that most South African households are led by women. People downplay this narrative so much that when they see it reflected back to them on TV, it’s difficult to swallow. Women generally operate like my current TV character — we come up with solutions when things fall apart and are always looking for more than one way to feed our families,” she says. To validate the claim that women are always hustling their way out of poverty, Rami asks: “How many women have you seen selling magwinya and Chappies on street corners, while also knitting something? We literally don’t sleep yet we take our power for granted. We’ve been running these streets. ”
It’s no secret that the entertainment industry’s working conditions are sometimes not conducive to the demands of motherhood. The early morning call times and long working hours that sometimes run well into the evening have seen some mothers miss out on their children’s milestones. This is something Rami won’t be drawn into feeling guilty about. A “cool” mom to three girls, Kefiloe (24), Nthateng (22) and Botshelo (11), she recalls a time when she juggled so many work projects that she had to make peace with sending her children to live with either her sisters or her mom. “I look back at those years and know I wouldn’t have been able to get this far in my career were it not for their unwavering support. I sometimes like saying I work better alone, but I’m lying because I’ve achieved the unimaginable with some of my female friends and sisters,” she reflects, adding that she won’t even claim her successes as her own or brand herself a superwoman. “Ok, yes, I’m a superwoman, only because I was wise enough to realise I can’t achieve any of my career goals without allowing others to step in and help.”
Notwithstanding how women sometimes don’t show each other love and tear one another down, Rami believes that women function at their best when they work together. Instead of dwelling too much on the negatives, she’d much rather focus on why women owe it to themselves to be honest and detailed about their lives.
In her 2015 bestseller Year Of Yes: How To Dance It Out, Stand In The Sun And Be Your Own Person, renowned American TV producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes speaks about how most successful women never give detailed accounts of how they made it to the top, or what keeps them sane when life’s everyday demands clash with their strenuous schedules. Often times, their advice omits pivotal details such as the nanny and dedicated driver that work around the clock, or the cook and domestic helper that run their households effectively, freeing them up to put in the long hours required without ever having to worry about chores.
And just like Shonda, Rami believes details are important. And it’s for this reason she always talks openly about being bankrupt twice. She’s also captured other intimate details of her past in her 2015 biography We Kissed The Sun and Embraced The Moon. “When I give talks, I usually lay out my life as it is because if I’m going to inspire someone, then it needs to be based solely on the truth,” the actress says. Clearly a topic that’s her passion point, she continues: “We black women need to start being open and detailed, to help build other women. People often mistake honesty and being detailed as airing one’s dirty laundry in public. That’s far from the case. Being open and honest allows others to learn from our journeys without, of course, disallowing them the opportunity to live their lives on their own terms.” Citing heavyweights such as Oprah Winfrey, Tina Turner, Basetsana Kumalo, Carol Bouwer and a few others as her mentors, Rami explains their respective journeys have always inspired her from a distance. Without taking away from the benefits of one-on-one mentorship and motivational speakers, she explains why she’s not a fan of these concepts. And her reasons are somewhat valid. “Saying to someone, ‘turn around and high-five your neighbour and tell them they can do it!’ is dangerous because other than shouting self-validating mantras, you’re actually not teaching that person anything practical about turning their life around,” Rami says. She chooses, instead, to look up to a public figure like Oprah, who isn’t afraid to wear her past struggles on her sleeve. “She’s one of the few powerful black women who were transparent enough to say, ‘don’t think I have it all together. I used to mess up a lot. I once attempted an abortion. I was a promiscuous teenager’. It’s important to celebrate each other when we’re up there, but it’s equally important to tell our young people how we made it to the top, regardless of how vile the journey may have been,” she says with the conviction of someone who’s finally figured out life’s winning formula. “We need to be deliberate teachers, encouragers and life-changers in order to possibly help women avoid some of the hurdles we faced along the way to the top,” she shares.
Rami believes that past and present mistakes should never detract from anyone’s success. “If anything, being able to pull yourself out of a low moment and achieve greater things is a sign of strength,” she says. She once again stresses that everyone must live according to their rules, but requests that they do so armed with knowledge. “We have a responsibility to every young woman out there to lay our life stories bare for them to draw lessons from,” Rami says.
ON STARTING AFRESH
Not one to shy away from starting over when life gives her lemons, she regards this as her biggest blessing from God. “I’m not a fan of rescuing situations that deserve to be buried. More often than not, you’ll get things right the second time around,” she states. This fresh start she so passionately speaks of, once saw her hold down various jobs to make ends meet. There was a time when she’d be on set in the morning to shoot a TV show, then run off to record voice-overs and still make it on time for an evening performance with a band, or to MC an event. Then there was also a time when she stayed in the upmarket Joburg northern suburb of Dainfern and sold magwinya in her complex and at church to supplement her income. “It was also during my Dainfern days that I’d walk to the William Nicol main road to catch a taxi to work. I was a glorified broke person. Any and everything you can think of, I’ve done — I know how to sew. In fact, I once made myself curtains,” she reminisces.
One of the many new beginnings Rami’s had to make was walking away from her 10-year marriage to broadcaster and businessman Tshepo Desando in pursuit of her personal happiness. She elaborates, “My ex-husband is one of the most beautiful people I know but our formula just didn’t work and I think he’d also agree with my sentiments. There were a lot of
We need to be deliberate teachers in order to possibly help women avoid some of the hurdles we faced
elements in our marriage that just didn’t gel. After our divorce, we both started to flourish. I started seeing myself in a different light and reconnected with my passions. I kicked fear to the curb — I released an album and wrote my first book,” she says. While recalling the positive changes that flowed into her life post the divorce, Rami suddenly jumps out of her seat. She forgot to inform Tshepo not to fetch their daughter for her weekend visit. “It’s a good thing you asked about the divorce when you did because our daughter Botshelo is currently away in Lebowakgomo visiting my parents,” she adds.
Common belief dictates that everyone should find a partner to settle down with, find a nest and fill it up with kids. This formula, unfortunately, doesn’t accommodate those who wish to write their life scripts as they see fit. “We all arrived on earth to this formula that seemed to work for everyone so we didn’t want to disturb the status quo. But we forget that time and growth change a lot of things,” she explains. As someone who’s walked the marital path before, Rami has a lot of refreshing wisdom to share. Experience has taught her that marriage shouldn’t be about anyone putting their passions on hold in order to fit into a societal mold. “Marriage shouldn’t mean you can no longer see your girls at your monthly book club or quit playing tennis on Mondays. Marriage should never take anything away from your life but should, instead, enhance it,” she advises.
Rami’s friends often tease her about how most men would be intimidated by her superwoman tendencies — she has no qualms climbing a chair and changing the light bulb herself. “My friends say that half the things a man thinks he’ll bring to the table, I can already do,” she laughs, adding that she hopes she doesn’t come across as anti-men. “When we ask men to take care of our cars or change the light bulb, it’s not that we can’t do it ourselves — we’re giving them a chance to flex their leadership skills and, in a way, stroke their egos,” she says.
In the same breath, she sets the record straight on the topic of submission in marriage, which, according to Rami, should never be synonymous with oppression. “Why would any woman be prepared to submit to a man who’s already set the bar low, thereby forcing the woman to also lower her standards? That is witchcraft,” she says matter-of-factly. “Submission comes naturally to women when they’re furbished with love, protection and guidance. You can’t disregard a woman, then turn around and demand to be respected and trusted as the leader of your family.”
In recent times, the lure of fame has seen many young people join the entertainment industry under the guise of passion, when all they’re after is the spotlight. Fame, as many celebs would be generous to share, is not the promised land it’s perceived to be. “To me, fame goes hand in glove with responsibility. Fame is accountability and knowing that when people see you, they identify you with a particular show or a worthy cause. Once you’re in the spotlight, you need to be cautious and conscious as all eyes are on you,” she cautions. Rami has no ambition to be remembered or regarded as a role model based on something as frivolous as her extensive shoe collection or what she wore to the Durban July. “I’m not in the business of making headlines,” she quips.
She admits to being hopeless at playing by PR rules and says most times, she jumps out of bed and heads straight to the shops without making a smidgen of an effort. “I couldn’t be bothered with always wearing a full face of make-up. I repeat clothes because I believe they should be worn until the seams come apart. I shop at Mr Price, Ackermans and Woolworths and hardly splurge on designer wear. Thankfully, I’ve got people like Thula Sindi and Rubicon whom I have partnerships with.” Sunday World once tried to shame Rami for wearing the same dress on two consecutive weekends. “They probably assumed I’d be offended but I wasn’t!”
Celebrities whose careers span decades or outlive them even usually don’t believe in their own hype, respect time and take their craft seriously. Rami is all these, and more. She believes when one lives and breathes a craft as intricate as the arts, it becomes second nature and very hard to separate yourself from. The entertainment industry is also famous for spewing its employees out just as quickly as it allows them in, so how has Rami lasted this long? “One of the things that make people give up is when job offers don’t come their way. If no-one is booking you, create the work yourself. Continue doing what you need to, in order to survive and when the industry’s powers that be need you, they will contact you in their own time,” she advises.
Rami understands that fame is a fleeting phase. For this reason, she’s never been too concerned with rebranding herself or relaunching her career. She has dozens of anecdotes to share about a time when she wasn’t being cast for any TV productions. “I believe in keeping busy with my other passion projects and not obsessing when I’m not on TV. The spotlight doesn’t pay the bills,” she says. The misconception most famous people fall prey to is that not being on TV makes one irrelevant or down and out. “We need to do away with the misconception that not being on TV means you’re in a miserable corner somewhere not working. Celebs are studying and running businesses behind the scenes without making noise about it. Veteran actress Nakedi Ribane became an advocate right under our noses,” she cautions.
Longevity has also taught her to be unapologetic when it comes to measuring her worth with time. “I’m finicky about time to the point where if you ask that we meet at 2 pm, I’ll show up 15 minutes earlier. I’m very precious about this scarce resource and the effort that I put into everything,” she says. She doesn’t hint at needing to rush off somewhere but after a three-hour interview, it’s only fair that I respect the one thing she takes seriously — her time.
We need to do away with the misconception that when you’re not on TV, you’re in a miserable corner somewhere, not working.