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.


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.


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.

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